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Psychobabble or a legitimate, legal basis for child custody [2011-03-27]

By Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Sunday, November 14, 2004 

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.” He also operates a Web site, found at

Darnall said cases of parental alienation syndrome are rare but real.

“It should be used in court because it does describe a legitimate pattern of behavior that does have an impact on a child and a parent/child relationship,” he said. “Most judges want to listen to the evidence, and most judges accept it.”

But for all the followers Gardner’s ideas have spawned, they have created at least as many critics.

One of them, Dr. Paul Fink of Temple University’s School of Medicine, called the theory dangerous.

“It was made up by one guy who spread it around,” said Fink, who is past president of the American Psychiatric Association. “No investigation was done, there was no research, and it’s hurt a lot of women and children.”

Detractors note Gardner’s work is not recognized by the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the Bible of the psychiatric profession.

“It has generally been denounced,” said David Finn, a counselor from Rolling Meadows who performs court-ordered child custody evaluations. “It’s never been accepted as a valid syndrome, and the research has not been there to support it.

“The presumption is that the alienation is because of the parent,” Finn said. “While that may be part of the reason in some instances, it is not an evaluation of all the reasons why it might exist.”

Critics of the theory say one parent can cause resentment in a child toward the other parent. But those feelings are usually temporary and never rise to the level of a syndrome or mental disorder, as Gardner claims.

Darnall, however, believes the theory may soon get APA recognition. New research, he said, indicates Gardner’s findings may be more correct than many critics believe and could get it into the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Fink scoffed at the suggestion.

“It won’t be in there, I guarantee you,” he said. “Since there has been no verification, no research, it’s not getting in there.”

From an idea to court

Gardner’s theories have yet to receive official recognition in the industry, but family law attorneys have been using them for years, most often on behalf of fathers hoping to gain custody.

Annette Zender, a Woodstock resident who lost custody of her daughter three years after a Lake County judge sided with alienation claims against her, likens it to legal kidnapping.

“When they can’t find any other excuse, they come up with parental alienation and it works,” she said.

Since losing her daughter, Zender has built a network of suburban women who share similar stories. So far, she said, the group numbers more than 70 from Lake, Cook, Kane, McHenry and Will counties.

While groups like Zender’s want to see the syndrome, known as PAS, barred from the courtroom, fathers’ rights organizations support Gardner’s work, saying it can provide balance in a family court system that assumes mothers should always get custody.

“Parental alienation occurs, unfortunately,” said Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. “We have seen parental alienation be adopted in numerous courtrooms across the country as a valid science.”

Whether that should be the case is something people on both sides thought the Illinois Supreme Court would answer in the Perez case.

While that did not happen, Perez attorney Paul Feinstein said the court’s offer to hear more cases on the issue is a promising sign for PAS opponents.

“They weren’t impressed with it and that’s why they invited more challenges to it,” Feinstein said. “I think this is pretty much the end of it.”

© 2004 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.