The concept of parental alienation (PA) was formally defined in the 1980s. Although controversial at first, the phenomenon of PA is now gaining acceptance as a recognized disorder. PA is described in the DSM-5, as well as discussed in The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What is less recognized is how to address the fallout it causes.
The Atlantic recently highlighted a story about “reunification camps,” a court-ordered option to help bring parents and children back together after experiencing parental alienation. The author, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, describes these reunification programs as a last-ditch effort to try to undo the effects of PA and help children experiencing the effects of PA build a healthier relationship with their parent.
Hagerty writes, “No one knows how common severe alienation is. The Vanderbilt University professor emeritus William Bernet, a psychiatrist who serves as an expert witness on behalf of people arguing that they’ve been victims of the phenomenon, estimates that there are 370,000 alienated children in the United States.”
Her article follows the progress of two siblings who were experiencing parental alienation from their Mother. The judge ruled that their father “was waging an ‘all-out campaign to … alienate them from their mother,’ a campaign so unrelenting that it qualified as psychological abuse.” The judge gave the mother sole temporary custody and allowed her to enroll the children in a reunification program.
The program was bumpy but ultimately successful – sort of. Six years later, the children were no longer speaking to their father, who made no effort to reconnect or attend counseling. Both siblings have been working through various emotional issues left by their father’s actions, which is why “success” in this case is a loaded word.
Parental alienation cases in New York
Proving parental alienation is not easy, but New York courts historically recognize that willful interference with parental rights may constitute parental alienation. If a judge finds that a parent is engaging in PA, they may find that parent unfit and direct a change in custody. Some past cases include:
- Entwistle v. Entwistle, where “the act of a custodial parent which prevented contact between the child and the noncustodial parent by the surreptitious removal of the child from an agreed-upon area is an act so inconsistent with the best interests of the [child] as to, per se, raise a strong probability that the mother is unfit to act as custodial parent.”
- Matter of Lawlor v. Eder, where “the Family Court also found that during the period when the child was in the temporary custody of the father, the father had refused to encourage and foster meaningful contact between the child and the mother, and that such conduct was adverse to the child’s best interests and had been harmful to the child.”
- Doroski v. Ashton, which cited parental alienation in its decision: “Parental alienation of a child from the other parent is ‘an act so inconsistent with the best interests of the children as to, per se, raise a strong probability that the [offending party] is unfit to act as custodial parent.’”
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