By Hannah Dreyfus
ProPublica has been reporting on family courts’ handling of custody disputes that involve allegations of child or domestic abuse. The reporting shows that a disputed psychological theory that’s been rejected by mainstream scientists has widespread influence on outcomes in family court.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation is a theory in which one parent is accused of brainwashing a child to turn them against the other parent. It is most frequently diagnosed and cited as evidence in divorce and custody cases, even though most mental health professionals reject it as junk science.
The theory was the brainchild of Dr. Richard Gardner, a New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who made a career as a paid expert witness in more than 400 child custody cases, testifying most often on behalf of fathers accused of sexually abusing their children.
Gardner developed the theory of parental alienation syndrome, a condition in which children wrongly believe they are being abused, and recommended courts treat the children by placing them in the custody of the parent accused of abuse. “Severe” cases, he argued, required “threat therapy” to disabuse children of their distorted beliefs.
Few mainstream professional groups have accepted it as a diagnosable condition. But today, programs across the country claim to treat parental alienation using similar techniques, according to a ProPublica investigation. These programs, which can cost $15,000 or more for a four-day intervention, are court-ordered.
Contemporary advocates of the theory vary in their allegiance to Gardner and his version of parental alienation as a syndrome. Some classify it as a “relational disorder” rather than a syndrome. Others continue to defend Gardner’s conceptualization of parental alienation syndrome, despite Gardner coming under fire in the 1990s for arguing that pedophilia has benefits for human survival.
Demosthenes Lorandos, a lawyer and parental alienation scholar who knew Gardner personally, said he has been misrepresented. “The woke types would go completely crazy and say, ‘Oh my God, he’s advocating for pedophiles,’ which is the opposite of what he was doing,” Lorandos told ProPublica. The controversy surrounded “Richard’s desire to stop false sexual abuse cases,” he said.
What do mental health professionals say about parental alienation?
Parental alienation is not accepted as a mental health disorder by psychiatry’s diagnostic bodies. The American Psychiatric Association has repeatedly declined to include parental alienation in the DSM-V, the group’s diagnostic manual. Scholars of parental alienation claim it is a rapidly developing field of scientific inquiry and advocate for its inclusion in the diagnostic manual.
It has also been denounced by the World Health Organization and is shunned by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges for failing to meet court evidentiary standards. And in May, a special report released by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council blasted parental alienation as a “pseudo-concept” and recommended member states prohibit its use in family courts.
Madelyn Milchman, a licensed psychologist in New Jersey who researches child custody and traumatic memory, said the theory relies heavily on “perceptions of women in Judeo-Christian societies as hysterical, vitriolic and irrational.” (Gardner’s original rendering of the theory portrayed mothers in this way, she said.)
“Once you start on that train ride, and you believe that the mother has programmed the child, it no longer matters what the child says because the child is not credible, and the mother’s not credible,” said Milchman, who holds a doctorate in psychology. This doubt can lead to a “snowball effect” in family courts, fueled by “experts who testify on behalf of the alienation belief system.”
Some defenders of parental alienation have tried to separate the theory from its gender-focused origins. Jennifer Harman, an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University who serves as an expert witness on parental alienation, argues that doing so overlooks men as victims of domestic violence and abuse.
How is parental alienation used in court?
Parental alienation is diagnosed almost exclusively in family courts — either by privately hired expert witnesses or court-appointed custody evaluators. There, it is used to explain why a minor is claiming that he or she is being abused.
For example, in an ongoing case in Utah, siblings Ty and Brynlee Larson accused their father of sexually abusing them. The father’s attorney argued that the children’s mother was brainwashing them to believe their father had abused them. The abuse had been substantiated by state authorities in 2018. As a result, a court official restricted the father’s visits. Earlier this year, a judge agreed that the mother was alienating the minors and authorized police to place them into the custody of their father. In his order, the judge did not mention the previous findings of abuse against the father. The siblings resisted, barricading themselves in a bedroom in their mother’s home where they used TikTok to call attention to the judge’s orders.
Critics of parental alienation say that its nearly exclusive manifestation in custody litigation — and the fact that it almost exclusively affects children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds — further undermines the argument that it is a legitimate disorder. “True mental health disorders are more equally distributed throughout the population, regardless of socioeconomic status, class or social context,” said Dr. David Corwin, a professor and director of pediatric forensic services at the University of Utah and a past president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
Corwin also said that the words “parental alienation” do not need to be used in court to implicate the theory in a custody dispute. In fact, many lawyers and custody evaluators specifically avoid using the term because it has become so polarized. Other commonly used terms that implicate the theory include coaching, used to describe a child being trained by an adult to claim abuse when it did not happen; triangulation, used to describe a parent purposely manipulating a child in order to gain power in a conflict; and pathogenic parenting, used to describe parents projecting delusional beliefs onto their children.
Law enforcement and state child welfare agencies also sometimes cite parental alienation to dismiss allegations of child abuse. In a Colorado custody case ProPublica just reported on, state child welfare agencies decided not to investigate dozens of reports by mandatory reporters who expressed concern that a child was being physically and sexually abused by his father. Authorities appeared to believe that the child had been manipulated by his mother to report abuse so she could gain ground in the custody dispute. The court also agreed that the mother’s conduct met the definition of alienation.
The courtroom is where advocates of the theory have pressed for its acceptance. In Colorado, they have seized on a 2020 state Supreme Court ruling that parental alienation is a form of child endangerment.
The first courtroom battle is to establish that parental alienation is “real,” said Amy J.L. Baker, an advocate for the theory who holds a doctorate in developmental psychology but is not a licensed psychologist. “If you have a Supreme Court that’s already said it is, that door is, like, unlocked.”
Baker co-authored a recent proposal to the APA to include parental alienation in the DSM-V. The group previously rejected a similar request made in 2012.
Can a parent lose custody for parental alienation?
In cases when mothers allege abuse and fathers respond with claims of parental alienation, it roughly doubled a woman’s chances of losing custody in court, according to a 2020 national study on parental alienation funded by the U.S. Justice Department.
Another study funded by the Justice Department found the primary reason judges award custody to an abusive parent is that the mother is not viewed as credible. Two-thirds of the mothers in the study were dismissed as psychologically unwell and, in some cases, were denied custody even after their concerns about abuse were found to be valid.
Though family court judges operate with maximum discretion and little oversight — family court records are routinely sealed from the public — an increasing number of custody rulings based on parental alienation are being appealed, according to Paul Griffin, a former litigator of child abuse cases and the legal director of Child Justice, a legal assistance group.
“There are not enough lawyers attacking it sufficiently,” Griffin said. “But that could change as parents realize they have grounds to stand on and lawyers realize the higher courts are starting to pay attention to how a junk theory is proliferating unchecked in lower courts.”
A primary concern among those who oppose the use of parental alienation in the court is that it misinterprets evidence that would otherwise indicate child abuse.
“Parental alienation concocts this notion that if a kid exhibits certain symptoms that, incidentally, are the same symptoms of being abused, it was alienation,” said Richard Ducote, an attorney who specializes in defending parents accused of alienation. “It was a very clever idea to take the evidence of a child being abused and recast it.”
But advocates of parental alienation disagree that the theory provides cover for abusers. Harman argues that children’s reports of abuse cannot be relied upon because they are easily influenced, leading to false claims. “I’m accused all the time of protecting pedophiles. I’m like, why would I do that? No, I don’t protect people who are abusive. If anything, I want children to not be abused in any form.”
Hannah Dreyfus covers abuse for ProPublica.
- ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive ProPublica's biggest stories as soon as they’re published.