Although the Family Court System may look benign, there are many problem areas that allow parental alienation to flourish. Parental alienation, a child rejecting a parent based on the coaching/influence of the other parent, is counter-intuitive by nature and requires concrete tools to advance litigation so that target parents know how to properly explain the gravity of their situations to to the court. Most of the time, this means the target parent and their legal team has to educate the judge on parental alienation.
Many of the criticisms against the science of parental alienation do not hold water as most reflect elementary errors in logic, probability, and clinical reasoning, etc. Because the Family Court System does not operate properly in parental alienation cases the burden usually falls on the target parent to educate their attorney, judge, and often social workers and GALs. Parental cases are very tightly patterned, giving a good predictive value of behavioral pattern recognition.
The US has an adversarial judicial system, meaning that if two parties argue their positions it is believed that somehow the truth will emerge. This matters in cases of parental alienation because the court must have a firm understanding of very complicated science and the chances of the judge knowing this science before you walk into court is not high. To achieve success, target parents need to educate the court about that complicated science. To do this, you need a great family law attorney and an attorney who can educate the court about parental alienation. However, the consequences of judges hearing about parental alienation in this adversarial environment can develop an incomplete understanding of parental alienation.
The Best Interest of the Child Doctrine states that courts are supposed to act in the best interest of the child, which should trump minor procedural issues. For example, in the case of an “illegally obtained” recording, that would normally be thrown out because the person (or alienator) being recording wasn’t informed they were recorded, precedent has shown that judges in parental alienation cases have asked to hear these recordings in open court to try to figure out what was going on. In other cases, judges have threatened to jail parents who did this again. It is always up to the judge and is therefore a grey matter. This causes the rule to be more like a guideline to be to keep the child’s best interest at hand. Family law attorneys should know to make the argument that the Best Interest of the Child Doctrine should trump minor procedural issues.
Sometimes, when there has been a decision and the court has decided Res Judicada (that they are not re-litigating things again because it’s been decided already), the target parent must to prove there has been a change in circumstances. If they’re holding you to a change in circumstances, and the court has ordered therapy and it has failed miserably, or if the alienation has gotten worse, those things are changes in circumstances that should be argued by your attorney. Some lawyers aren’t aggressive enough in arguing change in circumstances for their clients, so follow up with them.
Parental alienation cases are totally different than custody cases. PA has more in common with a medical malpractice case than a regular custody case. They are profoundly counter-intuitive. If you’re not a parental alienation specialist in this area you will literally get everything wrong because it is that counter-intuitive.
PA is not he said/she said. Judges are under the impression that these are high conflict people with high conflict issues, and that couldn’t be further from the truth in PA cases. Most cases have irrefutable facts (the children won’t see their father, for example), which makes it no longer a he-said-she-said and this gets missed because people assume this is just “high conflict.”
In cases of PA, there is a victim and a victimizer. Family law judges intuitively are inclined to assume high-conflict. Here, one has been the aggressor and one has been attempting to defend him/herself. The target parent is likely in crisis mode and has been terribly traumatized and is usually accused of things they didn’t do which resulted in the child(ren) not wanting to see them, they are horribly traumatized. Targeted parents present poorly in court typically, because they are under attack: anxious, angry, and afraid. They’re innocent but when they turn to the judicial system for help they get attacked. In contrast, the alienators/aggressors are cool, calm, charming, and convincing, and tend to be accomplished liars, master manipulators, and can fake credibility seemingly as needed.
PA cases are clinical and medical cases. There is a complicated set of medical problems and usually no one involved has any medical training. It’s clinically so complicated that it’s actually medical; you have to think medically to address these cases. What makes them medical? You’re dealing with severe psychopathology, delusions, cognitive distortions, etc., which often exceeds the expertise of an experienced forensic psychologist. It is all about how to deal with clinical issues, clinical evidence and clinical experts. You won’t find this expertise among GALs or custody advisers, social workers, etc.
Parental alienation cases are more like a medical malpractice cases in terms of length of time and clinical expertise needed. Target parents need someone familiar with cross-examining medical experts. There is an extreme need to hear the BASIS for your opinions and you want to impeach the credibility of the other side; this is what malpractice attorneys do skillfully. If there has already been a custody evaluator who has predictably taken the word of the alienated child and moved on; this is where the PA experts come in.
Parental alienation is a form of child abuse. There is no debate about this. When children become alienated they develop the belief the target parent doesn’t love them, which is enormously damaging to them. Maltrapment is the favored word in court, which means abuse plus neglect. This is counter-intuitive because on the surface the child may look like they’re thriving, but underneath the damage is deep. Good research shows the detection of deception in children is only a 50/50 chance but getting a court to consider the possibility that it’s not that hard to get a child to say something that didn’t happen is very difficult.
