Why Isn’t Parental Alienation a Crime?
The first time a book ever broke my heart it was Push, a novel written by the poet Sapphire and upon which the film Precious was based. In a single, tear-filled night, I stayed up until sunrise reading this story of horrific emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse. Even though the book is a work of fiction, I ached for the real girls who endure such mistreatment, or even a fraction of it.
The second time a book broke my heart was this past week when I finished reading A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation, also in a final marathon read that kept me up much later than I needed to be. And once again, I thought not only of c0-author Mike Jeffries’ real-life horror story, but of all the Mikes–moms and dads–and all the children from whom they’ve been alienated.
What is parental alienation? Parental alienation is a type of emotional abuse. It occurs when “one parent deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent.” We’ve all heard of parents who use their children as weapons in divorce and who actively seek to destroy their children’s relationship with the other parent, but a lot of people aren’t familiar with the terminology “parental alienation.” Some are only introduced to it once their relationship with their child is well on its way to being permanently destroyed.
One of the saddest emails I ever received was from a frantic, frightened non-custodial mother who described an ex-husband who refused to communicate with her, and a formerly loving young daughter who also would no longer speak to her. On top of everything else, the father and daughter were relocating cross-country. Before I could write back to her, the mom emailed again to say that she’d stayed up all night reading online and discovered that her daughter’s pattern of behavior as well as her ex’s had a name: parental alienation.
The American Psychiatric Association recently considered whether or not to include parental alienation as a diagnosis in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-V). Ultimately, they chose not to*, but since this same organization that has also decided to delete narcissistic personality disorder from the DSM, that’s not saying much. As any alienated parent will tell you: It doesn’t matter who does or does not formally recognize parental alienation; the systematic destruction of their once-loving relationship with their child is real, painful, and maddening.
Astonishingly, those who advocate against parental alienation have their critics. Among them are mothers’ rights groups who say that women are disproportionately accused of alienation, and that parental alienation is a smokescreen and a fraud perpetrated by abusive fathers who play the parental alienation “card” in order to gain custody of their children and continue their pattern of abuse, after being accused of child or spousal abuse. But wait a minute? Isn’t lying about alienation, convincing your child she is being harmed, and getting your child to lie and say she is being alienated in order to take he child way from the other parent…isn’t all of this itself a form of alienation? Can we agree that fathers who do this are in fact alienators? How are children served by a blanket dismissal of parental alienation as a scam? Not all accusations of alienation are founded, but neither are they all unfounded.
A common response to parental alienation is to take the alienating parent to court, file motions of contempt, and pursue every legal and therapeutic option available to stop the alienation and repair the relationship between the parent and the child. In court, judges, attorneys, and mental health professionals may dismiss or minimize charges of parental alienation because they’ve come to expect parents to behave badly and to make wild accusations during divorce and custody fights.
But what if the accusations are true?
All too often the alienating behavior is chalked up to bad parenting, and the alienated parent may even be portrayed as equally complicit in his/her child’s struggles.
Parenting alienation isn’t a crime because bad parenting isn’t a crime.
The children in such situations are essentially abandoned by the system. You can’t throw your child out of a window to keep him away from the other parent, and get away with it. But you can do the emotional equivalent of that and get away with it.
Parental alienation is “successful” when alienators and their attorneys get delay after delay in an already backed-up court system. Motions related to parental alienation are not deemed emergencies. So the delays add up, buying the alienating parent more time to drive the wedge deeper between the child and the alienated parent. And here’s the rub: By the time the alienated parent gets his or her day in court, the child’s hatred of , professed fear of, and desire not to spend time with the alienated parent may be so strong, that now the court must consider the trauma that would result from forcing the child to be with a parent who has been so thoroughly painted by the alienating parent as the enemy.
Parental alienation is allowed to continue when judges do not enforce their own contempt of court rulings against alienating parents, with the punitive measures available to them: jail time, fines, and loss of custody. So, the alienating parent can be found in contempt and told to cease and desist the alienating behavior (and take the child to mandatory counseling, etc.), but this parent learns that nothing will be done if he or she doesn’t comply…except maybe another contempt charge brought by the alienated parent. Which brings us back to doe…and the parent is still free to alienate another day.
*Update/correction from author Mike Jeffries: “Parental alienation is still being considered by the DSM Review Committee. You were correct about the committee rejecting alienation for the section that covers mental illness (and I agree with them on this), but there are two other sections of the DSM that alienation can potentially fall under and the committee has not yet made a decision about alienation in those sections.”
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