Parental Alienation: How Can This Happen – Case Study

The Rucki family of Minnesota has been in a hot topic in Parental Alienation news recently and is, unfortunately, a real-life case study of how a bitter divorce dispute can transform into a child custody and parental alienation case, with great impact to the children.Rucki family Minnesota parental alienation

Listen to “Sisters Disappear During Parents’ Bitter Custody, Divorce Battle: Part 1” on ABC and follow the timeline of “How Parents’ Bitter Divorce and Custody Battle Led to the Disappearance of Two Sisters”.

 

 

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The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children

The impact of Parental Alienation on children is long-term, and well documented.

Draconian! The label sometimes given by a mental health professional reading specific recommendations from an evaluation report that has identified severe parental alienation. One might also hear such a label in litigation from the attorney representing the alienating parent. So I thought it might be worthwhile to look into the label and see if, indeed, it fits.

The word draconian comes from Draco, the statesman who laid down laws for Athens in 621 B.C. Some of his laws included mandated death as punishment for minor crimes. Presently one might use the label to mean severe or strict or other synonyms including; cruel, hard, harsh, rigid, strict and stringent.

long term impact of PA and the childGiven these definitions and synonyms, how appropriate is the label to recommendations that are designed to reunite an emotionally abused (alienated) child and a rejected parent who was rejected for trivial or false reasons?

There is an abundance of research that clearly demonstrates the short and long-term consequences to children who have been alienated from a previously loving, attached relationship. The consequences range from increases in clinical depression, academic problems, relationship problems, up to and including suicide and possibly homicide.

The fallout from severe alienation is hardly minor, trivial or insignificant.

Having a parent removed from one’s life is bad enough when it is by accident or natural causes. The pain and suffering is magnified when parental loss includes a child being taught to participate in the rejection by assuming delusions about a parent or even worse in some cases come to believe they were victims of abuse.

Most recommendations that address reunification in severe parental alienation cases do not include death to the alienating parent. In fact, I’m not aware of a single report that made such a “draconian” recommendation. While changing a child’s custody to the rejected parent and discontinuing contact between the child and the alienating parent sounds drastic (meaning acting with force, likely to have far reaching effects), keep in mind such recommendations are intended to end child abuse. In addition, typically there are ample opportunities for the alienating parent to learn how to coexist with their child and the other parent and ultimately regain their parenting role.

Yes, the typical recommendations in severe alienation cases include a change in custody to the rejected parent and no contact between the child and alienating parent for a period of no less than 90 days. While the rejected parent and child are reestablishing their relationship, the formerly favored (alienating) parent is working with a mental health professional to learn what not to do and how to encourage a loving relationship with between the child and formerly rejected parent. This is usually the part that some see as draconian

The literature is very clear, however, in that when the reunification process has failed it is typically traced back to a premature reunion with the alienating parent and child and the process begins all over again.

As an analogy, what if a favored (alienating) parent had a highly contagious infectious disease and refused medical treatment that could cure them. Would it be draconian to allow the infected parent and child to remain in close contact? Probably not.

What if the alienating parent was separated from the child because of their behavior and the formerly rejected parent and child were successfully reunited? The child was determined to be flourishing as a function of reestablishing their bond with that parent. Would it be draconian to continue the separation if that parent refused to rehabilitate themselves so that they could have a loving relationship with their own child?

Would it be abusive to allow an infected parent to have close contact with their child increasing the likelihood that the child will contract the disease? What would be more draconian, infect the child or keep the parent away from the child because they refused to change their alienating ways?

I can understand attorneys who are representing their clients and are arguing on their behalf. After all, that’s their job and obligation. But for mental health professionals not to grasp the fact that parental alienation is child abuse and the foremost corrective action is to immediately end the abuse is inexcusable. I do not understand mental health professionals accepting children’s rejection of parents when there is either no evidence or very trivial reasons for the rejection.

Alienated children typically do not grow out of their alienation; the fallout festers the rest of their lives. Now that strikes me as draconian!

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Top 5 Issues to Consider When Hiring an Expert Witness for a Child Custody Case

As an Expert Witness I am frequently contacted by attorneys and their clients about what roles I can play in their child custody cases.

