July 23, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
On one hand, this article is more of the same (The Marshall Project, 7/8/20). It’s intended as a hatchet job on the idea of parental alienation. We’ve seen the sort many times before and all run to type. They take one or two cases the author hopes will cast the notion of PA in a bad light, quote Joan Meier, refer to her recent study, cast aspersions on Richard Gardner, state that the DSM-V doesn’t mention PA and portray fathers as abusive and mothers as protective. Any nod they give to the extensive literature on PA is extremely limited, pejoratively phrased and, often as not absent altogether. Their point is invariably that the idea of parental alienation is dubious and used only by fathers to illegitimately wrest custody from mothers.
The linked-to piece has all of that, but is a bit more scrupulous and balanced than the rest. It even avoids quoting or referring to Joyanna Silberg, which alone must count as a major accomplishment.
The Marshall Project piece reports on a single family – that of Ed Cunningham, Tara Coronado and their kids. The vast majority of the quite high wordcount is devoted to the allegations and counter-allegations between the spouses during their interminable court battle and the conclusions drawn by a battery of mental health professionals.
During the custody case, Coronado leveled several allegations of physical abuse at Cunningham. None of them were verified, but she did present physical evidence, such as bruises, to back up her claims. Cunningham adamantly denied all the allegations, but eventually signed an admission in exchange for the ADA’s agreement to discontinue the criminal DV case against him with no penalty and nothing on his record reflecting guilt.
Two mental health professionals found Coronado to have significant mental health issues including borderline personality disorder. Each concluded that Cunningham should have primary custody of the children and, for two years, he did. But there were serious problems with the way their conclusions had been arrived at. For example, one of them never interviewed Coronado, only the father and the children. Eventually, one of the two gave up her professional licenses in lieu of discipline by licensing authorities and the other vowed to take no new family law cases.
None of that of course establishes whether Coronado alienated the children or not. Certainly, much of her behavior strongly indicated alienation and the very borderline behavior that was diagnosed. But the shoddiness of the psychological work makes it impossible to know whether the kids were victims of that type of abuse.
Likewise, there’s nothing to definitively say whether Cunningham physically abused his wife or whether, if he did, he should have seen his parenting time limited because of it. There were no claims of child abuse made against him.
Plus, in keeping with other articles of the genre, the Marshall Project one essentially never offers the point of view of the countless professionals who are expert in PA, it’s diagnosis and treatment. Professor Richard Warshak is quoted in brief, but the article focusses mostly on his paper on false positive findings of PA. Extremely short shrift is given to those who know all too well the realities of PA – that it’s all too common, that it’s child abuse, that it’s not a clever scheme on the part of fathers, that fathers and mothers alike commit PA and that articles that seek to prove otherwise inevitably encourage overlooking the child abuse that is PA. In an article that verges on 10,000 words, it’s astounding that the writer never bothered to pick up her phone and call Warshak, Amy Baker, Linda Gottlieb, William Bernet or the countless other professionals who actually know a great deal about the subject of the piece.
But there’s one other thing the linked-to article has in common with all the others. The writer couldn’t manage to find a case that proves the point. The trope offered by those who seek to cast doubt on the actuality of PA is that every year there are thousands of cases in which protective mothers are denied custody by abusive fathers claiming PA. Now, if that were the case, wouldn’t you think that finding one such case would be simplicity itself?
But they never do. Having read the article, it’s simply impossible to say whether Coronado alienated her children. Certainly the mental health professionals did an abysmal job of figuring that out, but just as certainly, their failure to behave professionally and fairly in no way means she didn’t. The case is muddy in the extreme about both the allegations of PA and DV.
So the question arises “Is this the best they could come up with?” It must be; otherwise they’d have used a case that more strongly made their point.
And so it goes. It seems there’s always someone who’s dead set on casting doubt on the fact of PA despite the mountains of evidence supporting it. But more and more, it seems that the parade is passing them by, that the science on PA and its regular appearance in family court ignores them and their threadbare claims. So should we all.