The pseudoscience of ‘parental alienation syndrome’
15 November 2023
Thousands of children will go to bed tonight in the court-ordered care of violent fathers because a judge accepted a diagnosis of a non-existent disorder, says Carrie Leonetti
Last year, the Supreme Court posthumously overturned Peter Ellis’s convictions for the ritual sexual abuse of children at the crèche where he worked in Christchurch, in part because it was based on testimony that relied on “child sexual assault accommodation syndrome”, which claimed that children who had been sexually abused would demonstrate a common set of behavioural symptoms.
As it became apparent the symptoms of this syndrome were subjective and malleable, and were common childhood behavioural problems, by the late 1990s, this so-called syndrome evidence was largely banished from criminal trials.
You might think the justice system had learned we should be wary of attributing the behaviours of children to a “syndrome”. But evidence about a different syndrome continues to flourish in family proceedings, putting children’s behaviour ahead of what they say. The syndrome is called “parental alienation”, or sometimes “post-parental-separation relational disorder”, “maternal gatekeeping”, “enmeshment”, “pathological alignment”, or the “resist and refuse dynamic”.
In April, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls issued a thematic report documenting how “the discredited and unscientific pseudo-concept of parental alienation is used in family law proceedings by abusers as a tool to continue their abuse and coercion and to undermine and discredit allegations of domestic violence made by mothers who are trying to keep their children safe”.
The report noted that, in Aotearoa specifically, mothers were often accused of parental alienation as a tactic to divert the courts from legitimate allegations of abuse. It recommended we “prohibit the use of parental alienation or related pseudo-concepts in family law cases and the use of so-called experts in parental alienation and related pseudo-concepts”.
It is, as far as I’m aware, the only psychological disorder in the world that strikes primarily wealthy men – those who can afford to sustain years of litigation in the Family Court.
According to the theory behind this “syndrome”, children who reject a relationship with or express fear of a parent who has abused them have likely been brainwashed by their other parent into doing so. Research demonstrates that the syndrome has two surprising characteristics. It is allegedly perpetrated almost entirely by women (more than 90 percent of parents accused of alienating their children are mothers), and its male “victims” are disproportionately white and almost entirely higher socioeconomic status.
It is, as far as I’m aware, the only psychological disorder in the world that strikes primarily wealthy men – those who can afford to sustain years of litigation in the Family Court. It also aligns with traditional, sexist stereotypes about women – that they are hysterical, manipulative, etc.
Every major health organisation in the world, including the World Health Organisation, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Association of Professional Psychologists in the UK, has disavowed “parental alienation” as lacking scientific validity. Mainstream health professionals joke that “parental alienation” is the only mental illness diagnosed exclusively by lawyers.
The theory depends on a series of assumptions, all of which have been disproven by legitimate social-science research: that a high percentage of allegations of child abuse are false, that children are incapable of forming and expressing autonomous memories and beliefs and, shockingly, that children will suffer more long-term damage from losing a relationship with an abusive parent than from being forced into their unsupervised care.
Because, according to the “parental alienation” theory, children who do not want unsupervised contact with a violent parent are suffering from a pathological psychological syndrome – their disclosures of abuse are evidence of brainwashing, not abuse.
The “cure” is being forced into the care of the parent they are seeking refuge from so they can “get over” their memories of past abuse and stop disclosing abuse in the future – a dangerous and cruel form of aversion therapy called “deprogramming”.
Research from all over the world, including my own, demonstrates the destructive effect that this pseudo-science has on family courts and child safety.
The pseudo-science of parental alienation theory complicates and obscures what should be simple fact-finding in cases involving child abuse. If judges listened to children and believed them when they said that someone hurt them and they were afraid of being hurt again, the vast majority of care of children cases in the Family Court would be over before they began. What judge would send a child victim of abuse back to their perpetrator in response to their disclosures? But parental alienation reframes the perpetrator as a victim, and the real victims as suffering from a pathology that requires repeated proceedings and specialised therapy to cure.
Only in America? I doubt it. The pseudo-science of parental alienation is global. Judges and court psychologists in Aotearoa receive training, cite marketing materials, and admit expert evidence from American consultants, who profit from the alienation industry.
Instead of being heard and believed, children are subjected to a form of litigation abuse, being dragged into the offices of lawyers and psychologists, where they are worn down until they tell these professionals what they want to hear: maybe the violence was not that bad, maybe they were just telling Mum what she wanted to believe, and maybe they would be better off at Dad’s house.
In Aotearoa, Family Court is a private court with strict secrecy rules and criminal punishments for unauthorised disclosures of information. If victims discuss their own proceedings publicly, they can be charged with contempt or “scandalising” the court. In the United States, where freedom of expression tends to be more absolute, there has recently been a flurry of media coverage of the effect that this pseudo-syndrome is having on child victims.
In Utah this year, a family court determined that two teenagers were “alienated” from their father by their mother and ordered them into his sole care, even though state welfare officials investigated and substantiated their claims that he sexually and emotionally abused them and referred the case for criminal investigation. Their father claimed their mother was the real perpetrator, “maltreating” them with her “abuse narrative”.
The court concluded the children’s disclosures were a “false narrative” from which the children needed to be rescued and ordered them to live with their father. The court also recommended they be sent to an expensive “reunification camp” to be reprogrammed. The kids responded by barricading themselves in a bedroom and livestreaming their ordeal to hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok. In response to a flurry of public criticism, the family court has temporarily suspended its contact order, and police have begun investigating the father for child abuse.
In California, a family court ordered a 12-year-old boy into his stepfather’s custody after the boy disclosed that the stepfather had been sexually abusing him for years and child welfare officials substantiated the claims. The stepfather claimed that the allegations were his mother’s “manipulation”. The court psychologist testified that the mother’s “negativity” was the child’s real problem, having been paid $90,000 for his custody evaluation. Three months later, the mother found the stepfather’s cache of child abuse images, which included images of her son being sexually abused.
Only in America? I doubt it. The pseudo-science of parental alienation is global. Judges and court psychologists in Aotearoa receive training, cite marketing materials, and admit expert evidence from American consultants, who profit from the alienation industry. As the special rapporteur noted: “Parental alienation is undoubtedly a lucrative endeavour that allows experts to provide their services in family proceedings for a fee. Training programmes and conferences, which have proliferated on a global scale over the last two decades, provide yet another stream of income.”
It took the Supreme Court almost 30 years to recognise the unreliable and unjust nature of the “expert” evidence in Peter Ellis’s case. It is time for them to do the same for the thousands of children in this country who will go to bed tonight in the court-ordered care of violent fathers because a judge diagnosed them with a non-existent disorder and forced them back into harm’s way for their own good.
Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti, Faculty of Law
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.
This article was first published on Newsroom, How discredited ‘parental alienation syndrome’ is used to cover up abuse, 15 November, 2023
Margo White I Research communications editor
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