It is important to clarify upfront that an Expert Witness can participate in only one role per case, so it must be determined early on whether how the case would benefit the most from an Expert.

expert witness for PA florida

Here is a list of the Top 5 Issues to Consider When Hiring Expert Witness for a Child Custody Case:

  1. When talking with an Expert Witness it is critical that you, the client, do not spend a lot of time discussing a lot of details of your case because the expert will no longer be consider unbiased and the expert’s participation would then be restricted to that of a consultant who will not be able to testify.
  1. An Expert Witness can review a previous evaluation and identify strengths and weaknesses in the report to determine if the body of the report supports the recommendations (frequently they don’t).

Having completed that, the expert frequently requests that the attorney ask for a copy of the evaluator’s.  Sometimes a simple subpoena is enough and sometimes a Court’s order is needed to produce the file.

Having the report and the file, the expert is now working from the same data sources as the previous evaluator, however, even though the expert has the entire file (test data, notes, etc.) the expert may only comment on the evaluation and the process used to produce the report, they cannot make any recommendations as to the timesharing or custody matter in the particular case.

The expert can then educate the court on significant issues that may have surfaced or failed to arise in the investigation. If, for example, there is evidence that Parental Alienation (PA) may have been a factor in a case.

  1. An Expert Witness can also give instructional testimony. In this role, the expert is retained to instruct the Court what Parental Alienation is, that it is child abuse, what evidence might suggest the presence of alienation, the detrimental effects it can have on children and how to reunify a reject parent and alienated child.

In most cases the expert will not have reviewed any documentation nor had any discussions with any of the litigants.  They will come to court just to discuss PA and answer questions. The questions they are asked are typically based on the facts in the case in question.

  1. As a trial consultant an Expert Witness can assist one side of a case in formulating questions for examination and cross examination of experts, witness selection and questioning, reviewing documents and formulating questions, authors of documents, etc. In this role the expert is a part of the attorney’s work product, not discoverable and do not testify.
  1. If an Expert Witness has not played any of the above roles, and has had little or no contact, they can conduct a timesharing evaluation (formerly referred to as a child custody evaluation) but should be ordered by the court to do so. There may be an advantage to having the expert appointed as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) assuming the expert would qualify for such an appointment.

Generally speaking, the above roles can be exercised throughout the United States, local laws permitting.

I hope this was helpful, let me know if you have additional questions about different roles an Expert Witness or Guardian Ad Litem can play in your next court case.

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Distinguishing the Difference between Transition Difficulties and Alienation with children During Divorce (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a series of two articles on distinguishing the difference between transition difficulties vs alienation with children during divorce.

If the signs of  transition difficulty are present but the child is not acting angrily, coldly, verbally abusive, or physically resistant which may sometimes be followed by tears, shame, guilt and sorrow, (signs of alienation), it is important to discuss with the other parent how to reduce the transition problems.

symptoms of Parent Alienation in child custody

If the other parent is not receptive to working on the problem, then the following is suggested:

  • Upon transition, allow the child to sit quietly for as long as needed. Younger children may need around 30-60 minutes to recover from transition; older children can take up to two hours or so. During this quiet time the parent can do quiet things together with the child, but whatever this activity is, the parent needs to be available to the child physically. Such activities can include watching television, a video, playing quietly and letting the child be. They will alert the parent when they are ready by wanting to be more interactive.
  • Give the child a clear structure to the end of time-sharing, do not expect them or allow them to pick up their things and move back to the other parent without a warning. At least two hours before it is time to return to the other parent, begin a routine of preparing them. Make sure they eat within plenty of time to enjoy their food. Let them know verbally an hour before it is time to leave. Begin to gather up their things and signal to them half an hour before transition time. Make the last half hour quiet and close, talk about the things that they did and the things they will do when they come back again. Leave games ready to pick up again. Smaller children will benefit enormously from this kind of attention to transition time. Older children will find it easier and will fuss and complain less.
  • By all means do not resist having the child visit. In alienation cases passive or reluctant parents withdraw thinking this will alleviate the pressure on the child. But, the exact opposite occurs. The child will feel rejected and abandoned, validating the negative things they’re hearing about the rejected parent.

