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.