Most parents try their hardest to avoid saying negative things about their former spouse in front of the children. Of course, no one is perfect, and there are times when heated emotions and unforeseeable circumstances get the best of us. Occasional bad mouthing of the other parent is fairly common, and most families manage to work through it with open communication and compromises. There are, however, individuals who take criticism of the other parent to the extreme. Their actions may involve belittling the parent in front of the children, encouraging the children to denigrate the other parent, and even brainwashing the children into thinking that the parent has been abusive towards them. The worst cases typically involve accusations of physical and/or sexual abuse, which result in extensive investigations by Child Protective Services and the family courts.
The villification of one parent by the other may not be a crime, but it is a significant factor in a child's emotional well-being, which the family courts are obligated to protect. Child-related court dcases involving parental alienation became commonplace in the late 20th century. In 1985, American psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) to refer to the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted hostility, disrespect or fear towards a parent. PAS has been mentioned over the years in custody and/or child support disputes, but there has always been considerable debate over its relevance as a medical disorder.
First and foremost, PAS is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a disorder, mainly because of the questionable research methods and findings presented by Gardner. This may explain why it has generally not been well accepted by the judiciary in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. In fact, expert panels in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales and Canada's Department of Justice have publicly recommended against its use. The US hasn't been quite as definitive on the issue, but the New Jersey Appellate Division did state in a 2014 ruling: “The Supreme Court and this court have not yet determined that PAS is a scientifically reliable or generally accepted theory.” This doesn't mean that the courts do not recognize parental alienation as a real and harmful act. They will, however, refrain from classifying it as a psychological disorder when it is not “generally accepted, within the relevant scientific community.”
While PAS is generally not accepted by the New Jersey family courts, parents who have been alienated from their children can request court ordered methods such as reunification therapy to help them reconnect with their children. It is essential that parents take action right away, since it can extremely difficult to undo many years of systematic parental alienation, especially as children advance into their teen years. For more information on parental alienation, as well as all your other parental rights and legal options, please speak with the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.