April 25, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Today is Parental Alienation Awareness Day. As such, it’s with great pleasure that I read this article by two New Jersey family lawyers about PA (New Jersey Law Journal, 4/23/18). The two grasp the fact and nature of parental alienation, understand that it constitutes a virulent form of child abuse and urge their colleagues and judges to take action to stop it when they first see it happening. Well done, Stephen P. Haller and Jennie L. Osborne.
From their position as family law practitioners, Haller and Osborne have seen how pervasive efforts to alienate children have become.
The theft of a child’s affection by one parent (or grandparent) from the other parent occurs frighteningly often. Most family practitioners have seen these cases at oral arguments on motion days, and many of us have represented a parent targeted by an alienator.
But, as we’ve seen all too often (most recently in a British case discussed by John Bolch on the Madelyn Stowe Blog) courts are far too slow to recognize PA and do something about it.
Despite being well-intentioned and exercising their best efforts, courts do not always spot alienation at its early stages, adequately penalize it when it occurs, save the children who are being victimized by an alienator, or correct the misbehavior of the alienating parent whether by coercion or other means.
Indeed, in the aforementioned British case, the judge actually saw clearly the mother’s alienation of the children and called it by its proper name – abuse. Even so, she left the children in the mother’s care for about nine months. If that case is any indication, far more than judicial education is required to remedy the problem of parental alienation occurring under a judge’s nose.
Haller’s and Osborne’s article is for lawyers practicing in family courts.
As advocates for a parent being targeted by a spouse or partner, we must alert our clients to the early telltale signs of alienation. The very first time a young child with a previously good relationship with a parent states that he or she no longer wants to stay overnight for some amorphous or inexplicable reason (or for an adult-phrased reason), warning bells should be sounding. A child who refuses to speak to a parent by telephone for no reason whatsoever, is a budding problem. A parent who refuses a child the freedom to talk to the other parent in privacy, is a major problem.
If PA is suspected, how can it be addressed?
We must try hard to show the court some “proof.”
Proof can be objective or circumstantial. Circumstantial proof is, at the outset, more likely than not the only evidence available. The circumstantial proof of resistance to contact, parroting of adult concepts, a cooling or stiffening of relationships and general avoidance of a parent without just cause, are all circumstantial indications that alienation is occurring. Objective proof may come later: Seek the services of an expert either partisan (but with an impeccable reputation for honesty and fair reporting) or court appointed. Objective indications of alienation often come from an expert who can, in a non-argumentative fashion, place before the court cogent conclusions, to a reasonable degree of professional certainty, as to whether or not alienation is occurring and if so, by whom.
The problem being that, by the time the necessary evidence is accumulated, the alienation may have passed the point of no return. If that’s the case, the targeted parent finds him/herself in a legal and financial bind.
The targeted parent, assuming he or she intends to fight for the child’s right to have two parents in their life, is facing a Hobson’s choice: Does the parent accept a drastically constricted relationship with the child, if any? Does that targeted parent spend what often amounts to copious amounts of money on lawyers, experts, reunification programs and the like without any assurance of success? What becomes of those parents who lack the funds to fight for their children’s rights? We call attention not just to the victimization of children by their alienator but also to the oppression of the targeted parent, the favorable resolution of which depends upon dedication, persistence and willingness to adopt a “long view” since results often do not come quickly. It also requires good lawyering, and a considerable war chest.
In short, as things stand now, only fairly affluent parents have the resources to defend against a campaign of alienation by the other parent. That means that less well-to-do parents can do nothing but sit back, suffer and watch their children do the same. The judicial system offers them no recourse.
Obviously, family courts have a lot of work to do to stem the tide of parental alienation. First, judges and lawyers must be trained to spot parental alienation. A lawyer who allows a client to promote the alienation of the other parent should be seen to have committed an ethical violation. After all, lawyers are ethically obligated to withdraw from a case if they know a client intends to perjure him/herself. And parental alienation is certainly a form of perjury. It tells the court a known lie – that the child’s animus against the targeted parent has an appropriate basis when it in fact does not.
And judges need to understand that PA relies on the glacial pace of court proceedings to do its work, establishing a fait accompli, i.e. a child who refuses contact with the targeted parent. That being the case, judges need to expedite hearings on parental alienation and take steps, such as changing custody, awarding attorney’s fees, etc. early on in an effort to stop the alienation before it proceeds too far.
Haller and Osborne have another idea.
Why could there not also be a dedicated “parent alienation court”? Judges could be specially trained and sensitized to these issues in a way that general judicial education cannot match. The resources necessary to combat alienation could be concentrated in each vicinage.
That’s not a bad idea. But whatever the case, parental alienation must be seen for what it is – child abuse – and courts and lawyers must be tasked with putting a stop to it.
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