In the legal guillotine of divorce, wives and husbands often lash out at one another as state law cleaves one flesh into two again. But where child custody is at stake, the fighting turns even uglier. With no Solomon to secure a child's best interests, parents often tear apart children emotionally by telling them nasty things about each other. That's "parental alienation," a term widely accepted in family courts.
But "parental alienation syndrome" is a different animal. And among family-law experts, its father and chief evangelist Richard Gardner is viewed alternately as a hero and a quack. During the 1980s, Dr. Gardner, a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, says he observed a group of common symptoms that occur when the prize child in a custody battle becomes preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of one parent, at the urging of the other. He labeled the symptoms "parental alienation syndrome," or PAS.
Some experts, like San Francisco psychologist and family-law attorney Demosthenes Lorandos, say that in defining PAS Dr. Gardner has provided a useful lens through which to view the complex family dynamics involved in custody disputes. But critics such as Jon R. Conte, a University of Washington social welfare professor, have called Dr. Gardner's work "garbage." Much of Dr. Gardner's website is devoted to defending himself.
The doctor's critics-who include sex researcher and Alfred Kinsey-debunker Judith Reisman, and University of Michigan social work researcher Kathleen Faller-note that PAS isn't included in the DSM-IV (the standard diagnostic manual for professional psychology), and that the American Psychiatric Association doesn't recognize it. They also question his assertion that most custody-related sexual-abuse allegations are false, find suspect his early opinion that 90 percent of PAS inculcators were women, and point out that he's made a pile of money over the last decade providing expert testimony on behalf of divorcing men.
Dr. Gardner counters that he now observes in his own practice as many men as women inculcating PAS in their children. PAS isn't in the DSM-IV, he says, because there was too little literature on the subject when that edition of the manual was published in 1994. "To say that PAS does not exist because it is not listed in DSM-IV is like saying in 1980 that Lyme Disease did not exist because it was not then listed in standard diagnostic medical textbooks." He's hoping PAS will make the DSM-V, due out sometime after 2006.
Still, Dr. Gardner's PAS symptom list does include language that seems more charged than clinical. For example, instead of saying that a child is accusing mom or dad of abuse, neglect, or some other negative parenting behavior, Dr. Gardner says the child is participating in a "campaign of denigration" that includes "weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalizations for the deprecation." PAS children display "reflexive support for the alienating parent," Dr. Gardner writes, and an "absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent."
That means that the accusing child doesn't
feel bad for saying the parent did bad things. But a child who has actually been abused or neglected may also say bad things about his abuser, support the accusing parent, and feel relieved (instead of guilty) when the truth comes out.