Magazine article Insight on the News

Has Psychiatry Gone Psycho?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Has Psychiatry Gone Psycho?

Article excerpt

A pop-psychology theory, parental alienation syndrome, is being used in custody cases to defend fathers accused of incest by blaming mothers for being narrow-minded.

Six-year-old Eric Hashimoto described to Merced, Calif., detectives and child protective services how he was forced to perform oral sex on his father and the abuse he endured if he refused. In Sacramento the sexual-assault team believed Eric's claims, thoroughly supported by horrifying details. But despite overwhelming evidence presented to the court that both Eric and his mother, Michelle, were victims of physical and sexual brutality, sole custody was awarded to the father in this 1996 case. Michelle has been allowed just one four-hour visit since.

Irene Jensen of Salt Lake County, Utah, also can document a long history of physical and sexual abuse by her ex-husband. He is listed in Utah's Child Abuse/Neglect database, and nine experts, including 6-year-old daughter Brittany's pediatrician, provided testimony to the court supporting the abuse accusations. But Jensen's ex-husband was awarded sole custody of Brittany in 1995, and Jensen is allowed just one eight-hour visit each month and prohibited from making any other contact with her daughter.

Karen Anderson's daughters, ages 4 and 7, told her and child protective services that they had been molested by their father. The Amador County, Calif., sheriff's department provided a statement supporting the accusations. But during the custody hearing, Anderson was barred from testifying or presenting evidence and witnesses. Her ex-husband was awarded sole custody of the children, and she is allowed only court-monitored three-hour visits twice a week.

The bizarre outcomes of such cases -- in which child custody can be awarded to a sex abuser -- is the result of court acceptance of an unscientific psychological fad. This theory, referred to as parental alienation syndrome, or PAS, holds that one spouse, usually the mother, is at fault for accusations of sexual abuse that may arise during a custody case. A mother's objections to the behavior, according to PAS, has the indescribable effect of turning the child against the father. Therefore, the mother's influence over the child should be halted.

According to the developer of the theory, Richard A. Gardner, a clinical professor of child psychiatry, PAS is "a disorder of children, arising almost exclusively in child-custody disputes, in which one parent (usually the mother) programs the child to hate the other parent (usually the father)."

If a child demonstrates negative feelings toward the father, Gardner's PAS puts the blame on the mother and explains that the confusion is best remedied by increasing the child's time with the father.

Although PAS is not exclusive to mothers, they are said to make up the majority of the so-called offenders, especially when there are accusations of sexual abuse. The syndrome has been a focus of pop-psychology attention for more than 10 years but, as is typical of such fads in the mental-health fraternity, no statistics about the number of parents who have been "diagnosed" with PAS are available.

Critics of Gardner's PAS charge that because the theory is not based on systematic research or testing it should not be called a syndrome, but that charge makes little difference to true believers. Gardner developed his theory through personal observations of families during child-custody disputes. And it doesn't matter to advocates that PAS has not been recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association. Nor does it matter that many of Gardner's peers who have reviewed his theory openly say that it lacks scientific reliability and validity.

"PAS is not research-based, and it has done a great injustice to the family and the justice system," says Jon Conte, a psychologist at the University of Washington. He adds, "The criteria that Dr. …

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