The Go-To Defense Tactic of Abusers in Family Court — Globally
A brief history of the concept of “parental alienation.”
“Abuse of the term “Parental Alienation” and of similar concepts and terms invoked to deny child custody to the mother and grant it to a father accused of domestic violence in a manner that totally disregards the possible risks for the child must be discouraged. Accusations of parental alienation by abusive fathers against mothers must be considered as a continuation of power and control by state agencies and actors, including those deciding on child custody.” — UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Procedures Experts — October 20, 2022
This article examines the disturbing history and intentions of the debunked concept of “parental alienation” that continues to successfully extract health, safety, well-being, and basic human rights from safe parents and children around the globe. While this issue impacts safe parents of all genders and their children, current research proves that safe mothers are losing custody disproportionately when this go-to weapon is employed by abusers and their attorneys in family court.
One important note before we get started. While we recognize that domestic abusers actively attempt to control, harm, and isolate their victims by turning everyone against them (friends, family, and yes, their children), this is one behavior as part of a larger ongoing campaign of abuse. We must urgently disempower the “parental alienation” terminology (and similar concepts) designed as an abuser’s weapon and ensure that all those in power urgently refrain from perpetuating its intentionally destructive and traumatizing legacy. We can collectively accomplish this through evidence-based education and policy on family violence issues and an authentic, trauma-informed commitment to the health and well-being of children and all domestic violence victim-survivors throughout the globe.
“How societies treat women and children is the true reflection of their social health — and the behaviour of justice systems provides the legal framework to these values.” — Grant Wyeth, The Best Interests of the Abuser
Let’s start here:
The term “parental alienation” or “parental alienation syndrome (PAS)” was created by Richard Gardner in 1985 for the purpose of deflecting the court’s attention from child abuse claims against fathers, and instead attacks the credibility of the mother, allowing the abusive father to be perceived as the victim.
This weapon, disguised as a made-up concept, “could be used to distract the court from abusive behaviors and reverse the perception of victimhood in judges’ eyes away from children towards abusive fathers. The idea was to punish mothers and children for challenging male household authority by reporting child abuse.”
“The “genius” of Gardner’s tool was that the more a mother or a child insisted that abuse had taken place, the more evidence of the “alienating” syndrome. He designed a trap.” — Grant Wyeth in The Best Interests of the Abuser
This is a debunked concept, based on Gardner’s clinical observations, not scientific data, and is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the World Health Organization (WHO), or the American Medical Association.
The use of this concept has also been opposed by the Spanish and Italian Governments and has recently gained the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which recently issued a global call for input into child custody cases and violence against women and children. The specific purpose of the inquiry is to understand how the discredited concept of “parental alienation” has been advanced into custody proceedings worldwide and how it is undermining the welfare and safety of children.
“Given the correlation between the resort to the concept of parental alienation and the persistence of gender-based violence against women, the topic requires urgent attention.” — UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences GENEVA (November 4, 2022)
There is a large group of individuals who have repackaged Garner’s original concepts of “parental alienation syndrome” and re-labeled it, “parental alienation” or, “alienation” (and various other “labels”) and have benefited from the vast financial opportunities it creates within the family court system.
While many do not follow Gardner’s “original version” of the concept, the many repackaged & consistently “rebranded” variations are still used in courtrooms across the U.S. (and globally) by abusers and their attorneys, as a go-to weapon to take custody from healthy, safe parents who raise safety concerns.
Here’s how it works:
DARVO, a term coined by Dr. Jennifer Freyd of the Center for Institutional Courage, stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.”
This occurs, for instance, when a guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” attacks the accuser’s credibility, and blames the accuser for being the perpetrator of a false accusation.
DARVO “turns the true victim into an alleged offender.” — in this case, an “alienator.”
The goal of DARVO is to deflect the accusations and create uncertainty about the facts. When a cross-claim of alienation is made in family court, women (speaking on behalf of themselves & their children seeking protection) are only believed 23% of the time. (Meier) — When in fact those least likely to make false claims of abuse are primary caregivers; usually the mothers. (Pollack).
“Claims of “alienation” become the abuser’s weapon & legal strategy to deflect or minimize allegations of abuse in the family court system when it is their own behavior or actions that caused the children to reject them.” — Tina Swithin, Author, Founder of One Mom’s Battle and Family Court Awareness Month.
Once the court founds a claim of “alienation” the children are removed (sometimes violently) from their safe parent and forced to reunite with their alleged abusive parent via a reunification camp.
