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.
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.
How often does such custody-switching happen? That's difficult to pinpoint, but a number of research studies attack different facets of the problem.
First, how many children are lying about sexual abuse? In custody battles, about one in three, according to most researchers. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Colorado in 1990 surveyed custody-visitation disputes involving 209 alleged child-sex-abuse victims. In 33 percent of cases, the allegations were considered false, and in 17 percent of cases, investigators could make no determination. A 1995 study by University of Michigan social work researcher Kathleen Faller found that of allegations in 215 child-sexual-abuse cases, about 70 percent were considered likely to be true, 20 percent were unlikely to be true, and about one in 10 was uncertain. Studies in 1986 and 1991 yielded similar results.
But despite such research, the 1980s rise in popularity of the controversial "false memory syndrome"-in which "recovered" memories of abuse are said to be artificial, even if the person really believes them-has perpetuated in family courts the notion that most abuse allegations arising in custody disputes are false.
That raises another question: Operating under such a belief-umbrella, how many truly abused children do family courts place with alleged abusers, either in sole custody or partial, unsupervised custody?
In Ms. Faller's 1995 study, 40 parents who raised sexual-abuse allegations-none of which were judged knowingly false-experienced negative sanctions, including losing custody to the alleged offender, limitation or loss of visitation, and court admonitions not to report alleged abuse again to the court, child protective services, or police.
Such cases often turn on Dr. Gardner's "parental alienation syndrome." WORLD reviewed histories on 13 PAS cases-in California, Texas, New York, North Carolina, Georgia, Utah, and other states. These cases had something in common: documentation. In all 13 cases, court records show the mother had already been found a fit parent, and was in most cases already the primary custodial parent. In all 13, court-appointed psychologists ignored children's testimony of sexual abuse, and in some cases, medical findings of abuse, and even previous sex-offender violations. And in all 13 cases, court-appointed mediators concluded that the mothers had inculcated PAS in their children and recommended Dr. Gardner's standard prescription: to strip custody from the mother and place the child with the father for "deprogramming."
George Scipione, head of Biblical Counseling Center in La Mesa, Calif., said results like that spring from the "psychologization" of the family-court system: Courts no longer make judgments based on objective biblical morality but on a victim-mentality system that relies on "experts" instead of evidence.
Seth Goldstein, an attorney and former sheriff's deputy who founded the Child Abuse Forensics Institute in Napa, Calif., agrees. Investigators often treat abuse allegations involving custody disputes differently than other abuse cases, he said, giving more weight to the opinions of attorneys, psychologists, and mediators than to evidence such as testimony or medical findings.
Mr. Scipione said his center has seen cases like Ms. Johnston's, including one in which a woman divorced her husband because of his repeated demands that she engage in unbiblical behavior. In an ensuing custody battle, the husband claimed she was lying in order to "alienate" him from the couple's daughter. The court-appointed psychologist in the case sided with the father, saying the wife was a religious zealot who was intentionally creating in her daughter sexual fear of the father. The judge accepted the psychologist's assessment and stripped the mother of custody.
Mr. Scipione believes his center's client was truthful. But he takes issue with Dr. Gardner's PAS theory being accepted as a "syndrome." He notes that it is inaccurate to classify as a syndrome a mental construct created in a child by a parent's deception. The deception itself is a sin, just as molesting is a sin. Both should be punished, Mr. Scipione said, but not in a way that punishes the child.
In the cases WORLD examined, courts punished the parent who was trying to protect the child. That, said San Francisco family-law attorney and clinical psychologist Demosthenes Lorandos, "denigrates the claim of every child who has actually been abused." Mr. Lorandos is among those who believe that PAS, even if it's never accepted as a bona fide syndrome, has value as a descriptor of what happens in some custody battles. But, he told WORLD "there is a backlash where some family-law courts now are not believing anything kids say. Kids can [disclose abuse] until they're blue in the face and no one believes them."
Attorney Richard Ducote, who has represented "protective" parents in 40 states, said the specter of PAS creates a Catch-22 for a divorcing parent who sincerely believes his or her spouse has abused their child. If a mom, for example, reports suspected abuse, she may lose custody to the father for inflicting "emotional abuse" via PAS. If she doesn't report what she believes is abuse, she may be found liable by child protective agencies for "failure to protect"-and lose custody to the state.
One problem, says Mr. Goldstein, is that overworked family-court personnel often grow jaded. With charges and counter-charges flying daily through family-law courtrooms, even judges tend to take them all with a grain of salt. Another problem is that attorneys and psychologists who are defending accused molesters often characterize a mother's frantic (sometimes seemingly hysterical) attempts to protect her children as evidence that she is unstable-and therefore more likely to be causing PAS in her children.
Debate rages on about whether PAS is a legitimate psychological diagnosis or just a convenient way for parents to demonize each other in court. But, as University of California law professor emeritus Carol S. Bruch pointed out in a 2001 paper on the topic, "it hardly matters whether PAS is one more example of a 'street myth.'" That's because the syndrome, real or not, is wreaking havoc in the lives of real people like Ms. Johnston.
More than six years after losing custody, she is still fighting to get her children back. Though her state crime victims compensation board ruled that her children had been molested, and probably by their father, and though her state's legislature passed a law prohibiting custody changes when a parent makes a good-faith allegation of abuse, the judge in the Johnston case has refused to rescind his custody order. Ms. Johnston now sees Casey and her other children on Thursdays and alternating weekends. The rest of the time, they are with their father.
-with reporting by Sean Fennelly