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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Interesting Times in the Parental Alienation World


The idea of “parental alienation” has been around for some decades—starting with Wilhelm Reich, the orgone man—but in recent years it has been adopted by lawyers and some judges as a way to get child custody transferred from one divorced or separated parent to the other. “Parental alienation” is a concept applied to situations where a child refuses or resists contact with one parent and where the child can give no reasons for this position or gives reasons that are deemed unacceptable by adult authorities. (Physical abuse is considered an adequate reason for avoidance of a parent, but practically the only one.) In these cases, proponents of the “parental alienation” (PA) idea argue that the child’s resistance or refusal is occurring only because the preferred parent has manipulated the child’s thoughts and emotions so that he or she dislikes or fears the non-preferred parent. In this scenario, the preferred parent is referred to as the “alienator” and the non-preferred parent as the “targeted parent”. The child’s mental condition is referred to by PA proponents as “parental alienation syndrome” or “disorder” (PAS or PAD), and this condition is said to involve “splitting” and black-and-white thinking in the present and to predict the development of a personality disorder like narcissism. Actions that bring about mental illness in an individual are considered abusive to that individual, so part of the PA argument is that the preferred parent is abusive and the child must for his or her own sake be removed from that abusive person’s custody. As I noted a few weeks ago on this blog, some PA proponents also argue that for a court to pay attention to a child’s preferences would have malignant effects on the child’s psychological development.

The solution offered by PA proponents for this notional syndrome or disorder is that a child who resists or refuses contact with one parent must be removed from his or her present living situation and placed in the custody of the non-preferred parent. In addition, the child needs to be treated in one or another of several similar residential programs that may last from 4 to 90 days, during which contact with the preferred parent is prohibited or used as a reward for affectionate behavior toward the non-preferred parent. (These programs are to be paid for by the preferred parent and court orders include this proviso.) The programs are referred to as “psychoeducational” and consist of videos and discussions, mixed, apparently, with threats to send the child to a wilderness camp or residential treatment center where they will not be able to communicate with anyone outside.  

Obviously, there really are children of divorce (or even of intact families) who avoid one parent and who cannot explain to the satisfaction of adults why they do this. It’s not unimaginable that the PA scenario of influence actually takes place in some of these cases. But the declaration that there is a related psychological syndrome or disorder, and particularly that such a syndrome is the forerunner of serious personality disorders, is a claim that requires empirical support. Such support has not been presented, and that is why the American Psychiatric Association did not include such a diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

The claim that PA-related residential programs, psychoeducational or otherwise, can repair disturbed parent-child relationships/incipient personality disorders—and do this so effectively that courts should order such treatment to be used against the will of older children and adolescents who would normally be allowed to decide to consent to treatment—also requires empirical support. No amount of speculation in terms of well- or ill-chosen theory can tell us whether a treatment will be effective, and in fact attempts to claim that analogies provide evidence is characteristic of pseudoscience.
None of these points has impressed proponents of PA, and they have been experiencing a good deal of success in influencing high-conflict custody cases and enrolling children in their residential treatment programs.  Some attorneys have been eager to run with the PA argument, and some judges have accepted it with little question. But an event and an observation this week seem to suggest that the PA concept as presented by some of its proponents may be on the way out.

The event is one with a history that needs explanation. In June, 2017, the PA proponents Craig Childress and Dorcy Pruter (a psychologist and a “life coach” respectively) gave a presentation on their views at a conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). Psychologists who attended this presentation received professional continuing education credits (needed for maintaining licensure), as AFCC is an approved provider of continuing education for the American Psychological Association. Although the conference brochure carried a disclaimer to the effect that  including a presentation did not mean approval of its content, to my knowledge at least one attendee came back to his practice full of enthusiasm, declared to a client that the APA CE credit meant that APA approved of the treatment described in the presentation, and attempted to persuade the client to send her child to California for the Childress program.

