Early Intervention for Parental Alienation in Divorce

After separation or divorce, parents may notice their child refusing contact or resisting efforts to maintain a relationship. This "resist-refuse dynamic" can be heartbreaking for parents. It's even worse for the child. Tragically, children who are turned against one parent by another can come away with lifelong emotional and psychological impairment.

For decades, mental health experts and family courts have sought ways to reduce the risk of parental alienation and keep parent-child relationships intact. But all the discussion and debate only delays action. While the professionals study the family, litigate decisions, and fight over which parent is to blame, the child is left to fend for themselves without providing services. By the time intervention occurs, it is often too late to reverse the damage.

Researchers have compared this scenario to the medical field. When a person with life-threatening injuries is brought into the emergency room, doctors must determine what caused the injuries, which organs of the body are affected, and whether the patient has any underlying medical conditions. They must weigh all treatment options to determine the best course of action.

But if the doctors wasted time on lab tests, x-rays, patient history, and meetings over treatment options, the patient would die. Therefore, when a person comes to the ER with severe injuries, triage doctors have an immediate protocol they follow to save the patient first. They get the patient on a ventilator, stop the bleeding, and administer fluids. They evaluate the situation and determine the best treatment course only after the patient is stable.

Similarly, children and families struggling with resist-refuse dynamics should receive services immediately. Family evaluations, risk assessments, and long-term courses of action should come later. But arguments over the cause of the problem, analytical methods, ethical boundaries, and solutions continue to plague the system and hinder action.

Of course, some factors must be known before proposing services to help a family. Is one parent alienating the child from the other parent? Is one parent abusive to the child or the other parent? This is where the difficulty lies. False allegations of parental alienation, bad parenting, or abuse are common in custody battles. A case involving false allegations of child abuse requires a very different approach from a case involving actual child abuse. And it can be nearly impossible for a judge to determine the truth from first impressions alone.

Comprehensive custody evaluations help shed light on the situation. From the results, therapeutic services can be designed to address the problems within the family effectively. But it isn't this cut and dry. Parents may put on a false front to get the evaluation to go their way. Evaluators may lack the training required to determine the best approach for complex cases. Looking into the details of a case and searching for the exact cause of the problem can cause professionals to miss the forest for the trees. Evaluations aren't perfect.

In medicine, a patient's response to emergency treatment can often indicate specifics about their health condition. Likewise, a family's response to therapeutic services can reveal useful information about parents and child(ren). Of course, immediate intervention means providing treatment before the details are known. However, the benefits of therapy amid unknown circumstances typically outweigh the risk of harm.

The longer a family goes without services, the child's behavior deteriorates, the parent-child relationship suffers greater permanent damage, and the child's interpersonal problem-solving skills suffer greater irreversible harm.

Obstacles to Early Intervention for Parental Alienation

So what exactly causes the delay? Why don't divorce and custody courts offer family support when a case is filed?

In some cases, parents themselves can present an obstacle. They may refuse offers of early intervention. Divorce can be one of the most emotionally and financially stressful events in a person's life. Parents can feel out of control and under scrutiny. Children are thrust into new routines and emotional stressors. Lawyers, therapists, extended family, and friends offer advice—advice that isn't always objective.

Parents may feel concerned about their privacy and parenting rights amid all this chaos. To the child's detriment, refusing family services can offer the parent a sense of control, financial reason, and normalcy.

Likewise, the child can present an obstacle. Many courts will consider the child's opinion in custody cases—particularly when the child is over age 10-12. However, it is important to remember that the opinion of the child is not necessarily the child's opinion. In cases of parental alienation, the child will often form an opinion based on the parent's influence.

Professionals must discern whether the child is making a healthy decision that weighs the appropriate options. Children who decide on parenting plans or physical custody without the ability to discuss alternatives, advantages, and disadvantages may not be eligible to weigh in on custody matters, regardless of their age.

The bias of parents and children leaves the professionals with much of the responsibility for safeguarding the child's well-being. But judges, lawyers, and mental health professionals also present obstacles to early intervention.

