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September/October 2009 Issue

Revisiting Parental Alienation Syndrome — Scientific Questions, Real World Consequences
By David Surface
Social Work Today
Vol. 9 No. 5 P. 26

Social Work Today presents the “other side” of the PAS debate in response to the feature article in our November/December 2008 issue.

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a theory that has been the subject of much debate. This article looks at what critics of this controversial theory have said about both its scientific foundations and its practical applications in legal settings, particularly its effect on children and families.

The Syndrome That’s Not a Syndrome
One fundamental problem with PAS may be found in its name; according to its critics, it cannot properly be called a syndrome at all. “When ‘parental alienation’ is used with the term ‘syndrome,’ it communicates a diagnostic legitimacy,” says Annelies Hagemeister, PhD, MSW, LISW, an associate professor in the social work department at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

A basic flaw with PAS, according to critics, is that Richard Gardner, the theory’s founder, outlined what he believed to be the diagnostic framework of PAS based on his own clinical experience with a particular set of clients without any further empirical evidence.

“Gardner just presented the theory with no research to back it up,” says Jeffrey Edleson, PhD, director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse and a professor and the director of research at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. “PAS is essentially composed of unsubstantiated claims; there’s no science behind it.”

The American Psychological Association 1996 Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family issued an official statement noting the lack of data to support PAS and expressing concern over the use of the term while declining to take an official position on it. PAS is currently not recognized by the American Medical Association nor the American Psychiatric Association and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

A Circular Argument
There has been a small number of studies that have attempted to show whether therapists interpret behaviors in a way that would fulfill the criteria of PAS. Therapists were presented with a written scenario of behaviors and then asked whether the scenario fit PAS criteria.

According to Hagemeister, there was a fundamental flaw in these studies related to what she and other critics see as the circular thinking inherent in PAS. “Some of the people who were asked to do the research refused to do it because they didn’t believe there was such a thing as PAS,”  she says. “Among the therapists who agreed to take part in the study, there was found to be some agreement, but that was based on the fact that these participating therapists essentially agreed there was a real category that you could look for.”

If there are allegations of child mistreatment and sexual abuse in a divorce or custody situation, a basic assumption of PAS is that the allegations made by the child or parent are untrue. The more insistent those allegations are is interpreted by PAS proponents as more evidence of the syndrome.

Because of this “circular thinking” at the core of PAS, critics claim that the theory can’t be properly tested because it relies on certain unproven assumptions. “From a theoretical perspective, that is one of the basic problems with PAS,” says Hagemeister. “It really can’t be proven in and of itself without first denying the reality of certain things that the person might be claiming.”

Is Child Alienation From a Parent Reality Based?
Even the harshest critics of PAS admit that the scenarios described in the theory have some basis in reality; the problem occurs when PAS proponents attempt to universalize these individual scenarios into a genuine syndrome.

“Have there been situations in which either one or the other parent deliberately or otherwise says things that may alienate the child from their relationship with the other parent?” Hagemeister asks. “Certainly. Yes, there are situations where people may say things or do things that may alienate their children from the other parent. Whether or not that’s a full-blown syndrome, I think, is another thing entirely.”

Victimizing the Victim; Undercutting Abuse Claims
While PAS proponents and critics may argue the scientific merits of the theory and the validity of the research that claims to support it, the scientific validity is only part of the debate. Critics warn that PAS may be used to undercut valid allegations of domestic and sexual abuse by redirecting attention from the alleged abuser to the victim.

“There’s no discussion of the father’s behaviors that might be alienating the children from him and might lead a child to say, ‘I don’t want to be with my father,’” says Edleson. “If a child doesn’t want contact with the father, that might be a reasonable response given the father’s behavior.”

“The theory claims that the child has been made to believe that there was abuse when there wasn’t, and that the alienating parent has essentially brainwashed the child to vilify or denigrate the other parent,” says Hagemeister. “There’s no attempt to see if the allegations are correct first. It’s brought about with the assumption that the parent is making this up.”

Andraé L. Brown, PhD, an assistant professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, and the codirector of the Affinity Counseling Group, notes that PAS is often introduced in cases in which there is documented abuse on the part of the parent claiming alienation. “If there were no evidence of any kind of misconduct, then it would have more credence,” he says, “but the fact is that there’s usually some kind of documented abuse. In many PAS cases, the court has issued restraining orders against these men. PAS says there’s something wrong with the child because he or she doesn’t want to be around the father. Maybe it’s because there’s been this documented history of sexual or physical abuse, and the child has either witnessed the violence done to the mother or has endured violence themselves.”

Brown agrees that there are cases in which a child may become closer to or protective of one parent during divorce proceedings or the aftermath but says that when a father begins to claim that he is being alienated, it is most often the result of the alienated parent’s behavior, not the other parent’s efforts to vilify the “alienated parent.”

The “New Face” of PAS
In recent years, there has been some effort to recast PAS in less extreme terms, downplaying the role of brainwashing and false allegations and dispensing with the term syndrome altogether, changing the name from parental alienation syndrome to parental alienation (PA). PA theories retain the idea that the child harbors unreasonably angry and negative beliefs about one parent that are disproportionate to what the child has actually experienced, while stating that the sources of that hostility and fear may be based on a wide variety of factors having to do with the family system dynamics, not just false allegations.

Some critics of PAS claim that PA can still be used to raise doubts about serious allegations of domestic and sexual abuse. “It still allows what PAS tends to do when it’s raised, which is to undermine claims made by the mother,” says Edleson. “And yet the data show that the claims of domestic and sexual abuse being made by mothers are generally truthful.”

