Thursday, August 20, 2015

 When the Victim Becomes the Bad Guy
© Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015 

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

             How could it possibly happen?  That is, how can a victim of domestic violence become perceived as a malicious, alienating parent?  Repeated appearances in Family Court can cause a revised perception of who the victim is.  I’ve seen it happen.  For example, take the (fictional) case of a mom, the victim of many years of serious physical abuse from her husband whose children grow up witnessing many such incidents over their childhood.  They become estranged from their father (who makes counterclaims of abuse by the mother toward him and says to the Judge that all he wants is to see his kids, and that she is trying to alienate them against him). Other incidents transpire after the divorce, after which the children may stop spending any time with dad. Years go by.  He alleges parental alienation. Everyone goes through psychological evaluations with written reports, multiple court appearances before numerous judges over years.  This is after the divorce—post Judgment.  The judges get sick of hearing over and over that the kids won’t spend any time with their father, who appears to be sincere to the Judge, or puts on a convincing act. Orders for parenting time are written and not complied with.  The kids don’t want to see their father. They refuse to listen to their mother when she tells them to go.  Maybe she doesn’t insist hard enough.  No one knows what the actual conversation is. The children are either afraid or bored, resentful or disconnected from that parent. They don’t want to get on the phone to have a conversation.  Maybe they hate the estranged parent. Maybe the mom was not so careful about things she said in front of the children in the past. We don’t know. Maybe that can be called alienation, maybe not, depending on who you are representing. Whether or not mom attempted to alienate the children, she will be accused of it nevertheless.  Same holds true for the opposite scenario, when the father is the primary parent of residence and the children won’t go to visit mom.
            Take another fictional scenario where the abusive or emotionally challenged parent does something bad, such as not returning the kids to mom from a parenting time weekend, or maybe worse.  Perhaps some other event transpired in the past to cause the court to order supervised visitation, or limited visitation.  At some point, in the absence of further episodes of poor judgment and bad behavior, the court will become frustrated with the ongoing litigation, of the repetitive claims from the parent who must be supervised that he/she only wants to spend time with their child who they love. The Court will put whatever safeguards in place that are realistic, necessary and that keep the children safe from harm.  But for how long?  Usually, not forever is the answer.
            In the absence of continued bad behavior, the court, depending on the circumstances, may have the tendency to allow the lessening of sanctions that were in place against the misbehaving parent.  Unless we are talking about sexual molestation or serious, documented child abuse.  But a court, given a respectful and cooperative parent who is under the microscope or on a judicially imposed "short leash", may be inclined to lessen the strictures, in the interests of re-establishing “normalized” contact between that parent and the children.
            How about the parent whose ex-spouse has a history of severe mental illness and feels he/she must restrict contact between the mentally ill parent and the children?  The court agreed long ago and gave the healthy parent full custody of the kids.  Now, however, the ex-spouse has been stable, in treatment, and seeking expanded parenting time for a few years now. How much stability is long enough?  What about the children who witnessed their parent being unstable, as well as overhearing their custodial parent (and perhaps new spouse) discussing the mental illness in the next room?  The children grow away from the mentally ill parent, become anxious or embarrassed (spill-over from the seemingly anxious custodial parent?) and would rather not resume visitation beyond a certain point, if at all.  How much of the estrangement stems directly from the actual behavior of the parent with emotional illness, and how much was fed by the divorce process and the fact that the custodial parent had the upper hand and took advantage of the other parent’s period of destabilization?
            The parent with full time residential custody (let’s call her Mom for the purposes of this discussion, but it could just as well be Dad) is understandably reticent, suspicious, fearful of loosening up on those restraints against Dad.  A spouse who endured a terrible marital history does not forget what transpired. Now, after years have gone by, that custodial parent has stability, a lifestyle with the children that he/she has control over, without interference or further damage inflicted by the ex-spouse or partner.  But how much time in exile is enough?  At what point does the residential parent acquire an affirmative obligation to help re-establish a relationship with the non-residential parent?
            A recurrent problem in Family Court is the revolving door of Judges who rotate in, and then out into other divisions (i.e. Civil, Criminal, etc.).  Regardless of the reasons, whether it be a shortage of judges, or administrative reassignments for a variety of reasons, it is common for long term litigants to experience multiple judges in their cases.  That is a weakness in the system, but it is a recurrent reality for many parents who rely on Family Court to intercede because they cannot control the situation at home without such assistance.  For parents who have undergone numerous forensic psychological evaluations with their children, there could be as many as a half dozen psychological reports in the Court’s voluminous files, some contradicting each other, and many of them stale from age.  What was diagnosed as a personality disorder five or even eight years ago, can be newly perceived as something no longer as relevant to today’s issues, maybe even divorce-related conflict that brought out the worst in everyone.  Some Judges order updated psychological evaluations before making any changes. But many people cannot afford the new evaluations which can cost between $3,000 and $8,000.  So in a residential parent who is financially strapped, that parent’s reluctance or inability to quickly come up with the money for the evaluation, can be perceived as obstructive and sabotaging.  To make matters worse, in a very contentious case, the Court can appoint a Guardian ad litem to represent the child’s best interests to the Court.  The Court can also appoint a Parent Coordinator to manage problems that come up pertaining to parenting time, vacations, school events, etc., to help the parties avoid filing multiple motions in the court. The worst case scenario is when a financially strapped parent must come up with money to pay (all or a portion of) an updated psychological evaluation, and funds for a Guardian ad litem and Parent Coordinator’s retainers. Potentially, such a parent could have to come up with $10-15,000 at once, based on the Court’s orders.  That is in addition to paying their own attorney and court costs.  The court sees the current situation as urgent for the sake of the children’s best interests, which it actually might be, and the Judge is less sympathetic about one’s financial problems, telling the parent, “You’ll have to come up with the money somehow”.
