Therapeutic Intervention is often neglected but much needed in divorce cases that include charges of parental alienation.
Parental Alienation is the result of a complex set of dynamics that are different with each family. It is impossible to compartmentalize the problem and apply universal solutions. But, if there is any hope for a reasonably happy resolution the parties involved will have to shed the natural tendency for confrontation and pursue a collaborative process. They must always keep the child's welfare front and center as the prime motivator. Therapeutic intervention will involve the mental health professionals and the attorneys.
The courts struggle with Parental Alienation for several reasons. One of the key reasons is because by the time the conflict reaches the court the damage has already already been done. And, it can be almost impossible to unravel the mess and pry out the truth.
The parents are embroiled in an antagonistic, often toxic relationship and typically are quite ready and willing to have their attorneys confront each other with real, unreal, exaggerated, and antagonistic charges regarding the child. And, the alienated child will very adamantly take the side of the alienator parent. S/he is likely to unmercifully denigrate the targeted parent and will insist that the desire to live with the alienator and exclude the target is entirely their own idea. If the target is the father they may even accuse him of physical or sexual abuse and express fear of the him.
The judge is caught in a bind. The child appears healthy and happy with the alienator. If the accusations are true then the targeted parent has deficiencies and may even be dangerous. Since PAS does not meet the standards for evidence submission such charges cannot usually be submitted. And, if they are the courts will normally eventually reject the charge because PAS is not supported by the psychiatric community.
If there is a Guardian Ad Litem assigned the odds are pretty good that the alienator's position will be confirmed. Moreover, In some states if the child has reached age 14 the child is empowered to make their own decision regarding their domicile in the absence of physical or sexual abuse. Alienation leaves no physical scars and attorney Ad Litems are legal practitioners, not psychologists.
The targeted parent often loses in court because, in reality, the child's welfare eludes those people who are supposed to act in their best interests. The parent's relationship is toxic, the lawyers fight legal issues, the Ad Litem may or may not be able to make a positive contribution, and the judge cannot accept PAS as evidence, and the child seems healthy and has made it clear s/he wishes to live with the alienator. So, the abuser wins and everyone except the target thinks justice is served.
On the other hand, if the judge determines that the alienator parent is manipulating or brainwashing the child he/she may rule in favor of the target who actually may be the culprit.
In fairness parental alienation is a conundrum for the courts. Until the legal and mental health communities develop better standards and guidelines it seems that the best hope is for the targeted parent to orchestrate a strategy that involves the attorneys, mental health professionals, and the courts.
In most cases of parental alienation therapeutic intervention can and should be ordered by the court.
Therapeutic intervention starts with the attorney. The attorney most often is the first professional to be exposed to parental alienation during the initial interview with either of the parents. Unfortunately, the American court system is based on an adversarial relationship and the charges and accusations fired back and forth in a toxic divorce fit very well into the American legal system.
In cases involving alienation, however, it is clearly in the child's best interests to work collaboratively at therapeutic intervention. The alienator most likely will not be eager to work in a collaborative manner so the attorneys' roles are both very challenging. Despite the need to be adversarial both attorneys can play a constructive role if they focus on the child and if the targeted parent is strong and takes the initiative to coordinate the process. Because the alienator may resist attempts at collaboration certain actions may have to be mandated by the court. A few recommendations include:
The Guardian Ad Litem
cases of contentious divorces the court will often appoint a Guardian
Ad Litem to protect the interests of the child. The GAL is a
professional, normally an attorney or psychologist, who will interview
all the relative people in the child's life, draw conclusions, and make
recommendations to the court regarding custody, living arrangements,
etc. The GAL can be a valuable member of the therapeutic intervention team. But, there can be problems.
The GAL is conceptually fine and most do a fine job. They can be a very valuable member of an intervention team. But, in cases of parental alienation they may actually be counter productive or even dangerous.
If unfettered by occupation or legal constraints the GAL can be a very valuable member of the therapeutic intervention team. The danger, however, is that the GAL's opinions carry too much weight and the process is extremely detrimental to both the child and the Targeted Parent.
If parental alienation is a real factor in a contentious divorce it is hard to imagine that a constructive process between attorneys will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The alienator most likely is burdened with a personality flaw such as narcissistic personality disorder and will be unable or unwilling to voluntarily settle for a mutually beneficial solution although s/he may continue to agree to a collaborative process. Like the child the alienator may truly believe s/he is good and the target is evil and the solution will ultimately be favorable. Therapeutic intervention may be mandated by the court but it probably offers the best hope for a successful resolution.
Whether mandated by the court or agreed upon by collaborating attorneys a mental health professional should be retained who is familiar with divorce, custody assessment, and parental alienation. Both attorneys should collaborate on an impartial psychologist with no reputation as a "hired gun." A single psychologist should be sought that will work toward the welfare of the family and especially the child. It is also important that the psychologist be free from any political entanglements or agendas presented by the PAS controversy.
The first matter on the psychologist's agenda should be to determine if the case involves parental alienation since in many cases the rejection of one parent is due to other, sometimes very legitimate, reasons. Whatever the cause of the child's animosity the psychologist can be of great assistance to the collaborating attorneys in finding helpful strategies to create a more healthy environment for the child. In any case, the odds are that the child will need continued therapy and the court may have to mandate it.
If, in fact, the child's welfare is paramount it might be possible that the collaborating attorneys together with the psychologist and under the court's leadership can develop a plan to restore health to the dysfunctional family. Several steps may include the following:
The reality is that the probability of successful therapeutic intervention are not great. Some estimates on the high side are that 50% of all cases end well. The problem is certainly tenacious but the relative lack of successful intervention may be the result of this phenomenon being relatively new to psychology and the lack of standardized procedures developed by the psychiatric and legal communities. Parental Alienation is tenacious and involves high conflict. Under the best of circumstances it is very difficult to resolve. But, as the courts become more familiarized with the issues and the psychiatric helps define both the disorder and a path to resolution the success rate should increase.
One clear advantage, though, is the development of a collaborative team of experts that can provide genuine therapeutic intervention.
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