There is very solid science to support that PA exists. To ignore this, you have to throw the laws of science and reasoning out the window. Many people don’t know the difference between science and a belief system. Evidence based medicine means that you’re using the best available medicine.
Things to know about lawyers…
- Cognitive errors lead to legal errors.
- Parental alienation cases are child abuse cases.
- Family law judges and attorneys are trained to assume that both parents are responsible for the problem, and in PA that is in no way the case.
- If you are looking for a lawyer, what are the odds you will get one with PA experience? Most lawyers don’t deal with PA cases. However, if you treat this as if it’s an ordinary relationship problem you have essentially a zero chance of success and it usually makes things worse.
- In 2013 the ABA published the 2nd edition of a book called “Children Held Hostage” This study of one thousand kids of over 30 years says: “Traditional therapies are of little if any benefit for treating this form of child abuse.”
- Use Dr. Amy Baker’s 4-factor model to diagnose estrangement vs. alienation in court. According to the four‐factor model of parental alienation, in order for alienation to be present there must be:
- (1) a prior positive relationship between the child and the now rejected parent;
- (2) absence of maltreatment by the rejected parent;
- (3) use of alienating behaviors by the favored parent; and
- (4) presence of behavioral manifestations of alienation in the child.
- As a target parent, request to be cross examined about heartbreaking things that have happened as a result of the alienation. Have the alienator cross examined – this generally gets the judge’s attention and is the most important part of litigation. The target parent has to be able to calmly paint a picture of what has happened.
- Identify as many indisputable lies that the alienator has committed in an attempt to defraud the court that are germane to the case and the children.
- This does not support the relationship between the child and the other parent. Demonstrate through cross how these particular lies are directly not in support of that relationship.
- Alienators tend to show themselves on the stand; you can see the judge’s light bulb go off and they then begin to move in a more corrective direction. Alienators have things to hide; expose them and they’ll expose themselves. The goal is to expose their own deeds to show who they truly are.
- When presenting parties testimonies, attorneys need to prep in such a way to get the judge to emotionally pay attention, because judges are unlikely to think intuitively and will make incorrect assumptions.
- Have the attorney ask the alienator “Do you support the relationship with the child and the target parent?” let them go on about it. Then confront them during cross with specific examples. You can’t just describe it you MUST DEMONSTRATE the actions and behaviors of the alienator.
- The problem isn’t whether the material can be presented in a two-day case, it’s whether a judge can comprehend it in that time. Aim for at least 5-6 days minimum in court. All involved must understand this before they can argue effectively for more time in front of a judge. Attorneys also are concerned about ruffling the feathers of the judge. Timid attorneys will always lose PA cases.
The “write off letters”
Every alienated parent has received one. This looks like a laundry list of anything the alienator can say bad about the target parent. These letters are carefully crafted, either with the alienator or at the instruction of the alienator, and sent by the child, to explain away the disposal of the parent. These letters will include extraordinary claims, which of course require extraordinary evidence. Despite that the letters are sociopathic, vicious, hateful, and cruel to the extreme (even if they were true) you must be naive to buy it. However, the write off letters will cause a visceral reaction. Be skeptical, investigate, and look for the patterns. Claims usually have no evidence, and many borrowed scenarios from the mouth of the alienating parent or through the alienating parent’s agents. These letters are usually an elaborate ruse.
Things to Remember:
- Presentation is of utmost importance both in court and to the child. Let them own their conclusions.
- Support through a group or friends, or etc. is very important to have. You need someone who can hear you, believe you, and be honest with you.
- Parental alienation is in no way fair or right, but we’re still responsible for who we chose to be, regardless of what has been done to us.
- Targeted parents sometimes do things that make them more vulnerable; you don’t need to convince professionals you’re the victim.
- It is important to distinguish between content and process. Is the purpose of your court appearance to present content, or is it a process to show you’re a good parent? Regardless, your #1 goal is to present as a calm, stable person.
- Focus on self-care: do not go into negativity mode or catastrophizing. You can change your brain chemistry that way; it's very important to stay positive and receptive. If you find this difficult, enlist the assistance of a therapist or counselor.
- Have balance of perspective. Life doesn’t revolve around just this issue. Focus on the present & life now.
- Don’t take the bait! Stay positive and welcoming for your children always. Every time we lose control because the alienator pushed our buttons, we give them more power and control. Don’t take the bait and don’t debate.
- Parental alienation cases are advanced clinical and medical cases with clinical criteria. People are often in over their head, even professionally. Assessments cannot reliably be done unless they are done by professionals who understand the PA dynamic.
Parental Alienation in Court: Dealing with Judicial Anxiety
J. Michael Bone PhD
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