            How long is long enough for a parent to be supervised during parenting time? How long is long enough for a parent to be emotionally stable and highly functioning before a court will allow more contact—even unsupervised contact—with their children?  How long is long enough for an estranged parent to wait to begin reunification therapy with their child?  At what point does legitimate fear of an ex-spouse become perceived as malice toward that parent or neuroticism?  At what point does the Court get frustrated and annoyed because perhaps that (fearful) parent does not “snap out of it”, “get over it” and “move on” with their lives “for the sake of their children”?  Some professionals (such as a Parent Coordinator or Guardian ad litem) could eventually come to blame a parent-victim of domestic violence for letting her (or his) anxiety “spill over” onto the child, thereby causing the child to fear the previously abusive parent.  A reticent victim-parent could be perceived as uncooperative or alienating and in need of psychotherapy (which may be accurate).  How much spillover of a parent’s emotions is avoidable and how much is not?  What about the non-verbal cues to a child that telegraph disapproval, anxiety, anger or revulsion toward the other parent?  How can a Court monitor and control all of that, prevent that, eliminate it from the total picture?  The answer is that a Court cannot do that, but it can take drastic action when all else seems to fail.
            In many if not all States, a Family Court judge in his/her discretion may take drastic action to reverse perceived alienation of children by a residential parent.  Judges may order fines or financial sanctions, attorneys’ fees paid to the petitioning parent, or even  order an abrupt change of custody.  When this happens, the children, depending on their age, can have extreme reactions, emotional trauma and experience a chaos that they never anticipated. Or perhaps they may benefit and get to know a parent who they previously had nothing to do with.  It is well established that sometimes, when a Court is certain that one parent is causing alienation of the children against the non-residential parent, that a total change in custody may be the only, albeit drastic, solution. But no Judge can be certain of the outcome of that decision.  Some children will get used to the estranged parent and see that he/she isn’t that bad, and even may begin to re-establish a relationship. But that is probably the exception rather than the rule. Other children who are already estranged from their noncustodial parent may suffer significant emotional trauma including depression, anxiety, behavioral problems and a decrease in school performance.  When abrupt changes in custody are ordered, Judges differ in the kinds of supports that may or may not be put into place.  For example, a Judge might order a custody change for a finite amount of time, along with mandatory concurrent counseling for the children and parents.  A mental health professional might be put into place who could visit the new residential parent’s home with the children to do on-site counseling or observations. To provide no mental health supports, assumes that the children are going to do well, and that is probably not the case.  There, the children may feel abandoned by the system and even by their previous custodial parent.  Once a change of residential custody is ordered, it can take a long, long time to complete all of the evaluations and court dates that need to take place before that parent can get the kids back. If the court begins to perceive the residential parent as a problem, then the former parent-in-control becomes the parent under-a-microscope, vulnerable to criticism and parental compromises.
            Parents on both sides need to realize that over time, Judges get sick of hearing the same arguments, seeing the same litigation papers, lawyers and allegations that have been intrinsic to that case for years.  A new Judge on such a case, will not have the same feel of the case that might be several storage boxes big, even if that Judge read everything in the boxes.  It is simply human to see two people in Court who have years of horrible history between them, and for a Judge to tell them that they need to stop, to move on, to co-parent, and act reasonably for the sake of their children.  To a victim of abuse, that might sound like the Judge is saying “enough already”, “snap out of it and move on”. Easier said than done.  And is that a reasonable message for the Court to send?  In some cases the answer is yes. In some cases, there is actual malice on the part of the residential parent (however well-justified it might have been in the past). Or, the malice might be out of irrational anger and a desire to unnecessarily hurt the other.  Either way, the children are harmed emotionally, lose out on having two parents, and it is the Court’s job to make sure that does not happen, or remain that way. Is it reasonable, however, for a Court to tell a victim of domestic violence to move on?  Many victims suffer from chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and carry the emotional damage and pain from the domestic violence wherever they go. It doesn’t go away easily and unfortunately, not every victim is in therapy to process the trauma. Accordingly there is a tension between the children’s right to have two parents and to spend time with them (assuming the exiled parent is not dangerous to their safety or well-being), and the residential parent’s need to feel safe, stable and able to care for the children without undue interference.  At what point does the residential parent’s history with the exiled parent become less relevant to the children’s right to have a relationship with that parent?  Judges have a limited tolerance for indulging that history unless there is a documented ongoing risk to the children from the non-residential parent who remains uncooperative or untreated (by a mental health professional as previously ordered, for example).  So at some point in the endless post-Divorce litigation, the Court can seemingly "turn" against the victim when the victim begins to be perceived as an impediment to progress.  What is clear, is that the longer a child has minimal or no contact with their estranged parent, the harder it will be to undo the damage done to the parent-child bond.
           All of the above scenarios are fact-sensitive and vary from Judge to Judge, from Court to Court, and from State to State.  Suffice it to say that there is so much ambiguity and psychological undercurrent in cases such as these that a detailed dissection of those issues sometimes has to take place by forensic evaluators so that the Court can proceed with more confidence that it is doing the right thing for the children.  The Court is less concerned with what is fair to an individual parent than what is in the best interests of the children.  That is the primary mission of the Family Court in these matters, and there is a sense of urgency to fix the problem before too many years go by and it becomes too late to undo the damage.

