Sunday, April 16, 2006

The First Step Towards Destroying a Parent Is Made By Law

Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS, has a credibility problem. For starters, it is not yet recognized by the American Psychological Association and does not appear in the DSM-IV which appears to be the ultimate authority for anything that might go "wrong" in anyone's head. I put "wrong" in quotes because not everything that is contained in the DSM-IV might be considered a problem under any given circumstance (sometimes, a personality disorder is a distinct advantage to getting ahead in the world).

Moreover, various people are determined to "prove" to the world that PAS doesn't exist. I put "prove" in quotes because it's pretty obvious that they can't. We already know that children can be persuaded to make the most outrageous claims with a little clever persuasion. It doesn't take much effort to imagine a child being bribed, cajoled, pressured, or threatened by one parent into bad-mouthing the other at a convenient time, such as a custody hearing. If the pressure brought to bear is high enough, I don't see any problem with thinking of PAS as "Stockholm Syndrome" for kids (and Stockholm Syndrome is in the DSM-IV). If you find it impossible to believe that no custodial parent anywhere would ever attempt to destroy a child's relationship with the other parent in order to control and torment that parent, then I put it to you that you're wearing rose-tinted spectacles, and I have this terrific bridge going cheap. If you want to learn who thinks PAS doesn't exist, I suggest you go and look for yourself - I don't see why I should advertize for a deluded or self-justifying opposition in this blog (why would you promote a lie unless you believed it or had a vested interest in its acceptance?).

PAS is "trendy". Recently on the public's radar, and the subject of ongoing controversy, it suffers from the same sort of credibility issues as does, for example, Paris Hilton, although I hope not as badly and I know not as deservedly. Either way, we have to recognize Ms. Hilton, for all her crassness, as a human being in her own right and worthy of recognition for her good points (whatever those may be). Likewise, PAS has sufficient clear applicability to real life that it deserves close consideration before it might, foolishly, be dismissed.

Like Paris Hilton, PAS has forebears that have fallen out of vogue and there is some suspicion that PAS may go the same way. We no longer hear about Malicious Mother Syndrome, for example, and yet it is well within the spectrum of behaviors covered by PAS. Does that mean that these behaviors never existed, or no longer occur? Not very likely. I'm sure they still do and are still gotten away with. On the other hand, in our genderism-sensitive times, MMS was flawed by its failure to recognize its partner Malicious Father Syndrome which surely also exists.

But perhaps PAS's worst enemy is itself. It just isn't very well defined. It is used to describe a whole bunch of possible behaviors in more than one person. It is the description of a pattern of behavior on the part of one parent and the pattern of responses in one or more of their children that is induced by the former. This makes it the description of a situation, a dynamic if you will, as much as it is a description of a pathology. I am not aware of a similar condition that is of similar concern to psychologists (or judges). Terms like "group hysteria" or "mass hallucination" come to mind as dynamics affecting multiple people, but the selection of the group involved does not have to be specific.

PAS is in danger of falling between the cracks. It does not affect just one person so does not lend itself to individual treatment according to psychology's default model, nor is it something which affects the population at large and hence can be easily "educated out". In its purest form, PAS refers in particular to the behavior of the brain-washed child, but it can also be used to cover the behavior of the manipulating parent, and discussions of PAS incorporate the specific term "target parent" which, while obvious in its meaning, does not find common use elsewhere. Thus, at least three people are necessarily involved and it can be extended to grandparents and other family members, both as targets and perpetrators.

Most perversely, PAS is open to abuse as a method of gaining control of children through false accusation. There are surely children out there who have good reason to fear one parent and are not making it up at the behest of the other. A child who does not want to spend time with a parent may not be suffering from any "syndrome" at all, but could be quite healthily trying to protect themselves. That would not stop the unwanted parent from claiming that the other was trying to alienate them from their children and perhaps making the accusation stick under the guise of PAS, ultimately gaining control of the children and using them for their own nefarious aims. These kinds of machinations contribute to the uncertainty and suspicion of PAS.

Finally, it is not in the best interests of the perpetrating, alienating parents to recognize the existence of PAS, and these people will be some of its most vocal detractors. If PAS does exist, then these people will also be some of the most deceptive and manipulative people around, they will be good at convincing you that it doesn't exist. Remember, in the words of Verbal Kint: "The devil's greatest trick was to convince the world he didn't exist".

It is not my intention to provide a critique of PAS and so enable its detractors, rather I wish to point out the array of problems with its acceptance and to argue for some degree of urgency in sorting these problems out. Why urgency? Because it is a much more common problem than many realize, even its more ardent supporters. In fact, it is nearly universal in child cusody disputes. Yes, I really mean that, and I am not mongering hysteria. It is subtly enshrined in social and legal systems throughout the western world and probably further. The courts cannot see the wood for the trees, and they are sewing the seeds themselves. The first step in PAS is not taken by either parent, it is taken by law.

Like most of my age group, I grew up being told that, as a man, I needed to help in making the lot of women more equitable with my own. I grew up being told I had advantages in the workplace, socially, in just about every walk of life just because I am a man. Much of this seemed to make sense. There were fewer women than men in many workplaces, women were frustrated at being expected to look after the home while men worked at their careers. In college, I knew intelligent, resourceful women, it seemed entirely reasonable to me that they should be able to choose what they wanted to do with their lives, just as I had been convinced I could. I proudly counted myself as a feminist. Some of my female friends insisted that I had a male chauvinist streak, but I worked hard to supress it insofar as I could identify it. In my naiveté, I felt certain that as I strived to treat women as equals, they would strive to treat me the same way.

