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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Child Custody: Admit Your Wrong-doing, and/or Don't See Your Kids

I hate the term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Of course a parent can do and say things that encourage children to feel alienated from the other parent  (just as a parent can do or say things that alienate children from himself or herself). Children can be alienated to a greater or lesser degree by many factors, and I would hazard the guess that all children at all times have some preference for one parent over the other, although the preference may change with age and events. When parents separate or divorce, it would be virtuous for both of them to remember what they used to like about the other parent, and to encourage the children to maintain a positive relationship.  Some people do the opposite, but their actions and the children’s responses are not part of a “syndrome”, a term that tries to sound as if there is solid scientific evidence behind the use of the PAS label.

A lot of  people other than myself have also rejected the PAS concept. As a result, instead of accusing a divorcing co-parent of causing the children’s alienation, there may be an accusation of failing to promote the children’s relationship with the other parent. When the accused parent denies that this was the case, the conclusion may be that he or she is “in denial” and must go into therapy in order to acknowledge the actions and understand the reason for them. It may be ruled that until this is accomplished, there can be little or no contact with the children.( I am wondering, by the way, whether a request that the other parent have supervised rather than unsupervised visitation may be enough to trigger the accusation.)

This does not leave much of an option for a person who actually did not fail to promote the relationship, does it?   

I have in mind two cases that almost exactly followed this pattern, and one other that has some similarities. All are cases where a parent denies having done what she is accused of (they all happen to be “she”), and is sent for therapy to enable her to “confess”, and, I suppose, be shriven. If she really did wrong, of course, this speaks badly for her character, so she should not have much contact; if she says she didn’t, that means she’s lying, confused,or mentally ill, so again she should not have much contact. To be accused is to be convicted, it would appear.

In one case in Canada, the parents separated when the children were about one and two years old. The mother asked for supervised visitation with the father, who sought the help of a psychotherapy group.  Father’s attorney claimed Parental Alienation Syndrome and full custody was given to the father, with the order that mother must undergo psychotherapy in order to acknowledge her alienating behavior and treat whatever problem caused it. Until this is done she is not to have contact with the children, nor may her parents see them. Mother denies having caused alienation and argues that if the children are alienated, it is father’s own behavior that has done this. The costs of psychotherapy are in any case impossible for her to pay.

In a second case in the U.S., the parents separated when the children were almost two and almost 4, following revelations of father’s use of prostitutes. Father did not want to divorce. Mother asked for supervised visitation because father had allowed one child to play with an electronic device on which father had downloaded pornography. Mother took the children to her family’s home in Canada, while father petitioned a U.S court for custody. Mother has just been told that custody is to be given to the father because she failed to promote the father-child relationship during the separation, and that she must go into therapy so she can acknowledge and work through the problem. The children must go to their father by Jan. 1, giving them one month to prepare for this major change. If mother stays where she is, she may see the children once a month and Skype with them every other day (a decision that ignores the usual recommendation for overnights equivalent in number to the child’s age in years); if she follows the court’s directive and also moves to the father’s chosen city, she may have 50/50 custody. She denies that she failed to promote the relationship.

The third case is different, and I have written about it here before ( In this case, the mother asked a couple (the man being the father of one of her children) to care for two preschoolers for some days. When she returned, the couple refused to give them up. Years have passed in a legal battle over this which has taken all of mother’s savings. The children have been in an unconventional form of therapy and one is in residential treatment against mother’s wishes. The therapists say, and the courts agree, that the mother must have been abusive, because the children are in problematic mental health; nothing in their early medical or educational records indicates this. The mother denies that she was neglectful or abusive, and this is interpreted as evidence that she must have been so. The plan at this point appears to be to terminate her parental rights and to “free” one of the children for adoption by an as yet unknown family.

Do all these cases remind anyone of anything? For me, they are quite reminiscent of the Recovered Memory Therapy scandal of the ‘90s, in which failure to remember sexual abuse was counted as evidence of abuse, as heavily or more so than memories. Accused parents who denied abuse were also told that they certainly could not see their children unless they confessed their misdeeds; those who confessed falsely out of desperation (or were convinced that their lack of memory meant they were guilty) could still not be with the children and often lost their jobs and other resources as well.

It’s time that the courts dropped the ‘70s pop psychology belief that denying something is evidence that it’s true. Honestly, life isn’t all in our unconscious minds and motivations. And a reality-based request for supervised visitation is not alienation, in any case.

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