In America, there’s about one million children living with divorced parents, according to the heritage foundation. But there’s another number underneath that more than 10% of those children of divorce are kept away or alienated from their parents by the other parent.
It’s a phenomena in high conflict divorce situations called parental alienation, a strategy where one parent tries to damage the child’s relationship with the other parent. According to a study in Contemporary Pediatrics, about 22 million adults in America have been the target of parental alienation.
“This is a little bit more serious,” Matthew Randle, a family law attorney for Randle, Palmer and Bernays, said. “This is emotional manipulation.”
As a family law attorney in Pima County, Randle said sometimes it’s intentional or accidental.
“I’ve had situations where the parent genuinely thought they were protecting their kid from a bad actor,” Randle said.
Kayla Bernays, who is also family law attorney at Randle, Palmer and Bernays, said parents alienate their kids from the other for a variety of different reasons.
“Parents often get trapped in the head space of this is my truth, which means it is the truth,” she said. “And my child deserves to know the truth.”
When it comes to bringing a custody case to court, Arizona Revised Statute 25 – 403 lists best interest factors for the children. If they aren’t being met, it could sway the custody case one way or the other.
“It’s the likelihood of one parent encouraging meaningful contact with the other parent,” Bernays said.
One exception to the law is in the case of domestic abuse. In item 6 of the law, it reads “This paragraph does not apply if the court determines that a parent is acting in good faith to protect the child from witnessing an act of domestic violence or being a victim of domestic violence or child abuse.”
“Because of that, not always but many times, that is the defense for parental alienation,” Bernays said.
So when Randle or Bernays receive a case like this, they said many times, it comes down to evidence.
“For the person being accused, if it’s wrongful or untrue they essentially have to clear their name through litigation,” Randle said.
Parental alienation is considered psychological abuse, according to the DSM – 5. In some cases, the alienation causes a child to completely cut ties with the other parent and leaves the child with psychological conditions. So, to help on an emotional level, Randle and Bernays encourage an internal approach with a therapist.
Denise Hausler is one of the few therapists in Pima County that specialize in reunification therapy for alienation cases. It’s something she’s been doing for over 20 years and it’s even led her to testify on the stand in court.
“I usually do an intake with each parent to hear their stories,” she said. “Some of the signs before the divorce are undermining the targeted parental role, it’s reverse roles with the child and parent.”
She is there to help the family move forward in a healthy way.
“An unhealthy parent would look at how does this child meet my needs,” she said. “So it’s important to educate them on the effect this will have on their child if it continues,”
There are a list of symptoms for children experiencing parental alienation. Some include impervous to feelings of guilt, hatred toward the targeted parent’s family, justifying their own hostile actions, and making the opinions of the alienating parent their own opinions.
“Typically, they [children in these cases] have low self esteem, low self worth, and they get aggressive,” Hausler said.
Through therapy, she works to reunify the parents with their children.
“Unfortunately it takes time to bring all that out,” she said. “And it’s important for everyone to have a safe space to let everything out.”
Hausler said divorce is difficult, but there are ways to divorce in a collaborative, healthier way. It’s called Collaborative Divorce where an entire team including a therapist helps people through their divorce with less conflict.
But, she said in many cases, there’s feelings of hopelessness. One man asked was alienated from both of his children and with Haulser he worked to reunify with them. One of the daughters did reunify with him.
“I had a man come in,” she said. “And he said ‘I just want to give up,’ but I said ‘no we have to try’.”
Bernays said she saw in a case where one family was alienated from their dad for 14 years.
“But now dad has primary custody and they have a great relationship,” Bernays said.
So Haulser, who has seen many families through her career, said there is hope.
“It takes time to sift through everything but it is possible,” she said.