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Parental Alienation

Accusations of parental alienation have become more and more prevalent in family law matters that involve the custody of children, whether it is a matrimonial matter or a non-dissolution/paternity matter. Parental alienation is the phrase used to describe the attempts of one parent (alienating parent) to poison or sabotage the relationship that the other parent (alienated parent) has with the parties' children. An alienated child is defined commonly as one who expresses unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child's actual experience with that parent.1 Alienated children often cite trivial reasons to justify their hatred of the alienated parent, such as not wanting to visit a parent if he/she arrive ten minutes late for a scheduled visit. Probably the most common behavior of alienated children is their refusal to visit the alienated parent and a desire to terminate the parent-child parent relationship.

It is often difficult to prove that one parent is alienating a child against the other parent. In many cases, the child's negative behavior is the only proof that the alienation is occurring. In some cases, the child will come forward and disclose the attempts made by the one parent to alienate the other. Due to the fact that an alienated child typically becomes aligned to the alienating parent and is therefore loyal to the alienating parent, the child will rarely expose that parent's attempts to alienate the other parent.

Due to the prevalence of parental alienation allegations, the courts are becoming familiar in recognizing the problem and are quick to take measures to eradicate the problem. It may be necessary for the court to interview a child, if it is old enough, to determine if the child's feelings towards the alienated parent are reasonable. A court will typically not interview a child that is less than seven years old and it still may prove difficult to determine if alienation exists with through such limited contact with the child.

The court may also order the parties and the child to undergo an evaluation to determine if the child has been alienated. The parties would then meet with a trained professional for a series of interviews in order to determine whether alienation exists and how to eradicate it from the matter. Often, the evaluator will schedule the child and alienated parent to be together so that he/she can observe their interactions.

During the matter and after, courts will typically direct that an alienated child participate in reunification therapy with the alienated parent in order to prevent alienation from getting worse or returning. Reunification therapy sessions are held by a trained professional and they typically include the alienated parent and child together.

Another remedy imposed by the court is to actually remove custody from the parent who is attempting to alienate the child (if that parent is the custodial parent) or to discontinue the parenting time/visitation of that parent (if the alienating parent is not the custodial parent). This is a very severe measure taken by the court; however, courts will use it if less severe measures are unsuccessful. The court is more likely to take this measure when a parent persists in behaving in a manner that would alienate the child from the other parent even when such behavior has been discovered by the court.

A parent attempting to alienate a child against a parent may also be subject to a civil suit that can be commenced outside of the family court. Recent case law has held that an alienated parent may proceed with a civil suit to collect damages against the alienating parent if the attempted alienation is severe enough.

If you believe that your children have been alienated from you, you will need attorneys who are able to identify alienation and who have the knowledge to prevent it from occurring. Likewise, if you have been accused of alienating your children against their other parent, it is important that you retain attorneys who know how to defend against baseless alienation claims before they dominate the litigation. At Donahue, Hagan, Klein and Weisberg, LLC, we are experienced at handling alienation matters and can help you prosecute or defend against such claims.

1 Definition from "The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome" by Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnson (Family Court Review, Volume 39, No.3, July 2001).