What to do if a child is showing signs of alienation

If a child is showing transitional difficulty and signs of alienation it is important to know what to do and what not to do. This chart provides suggestions as to what to do and not do in coping with the behaviors that children show when they are in the process of being alienated.

If your child is being alienated there are some critical things to do to protect them over the longer term.

  1. Record everything that is happening in a detailed diary.
  2. Make sure that your child does not experience you blaming the favored parent for their behavior.
  3. Learn active listening skills and use them always.
  4. Do not panic or become too angry in response, stay steady and focused and curious about their behavior, not indignant.
  5. Do not take it personally, this is not their real feelings.
  6. Get expert help if you think you need it. You need it if you feel that you cannot cope, you are being drawn into a battle with your children or you are regularly feeling out of your depth.
  7. When you get other professionals involved, legal or mental health, make sure they are knowledgeable about parental alienation. If they are not, they can make things a lot worse. Ask them what books they’ve read or are familiar with, or what workshops they’ve attended.

Remember children need both parents.


Thank you to Karen Woodall, who is a specialist in working with families affected by Parental Alienation in York, GB. She is also a writer and researcher on families and family separation. Karen provides a number of resources for families experiencing conflict on her site called the Family Separation Clinic. Karen Woodall has a book, The Guide For Separated Parents: Putting Your Child First with more help and suggestions, follow her on her website.

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Distinguishing the Difference between Transition Difficulties and Alienation with children During Divorce (Part 1)

Much of the following is from Karen Woodall, I’ve added some of my own thoughts here and there, but I thought this was an important article. She is a specialist in working with families affected by Parental Alienation in York, GB. One of her interesting posts presented the difference between children experiencing transition difficulties and children who are alienated from a rejected parent. I’ve adapted her presentation below.

All children experience some transition issues during a divorce.

When a child lives in two homes after a divorce they may display behaviors that are typical of children adjusting to not having their parents together and living in two households. These more typical behaviors and feelings children have during a divorce can be confused with alienation. Such children may tend to withdraw from a parent and may act in distinct ways.

It is important to understand the difference between alienation reactions and those that can be a natural part of the child transitioning between two homes.

documentation supporting parental alientationChildren moving between their parents’ homes can display the following behaviors and these are not necessarily an indication that they are becoming alienated or are coming from an alienating parent’s home. Their behavior may suggest, however, that they may be struggling emotionally with the transition and that may result in behavior that is atypical for them.

Transition difficulties

  • When they arrive in the receiving parent’s home they may appear to be withdrawn. They may be quiet and non-responsive or demonstrate unsettled behavior. Older children may sit for some time before they join in activities, younger children may appear clingy and anxious.
  • Upon arrival the child may settle easily and even appear to be relaxed, enjoying their time with the receiving parent and appearing their normal selves. As their visit approaches termination, however, they may tell the parent that they do not want to go back to the other parent. They may become quiet and withdrawn. At the time for departure they may become clingy, tearful or irritable.
  • Transitions can be difficult when a child pressures a parent to allow them to stay and not go to the other parent.

Children who are being alienated may display very different behavior from children experiencing typical difficulties in transition.

Signs of alienation reaction (some of these may be a function of the degree of severity of the alienation; as a general rule, the more severe the alienation the stronger the reaction to the transition):

  • When they arrive in the receiving parent’s home they may be quiet but also angry and may push the parent, stepparent, siblings away. Settling in takes a very long time and the child may appear restless throughout their stay.
  • They may not leave their room and be totally preoccupied with their computer or other electronic device.
  • They may refuse to eat with the rest of the family or insist on eating in their room.
  • Their anger may be displayed in outbursts, frequently accompanied or followed by tears, but then they may show a desire for closeness. In some cases the outbursts may get physical with the receiving parent or stepparent.
  • The child’s behavior will be confusing, disregarding a parent’s authority and being angry. In some case their anger may subside and they may later respond appropriately when challenged appropriately.
  • It is common for a child to tell a parent that they have been told things about them or ask questions about areas of a parent’s life which are not known to the other parent.
  • They may accuse the parent of behaviors or refer to incidents that they know very little about except for what they’ve been told and haven’t actually witnessed.