Danielle Pollack of the National Family Violence Law Center and policy advisor on VAWA Kayden’s Law explains reunification camps:
“In private custody litigation, children are being court ordered — despite their fear, resistance, outcries — to spend time with a parent they are afraid of. In many cases they are ordered to a costly, unregulated, unsafe “reunification” camps or “treatments.” Subcontracted “transporters” come to physically take children to these camps, often directly from the courtroom where the decision is handed down. At these camps children are often threatened that if they don’t recant abuse allegations and/or “get along” with the allegedly abusive parent they could be sent to foster care, they may never again see their protective parent to whom they are bonded, or that the protective parent may go to jail. This can be terrifying and traumatic for children and it’s an abomination that family courts are still ordering children into these unregulated “treatments” without any valid support for their safety or effectiveness. VAWA Kayden’s Law restricts courts from doing this; I sincerely hope this dangerous practice ends and genuine oversight is created on behalf of vulnerable children.”
While this issue impacts parents of all genders and their children, current research proves that mothers are losing custody disproportionately, by as much as 73% of the time, when mothers allege abuse and the accused party responds with an “alienation” claim when courts believe she is an “alienator.” — sometimes even when the courts acknowledge that the father has abused the mother and the children. (Meier)
Research also shows that a mother’s chance of losing her child to the alleged abuser doubles with a cross-claim of “alienation.”
There is no comparable loss rate when men allege abuse and women cross-claim alienation illustrating the presence of gender bias, which research also shows is exacerbated by court-appointed experts.
The outcomes are the same throughout the globe.
“Mothers are losing custody disproportionately, by as much as 73% of the time, when mothers allege abuse and the accused party responds with an “alienation” claim when courts believe she is an “alienator.” — Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations, Meier, Joan S. and Dickson, Sean and O’Sullivan, Chris and Rosen, Leora and Hayes, Jeffrey, Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations (2019). GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper №2019–56
“UN experts urge the new government to target violence against women and girls, repeal parental alienation law: “Today we call on the newly elected Government of Brazil to strengthen its resolve to end violence against women and girls, and we call for the end of the legal long-standing application of the concept of parental alienation and similar variations in cases of domestic violence and abuse, which penalize mothers and children in Brazil.” — Brazil: UN experts urge new government to target violence against women and girls, repeal parental alienation law (November 4, 2022)
Brazil is the only country in the world that has a Federal law specifically ruling on the concept of parental alienation and the Brazilian government is resistant to repeal such a law despite the recommendations from its National Council of Health and National Council of Human Rights demanding the repeal of the Parental Alienation Law and the ban of the terms parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome.
“We are deeply concerned that this is not an isolated problem, as we continue to receive information on cases in Spain and other countries of mothers losing custody, and sometimes even facing prison, for attempting to protect their children from abusive fathers.” — Spain: UN experts denounce child custody decision that ignores evidence of sexual abuse, February 22, 2022
The barrister Charlotte Proudman says that parental alienation has become a “go-to tactic” used by alleged or found perpetrators of domestic abuse. “In some cases they call on a PA expert to assess the family dynamics before there is even a hearing to determine whether allegations of abuse are legitimate,” she said. “Once PA is found, any suggestion of domestic abuse is downplayed and it is very hard to turn a case around. I’ve seen a couple of cases where a mother has never seen their child again and must wait until they are 18.” — Parental alienation and the unregulated experts shattering children’s lives, The Guardian, June 12, 2022
“The study found that allegations of parental alienation were frequently being used during child arrangements proceedings to obscure and undermine allegations of domestic abuse. These findings are presented against a backdrop of a recent revival of ideas around alienation in the family court in England and Wales. The article highlights a growing body of evidence demonstrating the gendered assumptions underlying parental alienation as a concept, and argues that the concept should not be accepted without analysis and understanding of the harmful impact it has on survivors of domestic abuse and their children.” — “I was punished for telling the truth’: how allegations of parental alienation are used to silence, sideline and disempower survivors of domestic abuse in family law proceedings: Dr Jenny Birchall & Professor Shazia Choudhry, February 1, 2022
“The case law revealed a high incidence of domestic abuse perpetrated by parents (principally fathers) who were claiming that the resident parents (principally mothers) had alienated the children against them, which raises questions about the purpose of PA. More recently, a PA ‘industry’ appears to have amassed comprising experts, therapists and lawyers, advocating transfers of children’s care from ‘alienating’ mothers to non-resident fathers, as well as PA therapy for children and parents.” — A Genealogy of Hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales: Dr Adrienne Barnett (Brunel University London)
“Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.” — Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases, Ministry of Justice
“Parental alienation is used as a strategy to conceal male violence, by violent men themselves, relatives or institutions, mainly. It reduces domestic violence to parental conflict and pathologizes women and children. This is linked to a wider problem of identification of domestic violence in France (mainly psychoanalysis based), and a tendency to undermine the credibility of abused mothers and their children.” — How Is Parental Alienation used Against Separated and Divorced Mothers in France? : Pierre-Guillaume Prigent (University of Western Brittany) & Gwenola Sueur (University of Angers)
“When mothers’ allegations of violence in the family are disbelieved, minimized or dismissed, they are transformed from victims of abuse into perpetrators of abuse — alienators of children from their fathers.” — A history of the use of the concept of parental alienation in the Australian family law system: contradictions, collisions and their consequences: Zoe Rathus AM (Griffith University)
“The findings reveal researchers’ and experts’ tendency to distance themselves from Gardner’s controversial work on ‘parental alienation syndrome’ and to address the critiques by proposing new approaches and new concepts. However, the terms ‘parental alienation syndrome’, ‘parental alienation’ and ‘alienating behaviours’ are often used interchangeably, and assessment practices tend to rely on similar indicators.” — The legitimization and institutionalization of ‘parental alienation’ in the Province of Quebec Professor Simon Lapierre, Professor Patrick Ladouceur, Michele Frenette (University of Ottawa) & Assistant Professor Isabelle Cote (Laurentian University)
“A close reading of those cases where both alienation and intimate partner violence claims are made reveals troubling patterns in how intimate partner violence is discounted in this context. We suggest that the rise of shared parenting as a dominant norm assists in understanding why alienation has achieved such unquestioned status, and call for greater focus on safety and women’s and children’s voices.” — Penalizing women’s fear: intimate partner violence and parental alienation in Canadian child custody cases: Professor Elizabeth Sheehy (University of Ottawa) & Professor Susan B. Boyd (University of British Columbia)
“While the public campaign slogan in New Zealand when referring to family violence, is ‘It’s Not OK’, many women in New Zealand report that the Family Court prefers the catchphrase ‘It never happened’. When women and children escaping violence and abuse reach out to the New Zealand Family Court for protection believing the justice system will help them, they often enter an alternative reality where they are not believed and are subsequently made less safe. This is particularly so for those women whose well-founded fears for their children’s safety get reinterpreted as evidence of a deliberate attempt to alienate the children from their fathers.” — ‘It’s Not OK’, but ‘It’ never happened: parental alienation accusations undermine children’s safety in the New Zealand Family Court : Deborah Mackenzie (The Backbone Collective), Ruth Herbert & Neville Robertson
“Women were often blamed and labeled as ‘engaging in parental alienation’ when they were trying to ensure their children’s safety. Children’s accounts were interpreted as being a result of their mothers’ manipulation. In contrast, fathers were treated as victims of vindictive women who want to keep children to themselves. Men’s violent behaviors were not considered, and their role as fathers was seen as ‘inviolable’.” — Parental alienation (syndrome) in child custody cases: survivors’ experiences and the logic of psychosocial and legal services in Italy : Mariachiara Feresin (University of Trieste)
The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Reem Alsalem, convened a panel on the use of the pseudo theory of parental alienation in child custody cases on March 17, 2022, as a sidelight to the 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The panel emphasized how discriminatory biases against women fail to protect children from abusive fathers, and expose both women and their children to further violence. Panelists, including NFVLC Director Joan S. Meier, argued for coordinated and systematic work to promote a gender-sensitive approach to custody proceedings, centered on the best interest of the child.
“The success of the concept as a legal tactic is gender-specific. This is because while the parental alienation industry may try to distance itself from Gardner, his original intent to protect male household authority is buried deep within the concept’s DNA. — It is here where parental alienation has proved to be the counterforce to no-fault divorce and the domestic power-shift that it created. The concept has been able to successfully lower the bar for fatherhood to simply a matter of DNA, stripping it of any positive, caring, and responsible ideals to strive towards, and making acts of family violence inconsequential — or indeed rewarded. This has been accomplished with the goal to reassert the household as a domain of absolute male authority, to make sure that violent and abusive men maintain legal legitimacy, even after they have lost moral legitimacy.” — Grant Wyeth
In Family Court, there are many cases where “one parent is fighting for the safety of their child and one parent is fighting for control.” (Pollack)
A counterclaim of parental alienation remains the go-to DARVO tactic for an abuser to maintain control and continue the abuse of both the safe parent and the children post-separation through the use of the system that should be protecting them. — The Family Court System.
