PARENTAL ALIENTATION SYNDROME by Julie R. Ancis, Ph.D. (An Abuser’s Defense)





Julie R. Ancis, Ph.D.

Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is being proposed for inclusion in the DSM-V, has been generally defined as a child’s denigration of a parent without justification. The creation of “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” otherwise known as PAS, is partly the result of two major trends: 1) a backlash against sexual abuse survivors who disclosed the abuse and 2) an increase in the divorce rate in North America when both parents and child custody assessors became more likely to notice signs of child abuse (Caplan, 2004).

Statistics indicate that 1/4 of girls and 1/6 of boys are survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/ace/prevalence.htm). According to the World Health Organization (2006), worldwide prevalence of sexual violence involving forced intercourse and touch in children under 18 years of age is 150 million for girls and 73 million for boys and 150 million for girls. The majority of CSA perpetrators are men (Finkelhor, 1994; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2010), and more mothers than fathers tend to report that their ex-spouses might be abusing their children (Bala & Schuman, 1999).

Richard Gardner (1985/87) argued that the majority of children in child custody litigation suffered from the so-called disorder of Parental Alienation Syndrome. His focus was almost exclusively on mothers as turning a child against the father, allegedly in order to get or retain custody of the child. He included denigration of the father via ‘‘programming (‘brainwashing’),” as well as the child’s own contributions to vilifying the target parent. Gardner claimed that many reports of CSA in the context of divorce cases were false allegations. In this connection, it is important to note that Bala and Schuman (1999) found that only 1.3% of mothers’ allegations of abuse by their children’s fathers were deemed by civil court judges to be intentionally false, in contrast to 21% of cases in which fathers had made such allegations against mothers. And Meier (2009) reports after reviewing the research that it is a mistaken belief that mothers’ allegations in child custody proceedings that fathers have sexually abused their children are usually false.

The use of the term PAS and variants such as “parental alienation” has been extended in recent years, so that it is applied even to cases in which a child refuses to visit the noncustodial parent, whether or not the child’s objections entail abuse allegations.

According to Gardner, “evidence” of PAS includes a parent who refuses to force the children to visit their father (even when an abuse allegation is still being investigated), or a mother’s and/or child’s hesitancy to be interviewed in the presence of the father, the latter being alleged to result from manipulation by the mother. Children’s inability or unwillingness to provide details of abuse is also used as evidence of PAS, even though that inability or unwillingness could actually be related to trauma reactions or fear of retaliation by the abuser, possibilities not acknowledged by Gardner.

Gardner’s (1998) questionable ethics and clinical judgment are reflected in (but are by no means limited to) the following: (1) he recommends joint interviews with an accused father and child in which the father directly confronts the child about the allegation, and (2) he interprets a child’s overt expression of fear of possible retaliation by the father as evidence of the child’s embarrassment about lying rather than as possibly a valid fear of a truthtelling child whose father is abusive

The construct of PAS is unscientific, composed of a group of general symptoms with no empirical basis. (It has been said that it is nothing more than a scientific-sounding way of saying that a mother is vengeful and mendacious [Caplan, 2004]). In spite of this, PAS is often used to discount allegations of abuse, particularly in custody disputes, so that the accuser’s sanity and parenting ability are questioned, and the rights of the “alienated” parent become the focus of the case, rather than the needs of the child.

Major professional bodies, including the American Psychological Association, have discredited PAS on the grounds that it is misused in domestic violence cases and that there is no scientific evidence of such a “syndrome.” The more recent APA Online document Issues and Dilemmas in Family Violence (http://www.apa.org/pi/essues.html), particularly Issue 5, describes the tendency of family courts to miminize a context of violence, falsely accusing the mother of alienation and granting custody to the father in spite of his history of violence. The National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judge’s 2006 manual states that “parental alienation syndrome or PAS has been discredited by the scientific community” and “should therefore be ruled inadmissible” (p. 19). A number of prominent figures, including Dr. Paul J. Fink, past president of the American Psychiatric Association and president of the Leadership Council on Mental Health, Justice, and the Media, and Professor Jon R. Conte of the University of Washington Social Welfare Doctoral Faculty have also discredited PAS and its lack of scientific basis (see Bruch, 2001).

Because of the use of PAS as a tactic by many CSA perpetrators to influence decision makers and the court system, abused children have been placed in the hands of their abusers (Childress, 2006). It is estimated that “over 58,000 children a year are ordered into unsupervised contact with physically or sexually abusive parents following divorce in the United States” (http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/1.html) and that PAS was used in a large number of these cases.

Recent arguments to include PAS in the DSM-V as a differential diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder, or as an example of a relational disorder (e.g. Bernet, 2008), are lacking in empirical basis, provide false claims related to reliability and validity, and are potentially harmful to children and families.


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Caplan, P. (2004). What is it that’s being called “Parental Alienation Syndrome”? In Caplan, P. J., & Cosgrove, L. (Eds.) Bias in psychiatric diagnosis (pp. 61-67). Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.

Childress, S. (2006, September 25). Fighting over the kids: Battered spouses take aim at a controversial custody strategy. Newsweek.

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Differentiation Between False and Genuine Sex Abuse. Creskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

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Jersey: Creative Therapeutics, Inc.

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alienation: Research reviews. National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/1.html

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Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide. Retrieved from http://www.ncjfcj.org/content/blogcategory/256/302/

United States Department of Veterans Affairs (2010). Child Sexual Abuse. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/child-sexual-abuse.asp.

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World Health Organization (2006). World health organization says violence against children can and must be prevented. News release WHO/57. Retrieved from whqlibdoc.who.int/press_release/2006/PR_57.pdf

Other Resources

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Parental Alienation Syndrome, 39, Family Court Review, 249-266. Retrieved from http://sfx.galib.uga.edu/sfx_gsu1?genre=article&issn=15312445&title=Family%20Court%20Review&volume=39&issue=3&date=20010701&atitle=The%20alienated%20child%3A%20A%20reformulation%20of%20parental%20alienation%20syndrome.&spage=249&sid=EBSCO%3Apsyh&pid=Kelly%2C%20Joan%20B.%3BJohnston%2C%20Janet%20R.

The Leadership Council. Abuse and custody disputes: Scientific and legal issues.

Retrieved from http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/1.html

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Meir, J. S. (2009, January). Parental Alienation Syndrome and parental

alienation: Research reviews. National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/1.html

Wood, C. L. (1994). The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Dangerous Aura of Reliability, Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, 27, 1367-1415. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.gsu.edu:2650/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T8031369353&format=GNBFI&sort=RELEVANCE&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T8031369356&cisb=22_T8031369355&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=138774&docNo=1

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