Alleging parental alienation is a frightening tactic where one parent (usually an abusive partner and typically the father) accuses the other parent (or the protective parent, usually the mother) of brainwashing or manipulating children as a reason why they don’t want to visit the father. In domestic violence cases, this is especially frightening, putting children at risk of being subjected to time alone with an abusive parent.
Results of a study released this year from Brunel University in London shows just this— survivors’ allegations of domestic violence are being used by the abuser in court as proof of parental alienation instead of using them as a reason to investigate domestic violence.
Courts Ignore Protective Parents’ Concerns in U.S., Too
There isn’t a clinical or scientific definition of parental alienation, says Joan S. Meier, Esq., director of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University Law School.
“The term ‘parental alienation’ represents the idea that one parent is denigrating the other parent to the child, in order to undermine the parent-child relationship.”
In a domestic violence case, here’s how a claim of parental alienation might unfold: A mother claims that a father is abusing their children. The children are afraid to visit their father. The father denies any wrongdoing. Instead, he claims that the survivor is convincing the children not to visit him. In court, the mother struggles to prove she is not trying to manipulate the children but the children are, in fact, afraid of the father based on his past conduct, or suffering abuse when they are in the custody of the father.
Meier’s own five-year study of family court outcomes in the U.S. found that courts are more likely to reject both domestic violence and child abuse claims during custody hearings, and that cross-claims of parental alienation virtually double those rejections, and mothers’ losses of custody.
Here's what it can look like in a court setting: A mother alleges that the children are not safe with the father and the father fires back by accusing the mother of lying about abuse only to keep him out of the children’s lives. “The mere allegation of abuse is often treated as a form of parental alienation,” Meier says.
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What Can Survivors Do?
First, be aware that these cases come with a high level of risk, especially when child sexual abuse is involved. Meier says that if a mother alleges child sexual abuse and the father responds with an alienation claim, the odds are high that the mother could lose custody to the alleged abuser. Sadly, allegations of child abuse also often backfire on protective parents.
“You need to think carefully with a lawyer about whether it’s wise to bring up child sexual abuse, since it could result in the child being subjected to worse treatment,” Meier says. “I’ve had incredibly difficult conversations with mothers who cannot accept that they should not try to protect their child. But they need to be clear about the risk they are taking. The child could be subjected to more abuse if they are given to the abusing father. They have to weigh that against the need to try to protect the child.”
If a survivor decides to go ahead in court despite the risk of a parental alienation claim, here’s what Meier recommends.
Find a lawyer with expertise in family violence and parental alienation. It’s imperative for survivors to have a lawyer who understands the way parental alienation is routinely used to deny and discredit allegations of abuse. If child abuse is an issue make sure the lawyer is comfortable and willing – or better yet, has a proven track record – to pursue and develop those allegations.
Hire experts. “Retain an expert who can testify about the credibility of abuse claims or the lack of credibility of the alienation claims,” she says. “Some experts can explain the lack of scientific evidence for the parental alienation theory—therefore, it should not be admissible. But you don’t have to go that far to have an expert be helpful,” she says.
If there’s child sexual abuse, it’s critical to have an expert in child sexual abuse. And it’s even better if that expert can come on board as a neutral expert in the case.
“Professionals—such as child custody evaluators and guardians ad litem [court-appointed guardians]—appointed as neutral to determine what’s best for the child often fail the child. They tend to be believers in alienation and skeptical of abuse claims,” Meier says. “They may dismiss child sexual abuse out of hand because of lack of knowledge.”
Record incidents of domestic or child abuse. If there were any calls to police or visits to the hospital, make sure you have documentation in case you need it in court.
Child sexual abuse can be harder to document, but if your child acted out at school or with siblings or friends, or if someone heard them say something that indicates the child may have been exposed to sexual behavior, tell your lawyer and prepare to introduce that corroboration in court.
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Once a parent claims alienation, that label can get applied to other evidence in the case—the abuser often claims that corroborating evidence of abuse is actually further proof of parental alienation.
For example, if a therapist corroborates a child’s claims of abuse, the father can claim the mother is brainwashing the therapist as well as the child. But a good therapy practice that has experience with younger children and domestic violence will likely do something called play therapy, where the child reveals whatever is going on in their play and artwork without realizing they’re doing so. This can remove any argument of coaching in these alienation tactics.
Be careful when you talk to your child. You don’t want to say anything that could play into the allegation of parental alienation, so try not to talk to your child about the litigation, or say anything negative about the other parent. “Parents who try to support their children, who are suffering at the hands of the other parent, are often called alienators,” Meier says.
Read how some advocates are pushing legislation to protect children of domestic violence in court in “The SAFE Child Act.”
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