Are Some Divorcing Parents Brainwashing Their Children? The Controversial Idea of Parental Alienation

PHOTO: A mother is seen with her son in this undated file photo.PlayGetty Images
WATCH Sisters Disappear During Parents' Bitter Custody, Divorce Battle: Part 1

In heated custody battles, a particularly explosive conflict can arise. One parent accuses the other of abusing their child. The accused parent, however, will sometimes say the child was brainwashed into making false accusations.

The stakes are enormous – a child can end up in the custody of an abuser, or an innocent parent can be labeled a monster. A family court judge must decide who is telling the truth and then seal the family’s fate.

When Parents Brainwash Their Kids

“Parental alienation” is the idea that one parent can maliciously turn a child against the other parent for no good reason. Dr. Richard Warshak calls it “divorce poison.”

“The kids hear a steady drumbeat about a parent’s flaws and lies that portray the parent as unloving and unworthy of love,” explained Warshak, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and author of "Divorce Poison."

Alienated children, he says, will “pull away from a formerly loved mother or father, and often an entire extended family, leaving the rejected relatives puzzled over what they might have said or done that caused a total rupture in relations.”

Children who suffer from parental alienation may behave reprehensibly toward a caring parent without feeling any shame and hold no positive thoughts or memories of that parent, said Warshak.

When alienation is extreme, children can be manipulated into making false accusations of child abuse against even the most loving parent, he said.

Are Some Judges Ignoring Child Abuse Because of “Parental Alienation” Claims?

The widespread acceptance of parental alienation claims in family courts nationwide has sparked a heated controversy.

Critics, like law professor Joan Meier of George Washington University, believe judges too often reject child abuse allegations made during custody battles because they assume the child was brainwashed to lie.

“If you raise child abuse in court, you've got to make a very strong case. If you can't nail it, not only will you lose custody, you may lose all access to your child because the assumption will be that you've poisoned your child's brain with these ideas,” said Meier.

PHOTO: Joan Meier is a professor of Clinical Law at George Washington University Law School.ABC News
Joan Meier is a professor of Clinical Law at George Washington University Law School.

In a pilot study of 240 cases, Meier’s provisional findings suggest that in 80 percent of parental alienation cases where a mother alleged child abuse against the father, the mother lost primary or joint custody of her kids. Many of these parents, Meier believes, “were punished for reporting abuse.”

There is also concern within the medical community. “There is insufficient scientific evidence that parental alienation is a real mental disorder,” said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and former president of the American Psychiatric Association.

While badmouthing another parent can be harmful to children, Appelbaum said that “we ought to be careful about throwing around terms [like parental alienation] that carry such strong pejorative connotations, especially when the consequences can change a child’s life forever.”

An Underground Network to Hide Children

Damon Dumas spoke to ABC News about the child abuse he said he suffered at the hands of his father. He said that a family court judge ignored his allegations, concluded that he had suffered parental alienation by his mother, and ordered him into the full custody of his father. Damon’s father has denied ever abusing his son and a judge in their case agreed there was no credible evidence to corroborate the accusations of abuse.

With his mother’s help, Dumas ran away from home and into a secret underground network of friends and strangers who hide children from a parent with custody. During those dark days, Damon says even his mother did not know his exact whereabouts: “She handed me off to someone she trusted, who handed me off to someone else that she trusted,” he said.

Dumas spent 1 year and 8 months in hiding, always moving, and living in 10 different homes despite “crushing loneliness,” he said.

Today, Dumas advocates for other children who claim that family court judges wrongly found “parental alienation” by one parent, instead of child abuse by the other. Working with the organizations Safe Kids International and The Women’s Coalition, he helps raise awareness about what they call “the epidemic of court-licensed abuse.”

Family Court Judges Must Decide Who Is Telling the Truth

Legal experts say parental alienation claims can be treated very differently depending on where you are and which judge hears your case.

“You can take the same story, same facts, presented the exact same way, and you will get a different result depending on which judge’s courtroom you walk into,” said veteran family law attorney Lynne Gold-Bikin.

“Sometimes these parents are telling the truth, and sometimes they’re not,” said Gold-Bikin, who has represented parents both claiming and being accused of parental alienation.

Family court judges may find it difficult to know who is being truthful. “They are not given a crystal ball when they get on the bench,” she said.

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