(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, 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:


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.


1. Clawar SS, Rivlin BV: Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Chicago, IL, American Bar Association, 1991

2. Dunne J, Hedrick M: The parental alienation syndrome: an analysis of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 1994; 21:3/4:21-38

3. Lund M: A Therapist's view of parental alienation syndrome. Family and Conciliation Courts Review 1995; 33:3:308-316

4. Cartwright GF: Expanding the parameters of parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy 1993; 21:3:205-215

5. Wallerstein JS, Kelly JB: Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. New York, Basic Books, 1980

6. Johnston JR, Campbell LE: Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. New York, The Free Press, 1988

7. Lampel A: Children's alignment with parents in highly conflicted custody cases. Family and Conciliation Courts Review 1996; 34:2:229-239

8. Lampel A: Post-divorce therapy with high conflict families. The Independent Practitioner, Bulletin of the Division of Psychologists in Independent Practice, Division 42 of the American Psychological Association 1986; 6:3:22-26

9. Johnston JR: Children of divorce who refuse visitation, in Nonresidential Parenting: New Vistas in Family Living. Edited by Depner CE, Bray JH, London, Sage Publications, 1993

10. Johnston JR, Roseby V: In the Name of the Child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce. New York, Free Press, 1997

11. Barnet W: False statements and the differential diagnosis of abuse allegations. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 1993; 32:903-910

12. Ditrich CW: Pseudologia fantastica, dissociation, and potential space in child treatment. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 1991; 72:657-667

13. Rand DC: Munchausen syndrome by proxy: a complex type of emotional abuse responsible for some false allegations of child abuse in divorce. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1993; 5:3:135-155

14. Wallerstein JS, Blakeslee S: Second Chances. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1989

15. Garbarino J, Guttmann E, Seeley JW: The Psychologically Battered Child: Strategies for Identification, Assessment, and Intervention. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1986

16. Garbarino J, Stott FM: What Children Can Tell Us: Eliciting Interpreting, and Evaluating Critical Information from Children. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1992

17. Turkat ID: Child visitation interference in divorce. Clinical Psychology Review 1994; 14:8:737-742

18. Turkat ID: Divorce related malicious mother syndrome. Journal of Family Violence 1995; 10:3:253-264

19. Blush GJ, Ross KL: Sexual allegations in divorce: the SAID syndrome. Conciliation Courts Review 1987; 25:1:1-11

20. Thoennes N, Tjaden PG: The extent, nature, and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody visitation disputes. Child Abuse & Neglect 1990; 12:151-163

21. Ross KL, Blush GJ: Sexual abuse validity discriminators in the divorced or divorcing family. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1990; 2:1:1-6

22. Blush GJ, Ross KL: Investigation and case management issues and strategies. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1990; 2:3:152-160

23. Wakefield H, Underwager R: Personality characteristics of parents making false accusations of sexual abuse in custody disputes. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1990; 2:3:121-136

24. Huntington DS: The forgotten figures in divorce, in Divorce and Fatherhood: The Struggle for Parental Identity. Edited by Jacobs JW, Washington DC, American Psychiatric Association Press, 1986.

25. Jacobs JW: Involuntary child absence syndrome: an affliction of divorcing fathers, in Divorce and Fatherhood: The Struggle for Parental Identity. Edited by Jacobs JW, Washington DC, American Psychiatric Association Press, 1986

26. Tolbert J: AR v. SE. New York Law Journal, December 1 l, 1990; 27 28

27. Nicholas L: Parental alienation: assessing and treating coercion of children during divorce and custody disputes. Unpublished paper. Copyright 1995

28. Stewart JW: The molestation charge. California Family Law Monthly 1991; 7:9:329-335

29. Patterson D: The other victim: the falsely accused parent in a sexual abuse and custody case. Journal of Family Law 1991-1992; 30:919 941

30. Sanders CH: When you suspect the worst: bad-faith relocation, fabricated child sexual abuse and parental alienation. Family Advocate 1993; Winter: 54-56

31. Rogers M: Delusional disorder and the evolution of mistaken sexual allegations in child custody cases. American Journal of Forensic Psychology 1992; 10:1:47-69

32. Campbell TW: Psychotherapy with children of divorce: the pitfalls of triangulated relationships. Psychotherapy 1992; 29:4:646-652

33. Gardner RA: The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse. Cresskill, NJ, Creative Therapeutics, 1987

34. Campbell TW: Therapeutic relationships and iatrogenic outcomes: the blame-and-change maneuver in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy 1992; 29:3:474-479

35. Gardner RA: The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Cresskill, NJ, Creative Therapeutics, 1992

36. Underwager R, Wakefield H: The Real World of Child Interrogations. Springfield, IL, Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 1989

37. Gardner RA: Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited. Cresskill, NJ, Creative Therapeutics, 1991

38. Ceci SJ, Bruck M: Suggestibility of the child witness: a historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin 1993; 113:3:403-439

39. Loftus E, Ketcham K: Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert who puts Memory on Trial. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991

40. Doris J (ed.): The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections: Implications for Eyewitness Testimony. American Psychological Association, Washington DC, 1991

