Can the Court Consider Parental Alienation Syndrome?

What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”) describes negative behaviors a child exhibits towards one parent resulting from the other parent’s negative “campaign” against the targeted parent. The child is “brainwashed” by the targeting parent through repeated, consistent denigrations of the targeted parent, which result in the child ultimately refusing to see the targeted parent.

The syndrome appears most vividly in situations where the parents are separated. (Woodall 5-11; 13-16). When a child is thus alienated from one parent the result can be serious, lifelong psychological consequences, or a “syndrome” (Woodall 7). This concept has been used to influence the outcome of child custody cases, when experts use the syndrome to explain why a child should be moved into another parent’s custody, even against that child’s apparent will. Experts maintain that even severely alienated children, upon passing a measure of time with the alienated parent, will ultimately rebound to their prior pre-alienation relationship with the alienated parent, often quite rapidly.

Alienated children risk developing psychological problems, such as anxiety and feelings of guilt and shame to the point that some researchers consider severe alienation equivalent to domestic abuse. (Woodall 162, 44). See our previous blog posts for the history of PAS and descriptions of more behaviors exhibited by alienated children.

Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal By Karen & Nick Woodall

Can the Child Custody Court Consider Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Court records show that Virginia courts have considered PAS in making child custody or visitation determinations, including at least one case (BOND v. MacLEOD 2011 NY Slip Op 03153 509360) where experts testified about the syndrome and it’s impacts on a child’s well-being. However, due to significant academic controversy regarding PAS, some Virginia courts could foreseeably retract from or even be averse to the concept, nonetheless.

Varying reactions to PAS in other states illustrate the controversy:

  • Some states’ courts have questioned the validity of PAS as a scientifically proven disorder that affects children. Other courts side-step the issue by refusing to accept “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” while acknowledging a similar concept of “Parental Alienation,” which focuses more generally on the actions of parents and children.
  • Other states seem to be trending towards the acceptance of PAS. As recently as December 2018, a New York court reviewed much of the literature to date regarding PAS, concluding for itself that there was “little doubt” the syndrome exists, and even comparing the actions of the alienating parent to a tortfeasor committing the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Discussions and controversies over PAS in the courts show the potency of PAS and Parental Alienation evidence in influencing child custody determinations. An experienced practitioner may be required to present evidence of Parental Alienation or PAS in a manner or form the Court can deem reliable enough to accept.

Do you have an upcoming child custody case which involves parental alienation? Contact our experienced family law practitioners at Keithley Law, PLLC, PLLC for an initial consultation today: (703) 454-5147.