The organization www.familyaccessfightingforchildrensrights.com has been putting on a series of webinars by proponents of the parental alienation (PA) belief system. On Oct. 3, 2021, the speaker was Linda Gottlieb, creator of the Turning Points for Families (TPFF) intensive intervention for children who reject or resist contact with a divorced parent following posited manipulation by the other parent. Gottlieb addressed herself to the subject of “nonspecialists” and “pseudoscientists” and advised parents whose children are resisting contact with them to use her statements to have professionals who disagree with her positions dismissed from the case they bring.
There is, of course, a certain flavor of the schoolyard taunt “I’m rubber, you’re glue” here, as Gottlieb and other PA supporters have been correctly termed pseudoscientists, and the idea of a specialty in this area has been severely questioned as tending to focus on one issue when many should be considered.
Here are some concerning ideas put forward by Gottlieb in the webinar:
1. 1. Gottlieb continues to speak of diagnosis of PA, when it is clear that there is no such diagnostic category in DSM-5 or ICD-11. She does not speak of identification of child or parental behavior, as would be appropriate if there is no established diagnosis of the family situation in question.
2. 2. Gottlieb fails to note that there is no established protocol for identifying PA and discriminating PA cases from cases where resistance results from experiences with the rejected parent.
3. 3. Gottlieb continues to insist that when a child is identified as showing PA, and when the preferred parent is known to have shown parental alienating behaviors, this situation is equivalent to an adverse childhood experience (ACE). ACEs have been shown to correlate with a number of undesirable physical and mental health outcomes, and Gottlieb claims that similar outcomes would result from PA. This is, however, simply proof by assertion, as no empirical work has ever shown any particular outcome, positive or negative, of the child’s experience when PA is claimed to be a factor.
4. 4. Gottlieb’s argument that PA is an ACE leads her to state categorically that where there is PA, the preferred parent’s actions are equivalent to child abuse (CA). The PA=CA equation is repeated throughout the presentations.
5. 5. Having defined PA as equal to CA, Gottlieb proceeds to state the position that PA is even worse than CA. In order to make this argument, she refers to her own experience with foster children who had been abused and neglected and who nevertheless wanted to visit their parents. Children in PA cases do not want this, by definition, which leads Gottlieb to say that their experiences of manipulation have been so severe as to interfere with the “instinctive” wish for contact with parents, as displayed by the foster children. Gottlieb and other PA proponents have frequently made this argument, and it is time to rebut it.
Let’s consider the differences in the current living situations of these two groups. Children in PA cases are living comfortably in familiar homes, with adults they trust and care for, with access to friends, siblings, supportive school situations, and sports or hobbies they have chosen. Foster children are in unfamiliar settings that may or may not be comfortable, they are supervised by unfamiliar adults who do not necessarily care for them, they may share the foster home with the carer’s children and a number of other foster children and therefore feel a lack of either privacy or friendly intimacy, they may suffer abuse from other children or from the foster parents themselves, they may be mocked at school as foster children or seen as potential problems by teachers, and they may not be able to visit other children in their homes or have any contact with their “home” friends. The food they are given and the religious practices of the foster home may be quire unfamiliar to the children.
Should we be surprised, then, that foster children long for their familiar home setting and even for contact with a parent who may at times have been abusive (but is not being abusive at the time)? And should we be surprised that a child in a PA case does not wish to exchange a familiar, comfortable setting, with pleasant social contacts and familiar activities, for a less familiar, even unknown, situation with a parent who has been rejected for various weaker or stringer reasons? I don’t think we need to enter into ill-informed discussions of instinct to answer these questions.
6. 6. Gottlieb’s argument that PA=CA is intended to justify prohibition of contact between the child and the preferred parent for 90 days, often increased in further 90 day increments. Defining the preferred parent as a child abuser is the foundation for making these cases equivalent to child protection cases and removing the child from the home.
Gottlieb’s lengthy presentation failed to support her claims about PA or the implication that her TPFF intervention is a successful one.
By the way, another PA proponent, Jennifer Harman, who makes claims about PA and CA exactly like Gottlieb’s, has recently published what purports to be an evaluation of TPFF (see Harman, J., Saunders, L., & Afifi, T.. Evaluation of the Turning Points For Families (TPFF) program for severely alienated children. Journal of Family Therapy.) Regrettably but unsurprisingly, Harman et al report positive outcomes for TPFF while continuing to make the usual design errors of PA supporters. They use a Likert scale but apply parametric statistics, they have no comparison group, and they base their conclusions on videorecordings made by Gottlieb rather than on any independent data source. I might also point out that they define harm to children as limited to self-harm and running away—curiously different from the mental health disorders they attribute to untreated PA experiences.