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 poisoning of a child’s relationship with a parent as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). 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 Syndrome?
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. Some of the characteristics of PAS 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, as divorce lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina, 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?
Handling Parental Alienation in 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 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.