AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY, VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4, 1997
THE SPECTRUM OF PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME (PART II) (cont.)
(Third of 3 HTML files)
Forensic Psychologist, Deirdre Conway Rand, PhD
Criminal Proceedings Against a Falsely Accused Parent
A parent falsely accused of some criminal act in the context of a divorce/custody dispute is at risk for prosecution. Like the juvenile court, criminal courts are unlikely to be familiar with the dynamics of high-conflict divorce and PAS (29). In the following case vignette, the accused father was an officer in the military. Testimony on PAS by the defense psychological expert provided the judge and jury with some alternative explanations as to the reasons the children accused their stepfather of abuse.
Mr. B was court-martialed after being accused, in the context of divorce, of molesting his wife's 10- and 14-year-old daughters from another marriage. Mrs. B and the girls accused Mr. B after Mrs. B learned of her husband's second infidelity. A similar sequence took place two years earlier when Mrs. B discovered an infidelity. At that time, Mrs. B moved out temporarily and called authorities to report that Mr. B was sexually abusing her daughters. On that occasion, Mrs. B decided to move back in with her husband and withdrew the accusations.
The military defense attorney retained a psychologist with expertise in PAS to testify at the criminal trial. The judge ordered the girls and their mother to participate in an evaluation by the defense expert. The military flew the family across the country several days before the trial in order for this to occur. A female pediatrician in the military, who planned to testify for the prosecution, accompanied the girls and their mother to the defense psychologist's office. The pediatrician remained in the waiting room and conversed with the family members and the psychologist at different break points in the evaluation. The PAS expert ascertained that the girls were very attached to Mr. B prior to their mother filing for divorce.
The biological father ran off when the girls were very young and Mr. B raised them as his own. The molestation accounts given by the girls contained numerous inconsistencies and were not supported by medical evidence. Documents reviewed by the PAS expert also indicated that the children's account had become more and more exaggerated with time. In the course of the day at the defense expert's once, the number of incidents reported by the girls went from the six counts with which Mr. B was originally charged, to more than forty-five.
The court permitted Mr. B's expert to testify in regard to PAS with false allegations of abuse. The jury found that the facts of the case conformed to the defense expert's opinion, and the stepfather was found not guilty.
Points and Authorities for the Admissibility of PAS Testimony
California attorney Patrick Clancy posts his Points and Authorities for the Admissibility of PAS Testimony on his web site, http://www.accused.com. The brief argues that testimony regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome is necessary to establish a child's motive to fabricate, and that such a motive is not readily apparent to the layman. Case law supports the right of a parent/defendant who is charged with molesting his child but maintains his innocence to establish motives other than his misconduct for the child to hate, fear or falsely accuse him. The prosecution in a murder trial, People v. Phillips, was allowed to introduce evidence of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSP) as a possible motive for the mother in killing her child. According to Clancy the defendant/parent accused of abuse has a stronger case for the admissibility of PAS testimony than the prosecution's case for the admissibility of testimony in regards to MSP. The family court in Re Anne P. gave tacit recognition of PAS, finding that the allegations of abuse abuse the father were false and that the mother was responsible for the allegations, by virtue of her mental disturbance and her unrelenting struggle with the father. Within the year, mother contacted CPS and eventually a dependency petition was filed. In this case, the juvenile court upheld the findings of the family court, attributing the allegations to mother's "pure out and out hatred....antagonism" toward the father.
List of PAS Case Citations in Dr. Gardner's Web Site
A list of case citations involving PAS can be obtained from Dr. Gardner's web site. The list is not necessarily up to date or exhaustive. Dr. Gardner's address on the World Wide Web is: http://www.rgardner.com/refs.
FORENSIC EVALUATION AND PAS
Custody Evaluators on PAS
Kopetski reported on 84 serious PAS cases from a sample of 413 court ordered custody evaluations in Colorado (63). The assessments were conducted by the Family and Children's Evaluation Team (FCET), of which Kopetski was a member. Their protocol included structured interviews of each parent, obtaining developmental histories for the children, observations of parent-child interaction and individual evaluation of the child. Beginning in 1988, formal psychological testing of the parents was performed for all cases in which there were allegations of abuse, neglect, or a parent was seeking to restrict or exclude the other parent's contact with the child. Prior to learning of Gardner's work, the team independently came to very similar conclusions. Kopetski characterizes PAS as a form of psychosocial pathology in which a parent psychologically exploits the child and appropriates social systems in order to achieve alienation. The team's formulations reflect a social influence model and Clawar and Rivlin's work is referenced. Bowlby's attachment theories were found to be the most useful for understanding PAS. The team concurred with Bowlby's observation that "strong" or "intense" parent-child attachments are not necessarily healthy ones.
In 18 percent of FCET's PAS cases, the alienating parent was successful in preventing the children from having a relationship with the target parent in spite of recommendations against alienation. "One of the most surprising and discouraging findings in this survey was that in 15 families in which a parent was successfully alienated, the alienation was supported by a therapist on the basis that the child should not be separated from a 'symbiotic relationship' [with the alienating parent], even though the 'symbiosis' proceeded far beyond the time when such a parent-child relationship could even remotely be considered. It was as though the therapists had joined the delusion that the child could not survive if separated from the symbiotic parent" (63; p. 13). Unlike Johnston who has been supporting the idea of allowing children to remain in such relationships (9, 10), Kopetski and her colleagues recommend placing the child with the parent who has the most potential for promoting the child's psychological and social development.
