A proposed California State Bill 2587 addresses a theory used to set guidelines in child custody cases. The proposed bill highlights a nearly 20-year-old dispute over a theory used by psychological evaluators.
The bill failed to be passed in 2007. At that time it was known as Assembly Bill 612. It targets the theory of Parental Alienation Syndrome which describes behavior where one parent turns a child against the other.
The bill is supported by women’s and children’s organizations who contend it is necessary to prevent the misuse of psychological testing in child custody evaluations and to ensure that, when such testing is allowed, only diagnoses that are generally accepted by the medical or psychological communities are accepted by the court. They believe that, in the absence of this bill, inappropriate evaluations will continue to be relied upon by the court and children will be put at risk.
The bill is opposed by psychologists and the Family Law Section of the California State Bar. They argue that, in most cases, this bill will prevent evaluators from using psychological testing, which is a necessary part of their evaluation process, and without which they will be unable to make recommendations to the court or comply with professional requirements.
Dr. Philip Stahl, a California evaluator and member of the state’s Association of Family & Conciliation Courts, says evaluators are split in their beliefs about whether children can be alienated. “You have evaluators who really don’t understand alienation, and people who want to apply it in every case,” said Stahl. Evaluators are not the only ones with differing views on the issue: there are stalwart advocates who believe that hundreds of people have suffered because of parental alienation, and those who believe just as many have suffered from false charges of the syndrome.
The text of the 2007 version of the bill explicitly banned the use of Parental Alienation Syndrome, or just the term alienation from use in evaluations. It also aimed to minimize the use of custody evaluations. The family law section of the state bar and several psychologists groups banded together to oppose the bill.
The 2008 version of the bill is much vaguer than its predecessor, stating evaluators will be forced to conform to “standards generally accepted by the medical, psychiatric, legal, and psychological communities.” The bill does not specifically mention Parental Alienation Syndrome.
Divisions over cases with alienation and abuse are not easily mended, says Stahl, because they are usually gender-based. That problem, says Stahl, dates back to the founder of the Parental Alienation Syndrome theory, Dr. Richard Gardner, who described the syndrome as a strategy for women to strip father’s of their parental rights. “I believe alienation does exist, but not in the Gardner model, which was presented with clear gender-bias,”said Stahl.
Dr. Amy Baker, a psychiatrist and believer in Parental Alienation Syndrome who wrote a book on the experiences of adult children who claim to have suffered alienation, says the gender issue is overshadowing the problems victims are facing. “It is unfortunate that women’s groups have taken a stance against the issue, because many women have suffered because of the actions of alienators,” said Baker, who added that both men and women alienate their children from the other parent.
A 2005 study of 125 high-conflict divorce cases by San Jose State University researcher Janet Johnstone indicated that Baker might be right. The study found that 50 percent of women in the cases showed signs of alienating their children, and 45 percent of men. Gardner’s papers on the subject, written in the late 1980s, sold the behavior as primarily occurring in women, and formed the basis for the fathers’ rights advocates to use alienation as an argument in custody court. Gardner himself often acted as an expert witness on behalf of men. But Gardner’s theories have never been endorsed by the American Psychological Association, and many evaluators reject them. Several evaluators interviewed agreed that it is not unusual for one parent to turn a child against the other, but that the behavior shouldn’t be described as a psychological disorder, the way Gardner intended. “The syndrome describes a typical pattern of behavior, but calling it a syndrome makes it sound medical, and it’s not,” says Dr. Mitch Eisen, a Cal State Los Angeles psychologist and professional evaluator. “The dispute over whether Gardner’s ideas hold merit or not is not limited to advocates alone,” says Stahl The dispute sometimes means making strategic court decisions: some lawyers will recommend to clients to keep abuse allegations quiet to avoid trouble in court.
"Judges are pretty cautious about abuse charges in a custody case,” said Thomas Lyon, a USC law professor and psychologist who has investigated custody cases for the county and argued as a lawyer in family courts. “Making allegations can make the accuser look vindictive, and lead to judicial backlash.”