Published September 1, 2008 by Department of Sociology, Queen's University
Disciplining Divorcing Parents: The Social Construction of Parental Alienation Syndrome
by Francoise T. Bessette
Using a social constructionist perspective, this thesis explores the development of the concepts of “parental alienation syndrome” and “false allegations” in the context of custody and access, as ‘social problems’. Following Joel Best’s framework for critically analysing social problems, it examines the life course of these concepts through an historical account of Canada’s divorce arena and recent changes to custody and access law. It analyzes the reasoning and motives of the major claimsmakers: the Fathers’ Right Movement, medical experts, the legal arena and the counter-claims of Feminist activists. It examines the role of the supervised access facilitator in the construction of the concepts as ‘social problems’. The theories of psychiatrist Richard Gardner are examined in particular, due to their pivotal role in the advancement of the claimsmakers’ goals. Finally, empirical studies are reviewed and analyzed, demonstrating how the concepts of “parental alienation syndrome” and “false allegations” have mutated and permeated the domain of divorce and access in Western society.
My interest in the topic of parental alienation began in the late 1990’s through my work with court ordered supervised access. My work began through a chance meeting with Jane Grafton, the woman responsible for introducing this service to Vancouver and is now called as an expert witness on matters of supervised access. She started doing the work in the mid 1980’s at the request of her husband, a child advocacy lawyer. His clients wished to have their ex-partners, who were court ordered to be supervised during parental visits, supervised by a neutral party because of concerns of bias and denial of wrongdoing by members of ex-partners’ immediate family and/or close friends. Within a few months Grafton’s business swelled to maximum capacity and she had established a supervision house with several employees. It soon became apparent that specific training was needed to serve the many types of family situations that were referred by the courts for supervision. Karen Flynn, a colleague of Jane Grafton, developed a course under the auspices of the Burnaby School District Adult & Continuing Education to fill this gap. Sixteen women, including myself, enrolled in the initial course, in October 1997, offering a certificate providing the credentials needed to work as a supervisor in contested child custody and access cases involving court-ordered supervised access orders. I was one of two of the first class who completed the program successfully. The course focused on preparing future supervisors to recognize incidents of child endangerment during visits with their non-custodial parent and to write reports of these visits for the use in family court by judges and lawyers.
The course followed the guidelines set by the International Visitation Network 1 and was sanctioned by the BC Ministry of the Attorney General (Burnaby School Board Brochure, undated). Informing much of the course material were two concepts that will be central to this thesis: parental alienation (also referred to as parental alienation syndrome or PAS) and false allegations of sexual abuse. Together these concepts were said to define weapons of vindication ex-partners used against each other. Parental alienation was defined as “one parent (alienating parent) brainwashing their child/ren against the other parent (hated parent)”. False allegations of sexual abuse carried this alienation process to the courts and the custody hearings in addition to poisoning their children’s minds. Parental alienation appears as gender neutral but in fact most of the elaboration and research dwells on how mothers alienate children from their fathers. The false allegation notion is almost always explicitly about how mothers raise such charges against fathers.
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