Who’s Using PAS and How It’s Being Used
Some see PAS as part of a bigger issue, of how the court system for family and juvenile law has been constructed around the idea of adversarial contact. “PAS in the courtroom has become just another part of the whole adversarial system that’s been constructed,” says Hagemeister. “It becomes an adversarial tool rather than a therapeutic one.”

Brown says there are other effective and less destructive options available to parents who feel they have become alienated from their child. “Some fathers try to resolve that problem in the relationship,” he says. “They go into therapy with the child or the family and say, ‘Your Mom and I had a rough time. We had problems, or I had a problem,’ and try to explain and take accountability for their actions. Instead, men who use PAS say, ‘The reason you don’t want to be with me is because your mother is brainwashing you. Therefore, you need treatment and she needs treatment, but I don’t need anything because there’s nothing wrong with me.’”

Brown believes one reason PAS has become so popular among legal professionals and fathers’ rights groups is because of a failure to distinguish between a contentious divorce and a divorce in which there’s domestic violence. “It’s critical to recognize that many people have high-conflict divorces, but most don’t claim PAS,” he says. “Men in other kinds of contentious divorces might complain about paying too much alimony or child support, but they won’t claim that their wives are brainwashing their kids.”

Access Is Not the Issue
Fathers who bring the issue of PAS into the courtroom often complain about being denied access to their children. Indeed, PAS has been championed by fathers’ rights groups. Brown says most often, access is not the issue. “In many PAS cases, the men already have access to the children,” he says, “so it’s not about obtaining visitation rights. Even in cases where there have been charges of sexual abuse against fathers, most judges don’t terminate their parental rights.”

Critics of PAS believe that the theory is being commonly used as a legal and political maneuver, not a genuine therapeutic tool.

“If the father does something abusive to the child or the mother, the mother can’t report it because she’s already been identified as having parental alienation syndrome,” Brown explains. “Therefore, anything she says along those lines cannot be introduced in the court. Her statements are interpreted as further evidence of PAS.”

Social Sciences in the Court Room
The question remains that if there is so little support for PAS among the wider social sciences community, why does the theory continue to carry so much weight in the courtroom?

Many believe the power PAS continues to exert in divorce and custody proceedings is indicative of a wider phenomenon that occurs whenever scientific testimony is introduced in the courtroom, one in which judges and other legal personnel lack sufficient familiarity with the fundamentals of science to make thoughtful and informed decisions.

“There are untrained judges and lawyers who are using PAS in court,” says Edleson. “Some judges accept that theory and testimony and make decisions based on it.”

“In my opinion, it’s far too easy for certain kinds of scientific-sounding language to be introduced into court cases in a way that is unhelpful to the children of the families involved and could do more damage,” says Hagemeister. “In certain documented situations, it has done more damage than had that sort of intervention process not occurred.”

Taking a Stand
The divisions among social science professionals over PAS run deep, so what can be done to heal this rift and bring about a more balanced and productive perspective on these issues?

One approach is to take a fresh look at the concept of the “alienated” child of divorce using the kind of rigorous, unbiased scientific research that critics find lacking in PAS. However, according to Hagemeister, many professionals may be reluctant to involve themselves in PAS-related research for fear of appearing to grant legitimacy to what they perceive as a discredited and divisive theory. “I think there’s been sort of a fear of pursuing this in a legitimate way out of concern that one would be perceived as somehow buying into the original theory,” she says. “This is one of those ‘wedge issues’ where there are huge camps that don’t play well with each other, so there’s a reluctance to even venture down that path.”

Hagemeister concedes that the researchers who’ve contributed to the reformulation of PAS have taken a step in the right direction. “In many ways, I think they’ve come at it from a lot more reasonable perspective. But I think that some of the issues become so divisive, researchers have to decide whether or not they want to wade into these particular very, very deep, murky waters,” she says.

In the legal arena, is there anything that social workers can or should do to raise awareness of this issue and get judges and others legal professionals to think critically about PAS?

“As social workers, we need to educate the legal professionals we come into contact with—lawyers and judges and custody evaluators—about the weakness of PAS and similar models explaining what’s going on when children don’t want to have contact with a parent,” says Edleson.

Brown cites efforts such as states in which PAS has already been evaluated as an invalid diagnosis that is inadmissible in court, which is included in judges’ training. But even those efforts have their limits. The turnover rate of legal professionals, as well as mental health professionals, in family and domestic violence court is very high. “Judges rotate,” he explains. “Judges also need to be reminded; the system needs to be reminded.”

Brown admits that there’s a sense in which mental health professionals who decide to take a stand against PAS in the courtroom may have the deck stacked against them. “Clinicians are not trained to deal with the courts,” he says. “Unless you work in an internship that deals explicitly with the court system, no one trains you how to deal with judges. But other professionals who are promoting PAS in the courts, they know how to work with the judges. They know how to play the game and are completely invested. It’s difficult to be a proponent against it.”

What Matters Most
While critics and proponents may argue endlessly about the scientific validity of PAS, it’s how the theory has been applied and to what end that is of ultimate concern for mental health professionals, particularly those who work with families. “Even if PAS is scientifically valid,” says Brown, “You still have to look at the carnage on the other end: the intentional destruction of family relationships, women and children being railroaded through the court system for years. People have got to take a position on this. The cost is human life.”

“Like so many of the other issues we deal with, I need to stop and ask myself what’s the outcome of this? For whose good is the research being done?” says Hagemeister. “A lot of this ‘parental alienation’ stuff is so much more focused on how the parent is being hurt or wronged; I feel like we lose sight of what’s happening to the children. Whether there’s abuse or not, whether there’s alienation or not, what’s happening to the children in these situations is the most important thing.”

— David Surface is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.