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Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations

Published in 2019. Full article can be read here:

Reprint of the Abstract Arguably the most troubling aspect of justice system response to intimate partner violence is custody courts' failure to protect children when mothers allege the father is abusive. Family courts' errors in assessing adult and child abuse, and punitive responses to abuse allegations, have been widely documented.

A significant contributor to these errors is the pseudo-scientific theory of parental alienation (PA). Originally termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS), the theory suggests that when mothers allege that a child is not safe with the father, they are doing so illegitimately, to alienate the child from the father. PA labeling often results in dismissal of women's and children's reports of abuse, and sometimes trumps even expert child abuse evaluations. PAS was explicitly based on negative stereotypes of mothers and has been widely discredited. However, the term parental alienation is still widely used in ways that are virtually identical to PAS. However, because PA is nominally gender neutral (and not called a scientific syndrome), it continues to have substantial credibility in court.

The first goal of this project was to ascertain whether empirical evidence indicates that parental alienation, like PAS, is gender-biased in practice and outcome. Second, the study sought to explore outcomes in custody/abuse litigation by gender and by differing types of abuse. Analysis of over 2000 court opinions confirms that courts are skeptical of mothers’ claims of abuse by fathers; this skepticism is greatest when mothers claim child abuse. The findings also confirm that fathers’ cross-claims of parental alienation increase (virtually doubling) courts’ rejection of these claims, and mothers’ losses of custody to the father accused of abuse. In comparing court responses when fathers accuse mothers of abuse, a significant gender difference is identified. Finally, the findings indicate that where Guardians Ad Litem or custody evaluators are appointed, outcomes show an intensification of courts’ skepticism toward mothers’ (but not fathers’) claims, and custody removals from mothers (but not fathers).

The study relies solely on electronically available published opinions in child custody cases. It has produced an invaluable database identifying 15 years of published cases involving alienation, abuse and custody, while coding parties’ claims and defenses, outcomes, and other key factors by gender and parental status. Electronic copy available at:

FINAL SUMMARY OVERVIEW In custody disputes across the country, protective parents and domestic violence professionals have long asserted that family courts frequently deny true claims of adult partner or child abuse and instead punish protective parents who seek to protect children from a dangerous other parent. The “Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations Study” (“FCO Outcomes Study” or “Study”) aimed to gather data on how family courts across the United States are deciding child custody cases when parents accuse each other of abuse and/or parental alienation. It seeks to shed empirical light on a polarized debate between professionals involved in family court and the domestic violence field, as well as litigants on both sides. A significant part of the debate revolves around the label of “alienation” which is frequently used by professionals and accused parents, against a parent reporting abuse.1 Anecdotal reports indicate that claims of child abuse are even more problematic in court, and that many protective parents (usually mothers) alleging child abuse are losing custody to the allegedly abusive parent. Reports of severe damage to children forced by courts to be with fathers their protective parents claimed were harmful have been growing.2 These claims have gained little 1 See, e.g., Dalton, Carbon & Olesen, High Conflict Divorce, Violence and Abuse: Implications for Custody and Visitation Decisions, Juv. & Fam. Ct. Journal 11, 23, 29 (Fall 2003). 2 Joyanna Silberg et al, Crisis in Family Court: Lessons from Turned-Around Cases, Final Report to the Office on Violence against Women, Dep’t of Justice 37 (Sept. 30, 2013),; Center for Judicial Excellence, US Divorce Child Homicide Data, FAMILY COURT OUTCOMES STUDY, Parental alienation (or “alienation”), while lacking any universal definition, at its essence, is the theory that when a mother and/or child seek to restrict a father’s access to the child, their claims of dangerousness or harm are not true, but due to the mother’s anger or hostility, or pathology. Alienation is also used, to a lesser extent, by mothers against fathers. Electronic copy available at: 4

traction among family court professionals and researchers, who sometimes assert that domestic violence professionals are too credulous, many of mothers’ abuse clams are in fact false, and abuse experts/advocates don’t appreciate that parental alienation is real, and harmful to children.3 Purpose The purpose of the FCO Study is to bring neutral empirical data to bear on this controversy: Whether and to what extent it is true that courts are disbelieving abuse claims and removing custody from parents claiming abuse, whether and to what extent gender impacts these findings, and how cross-claims of parental alienation affect courts’ treatment of mothers’ and fathers’ abuse claims. Specifically, the Study sought to produce data on (i) the rates at which courts credit (believe) different types of abuse allegations raised by either parent against the other; (ii) the rates at which parents win/lose the case, or win/lose custody when alleging any type of abuse against the other parent; (iii) the impact of alienation claims/defenses on (i) and (ii) above; and (iv) the impact of gender on (i), (ii), and (iii) above: that is, do rates of crediting of abuse, wins, or custody losses vary when it is a father alleging a mother’s abuse, as compared to a mother alleging a father’s abuse? Overall, the Study sought to produce empirical evidence to determine whether or not the contentions of survivors and the abuse professionals who work with them are supported by the data, and if not, to identify any specific areas-- by state or topic - where there still may be troubling or concerning findings. 3 See, e.g., Leslie Drozd and Nancy Olesen, Abuse and Alienation are Each Real: A Response to a Critique by Joan Meier, J. Child Custody 7:4, 253-265 (2010).

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