by John E. B. Myers, Professor
is an excerpt from a book titled
Psychological and medical syndromes play an important role in understanding behavior and providing treatment to victims of abuse. Unfortunately, there is one so-called syndrome that, in my opinion, does tremendous harm to many children and their parents, particularly mothers seeking custody in family court. I speak of psychiatrist Richard Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome (1987.) Gardner writes:
Gardner is an outspoken critic of certain aspects of the child protection system. Apparently, Gardner believes America is in the throes of mass hysteria over child sexual abuse.
He writes that "sex-abuse hysteria is omnipresent" (1992, p. xxv). In his 1991 book titled Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited, Gardner is harshly critical of an unspecified portion of the mental health professionals, investigators, and prosecutors trying to protect children. For example, Gardner accuses some prosecutors of gratifying their own sexual urges and sadistic tendencies through involvement in sexual abuse cases. Gardner goes so far as to say that "there is a bit of pedophilia in every one of us" (p. 118). It seem clear that Richard Gardner cannot claim to be balanced or objective when it comes to allegations of child sexual abuse.
Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome has not, to my knowledge, been subjected to empirical study, research, or testing. Nor to my knowledge, has the syndrome been published in peer reviewed medical or scientific journals.
Rather, the syndrome is simply Richard Gardner's opinion, based on his clinical experience. Of course, the fact that Parental Alienation Syndrome is based on one man's experience does not imply there is something wrong with the syndrome. Nevertheless, it is clear that the syndrome is not accepted as a scientifically reliable way of telling whether an allegation of sexual abuse is true or false. Moreover, in my opinion, much of Gardner's writing, including his Parental Alienation Syndrome, is biased against women. This gender bias infects the syndrome, and makes it a powerful tool to undermine the credibility of women who allege child sexual abuse. Because parental alienation perpetuates and exacerbates gender bias against women, I believe the syndrome sheds much more darkness than light on this difficult issue.
Another term coined by Richard Gardner is "Sex Abuse Legitimacy Scale." Of this scale, Lucy Berliner and Jon Conte write:
In 1988, researcher and author Jon Conte wrote that Gardner's Sex Abuse Legitimacy Scale is "probably the most unscientific piece of garbage I've seen in the field in all my time. To base social policy on something as flimsy as this is exceedingly dangerous" (Moss, 1988, p. 26).
If you are a woman and you allege child sexual abuse, expect to be attacked with Richard Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome. Gardner's writing is popular among attorneys who represent men accused of abuse, and among some mental health professionals. Your attorney must be prepared to counteract the misleading and destructive effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Sex Abuse Legitimacy Scale.
In the Winter, 1989, issue of "American Fatherhood, The Voice of Responsible and Dedicated Fatherhood" (F.A.I.R. The National Fathers' Organization, Camden, Delaware), Richard Gardner, in his article "Parental Alienation Syndrome," asks "why do some mothers do everything in their power to alienate the children from the father? What can be done?"
Mothers are most often labeled with PAS, not fathers. Gardner's description of the mothers behavior under his three PAS categories of severe, moderate, and mild is not only his personal opinion, but it also exposes his sexism and bias against women. PAS is designed to be used during a contested child custody hearing, particularly when allegations of child sexual abuse are made. The ultimate goal is removal of the child from the home and custody of the mother, and award full custody to the allegedly abusive father.
The cards are stacked against the mother from the moment PAS is introduced in the courtroom. PAS is set up in such a manner that the mother is guaranteed to be labeled with this dubious syndrome, and that removal of the child from her care is the only possible outcome. She is guaranteed to lose custody of her children unless her counsel demonstrates the gaping flaws within PAS. The court personnel must not only be made aware that PAS is not recognized as a valid medical syndrome by the AMA and the APA, but that use of this dubious syndrome as a means of removing custody from fit mothers alleging abuse will not be kept quiet.
PAS is designed to work in a court setting, otherwise "treatment of such families" (i.e.; removal of the child permanently from the mother's care) won't be successful. Gardner emphasizes that "in many cases the therapy of these families is not possible without court support. Only the court has the power to order these mothers to stop their manipulations and maneuvering. And it is only the court that has the power to place the children in whichever home would best suit their needs at the particular time. Therapists who embark upon the treatment of such families without such court backing are not likely to be successful. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough."
The mother is not only prohibited from having fair court representation, she is also prohibited from having fair and even-handed therapy. Gardner finds it imperative that "... the therapist be court ordered and have direct input to the judge. This can often be facilitated by the utilization of a guardian ad litem or a child advocate, who has the opportunity for direct communication with the court. The mother must know that any obstructionism on her part will be immediately reported to the judge, either by the therapist or though the guardian ad litem or child advocate. The court must be willing to impose sanctions such as fines or jail. The threat of loss of primary custody can also help such mothers 'remember to cooperate.'" Mothers in these cases are forced to adhere to prearranged "treatment" regardless of whether or not they agree with any of the decisions being made. If they voice objections, they will be labeled as uncooperative and/or mentally ill.
Under his category of "severe" PAS, he states that "... the mothers of these children are often fanatic. They will use every mechanism at their disposal (legal and illegal) to prevent visitation. They are obsessed with antagonism towards their husbands. In many cases, they are paranoid. Sometimes the paranoid thoughts and feelings about the husband are isolated to him alone; in other cases this paranoia is just one example of many types of paranoid thinking. Often the paranoia did not exhibit itself prior to the breakup of the marriage and may be a manifestation of the psychiatric deterioration that frequently is seen in the context of disputes, especially custody disputes." Such generalizations are quite common descriptions under PAS, stigmatizing a mother who is attempting to protect her child if she believes that child is being sexually abused.
