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Parental alienation claims—the controversy continues

By February 11, 2020February 23rd, 2024No Comments

Which side of the parental alienation debate do you stand on? Do you believe it does happen? Or do you believe parental alienation claims are nothing but a weapon used in court against mothers who have alleged family violence against fathers? Academics—whether in the social sciences or law–are very much divided on the subject. And two new studies point to the reasons for the controversy over the concept—and suggest what must be done about it.

Law professor Naomi Cahn at George Washington University writes in Forbes about a new US study on parental alienation which she argues proves the concept is now dangerously gendered. Cahn says women are losing custody because violent fathers try to deny their abuse through claiming family violence allegations are false and represent parental alienation by the mother.

A colleague of Cahn’s at the George Washington University, Professor Joan Meier, has just published a study which looked at how parental alienation claims affect custody rulings with data from 4388 custody cases.

The data has been interpreted as revealing:

  • When fathers alleged mothers were alienating, regardless of abuse claims, they took custody away from her 44% of the time. 
  • When the genders were reversed and fathers started out with the children, mothers took custody from fathers only 28% of the time. 
  • Fathers were overall much more likely to win than mothers by claiming alienation. 

“Alienation trumps abuse”

Cahn writes, “In the study’s stark conclusion: ‘alienation trumps abuse’.” This is because the data indicates:

  • When mothers claimed abuse and fathers responded with parental alienation claims, mothers were twice as likely to lose custody as when alienation was not claimed.
  • Even when the father’s abuse was considered proven, mothers who were alleging the abuse still lost custody in 13 % of the cases.  By contrast, fathers lost custody only 4% of the time when a mother’s abuse was considered proved.

When sexual abuse is claimed

The study reveals a statistic which Cahn says shows “the power of alienation cross-claims to defeat child sexual abuse allegations”:

  • “Most stunningly of all, in only one out of the 51 cases in which a mother reported child sexual abuse while the father cross-claimed alienation did the court credit the mother’s claim of sexual abuse.”

Cahn says the study “certainly supports the idea that it is untenably risky for mothers to report at least child sexual abuse”. 

The connection between abuse claims and parental alienation claims

From the study, it appears that alienation may be gendered when used as a cross-claim against abuse claims, but the study also reveals that when courts did believe claims of alienation, mothers and fathers were equally likely to lose custody (73%). And in cases without abuse claims, both mothers and fathers’ alienation claims have a pretty equal impact on outcomes. 

It seems then that the danger exists mostly in cases where abuse is present.  The concern is that it may force abused mothers into an impossible bind: stay silent about a father’s abuse or be penalised for alleged alienation.

However, the upshot of the Meier study is it actually supports the argument that courts and evaluators need to use extreme care when alienation claims are present in the context of abuse allegations.  It lends weight to the push to have legislation deal with the issues of abuse and alienation and “ensure that abuse allegations are addressed on their merits, and not undermined by alienation claims”, as Meier writes.  

“Playing the parental alienation card”

Another new study from Brunel University in London also argues that its data shows “abusive men are winning time with their children by accusing mothers who have won custody of turning their child against them” and of “making things up”.

A smaller study looking at 40 published cases, the Brunel research describes parental alienation as having becoming part of a “shrewd rhetoric” in custody fights. Used to “obscure” and “filter out” claims of abuse, the authors argue that allegations of alienation are becoming increasingly common and have more support from experts: “Parental alienation is now an industry”.

The concern expressed in this study is that fathers appear more successful than mothers in alleging parental alienation, indicating there may be a bias against women.

Other dangers are that:

  • allegations of abuse are sometimes seen as “evidence” of alienation in themselves;
  • parental alienation “tends to dominate proceedings once it is raised and takes the court’s attention away from other important issues”.

However, here too the study author “stressed parental alienation was not uncritically accepted by family court judges and noted domestic abuse perpetrated by ‘political’ and/or ‘irrational’ fathers was generally condemned by the courts, and their claims of alienation rebuffed”. 

The Independent’s article on the Brunel University research quotes Sandra Horley, chief executive of lead domestic abuse charity Refuge, as saying:

“It is essential that the judiciary is properly trained so it can identify who is doing what to whom, and in so doing ensure women and children receive the protection and support they deserve and false claims are not able to flourish.”

Others concur. American social scientist Jennifer Harman of Colorado University specialises in studying parental alienation and firmly regards it as a form of “intimate terrorism”, where the children are used as weapons. She argues more research and awareness is needed across psychological, legal and child custodial disciplines, as well as allocation of resources “to better identify and stop such behaviours” which really represent a form of child abuse or intimate partner abuse.

Family law reform in Australia should consider the evidence being aggregated around the world on the issue of parental alienation and how it intersects with family violence claims. Reform needs to ensure that responses to parental alienation in the court system deal with a potential gender bias. Women resisting contact with abusive men must not have their voices silenced.

Do you need any help with a family law matter such as divorce or resolving parenting matters? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.

You may also like to read our recent blog on parental alienation as a breach of human rights, or our blog on the different types of parental alienation behaviours.


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