41. Everson MD: Understanding bizarre, improbable, and fantastic elements in children's accounts of abuse. Child Maltreatment 1997: , 2:2:134-149

42. Greene F: Litigating child custody with religious cults. Cultic Studies Journal 1989; 6:1:69-74

43. Singer MT, Lalich J: Cults in Our Midst, San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995

44. Bower R: Parental Alienation Syndrome: a new type of cult? Presented at the 13th Annual Symposium in Forensic Psychology of the American College of Forensic Psychology, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1997

45. Tucker LS, Cornwall TP: Mother-son folie a deux: a case of attempted patricide. American Journal of Psychiatry 1977; 134:10:1146-1147

46. Palmer NR: Legal recognition of the parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy 1988; 16:4:361-363

47. Goldwater A: Le syndrome d'alienation parentale [in English]. Developpements recents on droit familial 1991; 121-145

48. Gardner RA: Family Evaluation in Child Custody Mediation, Arbitration, and Litigation. Cresskill, NJ, Creative Therapeutics, 1989

49. Ward P, Harvey JC: Family wars: the alienation of children. New Hampshire Bar Journal, March, 1993; 30-40

50. Hindz R, Shurzer A, Johnston J: Solomon's tug: the many faces of parental alienation. Presented at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Southwest Regional Conference, Tucson, AZ, 1994

51. Sullivan M, Jones M: Parental alienation. Presented at the conference of the California Chapter of Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, San Diego, CA, 1996

52. Jones M, Lund M, Sullivan M: Dealing with parental alienation in high conflict custody cases. Presented at the conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, San Antonio, TX, 1996

53. Barovsky R, Stahl P, Ward P: Parental alienation. Presented at the Second World Congress on Family Law and the Rights of Children and Youth held in association with the Annual Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, San Francisco, CA, 1997

54. Waldron KH, Joanis DE: Understanding and collaboratively treating parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Law 1996; 10:3:121-133

55. Walsh MR, Bone JM: Parental alienation syndrome: an age-old custody problem. The Florida Bar Journal June 1997; LXXI:6:93-96

56. Wood C: The parental alienation syndrome: a dangerous aura of reliability. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 1994; 1367-1415

57. Turkat A: Management of visitation interference. The Judges' Journal, American Bar Association February 1997; 17-47

58. Montgomery S, Effron E, Guyer M, Levy R: Custody disputes between the psychological parent and psychologically healthier parent. Presented at the Second World Congress on Family Law and the Rights of Children and Youth held in association with the Annual Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, San Francisco, CA, 1997

59. Lampel AK: When children reject parents. The Family LAP, April 1996; 1:1:1

60. Ackerman MJ, Kane AW: How to Examine Psychological Experts in Divorce and Other Civil Actions: 1991 Supplement. Eau Claire, WI, Professional Education Systems, Inc., 1991

61. Ackerman MJ, Kane AW: Psychological Experts in Divorce, Personal Injury and Other Civil Actions. New York, Wiley Law, 1993

62. Zolla MS, Meyer LH: The perpetuation of disturbing conflict between dependency court and family law jurisdiction. Los Angeles Lawyer July/August 1993; 30-35

63. Kopetski, L: Parental alienation syndrome: recent research. Presented at the 15th Annual Child Custody Conference, Keystone, CO, 1991

64. Nicholas L: Does parental alienation exist? Preliminary empirical study of the phenomenon in custody and visitation disputes. Presented at the 13th Annual Symposium in Forensic Psychology of the American College of Forensic Psychology, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1997

65. Stahl PM: Conducting Child Custody Evaluations. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, Inc., 1994

66. Hysjulien C, Wood B, Benjamin GA: Child custody evaluations: a review of methods used in litigation and alternate dispute resolution. Family and Conciliation Courts Review 1994; 32:4:466-489

67. Rand DC: Comprehensive psychosocial assessment in factitious disorder by proxy, in Spectrum of Factitious Disorders. Edited by Feldman MD, Eisendrath SJ. Washington DC, American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1996

68. Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings: Pertinent Literature. American Psychologist 1994; 49:7:677-680

69. Rogers ML: Coping with alleged false sexual molestation: examination and statement analysis procedures. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1990; 2:2:57-68

70. Faller KC: Possible explanations for child sexual abuse allegations in divorce. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 1991:61:1:86-91

71. Guyer MJ: Psychiatry, law, and child sexual abuse. American Psychiatric Press Review of Psychiatry, Volume 10. Edited by Tasman A, Goldfinger SM. Washington DC, American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1991

72. Wakefield H, Underwager R: Sexual abuse allegations in divorce and custody disputes. Behavioral Sciences and the 1991; 9:451-468

73. Campbell TW: False allegations of sexual abuse and their apparent credibility. American Journal of Forensic Psychology 1992; 10:4:21 35

74. Ehrenberg MF, Elterman MF: Evaluating allegations of sexual abuse in the context of divorce, child custody and access disputes, in True and False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Assessment and Case Management. Edited by Ney T. New York, Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1995

75. Mapes, BE: Child Eyewitness Testimony in Sexual Abuse Investigations. Brandon, VT, Clinical Psychology Publishing Co., Inc., 1995


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.

First Piece  Previous Piece