BY JILL KRAMER
Pacific Sun, October 24-30, 2001
If you suspect that your ex-spouse is molesting your child, don’t report it to authorities.If you do, you risk losing custody to your child’s molester. Law professor John Myers has seen it happen time and again. “Abuse may have occurred, but the allegations can’t be substantiated,” says Myers, who teaches at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “The reaction often is, ‘Ooh, an allegation of abuse that comes up in family court? That must be a lie.’” When family court judges hear unproven accusations, they often assume that the accusing parent is lying in order to smear the other parent. That’s a crime punishable by loss of custody. And, when it comes to child molestation, there rarely is any proof. The horrific consequence is that sometimes children are placed in the custody of their abusers. There is a theory behind this madness.
Dubbed “parental alienation syndrome,” it supposedly occurs during custody disputes when an angry parent brainwashes the child into believing that the other parent is malevolent– often by making false allegations of sexual abuse. The theory, which almost always is applied to mothers, was formulated by Dr. Richard Gardner, a highly controversial New Jersey child psychiatrist. Gardner has shocked many of his professional colleagues with the tolerant views of pedophilia and incest he expressed in his early writings. In the last few years he has grown more guarded, although as recently as last March he wrote that parental alienation “may be even more detrimental than physically and/or sexually abusing a child.” He has also been criticized for faulty logic and sloppy science. According to Dr. Paul Fink, past president of the American Psychiatric Association, “Parental alienation syndrome is a junk science term invented by Richard Gardner. His belief system is based on no evidence.”
Despite all this, Gardner’s theory has been embraced by judges and lawyers across the country.
“Parental alienation syndrome is being used more and more in custody and visitation cases,” says Nancy Frease, a marriage and family therapist who does evaluations for the Marin county juvenile court. “But the whole phenomenon of an angry mother coaching her children to make false statements against a father and the children going along with it I can say, in 13 years of clinical practice, I’ve seen a clear case of this maybe twice.” But PAS is in the eye of the beholder. Its proponents have broadened its definition,allowing it to be applied in more custody situations for example, where charges of violence or emotional abuse are raised. “PAS is no longer relegated only to sexual abuse cases,” says Joanne Schulman, legislative chair of California Women Lawyers and president of the San Francisco Women Lawyers Alliance. “Now it’s in almost every case! Any case where the mom doesn’t want to give the dad 50-50 custody, or whatever the dad wants, she’s [accused of] attempting to alienate the child.”
The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System confirms 105,000 new cases of child sexual abuse each year; 47% of the confirmed assaults are committed by fathers, step-fathers, uncles and older siblings. But Gardner’s contention that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse allegations in custody fights is not borne out by research. In a study of 9,000 disputed custody cases, fewer than 2% involved such allegations – true or false.And when the charges are leveled, a team of researchers at the 2 University of Michigan examined 215 cases and found that, in 156 of them, or 72%, it was “likely” that sexual abuse had occurred. But,of those likely cases, the judges disregarded more than half. “People dismiss these cases without looking at the evidence,” says Dr. Kathleen Faller,who conducted the Michigan study. “There’s a high degree of skepticism in the [family] court about any allegation of bad acts made by one parent against the other, and that filters down to how the child protection case is handled. Part of that arises because Child Protective Services has too much work to do, and one way to sort of get out of it is to say,‘this belongs to the [family] court,’ and to not actually investigate it.
There are a lot of horror stories out there a lot of children who have been abused and who continue to be abused who have no legal recourse.”Even when CPS does substantiate an allegation of abuse, it’s usually not prosecuted.“The reason so many cases don’t get prosecuted is because you typically have the word of a child against the word of an adult without corroborating evidence,” says Frease.“There rarely is any medical evidence. Most molestation doesn’t involve penetration or bodily injury. It often involves fondling or things that are not going to leave bruises on a child.”In the rare instance of a prosecution and conviction, the judge may still be judge outside the courtroom and consistently favorable decisions inside. There was picketing and protests, then a series of unsuccessful recall campaigns against four Marin county judges and the district attorney earlier this year.
Behind the brouhaha is a tangled mix of well-founded criticism, paranoia and hysteria.The dynamic resembles the development and propagation of PAS itself. The theory is based on behavior that most people have observed: when parents split up, children often choose sides and are sometimes furious at the one who left; and some parents try to interfere with the relationship between the child and the ex-spouse. The observation was interpreted by a somewhat nutty psychiatrist with a flair for self-promotion and an apparent grudge against mothers, then taken up by judges, lawyers and psychologists looking for easy answers.Similarly, some court-watchers have observed bias, unwillingness to consider evidence and seemingly nonsensical judicial rulings. These could all be symptoms of nothing more nefarious than ignorance and laziness. But some believe there’s a conspiracy.
Cindy Ross, the California director of the National Alliance for Family Court Justice, has been amassing documents for the last two years, looking for connections between fathers rights groups, government grants and all the court-connected professionals who cite PAS in custody switches. “PAS was devised as a legal strategy to protect child molesters and suppress evidence of abuse and shift blame to mothers,” she says. “The courts are getting kickbacks, essentially.” Ross believes that federal welfare and child support enforcement funds have been directed to fathers rights groups intent on switching custody from mothers to fathers. And somehow, some of this money is going to judges who share the wealth with their colleagues, the court-appointed mediators, psychologists and special masters.
“This whole perverse corruption scheme was devised primarily by pedophiles and incest advocates,” she says. (Although Ross’s rhetoric sounds strikingly like the language in the letter Kelly received, she denies having written it. It may have been sent by an impressionable follower of hers.) Law professor John Myers says that many mothers who feel they’ve been railroaded in court try to make sense of what happened by resorting to conspiracy theories. “They tend to think that the judges are paid off,” he says. “And there’s no evidence that that’s a common problem. But wouldn’t you think that? If you’re trying to protect your kid and you’re telling the truth and the system doesn’t work, it’s real tempting to find an explanation by thinking that the system is corrupt. And then you’re really viewed as a wacko.”
Parents are caught in an insane system. They can lose custody of their kids either for reporting suspected abuse or for not reporting it.“If you don’t move to protect your children from an abusive situation, you can be held to be a neglectful parent and you can even have your children removed from you,” says Professor Carol Bruch. “On the other hand, you’ve got someone claiming there’s parental alienation going on. So you are between a rock and a hard place.” Small wonder that parents like Paula Oldham and Jonea Rogers give up on the legal system entirely and go underground. Of course, kidnapping is a federal crime and viewed as further proof of their unfitness as parents. If you suspect your child is being abused, says Myers, “my advice is to hold back, to wait, until you can begin to piece together a more convincing case. The thing to remember is that the person who makes the allegations in our legal system has the burden of proof. If you don’t meet the burden of proof, you lose.”