As child custody lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina, we deal with cases where one parent turns the parties’ children against the other parent. Many refer to these acts of poisoning a child’s relationship with a parent as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Essentially, parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse whereby one parent damages or severs the relationship between a child and the other parent. This article examines what is PAS, whether PAS is recognized by South Carolina’s family courts, and how to deal with PAS in the courtroom and in your home.
What is Parental Alienation in South Carolina?
In 1985, psychiatrist Richard Gardner came up with the concept of PAS to describe the behaviors of children whose parents deliberately turn them against the other parent particularly when there is a custody dispute between the parents. Essentially, one parent undermines the child’s relationship with the other parent on an ongoing basis through various means such as belittling and insulting the targeted parent and manipulating the child’s feelings toward that parent. In theory, the manipulative parent brainwashes the child to the extent that the child no longer wants to have a relationship with the alienated parent.
What Are Some Examples of Parent Alienation in South Carolina?
In parental alienation cases, we see the same or similar patterns of manipulating behaviors that include:
- Letting the child choose whether to visit with the other parent despite court-ordered visitation
- Sharing with the child details about the marriage or divorce
- Not allowing the child to take toys and possessions back and forth between homes
- Denying the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of activities
- Blaming the other parent for money problems, splitting up the family, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend
- Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule
- Over-scheduling the child with activities so the other parent doesn’t have time with the child
- Falsely accusing the other parent of abusing the child
- Asking the child to choose one parent over the other
- Encouraging the child’s anger toward the other parent
- Using a child to spy on the other parent
- Reacting with hurt or sadness when the child has a good time with the other parent
- Monitoring the child’s communications with the other parent
Is Parental Alienation Syndrome an Actual “Syndrome”?
PAS isn’t embraced universally by psychologists or psychiatrists. There are no statistics regarding PAS, and it isn’t formally recognized by mental health professionals. The bible of psychiatric diagnoses, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), doesn’t list the term parental alienation syndrome. In fact, some experts have referred to PAS as “junk science.”
In South Carolina, we aren’t aware of any family court that has formally recognized PAS. Having said that, we see the behaviors listed above in many of our cases involving custody. In the least, these cases involve a child who is conflicted and emotionally in crisis as a result of the manipulative parent’s tactics. In extreme cases, the manipulative parent can be successful in creating a false belief that the alienated parent is a dangerous and unworthy parent. So, if PAS isn’t formally recognized in South Carolina’s family courts, what can be done about the harm the manipulative parent is causing?
How to Deal with Parental Alienation in South Carolina
What happens outside of the courthouse is equally, if not more, important than what happens in court. Whether you are seeking primary custody of your child as a result of alienation or simply trying to maintain your relationship with your child, the following points are very important to your success as a parent:
- Consider professional counseling. Although you may not feel like you need family counseling, counseling accomplishes two things. First, counseling can help you build the knowledge and the skills to offset the other parent’s efforts to alienate your child. Second, your willingness to voluntarily attend counseling looks good in family court.
- Keep your emotions under control. When another parent is alienating your child from you, it is both natural and understandable that you would be upset, angry, sad, and frustrated by these events. However, it is absolutely crucial that you keep yourself even-tempered, logical, and in check. Don’t retaliate and don’t react in anger. If you do, you are helping to prove the other parent’s claim that you are an unstable parent. Also, if you act in anger or emotionally, then your child is going to be impacted by your reaction.
- Don’t play the “victim.” Although you may be a victim, don’t act like one. Don’t get caught up in analyzing how bad the situation may be and condemning the other parent. Instead, focus on what you can do on your end to maintain and improve the relationship with your child. Importantly, focus on enjoying your child’s company. Always take the high road and never talk badly about the other parent to your child.
- Don’t give up. Children have a fundamental right and a need for a loving relationship with both parents unless there is a justification for limiting that relationship such as abuse or neglect by a parent. When a parent interferes with a child’s relationship with the other parent without justification, then that parent is causing the child emotional harm. Studies show that children who’ve undergone forced separation from one of their parents in the absence of abuse are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety, and other harm. In other words, no matter how awful the other parent may be, remember that your child needs you.
How to Prove Parental Alienation in a South Carolina Family Court
As mentioned, South Carolina’s family courts haven’t recognized parental alienation as an actual “syndrome” or mental illness. Although a family court lawyer could try to prove PAS in South Carolina, chances are that lawyer would spend most (if not all) of the client’s money trying to prove the validity of PAS as a valid psychiatric concept before ever getting to the heart of the issue which is the harm the child is suffering. In other words, trying to prove PAS in family court may be a waste of time and money. Instead, the lawyer should focus on three key areas:
1) Proving specific negative conduct by the parent that causes harm to the child. Trying to prove both harmful conduct and resulting injury to a child is perhaps one of the most challenging things to do in family court for several reasons. First, often the parent’s conduct, such as badmouthing the other parent, happens in private and without any witnesses except the child. In South Carolina, family court judges are very reluctant to hear the testimony of any children. As for what your child tells you, you can’t in turn testify to your child’s statements because the statements are hearsay and inadmissible as evidence in court. However, by using the testimony of a trained mental health professional who has interviewed the child or through the investigation of a guardian ad litem, sometimes it is possible to prove to the court that alienation is taking place and that it is harming the child. In other words, if alienation is occurring, then the lawyer should get a GAL and a trained child psychiatrist or psychologist involved to help expose the parent’s conduct. Additionally, the targeted parent can help his or her lawyer by creating a detailed chronology of ongoing events such as interfering with the visitation schedule or denying telephone access to the child.
2) Seeking a court order prohibiting certain conduct. Many of the behaviors listed here can be dealt with, and sometimes eliminated, through a family court order. For example, the court order can prohibit a parent from scheduling activities during the other parent’s time or by setting a specific schedule for telephone visitation.
Of course, having a court order doesn’t mean the manipulative parent won’t try to interfere with the other parent’s relationship with the child. However, having a court order does give a client the ability to ask the court to punish the other parent if they violate the court’s order.
How Parental Alienation Impacts Custody in South Carolina
When determining custody of a child, South Carolina law requires that the courts consider the best interests of the child by taking into account numerous factors, including parental relationships. In fact, the law specifically requires that the court takes into consideration:
- Past and current relationships with the proposed guardians
- Each guardian’s encouragement of the child to maintain a relationship with the other parent
- Whether or not the guardians have involved the child in their disputes or maligned the other guardian in front of the child
If the court determines that one parent has caused the alienation of a child from the other parent, it can choose to limit or eliminate that parent’s custody rights. Even where the evidence of alienation is overwhelming, the court may still be hesitant to do anything about it. In several cases we’ve had, we’ve seen judges get frustrated and essentially force the parties to go out into the hallway and try to work things out themselves. Also, judges can be slow to place serious sanctions on the alienating parent. When the court is hesitant to take any action through fines, jail time, or granting custody to the targeted parent, then the chances are remote that the out-of-control parent can be stopped. Unfortunately, it usually takes a very dramatic situation, such as repeated violations of court orders, before the orders that the targeted parent gets custody.
3) Seeking a court order that gives the targeted parent liberal time with the child. Liberal time for the targeted parent is CRUCIAL! Spending time with the child won’t stop the other parent from behaving poorly. However, the more time the alienated parent has to demonstrate their love and care for the child, the less sway the manipulative parent may have over the child. In other words, perhaps some of the best medicine to treat the poison a manipulative parent is injected into a child’s mind is liberal quality time spent together by the targeted parent and the child.