Nicholas, a psychologist who practices in California, conducted a survey of custody evaluators about PAS (64). Twenty-one completed surveys were obtained. He sought to determine whether there was a constellation of identifiable signs and symptoms in the alienating parent, target parent and the child which, occurring together, could be said to constitute a syndrome as Gardner suggests. For the purposes of the survey, Nicholas defined PAS as the conscious or unconscious attempt by one parent to pro gram or coerce a child against the other parent; whether or not any notable negative feelings, attitudes or behaviors were observed in the child. Parent alienating behaviors were found to be highly correlated with children's alienation symptoms and vice versa. There were no significant correlations between the child's alienation symptoms and 8 of 10 target parent characteristics. Significant correlations were found, however, between child alienation symptoms and two target parent items: 1) withdrawing or temporarily giving up on the child and 2) becoming irritated and angry with the child for exhibiting the alienating behaviors. The findings of Nicholas' survey lend support to Gardner's contention that the core dynamic in PAS is between the alienating parent and child, and that the target parent's behavior is much less likely to be a major contributing factor. The majority of evaluator/respondents in Nicholas' survey reported that in about one-third of their custody evaluation cases, one parent was engaging in identifiable alienating behavior. In about one-fourth of cases, evaluators' recommendations were affected by the alienating parent's behavior.
According to Stahl, another California psychologist, PAS is one of the most complex issues custody evaluators may be called upon to assess, along with allegations of spousal or child abuse and parent requests to relocate (65). He is working on a new book with more extensive discussion of PAS. Hysjulien, Wood, and Benjamin devoted special sections to PAS, domestic violence and sex abuse allegations in their review of methods commonly used by custody evaluators, including interviews and psycho logical tests (66). There is no data which establishes the reliability and validity of such interviews, which are often quite informal and semi-structured.
Psychological tests which are used for the assessment of individual patients in clinical settings cannot be considered reliable and valid for the evaluation of family systems in forensic settings.
Stahl opines that many custody evaluations are not geared to adequately diagnose the pathology of an alienating parent and the complex family interactions which produce PAS (65). This results in recommendations which are too short-sighted for the true level of family dysfunction. He recommends that evaluators go beyond the confines of the individual, clinical assessment model and utilize more comprehensive, sophisticated methods, such as critically analyzing case material from a longitudinal perspective and comparing information provided by the parties during interviews with data from other sources.
Like PAS, Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP) is a complex psychosocial disorder which involves a number of individuals. Assessment models being developed for MSP are more specially designed to assess issues of parental manipulation and deception, pathological parent-child relationships, and the recruitment by parents of professionals as "third party participants" in the parental agenda (13, 67). Complex deceptions by one or both parents in high conflict divorce pose serious challenges to the legal system (17, 18).
In an effort to upgrade and standardize the conducting of custody evaluations, the American Psychological Association (APA) published Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings in 1994 (68). The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals was one of three books by Gardner listed under pertinent literature. Montgomery expressed concern that custody evaluators were not using the APA guidelines and that this was contributing to serious decision errors in assessment and intervention with PAS and other high conflict cases (58). She pointed out that attachment theories derived from work with young children are being misused by custody evaluators to predict outcome for older children, another source of error. Like Kopetski's group, Montgomery expressed the view that attachment theory is of ten biased towards mothers and fails to take into account the fact that even young children will attach to multiple caregivers when the environment provides such opportunities and the child is encouraged to do so. In severe PAScases, Montgomery endorses the type of intervention strategies which Gardner proposes, e.g., placing the child with the target parent for several months.
According to Jones, Lund and Sullivan, who practice psychology in California, the protocols which Gardner prescribes for custody evaluations (48) enable evaluators to gain an in-depth picture early in the assessment process (52). These presenters use Gardner's diagnostic criteria for identifying PAS and believe it is important to educate the court about this diagnosis so that the court will deliver the appropriate legal intervention. However, they reserve the label PAS for severe cases, using "parental alienation" for lesser manifestations. Jones, Lund and Sullivan are conservative about recommending change of custody as an intervention but have occasionally done so in severe PAS cases. Sullivan classified alienating parents into "early and late starters." Early starters are those who begin generating the alienation dynamic early in the marriage. Late starters activate the alienation dynamic in response to a trigger event such as the separation and divorce process. Jones commented on the fact that severe parental alienation is a form of child abuse, especially when false allegations of abuse are involved.
Forensic Assessment of Sex Abuse Allegations
Gardner's work on PAS is frequently referenced in the literature on assessing allegations of sexual abuse (69-74). In the context of divorce, PAS is one of several possible explanations for abuse accusations. Mapes asserted that any professional conducting forensic assessments of alleged sex abuse, not just in family law proceedings, should be knowledgeable about PAS as a possible motivating factor for false allegations (75). The need for such knowledge is demonstrated in two of the case vignettes above, in which PAS was the cause of false allegations of abuse in juvenile court and criminal proceedings. According to Garbarino and Stott, adult misinterpretation and misunderstanding of children's statements has reached crisis proportions in legal proceedings of all kinds (16).
Parental Alienation Syndrome appears to be pervasive. The audience response during a recent presentation at the Second World Congress on Family Law made it clear that PAS is a social problem in other countries such as Canada and Australia (58). The probable range of variations in the presentation of PAS is likely to change according to the opportunities and limitations of the complex network of people and agencies who become involved. Outside social systems variously have the capacity to help ameliorate PAS or to further solidify it. When alienation becomes complete, it can amount to a de facto termination of parental rights. This includes the fact that PAS children experience the loss of nuclear and extended family, in addition to other long-term, detrimental effects. The judgments that courts and professionals make are difficult, complex and have far reaching consequences. Part III will explore the decision making process with respect to diagnostic issues and intervention strategies.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deirdre Conway Rand, Ph.D. practices clinical and forensic psychology out of her office in Northern California in Mill Valley. She specializes in complex forms of emotional abuse, such as severe Parental Alienation and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSP). She is the author of several articles on MSP and of two chapters in the book, Spectrum of Factitious Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1996.
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