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July 3, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Psychologist Jennifer Harman and Nebraska attorney Nancy Shannon have an excellent op-ed here (Omaha World Herald, 6/27/20).  It’s nominally about maternal gatekeeping, but spills over into parental alienation as well.  Now, maternal gatekeeping and parental alienation are two different things, but the former can be the latter and gatekeeping behavior could easily become a precursor to alienation.

That said, Harman and Shannon pull no punches.

“Extensive research shows the importance of fathers to their children’s well-being. These studies show children in father-limited environments are almost four times more likely to live in poverty, more likely to use drugs and alcohol, and twice as likely to commit suicide. They also have significantly lower educational attainment, are more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, have higher risk of being victimized by crime, have higher risk of physical and mental health issues, and have lower life expectancies.”

Given that, we should of course bend heaven and earth to keep fathers involved in their children’s lives.  But gatekeeping and alienation by mothers often interfere with our attempts to do so.  Indeed, Harman and Shannon alert their readers to a 2015 report by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families on maternal gatekeeping.  Its findings are remarkable.

“According to this report, “more than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes. Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child or berating the father.” 

In short, more than half of fathers, at least in some groups, have to battle either their wives or exes just to be able to take a full role in their children’s lives.  By any measure, that’s astonishing.  It’s a fact that needs to be remembered every time we read one of the ubiquitous articles condemning fathers for not doing more childcare.  To the extent that’s an actual phenomenon, it’s brought about at least in part by mothers.

And, according to Harman and Shannon, Nebraska family courts have become none too pleased with gatekeeping/alienating parents.  They cite five recent cases in which judges showed little or no tolerance for mothers who behaved as if the child was theirs to do with what they liked.

“Nebraska judges are increasingly losing patience with gatekeeping behavior. Our Court of Appeals recently affirmed an equal parenting time schedule that required a mother to return an infant to Nebraska after she secretly moved away and stopped communicating with the father.”

Other cases involved mothers who withheld parenting time (one did so on the advice of her lawyer!), moved outside the state, engaged in alienating behavior and ignored the father’s sole legal custody.  Orders punishing those mothers by courts included changing custody, finding the mother in contempt of court and awards of attorney’s fees to the father of $15,000 and $25,000 in the same case.

The two authors rightly point out that gatekeeping and alienation constitute child abuse.

“Everyone needs to understand that parents who engage in these behaviors, regardless of their gender, are harming their children…

What they’re doing isn’t appropriate or justifiable. It’s child abuse. It’s also domestic violence. According to a recent Nebraska ruling in district court, “Domestic intimate partner abuse includes using a child to establish or maintain power and control over any current or past intimate partner.” The Nebraska State Patrol, in a policy statement, also recognizes that domestic violence occurs when an intimate partner tries to control the other partner by “damaging [that partner’s] relationship with his or her children.”

Harman and Shannon’s message is crystal clear.  No one who reads their piece can be confused.  Gatekeeping and alienation harm children, should not be engaged in by anyone and courts are on the lookout for those behaviors and stand ready to punish parents who engage them. 

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