By Joan Dawson

In the past few decades, a term called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) or Parental Alienation (PA) has been used in family courts to describe a situation where one parent poisons the mind of the child against the other parent.

While it is true that some mothers (and fathers) intentionally bad-mouth their spouses or partners, several reasons can explain why the child fears or distances him or herself from a parent. It has long been recognized that children experiencing divorce can exhibit aggressive behavior or depression. Children can react angrily to their parent’s separation and may even be reacting to the conflict and violence they’ve witnessed.

But there is another possible explanation for a so-called alienated child. The child may have been abused and, as a result, fears or exhibits hostility towards the “target” parent. PAS, then, can shift the attention from an abusive situation to that of a protective parent’s “alienating” behavior. Abusers, who, not surprisingly, deny allegations or call them “false allegations” (and actually get the spouse punished with fines or jailtime), are more likely to seek custody than nonviolent parents. And, often enough, they get it.

While PAS has many proponents, most credible agencies do not support it. The American Psychological Association says PAS “lacks evidence” and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges refers to it as a “discredited” syndrome. The American Prosecutor's Research Institute says, "…PAS is an untested theory that, unchallenged, can have far-reaching consequences for children seeking protection and legal vindication in courts of law." Despite opposition, PAS is still used widely in courtrooms across the country.

In the past decade judges have felt compelled to rectify claims of alienation. Some have sent children to “deprogramming” or reunification centers in attempts to undo hostile feelings. According to the Leadership Council on Child Abuse, therapy usually involves confining the child to a location away from home and isolating the child from the parent to whom the child is most attached. The attachment to the favored parent is challenged, while encouraging the child with intensive sessions to re-accept the rejected parent.

Since abusers can use PAS as an excuse, some children are reunified with a parent that physically, emotionally or sexually abused them. The child may react to this reunification with increased symptoms, suicidal ideation, or even suicide attempts.

Recently in Ontario, a judge ordered two teenage boys to undergo deprogramming treatment after allegedly being brainwashed by the father. An 18 year old sibling stepped in and sought custody for his younger brothers; both of whom were diagnosed as suicidal. Newspapers reported him as saying, “My brothers have ended up being committed in a hospital against their wishes, committed to live somewhere where they do not want to live, exposed to psychiatrists, who have attempted to carry out experimental therapy with them at the risk of severe harm to them.”

Deprogramming treatment raises important ethical and legal questions. Do children have a right to their own thoughts? Do they have a choice in forming their relationships? Do parent’s interests trump children’s? Can legal strategies be employed to challenge children’s fear and hostility? These are complex issues that deserve careful evidence-based approaches that preserve the integrity of children’s rights while balancing those of the parents. If any treatment is court-ordered, we owe it to our children to use the ethical guidelines set out by the American Psychological Association to guide us in our decisions.

Deprogramming treatment for children, at least for now, should be confined to the realm of science fiction and not to courtrooms.
Dawson is a public policy assistant at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is a member of the Family Court Reform Coalition.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09