Parental alienation is one of the most common, and most difficult to prove, complaints a family law attorney gets from a client.
Clients often, and not without justification, allege that the other party is actively trying to interfere and undermine their relationship with their child. The sad part is that while they are often right in their assessment of the other parent’s action, proving alienation in court- usually in the context of contempt of a custody order- is difficult from the very basic standpoint of testimony. The parent alleging alienation will cite examples of behavior, comments, overt acts, subtle innuendo – all kinds of things that illustrate the purposeful action of the other parent to damage the parent/child relationship. The defense? “She’s lying. I didn’t do any of those things.”
Generally, alienation cases are infrequently brought because of the difficulty in proving them. Practically speaking, what can a judge really do to punish the other party? Attorney’s fees? A change in custody schedule? Jail? Unfortunately, even a well-crafted Court Order cannot prevent a stubborn parent from shooting off their mouth about the other parent in front of their child.
Recently, however, we have begun to notice some efforts to deal with parental alienation. Notably, the Overcoming Barriers Family Camp, operated by President Peggie Ward, PhD. Dr. Ward is a psychologist and Co-Founder of the Co-Parenting Assessment Center in Natick, Massachusetts and helped create Overcoming Barriers as a way to “help children and families where one or more children are in danger of losing a relationship (or have lost a relationship) with one of his/her parents.” Initial reports have been positive and it will interesting to see whether this program spawns similar programs through out the country. You can find more information on Overcoming Barriers at http://www.overcomingbarriers.org/.
These programs are not without their detractors or controversy. The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence has been critical of organizations such as the Rachel Foundation for Family Reintegration located in Kerrville, Texas. A February 2, 2009 news release on their position can be found at: http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/med/%20pr2_09.html. The Rachel Foundation strives to overcome, among other forms of abuse, the “abduction of the mind” which may occur in “high-conflict divorce.” The Leadership Council, however, found that some of the “therapeutic” techniques skewed toward “brainwashing” and found them overly coercive.
Despite criticism, controversy, or praise, these programs attempt to address a need which is difficult to confront within the confines of the judicial process. I will be curious to see the data and information developed by Overcoming Barriers. If it can continue to replicate the initial success it has experienced thus far, I would not be surprised to see similar programs develop across the country and become instruments utilized by the Courts.