Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Is Parental Alienation Child Abuse?
For some years now, some psychologists and some divorced parents have been arguing that one parent may alienate a child from the other parent by systematically manipulating and exploiting the child’s beliefs and needs. The child then rejects contact with the noncustodial parent simply because of the alienating behavior of the custodial parent, and not because of any realistic fear or expectation of abusive treatment. This process and outcome have been referred to as “parental alienation”, presumably a term derived from the old legal term “alienation of affections”, referring to the seduction of someone’s adult partner.
Accusations of parental alienation have often been used in the courtroom as part of divorce strategies, but over the years such accusations have been met more frequently by counter-accusations about the manipulative and controlling motives of the parent who feels rejected. Although most of the initial discussions about PA focused on the rights of each parent to have contact with a child, and were quite often embedded in fathers’ rights claims, such a focus was obviously an open invitation to accusations of selfishness, egotism, even (of course) narcissism. Possibly as a result of this, possibly because of ongoing research, within the last several years the strategy shifted to the claim that PA is a form of child abuse, and to attempts to support this view by demonstrating poor adult outcomes for children who experienced PA.
Is PA child abuse? Well, the real answer to that is, it is if we say it is—“we” being the public whose shifting attitudes help to determine how child abuse is defined legally and otherwise.
The historical changes in definitions of child abuse are very obvious. To begin with, the very term emerged only with the work of Henry Kempe and his colleagues in the early 1960s. Before that, an adult who was shown to have harmed a child directly might be prosecuted in the same way as would have occurred if he harmed another adult-- or, he might not, any more than if he had harmed his wife. Some levels of abusive treatment (by today’s standards) were considered the perquisite of a parent, and more especially of a father. (In Samuel Butler’s novel The way of all flesh, set in about 1860, a father beats his four-year-old with a stick for saying “tum” rather than “come”, and is thought to be an excellent parent and excellent clergyman by all who know him.) In addition, behavior that would now be considered abusive, like putting a child in a dark closet or limiting their food, would usually have been considered just good old-fashioned parenting.
Today, treatment that is considered abusive from a legal viewpoint is not necessarily the same as treatment defined as abusive for research purposes. In Andrea Sedlak’s 2001 document published by the Department of Health and Human Services, for research purposes, spousal abuse in the child’s presence is regarded as child abuse, for example. Sedlak also described how the standards had relaxed from a requirement that an act actually harm the child before it was considered abuse, to a standard in which endangerment, or potential for harm, was defined as abusive. Under the harm standard, for example, failure to give a child adequate emotional support would count as abusive only if judged as serious, but under the endangerment standard could be counted under less serious conditions.
An important point about changing definitions of child abuse is that developmental outcomes of an action do not need to be demonstrated to be negatively affected in order for the action to be considered abusive. Use of terms like “harm” or “endangerment” implies that we consider an action to be abusive because it is known to cause harm to a child in the short or long run. But this is not necessarily the case, nor is harmfulness necessarily the criterion for identifying an act as abusive.
Obviously, many acts considered abusive are thought of in that way because they cause harm, or have the potential to cause harm, either in the short or in the long run. However, some actions that are argued to be harmful in the long run, like spanking, are not considered abusive unless they cause direct harm in the short run. Other actions, like any interaction with sexual implications, may be seen as abusive whether or not either immediate or later harm has been demonstrated. (For example, Cindy Hamilton’s nude photographs of her children[“Hold Still”] were seen as highly controversial and possibly abusive.) Susan Clancy’s research on people who as children had experienced non-coerced, non-penetrative sexual contact with adults suggested that harm did not result from these experiences, but such contact is nevertheless considered deeply repugnant by most adults in the U.S. and is identified as abusive.
We can see, then, that there is an overlap between acts considered abusive and acts shown to be harmful, but the categories are somewhat different. This leads to a look at efforts to show that PA is abusive and that a parent shown to be alienating deserves to be treated as an abuser and separated from the child, for the child’s own good. Amy Baker, in her book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, reports that she has interviewed 40 adults whom she contacted because of their statements on the Internet or by word of mouth. Baker looked at interviews with these people in terms of their experiences with emotional abuse, as defined some years ago by James Garbarino, and including actions like isolating the child, terrorizing the child, and corrupting the child. She reported that these emotionally abusive acts were recalled by the adult interviewees as accompanying or forming part of parental alienation efforts, and that the adults remained troubled by their experiences.
Was this approach a good way to demonstrate that PA is child abuse? As a beginning for research, it was probably the best that could be managed for the time being. However, take a look at some of the problems about drawing any clear conclusion from this work. First, we have the fact that the persons chosen for interviewing were already so concerned about their present situation and past history that they were telling their stories on the Internet. These were not the people who say, “My father always made nasty remarks about my mother and didn’t want me to see her, but actually I got along fine and am doing well now. I think I understand where both of them were coming from, although of course I didn’t want them to divorce when they did.” Baker’s work of necessity focused on people who felt that PA had occurred and that it still influenced their lives in a negative way.
Second, Baker’s work completely conflates PA with emotional abuse. It would not be surprising if the interviewees whose parents were emotionally abusive would be unhappy and troubled as they recall those events-- whether or not there had been PA involved, or even whether or not there had been a divorce (and indeed Baker acknowledges that a child may reject a parent while the marriage remains intact).
To show that PA is harmful in the short or long run would require longitudinal studies in which children who appeared to be in a PA situation were followed into adolescence and adulthood and evaluated with respect to adaptive coping and mood. These individuals would need to be compared with a similar group without the PA experience, but matched on experiences like divorce and emotional abuse. That work is not very likely to happen, for many reasons—but unless it does, we cannot responsibly say that PA in and of itself is harmful, and, therefore, abusive.
As I said earlier, there are a number of actions toward children that are considered abusive without evidence that they are harmful, just because we as a society find them reprehensible. It’s possible that PA might someday join that category, but at present it appears to me that American and Canadian society in general see PA as bad manners and a bad example to children, but not as harmful to children, and not to be considered abusive because of its effects. Because this is the case-- evidence of harm is not clear, and the consensus does not see PA as child abuse-- I believe it is a mistake for the courts to accept arguments about PA as a reason to alter custody arrangements or to order children into therapies claiming to treat PA. I consider it an especially egregious mistake for courts to refuse a parent contact with a child because that parent will not confess to PA-related actions; this is all too reminiscent of the old Satanic Ritual Abuse accusations, in which a parent could not be with a child if he or she denied SRA, but certainly could not contact the child if he or she “confessed”.