I grew up, went out into the world, got married and had a child. My wife didn't have a career, as such, when I met her. She worked, yes, but not with any apparent long term aim. I didn't think much about it at the time, I was in love, nothing else mattered. Throughout our marriage, I tried hard to give her the things she wanted, including supporting her as best I could in various attempts at starting one career or another. I tried hard to share in housework, and particularly to share in the care and raising of our child, just as I had seen my own father do with me.

Then the marriage failed.

It failed spectacularly. My very own Titanic, my personal World Trade Center, my Hiroshima.

The details don't matter, but suffice it to say that she got custody and my life became hell. I discovered Parental Alienation Syndrome. I thought about it. I read about it. I checked out the arguments for and against it, and I concluded it was real despite all the weaknesses I have discussed. I became unable to understand the arguments against PAS - wasn't it obvious? - then I realized that vested interest was at work and an argument against could not be objective. "There are none so blind as those who will not see." The only objective position was to recognize the problem and try to figure out how to solve it.

I do not know how to solve it. I do know at least one way to stop it starting. This may, in itself, cause other problems, I don't know. What I do know is that the relationship between a child and each of his or her parents is something vital, something necessary, something sacred. This relationship can be broken by the parent, through abuse, through neglect, through indifference. It won't be broken by the child, unless that child is brought under malicious pressure, unless that child is forced to choose between one parent or the other.

Who would do such a thing? As long as the parents see eye to eye, most likely nobody, but once a marriage falls apart, the parents are no longer as one, they are two people with divergent lives. This puts the child in a vulnerable position. With whom should the child go, and why? Who should make the decision?

Often, the parents can manage to sort it out for themselves, although neither might be entirely happy with whatever compromises they have to make. There may be some degree of coercion about the agreement, for all its apparent consensus, for fear of the alternative. Even so, sometimes they can't sort it out between themselves and that alternative kicks in. Someone must intervene. Someone must make the decisions for them. Enter the courts, the judges, the lawyers, the paralegals, the psychologists, the Guardians ad litem, the cops, the security guards, the restraining orders, the disappearing friends, the new, predatory "friends", the arguments, the heartache, the tears, the pain, the divorce, the child support, the fees, the property division, the custody order.

There it is. The custody order. One parent, usually the mother, has custody, the other, usually the father, has visitation rights. That fellow in the wig, who sets so much store by the rules which he himself must follow, said so. The first step along the road to Parental Alienation Syndrome is made by law.

Alienation of a parent is his or her devaluation in the eyes of their children. To alienate a parent is to show the children that one is more important than the other. What could be a clearer exposition than to declare one parent in charge of their lives and the other a visitor, there only on the court's recognizance? That's the first step towards PAS. Subsequent steps can be made by either parent - the non-custodial parent (NCP) can slowly drift away, unable to integrate what remains of their old family into their new life. The custodial parent has much more scope, and can contribute by driving the NCP away, by not cooperating with visitation, by leaving the area, by making false accusations of abuse, by abducting the children, by turning the children against the NCP. The custodial parent has much greater opportunity for mayhem than the non-custodial, much of it unconstrained by the courts.

How do we avoid this? It's not rocket science, it's not even algebra, it's very, very easy. Don't choose one parent over the other. Here, I'll say it again. Don't choose one parent over the other. Is that clear? Make equality mean equality. Don't give the vindictive parent the opportunity; don't just nip it in the bud, don't plant the seed in the first place. Joint custody must be the default, or if not, then as much effort and force of law must be put into making sure the non-custodial parent has a part in the children's lives as is put into making sure that he or she pays the court ordered child-support. Do it, and do it now.

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JQ75 said...

Well, that is a very thoughtful review of PAS. All these professionals, if they could only keep their eye on the ball "best interest of the children" - often said, but hardly practiced. I think they've said it so much they've convinced themselves.

I hadn't even read your post when I posted Deadbeat Equality

You can reach me with the contact info at my BLOG Domestic Relations Disaster

Anonymous said...

Blind Father Trains for 55 Mile Walk to regain ability to visit his kids:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if PAS exists or not. However, I do know that I could, if given exclusive custody of any child be able to convince it that its natural parents were evil and I was a saint. The younger the child, the easier it would be. I could probably affect a serious loyalty shift in short order but I would need about a year to cement the effects. I could do all of this without any obvious signs of abuse and under the loose supervision of an authority. I would actually use the authority as a confederate and ally. All of this would be as easy as taking a candy from a child or think of it as "child's play."

Mister-M said...

I'd be willing to bet my life that if the states could charge as much in child support for a 50/50 arrangement as they can for a primary/noncustodial arrangment - the courts would be all for it.

DISINCENTIVIZE the primary/noncustodial orders (for the states and the primary parent) - and you take the overwhelmingly highest motivational factor out of such judgements.

FieryFlames said...

I am really sorry that you have had this experience with your ex and child. My father got custody of my younger brother when my parents divorced, and used every alienation tactic he could to turn my brother against my mother. My mother isn't perfect and even retaliated with very short-lived alienation attempts of her own before giving up, in a sense. It's very wearing I'm sure.
I've been nothing more than disappointed with the legal system in regards to my parents' divorce, as well as my assault case against my father. My appointed attorney informed me she was going to let him plead out (with no consequences!) and I didn't have a say in the matter. I never even saw the inside of the courtroom.
It is very enraging, all of it....

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