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What is Parental Alienation Syndrome and What Role It Plays in Child Custody Cases

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome and What Role It Plays in Child Custody Cases

  • The tragic story of New York attorney and mother Catherine Kassenoff’ is instructive, even if it is an extreme example.

A more difficult custody situation arises when one parent (parent A) claims that the other (parent B) is causing the child to reject parent A. If parent B is in fact actively working to undermine parent A’s relationship with the child, by continuously denigrating parent A in front of the child, that is known as “parental alienation.”

Examples of parental alienation include, but are not limited to:

  • if a father tells a child, “Your mom doesn’t want to see you tonight” when in reality mom is sick or the father told the mother the child couldn’t make, and
  • if a mother repeatedly tells the child, “Your father doesn’t love us” or things of that nature. 

If the child adopts his or her parent’s statements, believes them to be true, and acts out on them by rejecting the other parent, some psychiatrists will say that the child has developed “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS). PAS is when a parent has repeatedly presented a negative view of the other parent to the child, such that the child no longer wants to spend time with the other parent. The primary distinction between parental alienation and PAS is that with PAS the child has adopted the negative view of the other parent as a result of the alienating parent’s campaign to undermine the relationship. 

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) theory was developed by Dr. Richard Gardner, and it traditionally held mothers responsible for negative feelings that children expressed toward their fathers. The use of PAS today can be problematic and disconcerting because PAS can be used by expert psychologists in family law courts to discredit claims of child sexual abuse and domestic violence the children may have suffered or witnessed.

Further, PAS is not generally accepted in the psychological and psychiatric communities because (1) PAS is not a valid psychiatric diagnosis as it’s not recognized in the DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and (2) there is no hard data to truly support the existence of PAS or its determination.

Whether or not PAS is an actual syndrome, courts have acknowledged parental alienation and have found ways to address it. When presented with claims of alienation, it will be crucial that the court determine why the child is alienated, and how to remedy and repair the broken relationship in order to establish both parents’ roles in raising the child.

Some experts state that there are three levels of parental alienation: mild, moderate, and severe. In mild and moderate cases, parental alienation can be handled by therapy and by increasing the amount of time that the child spends with the alienated parent. Typically, a child custody evaluation will be performed by an expert to determine the severity of the problem and from that, recommendations are made for therapy and specific timeshare to improve the relationship between parent and child.

In the most severe alienation cases, the only real solution is to remove the child from the house of the alienating parent and place him or her with the alienated parent. In such severe cases, the alienating parent usually lacks empathy and remorse and will continue to damage the child and sabotage the chances of securing a good relationship with the ousted parent.

Attention should be given to educating the court on the long-term effects of parental alienation through hiring experts who can provide the court with a greater understanding of the long-term damage being done to the children.

Before judges will change custody from one parent to another, they usually want to have a psychological evaluation, which can take anywhere from three months to a year to complete. Some evaluators believe that everyone can be cured with therapy and thus are very reluctant to recommend a custody change to the alienated parent.

Instead, psychologists generally recommend a reunification plan, which involves therapy. The problem is, however, that any benefits gained in therapy are quickly lost when the child returns to the emotional control of the alienating parent. Additionally, the cost of the attorneys, evaluators, and therapists can become staggering. The college education funds of many children of divorced parents have been spent in custody fights.

Once it is obvious that the reunification is not working, the court will want the same or a new psychologist to do a re-evaluation, which again takes a number of months to perform. Meanwhile, years go by and the alienation becomes worse.

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The focus in handling this case for the alienated parent is to push the court for quicker action. Attention should be given to educating the court on the long-term effects of parental alienation through hiring experts who can provide the court with a greater understanding of the long-term damage being done to the children.

Sometimes a mere allegation by an attorney appointed for the kids, or by one spouse when the other has a lawyer, leaves a self-represented parent practically dead. Then one parent loses custody in favor of one side of the lawyers. That parent will now spend every hour and dime fighting for their children. While parents are involved in the divorce proceedings, one lawyer says: “This case had a long complex history,” meaning they are dragging it out. Next, the lawyers start talking about the “conduct ” of one of the parents, so the judge appoints the minor’s counsel and custody evaluators to tell the court what is going on. These are words used to describe what lawyers and custody evaluators use to weaponize children in a divorce. On the extreme, we see alleged abusers getting full custody of children by claiming the other parent is brainwashing the child. Children are depressed losing contact with one parent. Grade slip, friends are lost and then they are more isolated. 

Since news of New York attorney and mother Catherine Kassenoff’s reported assisted suicide in Switzerland, her husband’s former employer—the law firm Greenberg Traurig—has been on the hot seat. In her final letter and social media posts, Catherine publicly blamed the New York family court system and her husband, Allan Kassenoff, for causing her to lose her home, money, job and custody of her daughters. The couple was in the middle of custody litigation that had gone on for four years and Catherine, recently diagnosed with a return of cancer, said she no longer had the strength to fight. 

Robbie Harvey had over 30 Million views on his TikTok videos of attorney Allan Kasenoff, taken by his ex-wife Catherine. In the two weeks that the video went viral, Alan Kassenoff’s abuse of his wife and children was seen by the global public court of opinion.  In the two weeks that the videos went viral, Allan resigned from his job, Samsung announced it would no longer use Allan of the Greenberg Traurig law firm for their legal work, and the curtain was pulled back on what is happening in family court with follow up reporting in the Frank Report, Ms. Magazine and the Daily Mail.

Amy Ghosh is a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles. She migrated to the U.S. in 1987 and has been married to a (retired) rocket scientist for 35 years. She has two adult children. Before becoming an attorney, she was a biochemist and worked for several well-known hospitals and laboratories. Ghosh continues to be very much in touch with her motherland India and her favorite city Calcutta. She has recently produced a Bengali movie “Urojahaj-The Flight” by acclaimed filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Ghosh is continually looking for meaningful opportunities to contribute to society through her legal and social work.

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