A child who is being alienated may also show signs of transition difficulty. But a child who is simply experiencing transition difficulties may not be caught in an alienation situation; therefore, it is very important to observe the child’s behavior closely so that their problems can be addressed appropriately. A child who is being alienated needs different input than a child who is experiencing transition difficulties. In both cases the child requires the parents to know that difference.

My next article will go into more depth on the signs of transition vs alienation, as well as what to do and not do, in coping with the behaviors that children show when they are in the process of being alienated.


Thank you to Karen Woodall, who is a specialist in working with families affected by Parental Alienation in York, GB. She is also a writer and researcher on families and family separation. Karen provides a number of resources for families experiencing conflict on her site called the Family Separation Clinic. Karen Woodall has a book, The Guide For Separated Parents: Putting Your Child First with more help and suggestions, follow her on her website.

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Hiring an Expert in Family Law Cases involving Parental Alienation (Part 6)

Is hiring an expert worth it in family law cases involving Parental Alienation?

Educating the Court on Parental Alienation

Sometimes rejected (alienated) parents and their attorneys consider hiring an expert to help in their cases. Experts can take a variety of roles and one of these is that of giving instructional testimony. Experts are generally not inexpensive so parents want to know how effective experts can be in cases involving Parental Alienation (PA).

parental alienation and child custodyThe effectiveness of an expert in these cases depends on a number of factors, some of which include the:

• Court
• Favored Parent
• Expert

The Expert

As you have read in previous blogs, there are many factors involved when determining the success of an expert witness in PA Cases. Success or failure depends on the expert and his or her testimony as well as the expertise of the attorney who hires them. In cases where a child is rejecting a parent for no apparent valid reasons, the expert needs to be knowledgeable about Parental Alienation. Some attorneys and judges question whether PA actually exists and they believe that in fact it’s a natural consequence of the divorce process and children “usually get over it”. Part of their argument is that PA is not in the DSM-5 and there is controversy in the mental health profession. Some believe that this pattern of behavior is normal. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth as will be discussed below.

Experts worth hiring know the Rules of Evidence the particular state that they are testifying in. Some states apply the Frye Rule, others the Daubert Rule, others a combination and still others neither. Given a particular state’s application of the rules of evidence, the expert you want to hire is prepared to support his or her testimony in terms of the rules. Experts who can educate the court know that without such preparation, the expert’s testimony will be rejected or given little or no weight.

The idea that PA is something new and is untested is wrong. The subject of Parental Alienation has indeed been around for a very long time. From Greek Mythology to psycho-dynamic practitioners to cognitive psychologists; all have described children rejecting parents or parents manipulating children away from the other parent from their own unique theoretical perspective. While each has referred to PA with different terminology, they have done so in a similar manner.

So, does Parental Alienation really exist?

The vast literature in this area clearly presents evidence that PA, even among adolescents, is abnormal, can persist for many years, and is associated with extensive psychological damage. I will share more on this topic in the next article.

After divorce most children want more contact with their parents, not less. The literature fails to support the idea that Parental Alienation is primarily a temporary phase during divorce. In a few instances it can be short-term, but generally it’s long lasting and can be extreme, having a significant impact on a child’s developmental process.

In one Parental Alienation study (and there are many) conducted by Amy Baker of adults who reported being alienated as children, the disrupted parent-child relationship lasted for at least six years in all cases and continued for more than 22 years for half the sample.

The forensic psychology field has expanded and grown, and now includes many perspectives on the issue of Parental Alienation. To say one perspective or theory is more correct or others have failed only serves to distract from the credibility and momentum that has been established to date. Introducing a diversion within our field as if we are fighting among ourselves will serve no one. There are certain venues where the terminology of “Alienation” or “Parental Alienation” are unacceptable, so the expert needs to be aware of those settings and adjust accordingly. By adjusting accordingly, the discussion needs to center around behavior not terminology.

For example, we discuss visitation interference or blocking, parent-child relationships that have characteristics of pathological enmeshment, children rejecting a parent without cause, children denigrating a parent with the same vocabulary as the favored or alienating parent, etc.

The use of use diagnostic terminology is a convenience in communicating with other professionals in the same field. When mental health professionals are presenting to other professionals in other fields, the expert needs to be sensitive to not over do our own jargon (i.e. psychobabble). The courtroom, especially, is not a place to engage in psychobabble; the audience will get lost and the expert will be ineffective.

