Attorneys should no longer tolerate parental alienation, because of the damage it does to children and the cycle of abuse it supports.
By Plinio J. Garcia, CEO & Consultant, Major Family Services
A very prestigious attorney in Century City recently told me that sometimes the family court system in Los Angeles rewards the behavior of alienating parents with legal and physical custody of their children because it is in “the best interest of the child to stop the tug-of-war between parents.” This counsel was trying to explain to me why we sometimes have to “give up” on our children to minimize the psychological damage of alienation. I was shocked! How can a parent give up on a child, knowing that the other parent is traumatizing him or her? Attorneys should no longer tolerate parental alienation, because of the damage it does to children and the cycle of abuse it supports. Provided below is practical advice for lawyers who feel ethically compelled to protect innocent children from parental alienation.
Parental alienation, or PA, can be said to occur “any time one parent communicates in a derogatory way about the other parent in a manner that affects their child or children emotionally, psychologically or even physically.” Based on my observations and those of Amy Baker, PhD, there are four types of parents who alienate:
- Narcissistic parent in an intact family
- Narcissistic parent in a divorced or separated family
- Abusive or rejecting parent in an intact family
- Abusive or rejecting parent in a divorced or separated family
Briefly, the narcissistic parent will engage the child emotionally and with material things in order to win the child over and make him or her reject the other parent. Typically, an abusive or rejecting parent is never affectionate to the child and mistreats the child so as to cause him or her to reject the other parent. In either case, the psychological damage is usually long-lasting (sometimes permanent) and even creates a cycle of alienation throughout various generations of a family. To end this pattern of abuse, we have to stop trying to appease the alienating parent.
Many attorneys seem afraid to get the police involved in cases of parental alienation, and they counsel their clients to try to come to some sort of resolution without involving the authorities. This advice is perfectly fine when both parents are truly looking out for the best interests of the child. However, when one parent is not, attorneys should advise their clients that if they believe the other parent is causing the child physical or psychological harm, whether in the clients’ presence or in private time spent with the child, they should call law enforcement. Parents in high-conflict divorces should get to know their local law enforcement officers. Obtain the phone number of the local police station or sheriff’s office to avoid calling 911. Attorneys should be willing to communicate with the authorities to protect their clients and their clients’ children. Many times, an experienced juvenile detective can look out for alienating behavior in order to minimize its trauma on children. If visits are monitored, the exchanges should take place at the local law enforcement office.
Children’s Services Agencies
When my own children were demonstrating alienating behavior during the process of separation/divorce, my attorney told me not to involve the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). That was a mistake; I have since learned that the DCFS can help. What is most important when engaging an agency like the DCFS is to communicate in detail what is happening. Neither you nor your client should be afraid to explain your concerns. Advise your client that it is a bureaucratic process and it takes time, but time spent with the staff of these agencies sometimes pays off and saves your client more time and a lot of money. It also lets the other parent know that you and your client will protect the children using all of the resources available.
“It is a crime in California to intercept or eavesdrop upon any confidential communication, including a telephone call or wire communication, without the consent of all parties” (Cal. Penal Code §§ 631, 632). There are similar laws in all 50 states. Although I do not encourage recording phone calls, it may be necessary in order to protect a child when the alienating behavior is extreme. Over the phone, an alienating parent might threaten a child or encourage the child to disrespect the other parent. I have consulted on cases in which, for example, the alienating parent instructs an eight-year-old to tell the other parent, “I hate you. Don’t tell me you love me.” It can be very important to make sure your client is allowed to record conversations between the alienating parent and the child, whether these exchanges take place via phone, Skype, FaceTime, or another technology. If your client obtains a restraining order, make it clear in the order that these communications can be recorded.
Many parents use text messaging to communicate with each other about their children. The content of a text message becomes a permanent written record. Advise your client always to be polite in text messages and only to convey what is essential about the children. The only time your client should respond to the other parent about an issue unrelated to the children is if the alienating parent accuses your client of a crime. Your client should immediately respond, “This is not true,” and continue to text about the children. Your client does not need to explain himself or herself to the accuser.
It is also important that your client save or capture screenshots of all text messages exchanged with the other parent, for legal purposes. Ask your client, if possible, to send you images of any accusatory or alienating texts in chronological order; you can use these messages to help make a case for the disturbing behavior of the alienating parent when you go before a judge or a government agency representative.
If the other parent is dangerous, abusive, alienating, or a substance abuser, insist on monitored visits for your client’s children. However, be very careful about the monitoring agency that you advise your client to use. Remember that the monitoring agency is frequently paid by the supervised parent. If the reports are good, the supervised parent continues with that monitor. If the reports are bad, the supervised parent pushes to fire the monitor. Whenever possible, ask your client to keep a journal of what transpires at the exchanges and when the children return. Are the children acting differently? Are they hungry? Did they meet strange people? Do they begin to disobey your client?
