Some parents divorce or separate amicably and can negotiate child custody and visitation arrangements. But many marriages and relationships end in conflict, resentment or anger, making litigation more likely. Unfortunately, sometimes custody and visitation decisions become particularly antagonistic and difficult when one spouse has attempted to alienate the child from the other parent.
What is parental alienation syndrome?
It is widely accepted that it is usually in the child’s best interest to have ongoing relationships with both parents. This may not be true when a parent has a history of criminal behavior, substance abuse or serious emotional or mental challenges. Even then, sometimes contact with that parent is possible with a safety plan, such as third-party supervision during visitation.
Some parents engage in “parental alienation” in which one parent persuades and manipulates the child to unjustifiably reject and even hate or fear the other parent. Many different alienating behaviors can comprise this phenomenon. For example, the alienator may telling their child untrue, negative stories about the alienated partner. refuse to allow visits or communication between the child and their other parent, or express repeated hostile comments about them. In short, the alienating parent wants to hurt the other parent – and getting their child to turn against them may be the ultimate injury as loss of a parent-child relationship can be devastating.
One Connecticut case describes parental alienation as potentially including verbal criticism of the other parent in the presence of the child or “[c]oercive or manipulative acts designed to alienate … and interfere …” with their relationship. Dufresne v. Dufresne, 191 Conn.App. 532 (2019).
How does parental alienation hurt kids?
A psychotherapist in a recent Psychology Today article describes parental alienation as a type of domestic abuse in which one parent “weaponizes” the child against the other parent, hurting both the child and the targeted parent. Potential harm to the child both immediate and into adulthood includes:
- Loss of “social power and autonomy”
- Self-doubt in decision making
- Separation anxiety when away from the preferred parent
- Difficulties with relationships and social connections
- Uncertainty about their memories
- Loss of a sense of family, self, community and place
- Loss of relationship with extended family
- Mental health problems
- And others
It is not surprising that many professionals call parental alienation child abuse, emotional abuse or psychological abuse. There is disagreement about whether parental alienation is an actual syndrome or mental disorder, or just a negative behavior pattern on the part of the alienator. But as we will explain, the label may not be as important to a Connecticut judge as the harm to the child from the underlying parental behavior.
Some sceptics point to the fact that in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), parental alienation is not included as a diagnosable mental disorder. The DSM is the authoritative handbook for mental health professionals in the diagnoses of mental illnesses. However, the DSM’s authors have written that while they chose not to use the words “parental alienation” in the DSM, two other listed diagnoses apply to these circumstances: Child Affected by Parental Alienation Distress (child’s diagnosis) and Child Psychological Abuse (alienating parent’s diagnosis), according to an article in Divorce Magazine.
Parental alienation is relevant in an initial custody decision and can serve as the basis for custody modification
It is wise for any litigant in a custody proceeding whether initially or for modification to involve an experienced family lawyer as early as possible when parental alienation is at issue. Because the stakes are so high, the facts complex and the evidence potentially difficult to obtain or prove, the attorney should have a sophisticated understanding of parental alienation and the skills to clearly present important, relevant evidence to the judge.
If a parent can show that there has been a substantial or material change in circumstances since the court issued the custody decree, the parent can petition the court to modify the custody arrangement. Parental behavior that seeks to alienate the child from their other parent can be the material change justifying a change in custody or visitation if in the child’s best interest. See Dufresne.
To set the litigation scenario, the targeted parent could charge the alienating parent with alienation or either parent could falsely accuse the other of alienating behavior. An abusive parent may falsely accuse the other parent of alienation to deflect suggestions of actual abuse and instead put the other, innocent parent in the hotseat.
A lawyer in any of these scenarios should conduct a thorough investigation into both parents for any signs or evidence of alienation. This may involve mental health evaluations, expert witness opinions or third-party witnesses to parental behavior.
Factors in custodial decisions
Connecticut statute requires the court to make all custody and visitation decisions based on the child’s best interests. The court looks at each parent’s rights and responsibilities as well as whether it is in the child’s best interests for both parents to be actively involved. In the best-interest analysis, the judge may consider any of 17 factors listed in statute and any other relevant factors. CT Gen. Stat. 46b-56.
The listed factors:
- Child’s “physical and emotional safety”
- Child’s “temperament and developmental needs”
- Parents’ ability and willingness to “understand and meet” the child’s needs
- Child’s “informed preferences” and “relevant and material information” received from the child
- Parents’ wishes
- Child’s relationship with each parent, siblings and other important persons
- Parents’ ability and willingness to facilitate an appropriate parent-child relationship with the other parent
- Parental coercion to involve child in parental disputes
- Parental ability to be involved with child
- Child’s adjustment to home, school and community
- Length of time child has lived in a “stable and satisfactory” environment and whether continuing this is desirable
- Stability of current and proposed residences
- Everyone’s mental and physical health
- Child’s cultural background
- Effect on child of domestic abuse between the parents or between a parent and the child or another person
- Abuse or neglect of the child or their sibling
- Parents’ participation in parenting education classes
Relevant to allegations of alienating behaviors in the family, the judge may order a parent or child to counseling or drug or alcohol screening if it would be in the child’s best interests. This could help evaluate an alienation charge or provide the basis for future recovery, which might include reunification therapy and changes to custody or visitation.
If the question arises within the litigation whether parental alienation is a legitimate diagnosis, the lawyer can steer the discussion to the statutory factors. Several may be relevant in discerning the impact on the child of alienating behavior. Perhaps the most crucial factors are a parent’s manipulation to draw the child into parental disputes and parental ability to facilitate a relationship between the child and their other parent. Eisenlohr v. Eisenlohr, 135 Conn.App 337 (2012) (Noting that Connecticut courts have not decided the issue of whether “parental alienation syndrome is a reliable theory,” so expert proof is not needed, where the alienated parent “presented an abundance of evidence pertaining to specific acts of coercion and manipulation [by the other party] … that the court, as the finder of fact, credited.”)
The legal skills to put on a case involving parental alienation are important – whether the parent-client is accused of alienation or is pointing the finger at the other parent. It requires careful presentation in court since the child’s preferences and feelings can be clouded by parental manipulation that some claim is akin to brainwashing. Still, other factors besides alienation can contribute to a child preferring one parent and rejecting the other like the other parent’s behaviors or the child’s perceived needs of the preferred parent. See Grabowski v. Grabowski-Clark, 2013 WL 593920 (unpublished 2013). Or it may be a question of parent-child compatibility or independently formed opinions of the child. Finally, as one Connecticut court concluded (despite finding alienation), “it is likely that the alienation in this family would exist without the plaintiff intentionally creating such a result,” noting the child’s “high levels of anxiety” well before the motion to modify custody. See Walsh v. Walsh, 2011 WL 8199263 (unpublished 2011).
A Connecticut family lawyer can represent a litigant dealing with the complexity of alienation and parent-child relationships and make a thorough, clarifying case with relevant evidence.