Parental Alienation: Why It Occurs And How Courts May Rule On The Issue
The practice of family law can be extremely difficult. When couples are involved in the divorce process they are experiencing the worst crisis of their lives. Over my 30 years in practice, I have successfully led my clients through this crisis. It is extremely rewarding to see my clients complete the process and successfully begin the next chapter of their lives. This occurs in most cases.
All that said, the most difficult cases are those that involve a dispute over the parenting of children. (Most jurisdictions, including Illinois, have eliminated the term custody and replaced it with the allocation of parenting time and parenting responsibilities.) These cases are problematic and challenging because the children are often placed in the middle, and as a result have a far greater chance of emotional harm.
The worst parenting disputes occur when one parent attempts to turn a child against the other parent in an effort to destroy the present and future relationship between the child and the other parent. This is referred to as parental alienation. It is a process of manipulation of children by one parent that causes the children to fear and disrespect, without true basis, the other parent. If this form of psychological abuse of children is successful it can result in long-term, and sometimes permanent, estrangement of a child from one parent.
It is tragic enough to have to grieve the loss of the marital relationship, but far worse to also lose the relationship with your child or children and to know the damage this causes your child.
Why does parental alienation occur? In most cases, the parent wishing to alienate the other parent uses this as one of their tools of manipulation by accusing the other parent of abusive behavior. Courts wish to protect children at all costs and this can result in an order removing a parent from the home and substantially restricting their parenting time. This gives the parent attempting to alienate the opportunity to further manipulate the child.
Thankfully over the last 30 years, courts have become more aware of parental alienation, which provides the opportunity to defend against the attacks from the parent attempting to alienate the other.
Despite the fact that parental alienation and the resulting child condition of parental alienation syndrome have become an acknowledged circumstance recognized by the Courts, it is rare to find the phrase “Parental alienation” or a specific definition in any statute. There are statutes that protect a parent’s rights with their children and address abuses of those rights by the other parent. There is a substantial amount of case law in which the courts have removed the children from the parent committing parental alienation and placed them with the other parent. These cases also restrict the parenting time of the abusing parent with the children, which may include supervision of the abusive parent’s parenting time.
In addition to the statutes that protect parent’s rights, there are statutes that provide for the use of other attorneys and professionals to help protect children during the divorce process. The Court may appoint an attorney to represent the children, either as a Child Representative or as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Attorneys appointed in this role have been trained to protect and speak for the interests of the children. They speak for the children and not the parents. Experts, such as child psychologists, can also be appointed by the Court to assist the Court in it’s determination of the best interests of the children and whether the actions of either parent are harming the children. Either party may also retain independent experts, such as psychologists, to provide their expertise to the process.
The best defense to avoid parental alienation is to address it immediately. You must consult your attorney as soon as you suspect the other parent may be manipulating the children against you. This will give you the best opportunity to ensure your children are not harmed by their other parent’s efforts to alienate you.
In closing, divorce can cause erratic behavior that might not otherwise occur, but which stems from resentment, bitterness, and anger toward the soon-to-be ex spouse. Unfortunately, that behavior might include parental alienation, which not only causes further heartache to the divorcing couple, but which leads to unspeakable damage to the couples’ most valuable assets: their children.
Zachary M. Kafoglis is a Partner at Katz & Stefani.