“Parental alienation” is a common and often overused phrase in hotly contested custody litigation. Sometimes this is used as a litigational strategy by a malicious spouse. Other times it is a real issue to be addressed. No matter the origin of the issue, the fact remains that the claim itself serves to put the children squarely in the midst of hostile litigation; intensifies what may already be divided loyalties; and likely results in emotional and psychological consequences that will be felt far after the litigation has concluded. For this reason, a party should think long and hard before asserting such an allegation.
In basic terms, parental alienation is a process whereby a parent utilizes psychological manipulation to estrange a child from the other parent. Often times, an estranged child will express anger, resentment, fear and disrespect towards the estranged parent. The caveat here is that these expressions do not necessarily mean that a parent is engaging in alienation, and other reasons for such feelings may be present. The legal consequence of a proven allegation of alienation will most certainly lead to the alienating parent losing custody, as this type of behavior is inimical to a child’s best interests and implicates parental rights.
Where credible allegations of alienation exist, a Court will appoint an Attorney for the Child, and often a forensic psychologist to assist the court in determining the custodial issue. The process by which an allegation of alienation is proven or dispelled involves an arduous exploration which will involve numerous contacts between the expert and: each party, the child, relatives, friends, and other collateral contacts (teachers, doctors, therapists, etc) which may provide the expert with relevant information. In addition, the Court, in some cases, may choose to do an in camera with the child (a conversation with the judge, child and Attorney for the Child, usually in the judge’s chambers).
The fact of the matter is that during a divorce, a child is likely to be upset with both parents at different times and may express it in a manner which upon first glance, may resemble those behaviors seen in alienation cases. While a credible claim of alienation is certainly a factor which must be explored, it is a critical priority to reduce a child’s exposure to hostile litigation whenever possible.