Pasadena Star News

I would note that due to the inaccuracies in the article, the promised subsequent article was never published. You can see many of the mistatements of fact at our website section on Parental Alienation Syndrome at http://www.fact.on.ca/Info/info_pas.htm. You may also decide to look at the APA material on what should be included when looking at custody evaluations.

Disputed theory used in custody cases: Children often victims in Parental Alienation Syndrome strategy

April 23, 2000

By Gina Keating
Staff Writer

Pasadena Star News

In the Los Angeles County family court system, the vast majority of custody cases are resolved peacefully, with parents deciding with little rancor how their kids can be shared between them.

But in the contested cases that go to court -- about 40 percent -- kids and parents are often buffeted by arbitrary and unfair laws.

A discredited psychological theory known as Parental Alienation Syndrome plays a key role in this morass. The Columbia University psychiatrist who claims to have documented the syndrome says its victims, usually children, are prompted to turn against one parent by the other.

In this two-part report, we'll examine the effects of this disputed syndrome on the outcome of custody cases and look at other problems plaguing the family court system.

PASADENA -- A controversial theory is being used to award custody of children to adults who are abusing them, say child advocacy groups.

Although many medical associations say parental alienation syndrome is a myth, it is commonly used to help gain custody of a child, even when evaluators say the parent is abusing the child. It's such a powerful legal tool that lawyers attend seminars on how best to use 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 losin 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.

Ducote represents Idelle Clarke of Sierra Madre, who lost her daughter after a judge ruled she encouraged the child to fabricate claims that she was molested by her father.

PAS was documented in the 1980s by Columbia University child psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who defines the syndrome as an "outgrowth of this (custody) warfare."

"Typically, the child viciously vilifies one of the parents and idealizes the other," Gardner wrote in his 1987 book "Parental Alienation Syndrome."

"My experience has been that in about 80 to 90 percent of cases, the mother is the favored parent and the father the vilified one."

But PAS has been discredited by most of the nation's psychiatric and psychological groups.

"PAS as a scientific theory has been excoriated by legitimate researchers across the nation," said Dr. Paul J. Fink, a psychiatrist and president of the Leadership Council on Mental Health, Justice and the Media.

"Judged solely on his merits, Dr. Gardner should be a rather pathetic footnote or an example of poor scientific standards."

In 1993, the National Law Journal described Gardner as "one of the most prominent -- and some say dangerous -- voices espousing the 'backlash' theory that there is an epidemic of vindictive women falsely accusing fathers of child sex abuse to gain leverage in child-custody disputes."

Child advocacy groups say a backlash is indeed occurring in the county's family court system, and it is affecting women who bring allegations of domestic violence or child molestation to court.

PAS is increasingly used to give custody of children to accused or confirmed molesters with the rationale that the other parent talked the child into making false allegations, child advocates say.

But Family Court Presiding Judge Aviva Bobb says just because PAS is not supported by scientific evidence "does not mean that it does not exist."

"One parent is being successful in undermining the child's relationship with the other parent. That is so serious that the child will not be able to bond with the other parent," Bobb said.

"And unless that parent stops that behavior, that parent should be monitored by a third party."

But the 1996 Domestic Violence report conducted by the American Psychological Association found "women seldom make false reports of child abuse or battering."

The report concluded: "Child sexual abuse allegations do not increase in frequency during divorce; they occur in only 2-3 percent of divorce cases and only 10 percent of contested custody cases."

Clarke lost custody of her now 13-year-old daughter two years ago after her ex-husband alleged that she prompted the girl to say he had molested her.

Even though Department of Children and Family Services workers testified the girl was being molested by her father, a family court judge awarded custody to the girl's father, Ovando Cowles. Now, Clarke's visits with her daughter must be monitored, and she must pay the monitor $35 an hour for each visit.

Clarke, who has never been accused of violence or abuse, has not been alone with her daughter in two years and sometimes goes months without seeing her because she can't find a monitor.

"I have been told that if I don't shut up, I will never see her again," Clarke said. "But if you lose your child, you can't sink any lower."

The Department of Children and Family Services filed two petitions in 1996 juvenile dependency court against Cowles, accusing him of molesting his daughter.

One was dismissed for lack of evidence and the second was settled that year with Clarke getting full custody and Cowles receiving monitored visits, though he denied molesting her.

But two years later, a visiting family court judge found the girl was suffering from parental alienation syndrome and reversed the arrangement, terminating all contact between Clarke and her daughter and giving full custody to Cowles.

The girl has written repeatedly to her court-appointed attorney since going to live with her father to say she has been molested.

PAS cases began appearing in court after child support laws changed in the early 1990s, 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."

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

PAS is now even being alleged in cases that don't involve molestation or abuse allegations. Instead, it is being used when custodial parents want to move away with a new spouse or to take a new job.

"In almost every move-away case, there are custody evaluations and sometimes people stretch the truth ... to prevent a move and tell things to an evaluator to make them believe alienation is going on," said attorney Mark Patt of Los Angeles family law firm Trope & Trope.

Mainstream psychological and psychiatric groups have denounced PAS as "junk science" that is not backed up by clinical research, only Gardner's personal observations.

Gardner has come under fire for views in his self-published books like "the vast majority of children (in custody disputes) who profess sexual abuse are fabricators."

Gardner has also written that children are naturally sexual and may initiate sexual encounters by "seducing" an adult. He claims incest "is widespread ... and is probably an ancient tradition."

In a recent interview with the Star-News, Gardner backed off on some of those findings, saying he is now seeing more fathers using PAS to fend off molestation allegations.

"Now that PAS is a widespread diagnosis, many abusers are claiming they are the innocent victims of PAS," he said.

Gardner, who appears in custody disputes across the country as a high-priced expert witness on PAS, now says he finds molestation has occurred "in about half the cases."

"PAS has no place in a situation in which there is abuse," Gardner said. "That indicates a complete misunderstanding and it has nothing to do with me."

Still, the popularity of PAS continues to rise among attorneys and men's groups, some of which disseminate information about PAS and instruct fathers on how to use it in court.

Robert Burton, executive director of United Fathers of America, maintains three Web sites that alert men to the symptoms of PAS.

"I teach psychologists and attorneys whatever they need to know about (PAS) in their fields," Burton said. "I wouldn't recommend it unless I know it is going on."

After being pressed by the county Commission for Women to take a position on PAS, then-Family Court Presiding Judge Paul Gutman wrote in January 1999: "I was ... fully and long ago aware that the 'syndrome' is not and never has been accepted as such and is largely considered by authorities as scientifically unsupportable."

Despite that position, PAS rulings continue to be made in the county's family courts. The bar association's annual Child Custody Colloquium offers seminars in PAS as a legal tactic.

One of the most troubling claims about PAS is that judges would rather diagnose PAS than deal with child molestation or abuse allegations.

Devers says that's because judges have a hard time accepting the fact that parents could do such terrible things to their children.

"It's hard to confront sexual abuse. These judges probably didn't come from a family law background," Devers said.

In the Cowles-Clarke case, for example, court transcripts show that Judge Arnold Gold refused to hear allegations of molestation and later ruled that the child's court-appointed attorney was not to bring up such charges from any source. Gold believed the charges of molestation against Cowles had already been resolved in a 1996 juvenile dependency court settlement.

Although PAS has been discredited, there is little sign that litigators will stop using it to obtain custody for their clients, or that judges will stop paying attention to it.

"PAS is a wonderful litigating tool. It gives the court a scientific-sounding solution ... but it's pure B.S.," Devers said.

"In law school, you learn that there is no right or wrong answer. There's just the best argument."