What is Parental Alienation?

This Week’s Blog by Jaime S. Dursht

“Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent and/or other family members. It is a distinctive form of psychological abuse towards both the child and the rejected family members that occurs almost exclusively in association with family separation or divorce, particularly where legal action is involved.”  Lorandos, Bernet and Sauber, Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals (Charles C. Thomas, Ed. 2013).

  • In Family Law, parental alienation is a term used to describe the dynamic of a child’s unreasonable rejection of one parent with the encouragement/tacit approval of the other parent.
  • The issue of parental alienation arises in high conflict custody cases both pre- and post-divorce when one party seeks sole legal and/or physical custody of the child(ren).
  • Connecticut Family Courts consider evidence of parental alienation in the context of making or modifying custody orders in accordance with what is in the best interests of the child pursuant to C.G.S. § 46b-56.
  • Courts may order the involvement of mental health professionals and custody evaluation experts to investigate allegations of parental alienation and make recommendations of intervention if necessary.

Generally, parental alienation is the psychological manipulation of a child by one parent to unjustifiably reject the other parent, and although it is not regulated as a punishable offense in the United States, it is considered a crime of child abuse in other countries carrying criminal penalties. In Connecticut, allegations can, and often do, arise in cases of contested custody, and there is a wide body of case law identifying the characteristics and conduct of an alienated child as well as that of an alienating parent.   For example, children who suddenly refuse to see a parent or declare hatred of a parent based on minor or unfounded complaints may be a signal of alienation.  A parent who falsely alleges physical or sexual abuse, exaggerates allegations of substance abuse or other inappropriate conduct, interferes with the other parent’s access to school records and information, restricts the other parent’s parenting time, or involves the children with details of litigation—these may be considered efforts to deliberately undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent, and the consequences can be severe. In some cases the court may order specific interventions to remedy the situation, such as therapeutic treatment for child and/or parent, or reunification therapy, or in extreme cases, the court may order a complete reversal of custody.

The statutory factor under which the court will consider evidence is C.G.S. § 46b-56(c)(6): “[T]he willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders.”  See e.g., Hibbard v. Hibbard, 139 Conn. App. 10, 55 A.3d 301 (2012) (“Because the child has lived with the plaintiff since birth, the court does not take lightly the prospect of changing her primary residence at this point.  Nevertheless, the court determined that such a modification to the custody order was in the best interests of the child because the plaintiff demonstrates a real deficiency in her willingness and ability to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent. … The court referenced the plaintiff’s strategy of pursuing the elimination of the defendant from their daughter’s life and concluded that the result of leaving the child with the plaintiff would be the eventual loss to the child of her father.”)

Connecticut does not recognize parental alienation as a diagnosable syndrome as it was initially proposed in the 1980’s (officially discredited as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 2012). “There is insufficient evidence that the description offered of parental alienation syndrome has any scientific basis.  There is no credible evidence that this syndrome has been the subject of any scientific studies published with approval in peer-reviewed scientific literature.” Snyder v. Cedar, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, NNH CV010454296, February 16, 2006 (Pittman, J.).  However, courts have made factual findings that a parent has engaged in parental alienation. See Ruggiero v. Ruggiero, 76 Conn. App. 338, 349, 819 A.2d 864 (2003) (“Following the presentation of evidence, the court stated:  [I]t’s my finding that [the plaintiff] has been guilty of parental of alienation in two ways:  One of them is that he attempted to alienate the children from [the defendant] …”). Courts also note, however, that a claim of parental alienation may be an effort by one parent to gain tactical legal advantage over another parent. Mastrangelo v Mastrangelo, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, No. FA054012782S, February 1, 2017 (Kenefick, J.)  (“This was not a case of severe parental alienation orchestrated by the mother. The father had a significant role in creating the problems he had with his children … his continued attempt to expose [the plaintiff] for being an alienating mother is not going to endear his children to him. … [he] was a on a mission to punish [the plaintiff] to the detriment of seeing his children.”).

All child custody cases are complex. It is imperative for the professionals involved in every case to be knowledgeable and experienced in the particular dynamic at issue. Broder & Orland LLC, with offices in Greenwich and Westport, are experienced in custody cases involving parental alienation.