April 20, 2007 -- Sometimes explosions can reveal as much as they destroy.
While Alec Baldwin's shockingly abusive tirade against his 11-year-old daughter may have devasted her and ruined his chances in his bitter custody fight with ex-wife Kim Basinger, it illuminates a common but very controversial issue in family law: parental alienation.
In a statement issued today, Baldwin himself put it front and center. He said he was "sorry for losing my temper with my child" but claims that he has "been driven to the edge by parental alienation for many years now."
According to the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization website, this is any behavior that "can effectively alienate a child from a parent." Examples include "speaking negatively about a parent to or in front of a child and interfering with communication and visitation."
By that qualifier, both Baldwin and Basinger might be guilty. In their contentious six-year custody battle for their daughter Ireland, they have publicly spoken "negatively" of each other, trading charges of physical abuse, mental instability and disregarding court orders.
But while no one would defend Baldwin's behavior, his suggestion that he was "driven" to erupt by Basinger's efforts to alienate him from their daughter doesn't surprise divorce attorneys and people familiar with family law. It is a charge most commonly leveled against the parent with primary custody by the "non-custodial" parent and that is most commonly fathers. (Ireland lives with her mother.)
Turning a Father Against a Daughter
According to Robert Segal, a Chicago divorce attorney who frequently writes and lectures on child custody issues, fathers charging parental alienation "is a way of overcoming the presumption on behalf of mothers" that most often results in their being granted custody.
Ronald Isaacs, founder of the Fathers' Rights Foundation, adds that "this is the grounds where fathers do win custody, where they prove that the other parent is trying to alienate the child and interfere with visitation."
How does parental alienation happen? Segal says "overscheduling" is a popular method of creating distance between a child and the non-custodial parent. "The custodial parent says "You can't see Susie this Saturday because she's got a soccer game at 2 and a baseball game at 3 and Sunday, she's got karate practice.' People always go to court over that."
Isaacs listed other common tactics. "Say the child has telephone contact at a certain time and the parent will stand right there and listen to every word." Or a parent will say to a child that the other parent "doesn't love you anymore. He has left the house and forgotten you."
Such efforts to interfere with parenting can cause tremendous frustration. Not surprisingly, children can wind up the victim. When couples are separated, notes Segal, "you are not going to have the opportunity to blame who you deem to be the culprit of your frustrations, the ex-spouse. You're going to blame the person who happens to be right there, the child."
Might this be what happened in Baldwin's recorded tirade against his daughter? He leveled contempt of court charges against Basinger last year for, among other things, blocking his visitation rights. She was arraigned on those charges in October. So there was a history, at least from his perspective of, interference with a custody agreement.
Baldwin's Blown Chances
Bruce Boyer of Loyola University's Child Law Center observes that "if you start with the assumption that this is a guy who had a great deal of difficulty maintaining a relationship with his daughter because of the contentiousness of the divorce and custody battle, then it's not hard to understand how someone would get to the point of being angry." Boyer hastily adds "that doesn't even begin to excuse" Baldwin's tirade but he "probably really wanted to level it at the child's mother."
But Baldwin has dealt a severe blow to his custody claims in the future. The welfare of children is the primary concern of family law judges. "So regardless of who's wrong and who's right in terms of frustrating visitation rights," says Segal, "if the court finds that you have involved the child to the extent that Baldwin did here, [it] is going to lash out and come down very, very hard on him, regardless if Kim Basinger is the Wicked Witch of the West. This guy has no defense."
Isaacs, who is a prominent fathers' rights advocate, agrees that Baldwin "blew" his chances at custody and may have even "slowed the progress" of fathers rights in this country. But he argues that in this case, "we have two abusing parents. One is abusing the child by alienating her against her father, causing that emotional damage to the child. And then Alec Baldwin directly mentally abused the child by his flare-up."
Segal suggests that Basinger is guilty of a different kind of abuse if it comes out that she intended for this tape to become public. "Then what she did is almost as bad as or perhaps worse for the child's welfare: Would you want the world to know that your daughter was called a "pig" by her father? That's not doing your child a service to let the world know that."