While there are some who continue to use the wording of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), most forensic experts have changed the designation of this disorder since the publication of the DSM-5. Our application for inclusion of Parental Alienation Disorder into the DSM-5 did not include the word Syndrome. It would be very beneficial to increase trainings in this area not only for mental health professionals, but for those in the legal profession as well.

The expert is usually examined by the rejected parent’s attorney in the form of hypothetical questions. That is, questions that are based on the facts in the particular case being heard but are not presented so as the expert is to provide a definitive recommendation as to custody arrangements or parenting plans. Mental health professionals cannot give a diagnosis or definitive recommendation without having met the parties, the children and conducted an entire protocol of evaluative assessments. This prohibition needs to be repeated throughout the testimony as it generally gets lost on those listening to the expert.

Ultimately the success of the expert’s testimony lies in how effective he or she was in informing the court of the issue under consideration. In this blog the issue is primarily PA. Parental alienation continues to be a controversial issue that must be presented as nothing short of child abuse that can have devastating consequences on children, both in the short-term, as well as for the rest of their lives.

We are now witnessing, obtained through comprehensive parent histories, a cyclical pattern to the alienation process where children who have been alienated from a parent grow up to be alienating adults. They have learned the manipulative ways of the favored parent and basically know no other way to function in their environment.

Do you have questions about Parental Alienation? You can get more information through my Educational Videos on Recognizing Parent Alienation (PA) when litigating family law cases involving child custody, and presenting PA to the court here.

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Educating the Court on Parental Alienation

Is hiring an expert to educate the court in cases involving parental alienation worth it? (Part 5)

Sometimes rejected (alienated) parents and their attorneys consider hiring an expert to help in their cases. Experts can take a variety of roles and one of these is that of giving instructional testimony. Experts are generally not inexpensive, so parents want to know how effective experts in the cases involving parental alienation can be.

expert witness parental alienationThe effectiveness of an expert in these cases depends on a number of factors, some of which include the:

  • Court
  • Favored Parent
  • Expert

The Favored Parent

As has been mentioned in past blogs, I have written on issues that might affect an expert’s effectiveness, including the credibility of the favored parent, in convincing the court that the rejected parent deserves to be rejected by both parent and children. If that truly is the case the case involves estrangement not alienation. In order to prove that, the favored parent through their attorney, will have testimony from witnesses such as therapists, doctors and even child protection workers who will confirm that the child told them of the abuse they received from the rejected parent. Perhaps it was the therapist who reported the abuse and is now testifying that the child was credible in their reporting to the therapist. When crossed examined typically you may hear, the child’s story was consistent each time they were asked about the incident or incidents.

The concept of consistency is an interesting issue in that human beings of all ages are inherently inconsistent especially when it comes to relating an experience.

If I was to ask you to tell me about what you did on New Year’s Eve or Christmas vacation, or any event, for example, you would give me some details of the event. I might ask you again or you might share this information with someone else, adding more details, or you might leave out a detail. 

Why would this happen? The human memory system is such that when you share details about a situation or incident that you actually experienced your mind recalls more details or different details after the fact. The reason is the way the brain is wired. As you recall an incident or situation, associated facts related to the situation surface, and as these associations increase, so does the clarity of other details increase in awareness, and on the process goes.

But when you’re relating about an incident or situation that you’re making up, it’s not experienced based, you may tend to stick to a “script” and there are no details to elaborate on.

You only have one story to tell and you can’t deviate from it because you have nothing to add. This is especially observable in most children who typically have very limited experiences upon which to draw in order to elaborate on a story. So their stories are commonly repeated exactly the same each time without variation; naturally there are exceptions.  

Of course this consistence is represented as evidence as they must be telling the truth because their stories were always the same. Yes some adults might “ad lib” on details, but in my experience in conducting forensic interviews, most adults have trouble deviating from their original story. I did have one exception recently with a parent who would tell one interviewer one thing, at one time, then tell me something else again at another time. Unfortunately for this parent the fact pattern totally betrayed the previous presentations and was suggestive that this parent was not telling the truth.

Although, I have tried to explain this in the easiest way possible this is a complex situation. It is not a simple task to determine where there is abuse or alienation. 