Before judges can order services or adjust custody or parenting schedules, they want to understand the underlying situation. Judges want evaluations and evidence. They want to identify the problem before ordering a solution for fear of making the wrong decision. Many judges don't recognize that ordering more evaluations and evidence could be the "wrong decision" because it delays action.

Divorce and child custody lawyers face a delicate balancing act of serving their client's interests while simultaneously considering the child's well-being (which the lawyer may or may not factor in as "serving the client's interests"). For many beginner family law attorneys, issues like property division, child support, legal custody, physical custody, and parenting schedules are higher priority than dealing with the child's mental health and emotional development. Inexperienced lawyers may fear their clients will fire them for bringing up issues with parenting abilities or suggesting child therapy.

Mental health professionals can also present obstacles to early intervention for parental alienation. Some therapists must become more familiar with handling clients in the family court system. Like lawyers, the therapist's job is to serve the client's interests. But not all parents place their child's well-being over the goal of "winning" a custody dispute. It can be challenging for inexperienced therapists to know how to "stay on the parent's side" and simultaneously sway the parent in a direction that is best for the child.

Similarly, custody evaluators can also hinder early intervention. It is easy to get bogged down in questionaries, investigations, and deadlines, losing sight of the developmental aspects and opportunities for support. The result is often a poorly defined, uninformed treatment proposal that prompts further investigation and evaluation rather than immediate support.

Judges leave it to lawyers and therapists to address the problems. Lawyers leave it to judges and therapists. Therapists leave it to lawyers and judges. In the end, some level of action and collaboration on the part of all involved professionals is most effective in getting divorcing parties to understand the legal and developmental importance of the child's relationship with both parents.

Myths Surrounding Child & Family Therapy Orders

Without effective collaboration between professionals, family evaluations are infinitely repeated with no reliance on results. Without continued training, memorized yet outdated approaches are applied.

Reports suggest that, across the board, most professionals involved in custody cases wrongly believe:

  1. (1) The problem or blame must be identified before acting
  2. (2) The parent must voluntarily agree to supportive services
  3. (3) All child mental health services must be kept fully confidential
  4. (4) Traditional therapeutic approaches are valid today

In fact, family therapy interventions can begin before anyone decides which parent is "right" or "wrong." Most people enter effective therapy programs involuntarily, on the requirement of an employer, law enforcement, or spouse. Many children enter therapy after a school has requested it—even when the parent disagrees that it is necessary.

Inexperienced therapists are often not aware that child custody cases require some level of communication and cannot be kept entirely confidential. Parents and the courts often must be made aware of certain information to ensure the child's well-being and lessen the impact of the conflict.

Potential Solutions to Parental Alienation Support

Therapists dealing with divorcing families could benefit from seeking education on treating children involved in custody disputes, assessing levels of court involvement, maintaining role boundaries and objectivity, and divorce influences on child development.

An awareness of recent research is also critical. For example, historically, in cases of parental alienation, the courts would recommend things like reunification therapy for the child and rejected parent or treatment for the child alone. Recent research suggests that these techniques aren't always effective and can even make things worse for certain family dynamics.

Most judges could benefit from continuing education, resources like the Associate of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) Judicial Officers Webinars, and other tools that provide:

  • A more precise understanding of the impact of family conflict on the child
  • The importance of early support
  • The effective services available that do not require full-scale evaluations

At the same time, lawyers have the most power to initiate fast action, particularly those specializing in child custody cases. Experienced child custody lawyers have access to a network of qualified mental health professionals. They know how to spot issues with their clients, collaborate effectively with clients and service providers, and present compelling proposals to the court highlighting the child's well-being.

Overall, the family court system must emphasize the child's best interests by providing supportive adults and resources to help children navigate the experience. Various programs are available to help children through divorce and separation regardless of which parent "is to blame" for parental alienation or other allegations.


Karen Rosenthal

Karen B. Rosenthal is a partner and co-founder at matrimonial litigation firm Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield LLP, where she brings 30 years of matrimonial law experience to bear in matters involving high-net-worth equitable distribution, contentious custody battles, and other high-stakes disputes. Certified as an Attorney for the Child and a frequent speaker on topics related to children going through high-conflict divorce, she has been recognized as a leading New York lawyer by Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, and New York magazine.

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