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Arguably the most troubling aspect of justice system response to intimate partner violence is custody courts' failure to protect children when mothers allege the father is abusive. Family courts' errors in assessing adult and child abuse, and punitive responses to abuse allegations, have been widely documented.

A significant contributor to these errors is the pseudo-scientific theory of parental alienation (PA). Originally termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS), the theory suggests that when mothers allege that a child is not safe with the father, they are doing so illegitimately, to alienate the child from the father. PA labeling often results in dismissal of women's and children's reports of abuse, and sometimes trumps even expert child abuse evaluations. PAS was explicitly based on negative stereotypes of mothers and has been widely discredited. The term parental alienation – while treated as distinct - is still widely used in ways that are virtually identical to PAS. Nonetheless, because PA is nominally gender neutral (and not called a scientific syndrome), it continues to have substantial credibility in court.

The first goal of this project was to ascertain whether empirical evidence indicates that parental alienation is, like PAS, gender-biased in practice and outcome. Second, the study sought to explore outcomes in custody/abuse litigation by gender and by differing types of abuse. Analysis of over 2000 court opinions confirms that courts are skeptical of mothers’ claims of abuse by fathers; this skepticism is greatest when mothers claim child abuse. The findings also confirm that fathers’ cross-claims of parental alienation increase (virtually doubling) courts’ rejection of mothers’ abuse claims, and mothers’ losses of custody to the father accused of abuse. In comparing court responses when fathers accuse mothers of abuse, a significant gender difference is identified. Finally, the findings indicate that where Guardians Ad Litem or custody evaluators are appointed, unfavorable outcomes for mothers and gender differences are increased.

The study relies solely on electronically available published opinions in child custody cases. It has produced an invaluable database identifying 10 years of published cases involving alienation, abuse and custody, while coding parties’ claims and defenses, outcomes, and other key factors by gender and parental status.

GW Paper Series

GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2019-56; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-56

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