An expert cannot tell a court that a child or adult is misrepresenting the truth, because they can’t; fact is no one can. But the expert can educate the court in explaining why simple consistency is not necessarily an indication of the truth, we have to look at other data and facts in the case to ascertain the weight that some evidence may or not be given in a case.

This will be useful whether one is trying to prove alienation is present or absent in a case. 

I hope this was helpful. For additional information, here are the previous articles (part 1-4) on this topic.

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Is Hiring an Expert Worth it in Family Law Cases Involving Parental Alienation? (Part 4)

Happy New Year to one and all! This article is a continuation from last year and an expansion of the previous content: Is hiring an expert worth it in family law cases involving parental alienation.

From the previous article I introduced “is hiring and expert worth it” with: Sometimes rejected (alienated) parents and their attorney consider hiring an expert to help, for example, one reason might be to strengthen their viewpoint to the court. Experts can take a variety of roles and one of these is that of giving instructional testimony. Experts are generally not inexpensive so parents want to know how effective experts have been in cases involving parental alienation.

role of trial consultant in court

The effectiveness of an expert in these cases depends on a number of factors, some of which include the:

  • Court
  • Favored Parent
  • Expert

Court

I wanted to expand on the idea that Parental Alienation (PA) is not in the DSM-5 and therefore, it doesn’t exist.

Most, or the majority of legal and mental health professionals, know PA happens in high conflict, highly contentious divorce cases. One tactic some use in defending their case Is to distract a court with the fact that PA is not in the DSM-5 and because of that it is not recognized as a “disorder” and because it is not a disorder its significance should be minimized if it is to be considered at all.

This form of questioning puts a testifying expert on the defensive and if not addressed properly could discredit the expert and therefore diminish his or her effectiveness.

The reality is that PA and the associated behaviors by both the alienating parent and the alienated child are problematic.

These behaviors effect the development of the child involved causing serious disruption to the child’s immediate developmental stability, psychological development and short and long-term functioning. The research is replete with examples of immediate and future disruptions and harm that children experience as a function of learning to reject a parent for unjustified reasons. In most cases the child is under the influence of a parent who is experiencing severe psychological abnormalities, which frequently go undetected.

Such alienating parents will fool their attorneys, evaluators, parent coordinators and even the courts into thinking these are just loving well bonded parents. These alienating and rejecting parents will present as rational and intelligence beings but underneath their perceived inadequacies are the real culprits that are twisting their realities into the delusions that are influencing and destroying their children. Living with an alienating parent is analogous to a petri dish cultivating future psychopathology for the children.

So does PA exist? These cases require the understanding of family dynamics along with the PA research.

PA is analogous to many disorders identified over the decades, but one of most descriptive is the cross-generational coalition concept found in family systems theory.

Within family systems theory is the concept of a child’s triangulation into the conflict between the parents which can include a cross-generational coalition of a child with one parent, the alienating parent, against the other parent, the rejected parent. A comprehensive family history of the litigants will in all likelihood reveal this triangulation is the result of a lack of attachment between the alienating parent and his or her parents.

Salvador Minuchin, in 1974, identified this coalition as a form of a rigid triangle. According to Minuchin, this rigid triangle forms a stable coalition where the alienating parent forms a rigid bond or attachment with the child in this coalition against the rejected parent. This bond, by the way, is frequently perceived or more correctly misperceived as a positive, healthy attached relationship and nothing could be further from the truth. If someone identifies the coalition and calls it as it is, perverse, it is frequently denied as a coalition.

Jay Haley, another family systems researcher, identified this coalition as one in which the “separation of generations is breached in a covert way and forms a repetitive pattern that is pathological.” In these cases the coalition is between a child or children and an alienating narcissistic/borderline personality parent. The characteristics of the alienating parent transform this “family” into a malignant form of the cross-generational coalition.

So while PA is not in the DSM-5, THE book of disorders, it may not technically be labeled a disorder, it is, however, a combination of personality disorders and cross-generational parent-child coalitions which are in fact standard psychological constructs familiar to professionals working with families and especially with families entrenched in the legal system.

Click here to read through the full series of articles on hiring an expert in family law cases involving parental alienation, and share your thoughts with me here, or on LinkedIn.

