Claims of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) and parental alienation have come to dominate custody litigation, especially where abuse is alleged. While much psychological and legal literature has critiqued PAS, and leading researchers as well as most professional institutions have renounced the syndrome concept, alienation as a parental behavior or child’s condition continues to be extensively investigated and credited in research and forensic contexts. This article reviews the history of PAS, both as posited by its inventor, Richard Gardner, and as used and applied in courts, suggesting that it not only lacks empirical basis or objective merit, but that it derives from its author’s troubling beliefs about adult and child sexual interaction. It then examines the more recent explorations of non-syndrome "alienation" as proffered by Janet Johnston and others, noting both its more balanced and grounded nature and its more modest remedial implications. However, the article concludes that PA is too closely tied to PAS to be an adequate improvement, because it too is used crudely in courts to defeat abuse allegations, it continues to rely on speculations about mothers’ purported unconscious desires and their effects on children, and, more subtly than PAS, minimizes abuse and its effects on mothers and children. At root, while even PA researchers have found it to be a real issue in only a small minority of contested custody cases, courts’ and evaluators’ extensive focus on it in response to mothers’ abuse allegations continues to privilege false or exaggerated alienation concerns over valid concerns about abuse.
GW Paper Series
GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 527; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 527
Joan S. Meier, A Historical Perspective on Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation, 6 J. Child Custody 232 (2009).