Little Misuse of Parental Alienation Arguments in Custody Circumstances

Family breakups where custody is an issue can be complicated, painful, and contentious. However, some of these families also address an additional challenge: parental alienation, in which one parent figure has carried out a psychological campaign to turn a child against the other parent without reason.

Jennifer Harman, Associate Professor of Psychology at the CSU

Jennifer Harman, Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University, and others have studied parental alienation and its effects for years and stated that it is different from alienation. In moderate to severe cases, an alienated child will clearly and unjustifiably reject the target parent without a valid reason. The scientifically determined phenomenon has very real ramifications not only for the other parent (more than 40% of parents who are currently moderately or severely alienated have considered suicide in the past year) but also for the children, who are often long-term psychological Having problems (including anger or a lack of empathy).

However, there have also been counter-arguments that parental alienation is often used to ignore or override claims of abuse, or that allegations of alienation lead to gender biases against women when courts determine child custody.

Harman and her co-author, forensic psychologist and attorney Demosthenes Lorandos, wanted to investigate some of these claims. To that end, they devised a rigorous, open-ended scientific study to assess how allegations of parental alienation affect the courts’ decisions regarding custody. Their findings were published online December 14th in Psychology, Public Policy & Law, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Questioning questionable conclusions

The new study was spearheaded in 2019 by a legal scholar who claimed she and her team had found empirical evidence that allegations of alienation from parents were used to ignore allegations of abuse and often placed the children in the care of potential abusers – and that It also made women more likely to lose custody. The researchers were also concerned that this new work was frequently cited in arguments in the US and abroad for policies and laws suggesting ignoring parental alienation in custody cases.

“That was alarming,” said Harman. What worried them even more was that the legal team’s report did not appear in a peer-reviewed research journal and there was a lack of transparency about their methodology and data, even when Harman’s team requested more information. “The more we got into it, the worse it looked,” she said.

So Harman and Lorandos pondered, “Let’s do a real test using scientific, transparent methods and see if we get the same results,” Harman said. “Good science requires replication. And you should never try to change the guidelines based on a study, let alone a methodologically flawed one. “

They knew it was too important to leave statements based on unclear and questionable research practices. “We have the well-being of families and children at stake,” she added.

Trailblazer for sound science

Before starting data coding and analysis, Harman and Lorandos submitted their hypotheses and methodologies to the Open Science Framework, an open web-based platform that supports research and collaboration. “We wanted to do it right and in a transparent way,” said Harman. “All of our data is up there and anyone can see it.”

After 19 research associates, all blind to the study’s hypothesis, investigated 967 appeal-level legal cases where parental alienation was found or alleged to have occurred, “We have found no support for what she claims. In fact, we found the opposite, ”said Harman. In other words, they found that claims to parental alienation were not used to override allegations of abuse.

The authors believe this is good news and suggest that child protection systems actually worked well. For example, they found that those who alienated a child from another parent had less time to parent. And on the other side of the coin, if a parent claimed to be the victim of an alienation campaign but their accusation was not found credible by an expert, they were no more likely to get more parental leave.

Gender also did not appear to play a role in custody decisions that were alleged to be alienated. And in only about a dozen of the nearly 1,000 custody cases investigated, the courts found the alienation of the parents to be more outrageous than the earlier suspicions of other abuse they had passed on to the latter. The researchers found no evidence that children were brought into the care of actively abusive parents.

“What is encouraging is that the court does not seem to be lightly taking allegations of parental alienation or abuse,” Harman said. “Our data shows that the courts are saying, ‘This is serious and concerns children and we should protect these children from this type of abuse. “

Unfortunately, the 2019 claim to the contrary still holds up, even though “the data doesn’t support it at all,” Harman said. She hopes her new robust study will help turn the tide back to solid science in this research area.

Because if parental alienation claims were discarded when they were actually true, “it would affect thousands, if not millions, of families divorcing or experiencing the consequences of a broken relationship with the other parent,” she said.

The Department of Psychology is located at the College of Natural Sciences.

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