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The term “parental alienation” is often thrown around in custody litigation – sometimes legitimately and sometimes not so much. “Parental Alienation Syndrome” was first named by psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Garners in the 1980’s and occurs when a parent attempts to turn a child against the other parent, often resulting in estrangement and requiring therapy – often coined “reunification therapy” – to try to fix.
Dr. Gardner’s theory of Parental Alienation Syndrome was initially self-published and not peer-reviewed, and most research on the subject focuses on case studies, not replicable experimentation. There have also been critics who allege the theory is, for lack of a better word, “junk science” due to the lack of large-scale controlled studies. Some critics blame the spread of the parental alienation theory for courts not believing legitimate theories of parental abuse.
In 2011, Dr. Julie Ancis penned a critique of Parental Alienation Syndrome when it was being proposed for inclusion in the DSM-V. In her article, she states that the recognition of the syndrome is “partly the result” of backlash against abuse survivors who come forward about their abuse and an increase in the divorce rate “when both parents and child custody assessors became more likely to notice signs of child abuse.”
Dr. Ancis goes on to claim that the construct of the syndrome is “unscientific, composed of a group of general symptoms with no empirical basis” and states it is “often used to discount allegations of abuse.” She goes on to note that Parental Alienation syndrome shifts the focus of the court away from the best interests of the child and to the rights of the accusing parent.
Not long after parental alienation syndrome was given a name, Dr. Ira Turkat developed his own, similar, theory and wrote a groundbreaking article entitled “Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome,” which was published in the Journal of Family Violence in 1995.
Dr. Turkat, in this first article, gave the following examples of the syndrome: “A divorced man gains custody of his children and his ex-wife burns down his home. A woman in a custody battle buys a cat for her offspring because her divorcing husband is highly allergic to cats. A mother forces her children to sleep in a car to ‘prove’ their father has bankrupted them.”
Citing Dr. Gardner’s “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” Dr. Turkat clarifies that his defined syndrome involves more “serious attacks on divorcing husbands … which are beyond merely manipulating the children.”
There were four major criteria to the initial theory, as quoted from Dr. Turkat’s article:
1. A mother who unjustifiably punishes her divorcing or divorced husband by:
a. Attempting to alienate their mutual child(ren) from the father
b. Involving others in malicious actions against the father
c. Engaging in excessive litigation
2. A mother who specifically attempts to deny her child(ren):
a. Regular uninterrupted visitation with the father
b. Uninhibited telephone access to the father
c. Paternal participation in the child(ren)’s school life and extra-curricular activities
3. The pattern is pervasive and includes malicious acts towards the husband including:
a. Lying to the children
b. Lying to others
c. Violation of law
4. The disorder is not specifically due to another mental disorder although a separate mental disorder may co-exist.
Dr. Turkat also gave examples for each criterion. For the first, the actions mirror those seen in cases of parental alienation – for example, a mother lying to her children that she cannot buy food because their father spent all their money. Another example given was a mother losing custody manipulating a school secretary to assist in abducting the child. For “excessive litigation,” he gives an example of a mother filing numerous court pleadings using seven different attorneys in a three-year period.
For the second criterion, Dr. Turkat gives examples of mothers denying fathers visitation, phone calls with the children, and taking actions to prevent fathers from fully participating in the children’s activities – for example, giving the father the wrong date and time for an important event.
The third criterion, as stated, includes lying to the children and others. One way this could be done is if a mother tells a child their father is “not really” their father (even though he is, indeed, their biological father). Lying to others could involve false allegations of abuse. Dr. Turkat asserts that “violation of the law” are common in cases of this syndrome and gives an example of a woman breaking into the home of her divorcing husband to steal documents.
Dr. Turkat goes on to opine that those with malicious mother syndrome “may or may not have a concomitant mental disorder.” In some cases, it may go hand-in-hand with recognized psychological phenomena, including adjustment disorder, personality disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder. In some cases, however, the perpetrator has no diagnosis of any (other) mental disorder. He noted there was “no scientific evidence on ow to treat this phenomenon.” He also states that some attorneys “may unintentionally encourage this type of behavior.”
When Dr. Turkat’s article was published in 1995, and as is mentioned in his article, there was a bias against men in family court. He notes that “[t]he overwhelming majority of custodial parents are female.” He also stated that “the malicious behavior is precipitated by the divorce process.”
In 1999, Dr. Turkat updated his theory and published a new article, “Divorce Related Malicious Parent Syndrome,” also in the Journal of Family Violence. The criteria for recognizing the syndrome remained the same, but became gender-neutral, recognizing that fathers can also display these behaviors.
Though both Parental Alienation Syndrome and Divorce Related Malicious Parent Syndrome were recognized by mental health professionals, neither are currently recognized in the DSM-V as official diagnoses. Family law practitioners, however, know that there is truth to the theories because they encounter cases that certainly involve both. The DSM-V does recognize the impact of parental behavior on children during times of relationship distress, but these diagnoses focus on the mental health of the offending parent, rather than the relationship with the other parent or the child(ren).
If you are embroiled in a case you believe involves either Parental Alienation Syndrome or Divorce Related Malicious Parent Syndrome, it is important to take timely action to ensure that your relationship with your children remains healthy and intact. An experienced family law attorney can help preserve your parental rights.

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