Complaints about the Childress-Pruter presentation led the APA continuing education committee  to announce this week an agreement with AFCC that Childress and Pruter may never again make this kind of presentation at AFCC. AFCC also agreed to provide an alternative webinar by Michael Saini on evidence-based views of child resistance and refusal and have posted this at www.afccnet.org. Given that according to Childress’ blog he is planning a sort of “March on Washington” where he and his followers will deliver a petition to APA and will videotape its reception, this AFCC-APA agreement may appear as a considerable blow. No doubt the rejection of Childress’ PA claims by APA will only strengthen the cult-like belief of his followers, but the APA decision will prove a powerful argument in many cases where parents are under attack as “alienators”.

The observation I referred to earlier has to do with the CV of a PA proponent (not Childress this time, although his has a sticky problem in the omission of some years of activity). In connection with a current PA suit, I saw the CV of Demetrios Lorandos. Lorandos has been a powerful advocate for the PA position, bringing to the argument both a law degree and a doctorate in psychology. But wait… that doctorate seems to be rather open to question. It came from the Union Institute in 1978. The Union Institute is pretty problematic in itself, having been the alma matter of a number of alternative psychotherapists like Gregory Keck of holding therapy fame. Students there have written dissertations on the topics they chose, and then decided what discipline (e.g. psychology or criminology) they wanted their degrees in. (An Internet search will show you why I say this about what is not quite a diploma mill but more a “wannabe university”.) But on top of those problems, Lorandos’ degree in 1978 predated by seven years the accreditation of Union in 1985. In other words, he does not have a doctorate from an accredited university and therefore should not call himself “Doctor”. (See, for comparison, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/10/12/top_two_leaders_at_community_college_earned_doctoral_degrees_from_diploma_mills.) He may, of course, call himself a psychologist, as he is licensed in that field because of a master’s degree from the New School for Social Research.  How is it that no one has noticed before that Lorandos’ CV shows that he does not have a doctorate from an accredited institution? Well, not everybody spends their time looking at fraud and deception in psychology the way I do.

Am I arguing that Lorandos’ lack of a genuine doctoral degree means that he can have nothing useful to say? No, of course not. There are plenty of expert witnesses who have excellent backgrounds outside academia. But when someone presents himself repeatedly as having a doctorate, and fools people who are not familiar with the Union Institute story, I must question his integrity as well as his training in assessment of research.

Between the Childress and the Lorandos events, I think we may be able to look forward to a day when attorneys and judges will be able to recognize the weaknesses of the PA concept and of the treatments proposed by PA advocates.  




5 comments:

  1. I am smiling from ear to ear. Thank you so very much Jean, for fighting the good fight. I would imagine Childress and Dorcy are not handling this well. I wonder if ended up raising the money for their airfare, you know Childress was requesting donations for hotel and airfare for his march on Washington right? Why would a (in)famous founding Dr of pathogenic parenting, and his sidekick, need to solicit donations to travel? Questionable to say the least.

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  2. It may at first seem prudent to spread the blame for parental alienation across all parties, and I understand the hesitation to diagnose a child of divorce with some sort of disorder or syndrome, but it seems to me that in cases of severe alienation, where the favored parent has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, and the rejected parent does not have a personality disorder, it is misguided to take a spread-the-blame approach.

    If a teenager abandons her family to join a cult, what is the therapeutic approach? Should we invite the child, and the parents, and the cult leader to a round table discussion, and try to apportion blame, and brainstorm solutions? Is your average cult leader going to be receptive to such a process? I doubt it. Similarly, NPD/BPD alienators, who are very much like mini cult leaders, will only use such an approach to their advantage.

    The way to get a kid out of a cult, is to remove them from the cult, and limit contact with the cult leader until the chold can think independently.

    This is the approach that must be undertaken with cases of severe alienation, which are categorically different from so-called mild and moderate cases.

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    1. Well, hold on, a minute, Marc. As soon as you start talking about blame, you are getting into troubled waters, where every outcome means that someone should be punished.Children's refusal or resistance to contact with a parent need not result from anyone's guilt--even when it is intense and severe. Like all family dynamics, this is likely to be a complex situation with multiple causes and a changing equilibrium.

