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This mass-media news article implies the importance of a controversial
dysfunctional-family stressor called the "Parental Alienation Syndrome"
(PAS). See my comments after the article. The links, boxes, and hilights below
are mine. -
Peter Gerlach, MSW
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8 self-improvement lessons in this nonprofit Web site. I've reduced that to
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NEW YORK – The
American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a hot potato on its hands as it
updates its catalog of mental disorders — whether to include parental
alienation, a disputed term conveying how
a child's relationship with one
estranged parent can be poisoned by the other.
There's broad agreement that this sometimes occurs, usually triggered by a
divorce and child-custody dispute. But
there's bitter debate over whether
the phenomenon should be formally classified as a mental health syndrome
— a question now before the psychiatric association as it prepares the first
complete revision since 1994 of its
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
"We're gotten an enormous amount of mail — more than any other issue," said
Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the manual. "The
passions on both sides of this are exceptional."
On one side of the debate, which has raged since the 1980s, are feminists,
advocates for battered women and others who consider "parental alienation
syndrome" to be an unproven and potentially dangerous concept useful to men
trying to deflect attention from their abusive behavior.
"This is a fabricated notion — there's no science to support it," said Joan
Meier, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who has
written extensively on domestic violence and child custody.
On the other side are legions of firm believers in the existence of a
syndrome, including hundreds gathering for a conference on the topic this
weekend in New York. They say that recognition of parental alienation in the
psychiatrists' manual would lead to fairer outcomes in family courts and
enable more children of divorce to get treatment so they could reconcile
with an estranged parent.
"This is a problem that causes
horrible outcomes for children. ... All the arguments I've heard
against it are trivial," said Dr. William Bernet, a psychiatry professor at
the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Bernet is among the speakers at this weekend's conference, which organizers
bill as the largest ever on parental alienation. He will be describing his
efforts as lead author of the proposal submitted to the psychiatric
association to recognize parental
alienation either as a "mental disorder" or a "relational problem."
The psychiatric association first published its manual of diagnostic
disorders, known as the DSM, in 1952. The last major revision was published
in 1994 and updated in 2000, and the fifth edition — DSM-5 — is due for
publication in May 2013.
Work groups in various fields have been reviewing numerous proposals for
additions to the 283 disorders in the current edition. Parental alienation
remains on a list of proposals that are subject to further review, though it
did not pass muster with the work group dealing with childhood and
"There is not sufficient scientific evidence to warrant its inclusion in the
DSM," Regier said in a statement.
In an interview, Regier — who directs the APA's research division — said the
proposal technically remains alive pending final presentations by the end of
2011. But he described chances for inclusion of parental alienation as
"slim" — given that it has not been selected for field trials that normally
would be a prerequisite for official recognition.
Bernet said it was "flatly ridiculous" for the APA to contend there is not
enough information available to warrant including parental alienation in the
DSM. He cited legal developments and new research in numerous foreign
His proposal defines
parental alienation disorder as "a mental condition in which a
child, usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict
divorce, allies himself or her-self strongly with one parent, and
rejects a relationship with the other parent, without legitimate
Goldberg runs a consulting service for lawyers and parents litigating issues
related to parental alienation. In his online biography, he says he "fought
one of the most brutal case of parental alienation in Palm Beach County
history" during a child-custody dispute with his ex-wife in Florida that
extended from 2003 to 2006.
"This touches lives of more people
than anyone imagines," Goldberg said by telephone from Canada. "It's
not just about a child turned against a parent, through hatred. This affects
grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends — all of them thrown out
when a child rejects a parent."
Some of Goldberg's allies doubt the psychiatric association is ready to
include parental alienation in its manual. New York-based psychologist Amy
Baker, who has written a book about parental alienation, suggested the
association might "play it safe" and decline to recognize it for fear of
provoking feminist groups.
However, Goldberg is hopeful.
"There's a long way to go over the next few years before they make a final
decision," he said. "There will be enormous pressure. ...I think it will be
difficult for the APA not to include it."
Parental alienation surged onto the pop-culture radar screen a few years ago
as a consequence of the bitter divorce and child custody battle involving
actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Baldwin was harshly criticized by some
feminist groups for citing parental alienation syndrome as a source of his
estrangement with his daughter.
The concept is a source of confusion
and division in the legal profession, as some lawyers try to evoke
parental alienation and others challenge that tactic.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lerhmann, chair of the American Bar
Association's family law section, said the issue of possible alienation can
be raised in child custody proceedings whether or not any such phenomenon is
classified as a disorder by health professionals.
"Anyone who's in this business knows there are situations where that in fact
is happening — and sometimes it's alleged but is not happening," she said.
"Even if it's not in the manual, relevant evidence can still be brought
Meier, the George Washington law professor, has urged judges to be cautious
in how they allow the topic to be raised in cases where one estranged parent
is accused by the other of
"You've got to assess the abuse first, without poisoning it with a claim of
alienation," Meier said. "Only after abuse is ruled out do you then move on
to the question of alienation."
Elizabeth Kates, a Pompano Beach, Fla., lawyer who deals often with child
custody cases, is skeptical of the role parental alienation can play in such
disputes: "It's a very easy claim to make ... but the problem arises when
it's used in court to obscure the investigation of whether there's been
She said the initial impetus for recognition of parental alienation syndrome
came in large part from the fathers' rights movement, but suggested much of
the momentum now comes from psychologists, consultants and others who could
profit if the concept had a more formal status in family court disputes.
"It's monetary," Kates said.
"These psychologists and therapists
make huge money doing the evaluations and therapies."
This mass-media news article illustrates several important points about the
current controversy over "Parent Alienation Syndrome" (PAS):
PAS is important enough to warrant a
national convention of mental-health professionals and a Canadian
Symposium. No estimate was mentioned of how common PAS is in America or
PAS can be difficult to assess. It ranges
between "alleged" and obvious;
whether evidence of PAS warrants it's
official recognition by the American Psychiatric Association is debated.
Such recognition would enhance it's legal potency in child-custody
different interest groups (feminists,
fathers' rights advocates, family law professionals, anti-abuse groups,
mental health professionals) have different opinions about PAS and its
most authorities quoted in the article agree
that PAS exists. One authority rightly acknowledges it hurts all
family members, not just kids.
This article doesn't include
the inflammatory PAS dynamic that the custodial parent intentionally
biases their child against their non-custodial parent.
None of the authorities quoted, nor the
author of the article, imply that PAS is a sign of family-system
dysfunction, rather than "a mental health issue" or a
"behavioral problem." This demonstrates our cultural ignorance and unawareness.
The article makes no attempt to explore the causes of epidemic
family dysfunction, divorce, or PAS, or what to do about them.
After 36 years as a family-system therapist specializing in
divorcing and re/married families, I believe the unrecognized root
causes of divorce and PAS are epidemic [psychological
the generations and weakening global societies. This nonprofit Web site
exists to alert people to this menace.
I also believe the great majority of lay and professional people who are
affected by - and concerned about - PAS are unaware of these root
causes and what to do about them. Until this changes, arguing over whether
to include PAS in the APA diagnostic manual or not, or whether to focus on
abuse before PAS, are major wastes of time and resources. They
demonstrate our cultural denial of the real problems - unqualified
child conceptions and incompetent parenting. - Peter Gerlach, MSW