            Recommendations for the residential parent in these scenarios:  
  • Have a therapist who is skilled and experienced treating this kind of case, help you with all of your issues and try your best to process whatever trauma you went through in a therapeutic, constructive manner; 
  • Try not to be overprotective of your child; Try to self-monitor your comments and body language, in talking about the other parent, in front of your child;
  • Do not say negative things about the other parent to your child (even if you think those things are true); do not discuss the litigation; do not blame; do not play the victim role, even if you were indeed the victim;
  • Encourage the child to participate in, and to enjoy their parenting time (and phone calls, etc.) with the other parent unless prohibited by the Court;
  • Try to separate your feelings about the other parent from the child’s need to have a second parent.  Some (but not all) horrible spouses are good, loving parents;
  • Follow all court orders. If something comes up that prevents you from complying with a court order, have your attorney advise you promptly.  Do not get overly confident that the court will not look to you in a critical manner.  You could be put under the microscope at some point, due to circumstances  or perhaps because there is a new judge, or your ex makes a disturbing allegation about you, or because parenting time is not being complied with.
  • Do your best to insist that your children comply with parenting time and phone calls as ordered.  If they do not take place, you will be held accountable. If you use the argument that the children refuse, you will be scolded by the court, that you allow your children to run the show.  It may be unfair, but you should expect this.
  • Remember that the more court involvement, the less control you have over your own life and your own children.  Being in court means that you are asking a stranger in a black robe to make decisions or impose interventions that you and your ex were not able to do on your own, for the benefit of your children. You may see yourself as the victim, but you should expect to be blamed as well, at some point.