      It would be foolish to claim that there are never cases of the kind you mention, with severe resistance or refusal and a parental personality disorder in the mix. However, you and other PA proponents have the burden of proof to show the incidence and prevalence of such cases among the many in which PA is claimed, and you have not done this.

      In three cases with PA claims where I have recently been consulted, here are the situations:

      1. A child is willing to see her father and enjoys her time with him, but he lives with her grandfather, of whom the child is frightened because of his teasing and intimidating behavior toward her. Father claims that mother is causing alienation.

      2. Child has asked to visit father, but he refuses on the grounds that if he sees her she will accuse him of sexual abuse (this has never happened). He has told the child that when he has custody he will send her to boarding school. Father accuses mother of causing the child's alienation.

      3. Father has remarried to a woman whose children refuse to visit her from another country. One child has been eager to visit father, the other reluctant but did visit. Father accused mother of causing alienation but has dropped this claim in a settlement that gave mother more financial responsibility. Stepmother has gone to California to train as a PA therapist.

      Now, I am not arguing that because these cases do not fit your criteria for severe alienation, there are therefore no such cases. There may well be such cases, although unless evidence of one parent's personality disorder can be brought in, that will be difficult to establish. My point is that we have cases where PA is claimed and custody change is demanded without any evidence that the child is resisting or refusing, much less evidence that the preferred parent was causing alienation and/or had a personality disorder. Here is where PA has become a dangerous legal ploy that is quite unrelated to the best interests of children, but rather is put to work to punish an ex-spouse or to leverage financial decisions.

      Your comparison of PA cases to cults is a matter of proof by analogy, a common mechanism for pseudoscientific argument. (BTW I see that you still want to apportion blame in cults as well.) In fact, there is a two-step analogy at work, as cult membership and leaving cults are often thought of in terms of "programming" and "deprogramming" in analogy to computer functions, and child resistance or refusal is compared to the cult membership that has already been compared to something else. (I don't know about the US, but in the UK PA treatments are sometimes called "deprogramming".) One analogy is a weak enough way to support a claim, but the extra step here means that PA claims are in great need of empirical support. If PA proponents ever want to meet either a Daubert or a Frye challenge, they have much work to do. One needed step would be to demonstrate empirically that "alienated" children actually are less capable of independent thinking than others of their developmental age.

      In my opinion, this attempted conflation of claimed PA with cult membership-- as is happening in my own state right now-- is a real Trojan horse approach that needs to be met with critical thinking skills.

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  3. I was watching the YouTube videos of the PASG meeting. In Dr. Miller's video he talks about the guy from canada that is doing the evidence based parental alienation. He makes fun of him because he wants to do bind studies and double bind studies. It is interesting that how Dr. Miller describes evidence based studies.

    As for Marc, his case was family bridges. It's in Pennsylvania. I can't understand why he wouldn't want the world to know how much family bridges worked to bring his family together. He even claimed that the mom was able to see the kids right at the 90 day mark and no regression. That they were able to settle. If this works so well, why is no family coming out screaming.

    I am glad you noticed that one Lorandos. His cv is very padded. I think it's interesting he did 2300 hours at Synanon. And he also got into trouble the first year he was a psychologist for having sexual relations with his client. He also defends sexual abusers as his main practice. He And Randy are best friends. I think it is a conflict for him to recommend family bridges. Also, his book cites cases that claim they went to family bridges. Canll is an amazing website. Lorandos has many misleading information on the cases.

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    1. I think you mean double BLIND (double bind is something else). Yes, a blinded study, with children evaluated by someone who doesn't know whether they have received one treatment or another , would be essential for evidence to support any of the PA treatments. Having the therapist or parent evaluate the child opens the door for all kinds of biases. But a doubke blind study, where neither the therapist nor the evaluator knows what treatment a child receives, would be impossible for any face-to-face therapy, but a blinded evaluator, and a comparison group of untreated or otherwise-treated children, would be essential if PA advocates ever wanted to support their claims.

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