Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Public Awareness

Bulletins - Summer 2009 OPDV Bulletin

Table of Contents


Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation

Joan S. Meier, Esq., George Washington University Law School1
A Rational Approach1

The fact that divorcing parents often badmouth each other to the children can not justify the damage being done to abused and endangered children by PAS and PA accusations. A more rational and fair approach would follow these steps:

  1. Assess abuse first.
  2. Require evaluators to have genuine expertise in both child abuse and domestic violence.
  3. Once abuse is found, do not consider alienation claims by the abuser.
  4. Do not base any finding of alienation on unconfirmed abuse allegations or protective measures taken by the preferred parent.
  5. Evaluate alienation claims only if (i) the child is actually unreasonably hostile to the other parent and resistant to visits, and (ii) there is active alienating behavior by the “aligned” parent. A finding of alienation should require, at minimum, that the parent consciously intends the alienation and specific behaviors can be identified.
  6. Limit remedies for confirmed alienation to healing the child’s relationship with the estranged parent.

  1. See Meier(2009), Note 1 for a fuller discussion of these recommendations.

A mother who raises the issue of domestic violence or child sexual abuse during child custody litigation may find herself accused of parental alienation syndrome or parental alienation. These accusations often lead family courts to focus on the mother’s motives and unwillingness to co-parent, discount what she says about abuse, and, all too often, order the children into custody or unsupervised visitation with their abusive father.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)

“PAS” was defined by psychiatrist Richard Gardner2 as a mental health disorder in which mothers use child (primarily sexual) abuse allegations to punish their ex-husbands and win custody for themselves. He theorized that these mothers brainwash their children into believing that their father had abused them and enlist them in a ”campaign of denigration” against the father, in which the children contribute their own fabricated stories. Gardner’s proposed remedy was extreme - denying all mother-child contact and “de-programming” the child to change their belief that they had been abused.

Gardner had no objective data to support his theory and extensive empirical research directly contradicts it. Studies show that child sexual abuse claims are actually made in a very small percentage of custody cases, and only 12% or fewer are intentionally false.3 Even researchers who see alienation as a real problem concur that there is no scientific basis for describing it as a mental health syndrome in the child.4 But because family courts place such a priority on fostering children’s relationships with their noncustodial parents, alienation claims have more power than they deserve in defeating claims of abuse. To counter that trend, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has warned that:

[t]he discredited “diagnosis” of “PAS” (or allegation of “parental alienation”), quite apart from its scientific invalidity, inappropriately asks the court to assume that the children’s behaviors and attitudes toward the parent who claims to be “alienated” have no grounding in reality. It also diverts attention away from the behaviors of the abusive parent, who may have directly influenced the children’s responses by acting in violent, disrespectful, intimidating, humiliating and/or discrediting ways toward the children themselves, or the children’s other parent.5

Parental Alienation (PA)

The discrediting of PAS has not ended allegations of alienation in custody litigation. But while children in divorcing families are sometimes estranged from one parent, there is no evidence that parental poisoning of the child’s mind – as opposed to the disfavored parent’s own conduct – causes this estrangement. Even Janet Johnston, a leading proponent of PA, found that, despite alienating behaviors by almost all the divorcing parents she studied, only 6% of the children were “extremely rejecting” and only 20% were “consistently negative” toward the other parent. And many of those had specific reasons for their hostility, including abuse or neglect.6

It may be no coincidence that, along with courts’ increased focus on alienation, joint custody is regularly awarded despite a history of abuse, primary caregivers alleging abuse often lose custody, and a growing number have been judicially cut off from virtually all contact with their children.7 One study found that abusive fathers received more visitation than non-abusers.8 In response to these trends, the NYS legislature adopted Chapter 538 of the Laws of 2008, which amends §240 of the Domestic Relations Law, requiring courts to consider abuse allegations and to not punish parents who bring such allegations in good faith.

  1. The author, Joan Meier, excerpted this essay from her longer paper. See Meier, J. (2009). Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: Research Reviews. Harrisburg, PA,
  2. Gardner, R.A. (1992). The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide For Mental Health & Legal Professionals, Cresskill, N.J.: Creative Therapeutics, 226-227.
  3. Trocme, N. & Bala, N. (2005). False allegations of abuse & neglect when parents separate, Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(12), 1333-1345; Thoennes, N. & Tjaden, P.G. (1990). The extent, nature, & validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody/visitation disputes, Child Abuse & Neglect, 14, 151-163.
  4. Emery, R.E., Otto R.K. & O’Donohue, W. T. (2005). A critical assessment of child custody evaluations: limited science and a flawed system, Pychological Science in the Public Interest, 6(1), 1-29; Gould, J.W. (2006). Conducting Scientifically Crafted Child Custody Evaluations (2nd ed.), Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
  5. Dalton, C., Drozd, L., &Wong, F. (2004, rev. 2006). Navigating Custody and Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide, National Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges & State Justice Institute.
  6. Johnston, J.R., Walters, M.G., & Olesen, N.W. (2005). Is it alienating parenting, role reversal or child abuse? A study of children’s rejection of a parent in child custody disputes. J. Child Custody, 5, 191-218.
  7. Lesher, M., & Neustein, A. (2005). From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts – and What Can Be Done About It. Northeastern University Press.
  8. Rosen, L. & O’Sullivan, C.S. (2005). Outcomes of custody & visitation petitions when fathers are restrained by protection orders, Violence Against Women, 11(8), 1054-1075.