Recommendations for the non-residential parent in these scenarios:
  •    Get a therapist, if not already appointed for you, to help you to understand what happened that led to this current situation; strengthen your coping skills, interpersonal skills, and your parenting skills; do more than you were ordered to do; try to get control of the negative behaviors that formed a wedge between you and your child (e.g. alcohol, substance abuse, anger management, lack of empathy, etc.);
  •      Don’t blame the other parent; Don’t play the victim role;
  •    Don’t over-do your limited parenting time with lavish gifts, over-the-top activities, or other extreme courtship techniques to make up for lost time. While that might “wow” the child for a time, it is exhausting, expensive and does not build strong character.  Sending the message to a child that you will buy anything or do anything for their love, will end up corrupting their behavior toward you and will potentially create a manipulative and superficial child who will only be happy when you give that child a new gift.  Love cannot be bought. 
  •     Take responsibility for what transpired, and determine not to let that behavior repeat itself. Sometimes an apology goes a long way, whether to a child or to an ex spouse.  Arrogantly denying your role to the judge, and blaming the other parent, will not be well received and will not be to your benefit.
  •      Do not say anything negative to the child about their residential parent (even if you think they are alienating and malicious or plain crazy); do not discuss the litigation. 
  •      Follow all Court Orders; show up on time for all parenting time, make all phone calls you are entitled to, be up-beat and optimistic. Make your interactions with your child about the child, not all about you. That means showing empathy, expressing an interest in the child’s daily life (i.e. friends, school, extracurricular activities, etc.) and actively listening to the child rather than interrogating, lecturing or overly talking about yourself. Attend your AA meetings without fail, if that is relevant to your case. Or attend your parenting skills or anger management classes religiously and consistently. Complete everything and jump through every hoop that the court imposed on you. Stop resenting it and fighting the process. Realize that your own actions for the most part, are what got you to this position. 
There are no easy answers, nor are situations usually black and white. The court has to go through a process that can be agonizing, for the sake of protecting the children who cannot protect themselves.  In any event, the bottom line is that children are entitled to both parents, if at all possible and if it is safe for them to be cared for by those parents.  Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015
Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

Call us to schedule a consultation:  201-801-0455

Web Site:
Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw; follow me on FaceBook

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Losing Control and Getting it Back

