Fighting Over the Kids
Battered spouses take aim at a controversial custody strategy.
By Sarah Childress | Newsweek Web Exclusive
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It took six years for Genia Shockome to gather the courage to leave her husband, Tim. He pushed her, kicked her and insulted her almost from the moment they married in 1994, she says. She tried to start over with their children when the family moved from Texas to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It didn't last long. Tim called her constantly at work and, after they split up, pounded on her door and screamed obscenities, she alleged in a complaint filed in 2001. Tim was charged with harassment. As part of a plea deal, Tim agreed to a stay-away order—but denies ever abusing her or the children. In custody hearings over the past six years, Tim has insisted that he's been a good father, and argued that Genia's allegations poisoned their children against him. The judge sided with Tim. This summer he was granted full custody of the kids, now 11 and 9. Genia was barred from contacting them.
Genia is one of many parents nationwide who have lost custody due to a controversial concept known as parental alienation. Under the theory, children fear or reject one parent because they have been corrupted or coached to lie by the other. Parental alienation is now the leading defense for parents accused of abuse in custody cases, according to domestic-violence advocates. And it's working. The few current studies done on the subject consider only small samples. But according to one 2004 survey in Massachusetts by Harvard's Jay Silverman, 54 percent of custody cases involving documented spousal abuse were decided in favor of the alleged batterers. Parental alienation was used as an argument in nearly every case.
This year the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges denounced the theory as "junk science," and at least four states have passed legislation to curtail its use in custody cases involving allegations of domestic violence. "It's really been a cancer in the family courts," says Richard Ducote, an attorney in Pittsburgh who has represented abuse victims in custody cases for 22 years. "It's made it really difficult for parents to protect their kids. If you ask for protection, you're deemed a vindictive, alienating parent."
It may seem hard to fathom how a judge could award custody to a parent accused of abuse. But battered spouses often don't file criminal charges—so no judicial finding is made against their mates—and family-court judges typically aren't trained to referee the complexities of abusive relationships. (Although men are sometimes battered by their wives, women are the victims in the majority of abuse cases.) Judges often throw out documented evidence of spousal abuse, arguing that it is irrelevant in a custody case. And experts say that family-court judges often look favorably on the alleged abuser because he seems more willing to share custody than the accuser—who is hellbent on keeping the father away from the child. According to a survey by Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University at San Bernardino, attorneys will caution battered spouses against reporting abuse in court so they don't lose their children. (Stahly and other academics say the parental-alienation argument has more legitimacy in custody disputes that don't involve charges of abuse.)
Parental-alienation syndrome was first introduced by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s. Fathers-rights groups picked up on the idea and began trying it out in court. These groups condemn abusers. But Dan Hogan, executive director of Fathers & Families, a nonprofit group that advocates for joint custody, argues that all too often the accusers lie in order to win custody of their kids.
There's a small but growing movement to ban parental alienation in custody cases, sparked by embattled parents bonding online. They've linked with lawyers and advocates for battered spouses across the country. At least four states, including California, have laws protecting parents who make good-faith abuse allegations. Others may soon follow their lead. Greg Jacob, an attorney who takes cases for abused parents pro bono, is drafting legislation to shop to Virginia and Maryland next month. Meanwhile, parents like Genia keep fighting. "It's so hard, having my children lost," she says, her voice breaking. "This was my life—my children."
DiscussComments: Enter Your Comment
Posted By: US_Citizen @ 08/12/2008 3:43:49 PM
Comment: Regarding "Parental Alienation Syndrome" (PAS), a phrase coined by Richard Gardner -- a man, not a practicing or board certified psychiatrist -- a man not affiliated with any legitimate peer-reviewed research, any university, or any professional psychological association. Gardner was a man who has published his opinions in favor of pedophilia and incest. PAS is not a syndrome; it's a legal defense strategy used almost exclusively by men who a) have abused their children, b) have been accused of abusing their children, c) have abused their wife and seek to punish her and control her, and/or d) seek to avoid paying child support.
The PAS legal strategy was effectively employed to discredit child victims and adult witnesses of child abuse (namely mothers who seek to protect their children through divorce). PAS is never alleged within a marriage ??? it only occurs as a legal strategy AFTER a woman attempts to leave an abusive man, or AFTER a child alleges that child abuse or child sexual abuse (CSA) occurred.
Gardner???s theories are quoted here: http://leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/RAG.html
Here???s a good article debunking PAS theory: http://leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/cust_myths.html
Now, none of this is intended to take away from the concept that it is inappropriate for one parent to attempt to poison the mind of a child toward the other parent. Bad mouthing to gain a child???s favor is just bad parenting. Telling lies in court is perjury.
PAS, as it is used as a legal strategy is both bad parenting and perjury. Further, it is child abuse in and of itself.
Posted By: US_Citizen @ 08/12/2008 3:12:56 PM
Comment: New Jersey is not alone. Florida, California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and many other states are involved in this morass. The courts have illegally and unconstitutionally delegated judicial power, authority, and IMMUNITY to third parties who are not qualified to make decisions involving the "best interests" of our children. That is the crux of the problem. We have a network of individuals who get themselves appointed to select lists and receive LUCRATIVE court appointments as ???child custody evaluators??? that come with an obligation of the parties to pay these evaluators at a billing rate that far exceeds their normal rate of pay -- it's a very lucrative cottage industry for the court appointed insiders. They then give referrals to their buddies in the mental health field to provide counseling to all the unfortunate parties in the case. The counseling is court ordered and anything you say in the ???safe chamber??? of the therapeutic relationship can and will be used against you in a court of law. A select group of buddies makes a bunch of money on these referrals ??? they all refer back to each other in the group. But, if the family doesn't have the $ means, there are no court appointed evaluators or psychologists or counseling or psych testing. The judge is forced to look at who provided the most care, the comparative income of the parties, criminal history, and make a decision. I???ll leave the psycho babble of ???parental alienation??? to another post.
Posted By: US_Citizen @ 08/12/2008 2:56:55 PM
Comment: The PBS documentary was not "pulled off the air" for any reason. It was aired. After It was criticized and PBS was attacked by a small fringe group of fatherhood "supremacists" and defend themselves and other men who abuse mothers and children in the abuser's quest for custody and control. It is inaccurate to claim that the documentary "was found to be sexist and full of lies" as the documentary was never on trial. The documentary was based on cases that were a matter of public record. And when the child victims of abuse at the hands of their fathers came of age and gave testimony to their experience, their was no evidence that the mothers coached the children to lie. The Mary Kay Foundation has no agenda; leave them out of it.
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