10 Tips For Legal and Mental Health Professionals Involved in Alienation or Alleged Alienation Cases

By Barbara Jo Fidler, Ph.D., Nicholas Bala, J.D., LL.M., and Michael Saini, Ph.D.

1.  Screen and identify parent-child contact problems early

Just as there are different types and degrees of intimate partner violence and high-conflict, there are many reasons for a child to resist or refuse contact, including an age or gender appropriate affinity, initial alignments due to anger related to the separation, adaptation to the situational factors caused by the separation, or a justified rejection (realistic estrangement) due to violence, child abuse or neglect or inept parenting. Alienation is a child’s expression of unreasonable and persistent negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, or fear) toward a parent that is disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent. Many cases have elements of both alienation and justified rejection. Intentional and unintentional parental alienating behaviors by mothers and fathers are common in high-conflict separations; however, despite such parental conduct, many children do not become alienated from either parent.

2.  Triage, for an expedited and differentiated response

Delays and ineffective legal and mental health interventions are likely to entrench family problems and make them more difficult to remedy. A differentiated response is required, depending on the reasons for and the severity of the strained parent -children relationship and the factors that are contributing to the contact problems, including the degree of parents’ intentionality and responsiveness to the child’s needs. If a child’s resistance to visitation results from parental abuse or neglect, this needs to be identified as early as possible with appropriate protection plans put in place for the victimized parent and child. Mild and some moderate alienation cases may respond well to early intervention involving education and therapy, while these are likely to be ineffective in more severe cases and may even exacerbate the problem. In severe alienation cases, the alienating parental conduct is emotionally abusive, often resulting from personality disorders and destructive enmeshed parenting. In these severe cases, where less intrusive remedies have failed and the rejected parent can adequately care for the child, a custody change may be warranted. This is similar to child protection cases, where children may be apprehended from a parent due to severe mental health issues that significantly interfere with parenting capacity. To permit the child to reestablish their previously loving relationship with the rejected parent, the change in custody is likely to require temporary suspension of, or supervised contact with, the alienating parent, and may require therapeutic support.

3.  Listen to the voice of the child

Often, children benefit from being heard and, while not determinative, their wishes and preferences are one important factor in the best interests test. Most children, though, do not want to choose between their parents. In alienation cases, children are unduly influenced by the favored parent, although the children will insist on the independence of their perspectives. Children’s preferences often reflect the immediate future and do not always reflect their long-term best interests. Even within the complexity of these cases, it is important for children’s voices to be heard.

4.  Employ a two-pronged approach, involving both the court and the mental health practitioner

When parent -child contact problems are identified, a case should be referred to effective case management by a single family law judge at the pre-resolution, resolution and enforcement stages of the court process. Mild and moderate alienation cases are likely to benefit from judicial exhortation and encouragement towards counseling and settlement on a basis that has both parents involved in the child’s life. Often, the judge will need to include clear expectations and consequences for noncompliance, which can include specific sanctions or a custody reversal in the most severe cases. Accountability for behavior is less unlikely if the parents face different judges throughout the process. Some degree of reporting back to the court by therapists is necessary to ensure treatment compliance and resolution of the contact problem.

5.  Judges need to effectively enforce all orders

Many alienating parents have personality disorders or related characteristics. Judges must follow through on violations of orders with appropriate responses to failures to comply. Not doing so only reinforces the parent’s narcissism and disregard for authority and rules, characteristics that can be mirrored by alienated children.