Fresno Bee

Monday, April 24, 2000

Child abusers using controversial theory to gain custody

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- Parents who abuse their children sexually or otherwise are winning custody by employing a controversial theory known as "parental alienation syndrome," the theory's author said. "Now that PAS is a widespread diagnosis, many abusers are claiming they are the innocent victims," Dr. Richard Gardner told the Pasadena Star-News for an article published Sunday.

The Columbia University child psychiatrist, who has been an expert witness in custody disputes across the country, said he now finds molestation has occurred "in about half the cases."

Gardner's theory holds that in many custody disputes one parent, usually the mother, talks the child into making false and vicious allegations against the other parent to win custody.

Many parents, usually fathers, have cited the theory to deny the allegations and win custody.

Some mainstream psychological and psychiatric groups have denounced the theory, saying it isn't backed up by clinical research.

"Women seldom make false reports of child abuse or battering," the American Psychological Association concluded in a 1996 report on domestic violence.

The report concluded that allegations of child sexual abuse "do not increase in frequency during divorce," with such allegations occurring in 2 percent to 3 percent of divorce cases and in 10 percent of contested custody cases.

However, lawyers continue to attend seminars on how best to use the theory in courtrooms, and judges continue to award custody to parents who employ it.

"No woman, despite very abundant evidence that her child has been sexually molested by her ex-husband...can safely walk into any family court in the country and not face a grave risk of losing her child for the sole reason that she dared to present the evidence to a judge and ask that the child be protected," said Richard Ducote, a child advocacy lawyer based in New Orleans.

He represents a Sierra Madre woman who lost custody of her daughter after a judge ruled she encouraged the child to lie about alleged molestation by the father.

Aviva Bobb, presiding judge of Los Angeles County Family Court, said that because the syndrome is scientifically controversial "does not mean that it does not exist."

The theory started being used in court in the early 1990s when child support laws were changed, said Syrus Devers, staff attorney for Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, D-Encino.

"Fathers' groups and their lawyers went aggressively for custody after the laws were changed to be based on how much time you had with the child," Devers said. "If you had sole custody, you had to pay no support."

The theory "was discovered as a great tool to get custody away from women, especially women who were claiming sex abuse," she said.