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November 18, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Last time, I wrote about an article by Australian lawyer Zoe Rathus (The Conversation, 11/7/19).  The purpose of her piece was to try to cast doubt on the upcoming governmental review of family law and court practices.  That review is very much needed and very much feared by those who view with alarm the prospect of children maintaining meaningful relationships with both parents when the adults split up. 

The tactic of choice among those advocates is to cast aspersions on the very idea of parental alienation.  Since the facts that PA exists, is fairly widespread and constitutes child abuse are quite well established in the reliable scientific literature and the experiences of lawyers and judges, the task at hand for Rathus and others isn’t an easy one.  Having little-to-nothing with which to support their claims, they predictably (and all but invariably) resort to misleading their readers.

In the case of the Rathus article, its “honesty” fails to last past the fifth word of its headline which reads, “’Parental alienation’: the debunked theory that women lie about violence is still used in court.”

The problem being of course that parental alienation has never been debunked.  Indeed, it’s to be found in the DSM-V, albeit under another name.  Many, many researchers around the world are investigating all aspects of the matter and have produced much fine work, some of which was captured in Dr. William Bernet’s tome on the subject entitled “Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals.”  The book is relatively new, but our understanding of PA is not.  As Linda Gottlieb-Kase reported, research into what we now call PA dates back to the 1950s.

Plus, evidence of PA is routinely admitted by American courts under the most stringent standard for admissibility of expert testimony, known as the Daubert standard. 

In short, both the legal and the psychological professions accept the existence of PA and seek to understand, treat and curtail it.  They see that alienated children are victims of child abuse and that, in order to protect them, we must constructively address PA.

Then there’s Rathus’ claim that PA is the theory “that women lie about violence.”  No, it’s not.  Amazingly, not far into her article, she uses an entirely different “definition” of PA, i.e., “the actions of one parent to prevent a child from having an ongoing relationship with the other parent.” 

I call that quite an accomplishment.  To actually use two completely different “definitions” of PA in the same article, both of which are wrong, must have taken real effort on Rathus’ part.  That, plus the fact that the headline to her piece is wrong twice in the space of 10 words make me think she may be going for a record of sorts. 

But of course, Rathus doesn’t stop there, not even close.  Recall that her piece is about parental alienation and its use in court cases involving child custody.  Her thesis is that, when mothers claim fathers are abusive, fathers respond with the defense of alienation.  In that context, Rathus says, “But research suggests deliberately false allegations are rare…” 

Now, the reader who’s not wise to the ways of Rathus and others writing in the same vein would readily conclude that the research she refers to indicates that mothers’ claims of abuse by fathers are rarely intentionally false.  That looks very much like the purpose of her statement. 

But of course that reader would be completely wrong.  The research says no such thing.  The study linked to not only has nothing to do with parental alienation, it has nothing to do with divorce or child custody.  No, Nicholas Bala and colleagues were investigating whether reports of suspected child abuse or neglect made by third parties (such as doctors, the police, teachers, other “mandated reporters” and others) to child protective agencies were likely to be true or false and, if the latter, whether deliberately so or not.  In other words, the research cited by Rathus has nothing to do with her article and naturally doesn’t support her claims.

As I’ve said before, writers with evidence to support their arguments usually use it.  Given that, it’s fair to conclude that Rathus has none.

But she’s still not finished.  Until “the last syllable of recorded time,” I assume we’ll be seeing Joan Meier’s research being cited by the likes of Rathus.  Back in August I wrote several pieces on Meier’s latest effort to convince anyone who’ll listen that fathers are privileged in child custody hearings.  Seriously, that’s her claim.  She even maintains that fathers get 94% of child custody in divorce cases.  Not only that, according to Meier, they’ve had the upper hand over mothers since the 1980s.  I’m not making that up.  The fact that longitudinal datasets like those maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau directly contradict her claims and that no family lawyer takes them seriously bothers Meier not a bit.

Desperate for something – anything – to give her article an air of gravitas, Rathus naturally cites Meier’s recent work.

[Meier, et al] found where the father claimed parental alienation, courts were more than twice as likely to disbelieve any claims of abuse by mothers, and almost four times more likely to disbelieve allegations of child sexual abuse.

Yes, they did find that.  What they didn’t find, or even look for, was the reason why courts did that.  The sensible conclusion never seems to have occurred to either Meier or Rathus.  That conclusion is that, when mothers engage in alienation, fathers are likely to bring the matter up in court.  When they do, courts are likely to find that alienation took place and that the mothers’ allegations of abuse are simply part of those campaigns of alienation and have no basis in fact.  Stated another way, fathers are more likely to claim alienation when it’s taking place than when it isn’t.

It’s not a difficult concept, but one that, predictably eluded both Meier and Rathus.

It turns out that there’s more than one side in the fight over the Australian review of family courts.  Rathus, Jess Hill and others aren’t alone on the field of battle.  There are reputable, scrupulous combatants there as well.  I’ll report on one of those next time.

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