He continues with the opinion that these mothers project onto their husbands "... many noxious qualities that actually exist within themselves. By projecting these unacceptable qualities onto their husbands they can consider themselves innocent victims. When a sex-abuse allegation becomes part of the package, they may be projecting their own sexual inclinations onto him. In the service of this goal they exaggerate and distort any comment the child makes that might justify the accusation. And this is not difficult to do because children normally will entertain sexual fantasies, often of the most bizarre form. I am in agreement with Freud that children are "polymorphous perverse" and they thereby provide these mothers with an ample supply of material to serve as a nuclei for their projections and accusations." All this from the man who said that there is some pedophilia in every one of us.
Not content with labeling the mother with a dubious mental disorder, Gardner goes as far as labeling the children as "similarly fanatic." These fanatic children apparently "... have joined together with her [the mother] in a relationship in which they share her paranoid fantasies about the father." The way PAS is designed, a child who acts out, discusses what he or she believes is inappropriate sexual behavior coming from the allegedly abusive father, or demonstrates fear when in the presence of the man identified as the abuser will immediately assume to have been coached by the offending mother. These children will not be believed, and will not receive the care and protection they desparately need. Gardner takes legitimate concerns such as a child exhibiting fear over the prospect of visitation with an allegedly abusing father, "blood-curdling shrieks, panicked states, and hostility so severe that visitation is impossible...," and creates the assumption that the child is either lying about the abuse or has been coached by the mother to behave in such a manner.
In "moderate" cases of PAS, Gardner makes more generalized and sexist comments such as "... the rage-of-the-rejected-woman factor is more important than the paranoid projection contribution." He cites the mothers' "... campaign of denigration and a significant desire to withhold the children from the father as a vengeance maneuver." He states that a major difference between "severe" PAS in mothers as opposed to "moderate" PAS is that the mothers in the "severe" category "... have a sick psychological bond with the children (often a paranoid one)." Mothers suffering from "moderate" PAS are more likely to have a " ... healthy psychological bond that is being compromised by their rage." One wonders if the more likely a mother is to stand by her beliefs and principles and not acquiesce under pressure from her ex and others in the court in order to protect her child, the more likely she is to be labeled within one of the more "severe" PAS categories. If she is fairly easy to manipulate and control, most likely her level of PAS will be on a milder side.
Children are not to be believed according to PAS, and the therapists, judges, lawyers, child advocates, and guardians ad litem who support it will ensure that the children's needs are not met. Gardner goes as far as to compare a child's cries for help regarding sexual abuse to getting a polio shot. The court's therapist "... must have a thick skin and be able to tolerate the shrieks and claims of maltreatment that these children will provide. Doing what children profess they want is not always the same as doing what is best for them. Therapists of the persuasion that they must 'respect' their child patients and accede to their wishes will be doing these children a terrible disservice. These same therapists would not 'respect' a child's wish not to have a polio shot, yet they will respect the child's wish not to see a father who shows no significant evidence of abuse, maltreatment, neglect, etc." The most astounding statement Gardner makes regarding children who are alleging abuse is that "... to take the allegations of maltreatment seriously is a terrible disservice to these children."
Therapy is seen as the only means of treating PAS. However, Gardner states that "therapy for the children ... is most often not possible while the children are still living in the mother's home." Since therapy is the only treatment possible, and Gardner himself has stated that child therapy with "evidence" of PAS will not be successful as long as the child is living with the mother, court-ordered placement with the alleged abuser is 100% guaranteed. He states that "... the first step toward treatment is removal of the children from the mother's home and placement in the home of the father." PAS is set up in advance to remove children from the mother's care. If PAS is introduced by the father, his attorney, his court-appointed and self-selected therapists, so-called child advocates, and the court-appointed guardian ad litem during a contested child custody hearing, the mother is guaranteed to lose custody of her children unless Gardner's "Sex Abuse Legitimacy Scale" is shown to be what University of Washington Professor John Conte has described as "[p]robably the most unscientific piece of garbage I've seen in the field in all my time."
Gardner states that if the mother has her own therapist, "... a mutual admiration society may develop in which the therapist (consciously or unconsciously) becomes the mother's champion in the fight. Women in this category have a way of selecting therapists who will support their antagonism toward the father. Most often, the mother chooses a woman as a therapist -- especially a woman who is herself antagonistic toward men." The mothers' side of the story is guaranteed from the get-go to (1) not be heard, or (2) deemed sick. If she does have a therapist, the courts view will immediately be tainted against that person under PAS because when therapists who supports the mother manage to have any contact with the alleged abuser, they -- especially if female -- "... typically will be hostile and unsympathetic."
Gardner encourages the court to prohibit the children from being "... 'treated' by her (as mentioned, rarely a man)." He urges the court to order the mother to see the court's therapist, "... even though her cooperation is not likely to be significant and even though she may be influenced significantly by her therapist." Once again, the system is set up in such a way that the mother cannot protect either her own interests or that of her children. If she attempts to do so, she will be severely penalized by removal of her children from her care and/or prohibition of any contact with her children whatsoever.
From "Issues and Dilemmas in Family Violence," published by the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence And The Family:
Please note that Parental Alienation Syndrome is NOT recognized as a valid medical syndrome by either the AMA or the APA. Gardner's work has never been up for peer review. He's able to get around this by publishing his own works. Creative Therapeutics, the publisher of his books, including Parental Alienation Syndrome, is his own publishing company. PAS is based strictly on his own observation.
OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SUBJECT:
WHAT'S THIS DOING IN A COURT OF LAW?
GETTING IT WRONG IN CHILD CUSTODY CASES
For much much more, and the latest research and articles on parental alienation syndrome
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