Cover Story

Little girls lost?

Embraced in family courts across the country, a controversial "syndrome" may be placing abused children at risk

Issue: "PAS: The truth hurts," Feb. 8, 2003

This story contains material that adults should be aware of and children should not. Names

have been changed to protect those who are legally innocent unless or until proven guilty.

Most mothers love to watch videos made of their children when they were small. Barbara Johnston is no exception. But though cheery sailing ships decorate the room where a 1995 video of her daughter Casey was made, Ms. Johnston doesn't enjoy watching it. That's because the film shows Casey describing to a child-abuse investigator what she said her daddy did when he visited her bed at night.

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Today, Ms. Johnston is divorced, but she does not have custody of her children. That's because a family-court judge ordered full custody switched to Mr. Johnston after attorneys and psychologists concluded Ms. Johnston had "alienated" the girls from their father by coaching them to lie about sexual abuse. That's also why WORLD is not using the family's real name: Though there are compelling reasons to believe Mr. Johnston did molest the children, both he and the legal system say he did not.

But if he did, the root of the cover-up-a spreading acceptance in family courts of something called "parental alienation syndrome"-is scandalous. Also known as PAS, the controversial disorder is said to occur in children who are the objects of custody disputes. PAS, according to its father and chief proponent Richard A. Gardner, is what a child develops when he or she becomes preoccupied with the deprecation and criticism of one parent, at the urging of the other.

Dr. Gardner, a child-psychiatry professor at Columbia University, is both genius and villain in the family-law universe. Supporters say his discovery of PAS has enabled innocent fathers to defend themselves against false abuse allegations. Critics slam his syndrome as junk science that puts children in harm's way (see sidebar). But numerous fathers fighting for custody charge in court that their ex- (or soon-to-be-ex) wives are poisoning their children against them, purposely "alienating" them-often with charges of child sexual abuse-in an attempt to secure sole custody.

Sometimes that's true, as in the case of John and Susan Dailey. During a contentious 1996 custody dispute in northern California, a child psychologist "uncovered" memories the couple's 3-year-old son had of his father sexually abusing him. When Mrs. Dailey first said she didn't believe the allegations, the psychologist reported her to child protective services. Forced to choose between losing her son to the state or fighting her soon-to-be-ex-husband for custody, Mrs. Dailey chose the latter and sided with the psychologist. But after an hour-long interview with the psychologist, the judge in the case threw the sexual-abuse allegations out of court and awarded custody to Mr. Dailey, who arranged a co-parenting agreement with Mrs. Dailey. After the divorce became final, both parents sued the psychologist for malpractice.

But other cases don't end so neatly. In those, fathers' attorneys and court-appointed psychologists appear to be using PAS to brand good moms as "emotional child abusers"-and bury the truth about child sexual abuse.

That's what Barbara Johnston says happened to her. During her divorce proceedings in 1995, she was granted primary custody of her two daughters and her son. But in 1995, the girls, both under 8, began acting out sexually-using dolls, for example-to simulate sex acts that children of their age shouldn't know about. When questioned, they told their mother that their father had been sleeping and showering with them during court-ordered visitation at his home. Ms. Johnston contacted child protective services, and the sheriff's department child-abuse unit. Both investigated and concluded that abuse had occurred.

Law-enforcement workers compiled documentation: the videotape in which Casey described oral and genital penetration by her father; testimony from all three children, including the son, who corroborated the girls' stories about their father sleeping with them at night; and a university hospital medical report showing injuries to Casey's genital area.

Mr. Johnston quickly hired a criminal-defense attorney known in the county for representing accused sex offenders. That attorney, along with the court-appointed custody evaluator, and the children's guardian ad litem (an attorney charged with guarding the kids' best interests), charged that Ms. Johnston had inculcated "parental alienation syndrome" in the children to get them to lie about their father. The judge in the case in 1996 stripped Ms. Johnston of custody and placed the children with her ex-husband.

For five months the children were not allowed to see their mother. Then from 1996 until 2000, the only time Ms. Johnston had with the children was supervised visitation, and she was required to pay by the hour for the supervisor.

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