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Parental Alienation Syndrome: Fact or Fiction?

Parental Alienation Syndrome: Fact or Fiction?

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Updated on Jan 12, 2012

The theory of Parental Alienation Syndrome was advanced by Richard Gardner in 1987 through his self-published book, The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse.

Parental Alienation Syndrome—known as PAS—is a theoretical disorder that arises primarily in custody battles, in which one parent supposedly turns a child against the estranged parent with allegations of abuse or neglect. It's described as having three core components:

  • Programming. Garner argues that children are actively brainwashed and programmed by one parent against the other, alienating the child from that parent.
  • False Accusations. The theory suggests that one parent—typically the mother—makes false allegations of sexual or other abuse against the other parent, and uses this as a reason to deny visitation rights and compound the alienation. Through programming, the child may even believe the false accusations are true.
  • Deprogramming. Gardner recommends that to remedy the alienation, the child should be entirely removed from the alienating parent and placed with the alleged abuser for "deprogramming." During the first deprogramming period, all contact—even via telephone—with the alienating parent is prohibited.

The theory of PAS is extremely controversial. Disturbing cases are often cited in criticism of Gardner's theory. One example is the case involving a four-year-old girl, who returned home from unsupervised visitation with her father, and told her mom in detail about his sexual abuse of her. Because the little girl's story wasn't always consistent in her many later interviews with child protective services and various psychologists, the court deemed the mother an alienating parent, who had made up the abuse. As a result, the court gave full custody to the alleged abuser and ordered all contact with the mother must stop.

Over the years, PAS has received widespread criticism from child psychiatrists, abuse experts and attorneys for many reasons, not least because they fear the approach is not supported by the evidence, and puts vulnerable children at risk.

  • Biased. The theory has been accused of advancing inherent biases against women and children. Because women are statistically more likely to be the custodial parent, men are more likely to have problems with visitation. Distinguished Professor Emerita, Carol S. Bruch, at the University of California, Davis, says men are also "more likely to have money for expert services and 'coaching' for their trial attorneys."
  • Fails to Resolve Parenting Problems. Bruch observes that "claims of parental alienation turn the court's attention to the custodial parent, and means any parenting problems that might exist are largely ignored." She adds, "Instead of helping these men learn what they might do to make visits work better for their children, they are charged exorbitant fees for what cannot help the quality of their visits and may make things very much worse for their children."
  • Not recognized. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize Gardner's theory as a formal psychiatric diagnosis, and his own personal credentials are overstated in the literature. Even the New York Times incorrectly cited Gardner as a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, when in fact he never held this title. Instead, he "was a clinical professor of psychiatry in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry—an unpaid volunteer," according to the paper's correction to its initial misstatement.
  • Not scientific. Gardner's books were self-published and were not subject to peer review. No formal research was undertaken—Gardner made his conclusions based on his observations of his own patients—and experts believe his assessments of the number of fabricated abuse cases, which he initially suggested were as high as 90 percent, are overstated and not factual.

Despite its flaws, Parental Alienation Syndrome continues to be raised as a defense in family courts around the country. In fact, the New York Times reported that Gardner testified in over 400 such child custody cases before committing suicide on May 25, 2003.

PAS isn't limited to American courtrooms—Bruch notes that the theory has spread around the world through continuing education courses, lectures and fathers' rights websites and media campaigns, to the despair of family law professors and mental health professionals.

Currently, supporters of the theory are lobbying for its inclusion in the upcoming DSM-5—the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—in May 2013. Conversely, the American Psychological Association has joined forces with the British Psychological Society, Danish Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, The UK Council for Psychotherapy and a host of other organizations to send an open letter to the DSM-5, calling PAS "unsubstantiated and questionable" and stating it has "virtually no basis in the empirical literature."

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