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Educating the Court on Parental Alienation

Is hiring an expert worth it in family law cases involving parental alienation? (Part 3)

This series of articles was introduced with:

what is a trial consultantSometimes rejected (alienated) parents and their attorneys consider hiring an expert to help in their cases. Experts can take a variety of roles and one of these is that of giving instructional testimony. Experts are generally not inexpensive so parents want to know how effective experts in the cases involving alienation may be. 

The effectiveness of an expert in these cases depends on a number of factors, some of which include the:

  • Court
  • Favored Parent
  • Expert

Court

In presenting a case to the court the attorney representing the rejected parent can ask the consulting expert a number of questions that are considered hypothetical but are based on the facts in the case.  For example, questions might include (obviously there would be others):

  • “What is parent alienation?”
  • “What is the difference between estrangement and alienation?”
  • “What would constitute a significant parental deficiency in order for a child to reject a parent?”
  • “By all appearances a child is observed to have an extremely close bonded relationship with a parent, why would a court order that child to be with the ‘rejected’ parent?

Given this sample of questions, what might an expert consultant’s response look like?

Question: “What is parent alienation?”

Answer:  Parent alienation is a disorder, typically discovered during divorce cases that are frequently of high conflict where a child or children reject a parent for no apparent valid reasons.  Parent alienation includes behavior by an alienating or favored parent as well as observable behaviors in the child or children. Observable or documented behaviors can include visitation blocking or gatekeeping even to the extent of ignoring court orders to facilitate time-sharing. You may find the favored parent sharing legal documentation with the child that would substantiate the reasons the rejected parent should be avoided. Some favored parents may even threaten to punish the child if they express a desire to be with the rejected parent.  Such punishment might include sending them to live with the rejected parent who is a “known” child abuser; a very frightening prospect to the child who has been taught to be afraid of the rejected parent.

Question: “What is the difference between Estrangement and Alienation?”

Answer: The literature is just now beginning to define terminology so there is a standard way of discussing these concepts. Estrangement is becoming recognized as a child rejecting a parent for valid or justifiable reasons, while Alienation, as present above, is a child’s rejection in the absence of valid or justifiable reasons.

Question: “What would constitute a significant parental deficiency in order for a child to reject a parent?”

Answer: The difficulty we have is that there is no criteria to define what are valid or justifiable reasons for the rejection. Dr. Richard Gardner was once asked what it would take for a child to be justifiably estranged from a parent. His response was something along the lines that the mistreatment would have to be unimaginably severe.  We know now, from decades of research with attachment theory, that the parent-child bond is virtually unbreakable. Even in cases of documented, repeated, physical abuse children and then later as grown adults they will either maintain or seek out those parents. The human parent-child attachment is essentially a biologically innate survival mechanism and while no one wants to say never, it is virtually indestructible. So when an expert is presented with a case fact of a parent drinking a beer, or disciplining a child, or using fowl language during visitation and that’s why a child is rejecting him or her, the expert has to demonstrate how those behaviors would break that innate parent-child relationship. Obviously it would take more than that; a lot more. In severe abuse cases some individuals seek some kind of closure with the abusing parent even if they do not continue a close relationship. A tribute to virtual permanent parent-child bond.

Question: “By all appearances a child is observed to have an extremely close bonded relationship with a parent, why would a court order that child to be with the ‘rejected’ parent? 

Answer: When we have evidence that there is Parental Alienation present in a case and it can be described as being at a severe level, typically you will observe an enmeshed favored parent-child relationship.  That is, to most observers the favored parent and child will appear to have an extremely close bonded relationship. However, in many extremely bonded relationships one may find the relationship is enmeshed.  Enmeshed relationships were introduced by Salvador Minuchen in the mid-1970s. In such relationships, there is little autonomy or personal boundaries. Each family member can have an identified role, such as a scapegoat, or hero, etc.  Individuals who grow up in such families do not know how they really feel or what they want to do in their lives because they are encouraged to feel what the favored parent feels. They are consciously and subconsciously rigorously discouraged from having their own feelings and preferences. Enmeshed children will frequently feel shame which leads to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, sexual addiction and can include family violence.

