The sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held a panel yesterday morning aimed at openly denouncing the use of the pseudo-regressive theory of “parental alienation” (PA) in legal proceedings. Several legal and academic experts exposed to an international audience the systemic problem that plagues courts worldwide and seriously harms the protection of children and their rights in custody cases.
Parental alienation, also known as PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome), was introduced in 1985 by American psychiatrist Richard Gardner. This theory posits a situation in which a parent (alienating parent) would negatively manipulate the child’s behavior to push them towards the rejection of the other parent (alienated parent). The problem denounced by the UN is that this theory has mainly been used as a justification when children express feelings of fear towards one of the parents in court cases to establish parental custody. Consequently, the child is taken from the parent who would implement the manipulation and then given to the one who was indicted by the child as dangerous.
Italy is one of the many countries in which parental alienation theory has spread, vitiating the system of family courts and foster homes. Recently, the subject has become central due to the legal battle of Laura Massaro to maintain custody of her son. Associations such as Maison Antigone, an organization against violence against women, and the politician Veronica Giannone, who has submitted over thirty parliamentary questions on this topic since 2019, have lined up alongside her.
Parental alienation has never been verified as scientifically proven, which demonstrates its dangerousness and the senselessness of its use in the courts. The World Health Organization (WHO) has refused to recognize this theory in its index. In 2011 and 2017, the UN Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) condemned Italy for using PA in the courts, denouncing its seriously distorting and harmful effects on the well-being and protection of children and women.
Similar accusations have been made against Italy by GREVIO (Group of Experts on Action Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence), an independent body of the Council of Europe that monitors the application of the Istanbul Convention against violence against women. The theory of parental alienation has proved to be a misogynistic procedural weapon over the years: “theoretically gender-neutral, it is clear to us that it’s very frequently used against women,” said Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.
Following these serious accusations by international bodies, the Italian Parliamentary Commission on Feminicide, under the leadership of Valeria Valente, has begun to collect reports from mothers, associations, and lawyers on trial cases distorted by the use of parental alienation. The cases collected amounted to 1,500 in April 2021, just one year after the beginning of the data collection.
Reports against the illicit use of parental alienation and the consequent human rights violations affecting women and children in custody cases are directed not only to Italy, but also to other countries where the problem is present in an advanced form such as Spain, Poland, Andorra and France, as reported by Iris Luarasi, President of GREVIO. In addition, the compounding factor is that the countries just named, including Italy, are among the members that have ratified the aforementioned Istanbul Convention, which in Article 31 requires courts to take proper consideration of episodes of violence experienced by minor children “in the determination of custody and visitation rights of children,” a principle that is evidently failing under the use of the theory of parental alienation. “However, I would like to stress that this issue is not unique to Europe,” Luarasi said.
The internationality of the harmful use of this non-scientific theory in the courts and the distortion at the judicial level caused by it was the element that yesterday brought together the UN, non-profit organizations, and various experts in the fight against parental alienation. The goal is to prevent situations like that occurring in Brazil, where parental alienation has been legalized by Law 12.318 of 2010, creating a dangerous negative pattern for family courts worldwide.
The danger of applying parental alienation to parental custody cases
Joan Meier, Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, presented yesterday the results of her studies on parental alienation and how it is addressed in the courts in the United States. Meier found that judges are very skeptical of allegations of abuse by mothers, especially when it comes to sexual abuse toward the child.
When it comes to child sexual abuse, more than 90 percent of all complaints and cases that are being opened up are closed with no indictments due to the so-called lack of sufficient evidence,” said Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, former Vice President of the CEDAW Committee and Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Because of this, the mother is often not trusted, and the father uses parental alienation as a defense strategy to take custody of the children. “It’s a system that doesn’t want to believe that men are abusive in the family,” Meier said.
At this point, Meier continues, the children are automatically silenced, and their testimonies are not considered credible by the judge. According to the court, the children are manipulated by the parent, so they are not telling the truth about the abuse. This process provokes the child to “extreme mental health deterioration, suicidality, running away, all kinds of serious problems in school,” Meier testifies, referring to past cases.
The other scenario presented about the harmful use of PA in an abusive environment results in the murder of the child by the parent. “The other source of data, this far more disturbing and that should be enough to be changing the world, is a database of children murdered by a father who was alleged to be dangerous and against whom a family court refused to protect the children,” Meier said. The Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) compiles this database.
One of these many victims was Kayden Mancuso, an American child who in 2018 was brutally murdered by her father at the tender age of seven. The father had demonstrated violent behavior and signs of mental instability. Nevertheless, the court had allowed him to have unsupervised visits with his daughter against the protests of her mother, who had been accused by him of parental alienation.
On March 16, after a four-year battle by Kayden’s mother and other child custody advocates, President Joe Biden signed the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act (VAWA) that included the Kayden Law. This legislation is intended to allocate federal funds to implement domestic violence and family abuse awareness programs and to educate judges about custody to be more protective of children in their decision-making. In addition, the Kayden Law requires U.S. states to improve their standards on what kind of expert testimony is admitted and used in these courts.
One of the problems encountered internationally is that the theory of parental alienation is being introduced into the courts by attorneys, psychologists, or experts who use it as if it were scientific. “You should know that there is no such thing, medically speaking, as alienation experts,” said Danielle Pollack, policy manager at the National Family Violence Law Center in Washington, D.C., “because, of course, alienation doesn’t have enough scientific support.”
Many have wondered how the courts can be so blind as to hand over a child to an abusive parent. According to Pollack, the problem is cultural: “There’s a real resistance in the culture to acknowledge and recognize family abuse and how pervasive it is,” she said. “Second, I think it plays on the misogynistic tropes that are pervasive in the culture in many ways and narratives: a vindictive or jilted woman, angry at her ex and then doing something nefarious.”
In addition, Kaddari mentioned that corruption and the business that often revolves around the juvenile custody system should not be underestimated. “We haven’t talked enough about other stakeholders in this problematic arena, which is the experts or so-called experts or self-proclaimed experts” – she said – “and to acknowledge that there is a huge amount of money involved in this cottage industry of parental alienation.”
The scenarios of mistrust towards the courts and justice lead to a defense mechanism on the mother’s part, according to Genoveva Tisheva, a member of the CEDAW Committee. The mother is encouraged not to denounce the violence out of fear, and to prevent the father from resorting to parental alienation, triggering the whole harmful circuit described above.
UN goals for the future
The UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) panel concluded by urging participants to consider the next steps in the battle against parental alienation, which Kaddari said is only the tip of the iceberg in the family court crisis. These include a call for education of the court systems, the public, and a necessary future involvement and take-up of child custody issues by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Yesterday was an important milestone for the many organizations, activists and experts coming together to beat parental alienation and the distortion of legal systems. On the one hand, the glimmer of hope is its internationality and the mutual effort being made to deal with this phenomenon. “This meeting today is indicative of a collaboration across countries,” agreed Pollack, “We need to work internationally on this because otherwise, we’re not going to get anywhere.” On the other hand, that the world is finally starting to talk about parental alienation as a flawed mechanism that needs to be eradicated, “We’re beginning to kind of crack the silence around this issue, and the press is paying more attention,” she concluded.