Divisive Theory Stirs Up Custody Battles Court Urges Challenges to Touchy 'Parental Alienation Syndrome'

By Keeshan, Charles | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

Divisive Theory Stirs Up Custody Battles Court Urges Challenges to Touchy 'Parental Alienation Syndrome'


Keeshan, Charles, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer

The first time Norma Perez learned she was being accused of "parental alienation syndrome," she shrugged it off.

The idea that one parent could turn a child against the other might be true, the Elgin resident figured, but it certainly did not apply to her.

A year later, a DuPage County judge ruled otherwise.

Declaring that the mental, emotional and physical health of her 10-year-old daughter was endangered by her mother's behavior, Judge James J. Konetski stripped Perez of custody and handed the girl over to her father without giving her a chance to say goodbye to mom.

"I'm not a perfect person, but I know I didn't do the things they said I did," Perez said.

"I fought for my daughter," she said. "If we don't, we risk losing our children, and if we do, we're called alienators."

Robert G. Black, the attorney for Perez's former husband, R. Edward Bates, said the label fits in this case.

"The evidence showed she did not foster a close loving relationship between the child and father," Black said. "In fact, she totally alienated the child from her father."

Perez is just one of many mothers across the suburbs, and hundreds nationwide, to lose custody of their children based on parental alienation syndrome, a theory that stirs passionate debate in the mental health and legal communities almost two decades after its advent.

The concept, proffered by New Jersey psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985, holds that in some cases a custodial parent can poison a child's mind against the other parent, causing that child to have a disrespectful and antagonistic relationship with the other parent.

Gardner's work has launched intense arguments both pro and con in psychological publications, legal journals and courtrooms across the country.

Some dismiss the theory as junk science or pop psychology that lacks research to support it. Others say Gardner's work is not only valid but a long-overdue examination of an insidious form of child abuse.

That debate took place most recently within the Illinois Supreme Court, where justices hearing Perez's case were asked to decide whether testimony about the syndrome belongs in state courtrooms.

The court provided no clear answer to that question in an Oct. 28 decision. But in denying Perez's request to regain custody of her daughter, justices encouraged more challenges of the syndrome's legitimacy.

"We note that PAS is now the subject of legal and professional criticism, and our holding in this case does not foreclose further challenges to the validity or general acceptance of that concept," Justice Thomas L. Kilbride stated.

Discovery and debate

Gardner was working as a professor of child psychiatry at his alma mater, Columbia University in New York, when he began documenting cases in which children in the midst of a custody dispute began showing hostile behavior toward a parent with no clear reason, according to his biography.

He declared the behavior "parental alienation syndrome" and established a set of eight symptoms, including denigration of the alienated parent, lack of guilt over cruelty to that parent and unflinching support for the other parent.

Before his suicide last year, Gardner wrote at length on the subject and testified about it in hundreds of divorce cases across the country. One of those cases was Perez's, in which he issued a finding of parental alienation syndrome despite never interviewing Perez or her daughter.

His self-published 1992 book, "The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Legal and Mental Health Professionals," is considered the definitive guide to the theory.

His ideas launched a legion of followers in the legal and mental health professions.

Among them is Douglas Darnall, a Youngstown, Ohio, psychiatrist who wrote a book on the issue called "Divorce Casualties. …

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Divisive Theory Stirs Up Custody Battles Court Urges Challenges to Touchy 'Parental Alienation Syndrome'
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