In an enmeshed alienated family the favored parent is dependent on the child or children to make them happy and feel loved. Isolating the children from a rejected parent facilitates this pathological “nurturing” process.  The children are discouraged from having a relationship with the other parent, from expressing their individuality and from expressing their life preferences outside the family.  In most cases the children are not even knowledgeable that this process is going on. But the favored parent’s need to be needed and to be loved, to an extent that they keep the children emotionally and physically corralled.

These are just a few samples and examples of the types of questions and responses that can be used in cases where the consulting expert is instructing the court. If the court is listening a careful observer will notice that the judge is taking notes as the expert is speaking. Frequently, when the attorneys are finished with the examination and cross, the judge just might have some questions of his or her own. This is a very good sign that the court was listening and perhaps even open to the expert’s testimony.

For more information about the role of the court in cases involving Parental Alienation, read part one, and part two in this blog series.

Do you have a question about Parental Alienation for an upcoming court case? Ask it below, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Is Hiring an Expert Worth it in Family Law Cases Involving Parental Alienation? (Part 2)

As I shared last week, sometimes rejected (alienated) parents and their attorney consider hiring an expert to help in their case. Experts can take a variety of roles and one of these is that of giving instructional testimony. Experts are generally not inexpensive so parents want to know how effective experts are in cases involving alienation.

The effectiveness of an expert in these cases depends on a number of factors, some of which include the:

benefits of hiring expert witness Parental Alienation

  • Court
  • Favored Parent
  • Expert

Let’s take each of these one at a time and expand in a little more detail over the next few weeks. Today’s focus is on the role of the court, and what they generally look for in family law cases involving PA.

The Courts Role in Family Law Cases

We know that the judge plays a critical role in family court and how open they are to hearing from an expert, someone who has generally not been involved in the case. So what do courts generally look for? According to surveys of courts and attorneys across the country, courts want a testifying expert to be objective, experienced in the area(s) that they are testifying on, possess good communication skills, have a professional presence and the more years of experience the better.

Bearing in mind that the purpose of the testimony is to educate the judge in a particular area that is relevant to the case under consideration, in the present discussion we’re addressing Parental Alienation. When testifying, the expert is the most powerful and persuasive when they present information in a neutral manner. It is critical that the expert present information in an unbiased fashion and not side with a particular party regardless of who paid them to testify. Presenting an obvious one-sided testimony will destroy the expert’s ability to be helpful in a case. Some of the specific issues in the expert’s testimony will be discussed in a future article. The courts will focus on the objectivity of the presenting expert.

The definition of an expert is generally uniform across all states and in Federal cases.

That is, an expert is so recognized based on their education, training and experience. It would be important for a testifying expert to have the necessary training, that is relate to the topics he or she was testifying about. Professionals can obtain training through formal education by attending colleges and universities as well as continuing education programs attended throughout their career.

Regardless of how they obtained their education, it must be relevant to the issue under discussion. The topic of Parental Alienation is typically covered as part of a course, if it is covered at all. Therefore, many experts on the topic of Parental Alienation have conducted research in the area, written extensively on the topic and have attended continuing education workshops. In addition, in some cases, some recognized experts in this area have worked alongside nationally recognized experts in the field as well.

There is a lot of misinformation about Parental Alienation that is presented to courts.

The testifying expert must be able to explain to the court that they are knowledgeable about the misinformation and be able to clear up the misconceptions. For example, it is frequently stated to courts that Parental Alienation doesn’t exist because it’s not in the DSM-5. Actually because of the latest efforts to include Parental Alienation Disorder a number of other diagnoses and disorders have been identified that are present in the DSM-5 and describe Parental Alienation without using that label specifically. A testifying expert needs to be able to show the court where those diagnoses are in the DSM and discuss how those concepts may need to be understood in the context of the present case. There are a number of other misconceptions that are frequently presented to courts, in some cases because of ignorance on the part of the presenter or in some cases deliberate attempts to mislead the court.

One of the most important factors after education and experience is the unbiased presentation of the testifying expert. This is critical in family law cases if they are to be seriously considered by a judge and ultimately helpful in a case.

Do you have a question about the role of the court in cases involving Parent Alienation? Ask it below, or connect with me on LinkedIn and share it there.

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