If your client uses Our Family Wizard (software that helps divorced parents manage their children’s schedules), insist that your client record the events in that program. If the monitor writes lengthy reports praising the alienating parent, there may be something wrong, as the monitors’ reports should be factual and unbiased. Make certain the monitor’s reports are consistent with what really happened, based on your knowledge of the facts and your records. Don’t allow false statements to become part of any record. If you don’t like a monitor or if this individual is not doing his or her job correctly, report the problems to the monitoring agency and to the court, and get a replacement.
Friends and Family
Children naturally want to feel safe and happy. It is crucial for you to advise your clients to surround themselves with good friends and family members so that their children feel secure and content. Alienating parents are usually loners, as their actions have pushed away most logical adults. Therefore, it is important for your clients to have normal lives and encourage their children to go on play dates, participate in school outings, and be able to observe non-alienating behavior. Children naturally prefer composed and easygoing parents to those who are always creating negativity. Moreover, children’s services organizations respect parents who have a solid network of friends and family.
It Takes a Village
It is extremely important for attorneys who represent alienated parents to seek out free assistance from the community. Do not be shy about asking your client to obtain declarations from as many supportive professionals and unbiased individuals as possible. The other side can pay for an “expert witness” to say whatever they want to prove alienating behavior from your client, but it is impossible to pay witnesses who are good parents themselves, and who care for the well-being of your client’s children. Seek those witnesses help or subpoena them.
Many alienating parents are liars. They lie to their children, the courts, their own attorneys, the schools, and whomever they can in order to keep their children from loving the other parent. Alienated parents have to protect themselves from the continuous lies; the truth is what will save them. Explain to your client how important it is to be brutally honest when children ask questions. (Studies show that honesty is the best defense against parental alienation.) If a subject is too mature for a child, the parent should provide an age-appropriate response and explain that they will discuss this adult subject at a future time. Ethical attorneys will even help their clients explain their current legal circumstances to children in a manner that is healthy and honest.
In parental alienation cases, experts say that the alienated parents put in extra effort to not resort to the same tactics. Attorneys of alienated parents have to be more patient with these clients than with those who are not experiencing parental alienation. Alienated parents are usually caring individuals who are constantly harassed by the other parent and must repeatedly defend themselves against things they never did. Many of these clients have suffered from a form of PTSD due to years of appeasing the alienating parent. I strongly suggest that attorneys have extra sympathy for these clients so that they are able to cope with the situation and continue to guide and love their children.
Challenge the Other Side
Alienated parents who are always looking out for their children’s best interests tend to retain the services of well-intentioned attorneys who also look out for the children’s best interests and view having a two-parent family as important. Good people seek out good professionals. By the same token, narcissistic alienating parents who are only looking at what is important for them often hire law firms that encourage alienating behavior. If you are an attorney who is facing such an adversary, you have to point out to the court everything that is wrong with the other side’s declarations, witness reports, selection of monitors, selection of evaluators, etc. You cannot allow anything false or inaccurate to go unchallenged or unnoticed. As judges are overworked and understaffed, they may need your help to remind them of the details of every case. It is your obligation to point out any concerns. Re-read stipulations and orders prepared by the other side several times before you agree to them and consider having an objective colleague also read documents prepared by opposing counsel. If the other side recommends a monitor, evaluator, or psychologist, research the suggested person or have your client interview him or her. Do not simply agree because you want to “cooperate.” Do not assume that everyone is as prepared or as ethical as you are.
Alienating parents, who are represented by law firms that are more concerned about billable hours than about the psychological effects of alienating behavior on innocent children, must be stopped. It is up to good-intentioned and ethically moral attorneys like you to stop the abuse caused by parental alienation.
1. Jayne Major, “Parental Alienation (PA) & Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)” (Major Family Services, 2010).
2. Amy J. L. Baker, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007).
3. P. Garcia, “Helping Your Clients When Parental Alienation Happens,” Valley Lawyer Magazine (May 2013): 30.
4. “Recording Telephone Calls: State-by-State Directory,” Mr.CustodyCoach.com, http://www.mrcustodycoach.com/blog/resources/recording-telephone-calls-laws-state-by-state-directory.
Plinio J Garcia, CEO of Major Family Services, has a passion for helping parents for the benefit of the child. Major Family Services offers classes, consulting, books and educational materials that address a broad range of unique parental training situations that can benefit all types of parents.