“The coercive controller weaponizes these systems to further inflict harm on his target … “If I cannot control you, then I will use the systems intended to protect you, to control you.’” — Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola
Claims of parental alienation in Family Court remain the go-to weapon to do just that, across the globe.
As stated by Grant Wyeth, “this should not be considered a niche issue. It is important for both political science and international relations for three reasons: Firstly, how societies treat women and children is the true reflection of their social health — and the behavior of justice systems provides the legal framework to these values. Secondly, one of the central pillars of our current political instability is men’s inability to emotionally cope with the advancement of women, and their attempt to reassert their “natural authority” — a desire to dominate individuals, groups, nations, or land is all driven by the same psychological impulse. And thirdly, the family court provides a stark lesson in how institutions can easily become captured by bad ideas, and how difficult it can be to weed them out when many actors within and around institutions are professionally — and financially — invested in these ideas.”
“Opportunistic groups understood that abusive men would pay handsomely to avoid the consequences of their own behavior [while maintaining power and control], and Gardner’s device offered them an instrument to service this lucrative demand, thus creating a repugnant market, the economic term for servicing the demand for something unethical or amoral.”
Let’s turn now to solutions.
With proper evidence-based training, judges will be better equipped to understand these domestic violence perpetrator tactics and ensure that child safety is the top priority in custody decisions.
According to Dr. Jennifer Freyd, as highlighted in a recent NBC News segment, the antidote to DARVO is awareness (the more people know about DARVO, the less effective it becomes) and Institutional Courage “which is a commitment to seek the truth & engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk & short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution.”
“Findings show that women are more likely to be the victims of DARVO and third parties that are not educated in DARVO tend to find it effective. — The good news is that if we teach people about the concept of DARVO and the behavior they are much better able to identify it & be less swayed by it.” — Dr. Jennifer Freyd
Thankfully, in 2022, the United States Congress passed “The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act” or “Kayden’s Law” in the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization based on the following findings:
“A child’s risk of abuse increases after a perpetrator of intimate partner violence separates from a domestic partner, even when the perpetrator has not previously directly abused the child.”
“Judges presiding over custody cases involving allegations of child abuse, child sexual abuse, & domestic violence are rarely required to receive training on these subjects, and most States have not established standards for such training.”
“More than 75 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member or a person known to the child.”
“Scientifically unsound theories that treat abuse allegations of mothers as likely false attempts to undermine fathers are frequently applied in family court to minimize or deny reports of abuse of parents and children.”
“Approximately 1⁄3 of parents alleged to have committed child abuse took primary custody from the protective parent reporting the abuse, placing children at ongoing risk.”
“With respect to cases in which an allegedly abusive parent claimed the mother ‘‘alienated’’ the child, courts believed only 1 in 51.”
“Empirical research indicates that courts regularly discount allegations of child physical and sexual abuse when those allegations are raised in child custody cases.”
“Many experts who testify against abuse allegations lack expertise in the relevant type of alleged abuse, relying instead on unsound and unproven theories.”
“Child abuse is a major public health issue in the United States.”
“Total lifetime financial costs with just 1 year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment, including child physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect, result in $124,000,000,000 in annual costs to the economy of the United States.”
“The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act” aka Kayden’s Law in VAWA incentivizes U.S. states to ensure that their child custody laws adequately protect at-risk children by:
1. Restricting expert testimony to only those who are appropriately qualified to provide it. Evidence from court-appointed or outside professionals regarding alleged abuse may be admitted only when the professional possesses demonstrated expertise and experience in working with victims of domestic violence or child abuse, including child sexual abuse.
2. Limiting the use of reunification camps and therapies which cannot be proven to be safe and effective. No “reunification treatment” may be ordered by the court without scientifically valid and generally accepted proof of the safety, effectiveness and therapeutic value of the particular treatment.
3. Providing evidence-based ongoing training to judges and court personnel on family violence subject matter, including:
(i) child sexual abuse;
(ii) physical abuse;
(iii) emotional abuse;
(v) implicit and explicit bias;
(vii) long and short-term impacts of domestic violence and child abuse on children; and
(viii) victim and perpetrator behaviors.
4. Requiring that family courts consider the existence of protection from abuse orders when making custody determinations.
The National Safe Parents Organization is catalyzing Advocate Groups, legal professionals, experts, lawmakers, and concerned citizens and joining forces to organize global advocacy efforts for evidence-based policies which put child safety and risks at the forefront of child custody decisions.
Please join us in advocating for evidence-
For more information, please visit www.nationalsafeparents.
Watch the brief history video on YouTube.