For me, one of the hardest issues to deal with as a family lawyer is parental alienation.
Parental alienation syndrome, a term coined in the mid 1980’s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner, occurs when one parent attempts to turn the couple’s children against the other parent. A parent who is angry at the spouse or ex-spouse accomplishes this estrangement by painting a negative picture of the other parent via deprecating comments, blame and false accusations shared with the children. They will also do everything in their power to thwart the other parent’s parenting time.
Lawyers, judges, the courts, we are poorly equipped to deal with parental alienation: It is difficult to prove; if and when a finding of parental alienation is made by a court, the damage to the relationship between the children and estranged parent is irreparable. Or, the alienated parent, browbeaten and dispirited—and probably so frustrated at the legal system’s apparent impotence to address the problem and effect change—gives up.
If a court does find that one parent has alienated the children from the other parent, it has four available options:
- Change custody of the children to the estranged parent;
- Provide a transitional placement where the children are placed with a neutral party and arrange for therapy for them so that eventually they can be placed with the rejected parent;
- Order therapy for the children, but leave them with the favored parent;
- Do nothing at all—i.e. give the culpable parent a stern tongue lashing but leave the status quo unaltered.
Possibly, the court might order costs against the blameworthy parent, but cost awards are cold comfort for parents who have lost a relationship with the children they love and cherish; parents who realize they are now anathema to their children. Furthermore, the cost award might amount to no more than a slap on the wrist because a huge cost award might affect the primary parent’s ability to provide for the children.
A change of custody is very rare. The reason: often by the time a court has made a finding of parental alienation, the death knell has already tolled for the relationship. The judge might conclude that yes, the children have been alienated from the parent, but now forcing the children to see this parent could be traumatic for them, causing more harm than good.
So, what is to be done? If you want to salvage your relationship with your children and you are certain the alienating parent is not going to voluntarily stop his/her campaign to estrange, act with haste. The court system is flawed but it is the only recourse you have. Do not hesitate to bring an ‘Application’ in family court and possibly seek leave to bring an urgent motion [i]
I am not a proponent of litigation: I believe recourse to the courts should be a last resort; I am an advocate of mediation or the collaborative family law process. But trying to destroy the relationship between the other parent and the children is execrable behavior. Somebody who engages in such behavior is most likely not going to be reasonable. Mediation, therefore, will most likely be ineffective.