In Family Court

 © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
     Psychologically speaking, we often deal with dynamics of control, power, victimization and victim-hood in Family Court litigation.  For example, in domestic violence proceedings, we hear about domination and control wielded by an abuser over the victim in a relationship.  It is very difficult for someone, abused and controlled by an authoritarian, abusive partner, to break out of that pattern.  When that happens, it is often after a violent upheaval, or other cathartic event that takes place between the two.  An abusive partner (can be spouse, non-spouse, he, she, etc.) is often very controlling of the other person, using the victim’s fear, or enforcing the tight control of information (e.g. finances, income, expenses, etc.) as weapons against the victim or weaker party in that relationship.  In many cases, Police and Court intervention, a resulting restraining order, separation, divorce, supportive and interventional therapy and a termination of the abusive relationship will be essential for the victim to take control of their life, perhaps for the first time. 
     The control of knowledge makes for a gross imbalance of power between two people in a relationship.  If a divorcing spouse has no idea how much income the other makes, where the money goes, how much is spent, how much cash is in the bank, etc., then that spouse is at a disadvantage.  Some sneaky spouses, planning a divorce without telling their mate, may move money around, hide assets, try to make it look like they earn less than they do, and set up bank accounts in their own name or in a relative’s name, to build their own war chest or secret nest egg for a subsequent life after marriage.  In divorce, there is a discovery process, meaning that each party must divulge all of their assets and expenses, debts, property, etc. and certify to the Court that it is true, complete and accurate (under penalty of perjury).  If an account is purposely left out of the list, the Court will be prone to look at this as an attempt to defraud the Court, with potentially very negative consequences. 
     Another control issue intrinsic to Family Court actions is related to children: custody and parenting time.  A malicious custodial (residential) parent who wants to sabotage the other parent’s time with the children can do so.  A malicious non-custodial parent can also control time by showing up late with the child, among other things.  But such actions are at the peril of the sabotaging parent.  Examples of wrongful control of parenting time may include such items as scheduling a doctor’s appointment during the other parent’s time, signing up a child for ballet lessons that coincide with the other parent’s time, etc.  
     Attempts to control the affections of the child are not unusual, but they are very destructive to the child.  For example, a parent can disparage the other parent to the child, or in front of the child.  The worst form of this may include a parent who files false allegations of abuse against the other parent to gain some advantage either in Court or in parenting time.  A parent can also spend a ton of money on a child to compete with the other spouse (who is usually not in a position to compete equally) to be the “favorite” parent.  The other parent cannot control where the other parent takes the child (e.g. Disney World, cruises, etc.).  The more affluent parent, even if not the primary residential custodian, has the control of choice vacations, expensive presents, pets, expensive electronic devices, etc.  Access to money affords more control in many cases, if not all. But later on, the child resents it and is well aware of the manipulation.
     Substance abuse, alcoholism and serious mental health issues are dealt with in Family Court as well, especially when it involves spousal abuse or affects children.  One can superficially conceptualize substance abuse and alcohol abuse to be failures of self-control and good judgment.  Self-sabotaging behavior can be seen as relinquishing control of one’s future, one’s success, over one’s relationships, etc.  It is a passive relinquishment of control, perhaps due to a fear of failure, expectation of failure due to low self-esteem, and a habitual approach of relinquishing personal responsibility.  It is easier for some to play the victim role and to blame another, than to assume personal responsibility and to take the wheel on their own personal road to potential success.
     Whenever there is litigation in Family Court, whether in child custody and parenting time disputes, or in domestic violence, child abuse, or in high conflict divorces, there are usually issues of control, or the loss of control.  Court is the ultimate control.  Judges often tell litigants for example, that if they cannot figure out or agree on what is good for their child, that the Judge will do it for them, telling the parents that it is preferable for the parents to make these decisions rather than “a stranger in black robes” doing it for them.  But it is the Court’s role to take control when it is appropriate and necessary to do so, issuing orders that must be complied with.  A restraining order is an example of a complete reversal of the power dynamics, with the formerly controlling abuser now being restrained, controlled, kicked out of the residence, given strict parenting times, being forced to send support checks, or having bank accounts frozen by the Court.  Karma!
     Police exist to protect the public, partially (among other things) by taking control of situations that are out-of-control. There, the ultimate control is arrest and incarceration.  The mental health system also can assume control, perhaps by having a patient who is dangerous to themselves or others involuntarily committed as an in-patient until control and safety are re-established (perhaps with the assistance of medications). 
In acrimonious divorces, the Court attempts, through the implementation of its control, to level the playing field between two spouses, to ensure fairness, to make sure that no one is victimized by the other.  That can entail freezing accounts, or generating orders to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees, and other expenses.  Obviously it is better for two people to operate in good faith with each other before it comes to this, but if they got along so well, perhaps they would not be getting divorced in the first place.
      In child abuse and neglect proceedings, the paramount concern for the Court is the safety of the child.  That is one type of Family Court proceeding that is marked by a great amount of control, necessarily imposed upon the parent(s) to ensure no further incidents of abuse or neglect take place.  There, the Court acts in the place of the parent and in extreme cases, the Court can suspend all parenting time, order supervised parenting time, or terminate parental rights and have a child adopted by a foster parent.  That is total control. In that setting, the parents lost their parental control as a result of their own actions.  Clearly, when a parent (noun) cannot parent (verb), a Court will take over the control by ordering various therapeutic services such as anger management, parenting skills classes, substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, etc.  Ultimately, that will be to the benefit of the parent and hopefully to the child.  The only way for this parent to take back control is to comply fully with the Court Orders in good faith.
     Taking personal responsibility is the first step.  Then, a person can begin to do whatever is necessary to improve, become stronger, acquiring better insight, improved judgment and better self esteem.  The goal should include leaving victimhood and blame behind, becoming more mature and stronger from the inside out.  The more a person relinquishes control, gives their life over to others (to control for them), to substances, to the Courts, or even to their children (who learn to control their own parents), then the more difficult it will be to break those patterns.  Looking to others to fix things is a short term, stop-gap measure, but depending on others to fix your life is a dangerous tightrope since there is always a great price to pay.  A person needs their own center of gravity, their own vision for the future, and a feeling of self-efficacy, independent of everyone else, while still being in concert with the world (as opposed to being “anti-social”).  Making good choices is the first step toward this end, even if they are small good choices, one step at a time.

Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015
Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.
Call us to schedule a consultation:  201-801-0455
Web Site:
Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw


Thursday, January 29, 2015

 © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
I frequently come across parents in Family Court who allege Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).  This, for some, may become a mantra in cases when there is really no alienation, but rather, a parent wants to either (a) portray him/herself as a victim, or (b) wants to put the other parent on the defensive for the purposes of litigation, ongoing harassment, or just plain hostility.  Sometimes a parent will purposely and methodically denigrate the other parent to a child, may sabotage parenting time with the other parent, and may do great damage to the child doing so.   We are talking about an otherwise fit alternate parent who is being marginalized (or eliminated) by the concerted efforts of the residential parent.  This essay is not at all meant to be a review of the current literature, but rather to air the issues commonly encountered in Family Court, related to alienation.
Parental alienation, when it is real, can be considered to be a form of child abuse—it is a cruel kind of emotional abuse.  It robs a child of a parent.  It is difficult, however, to prove in court because PAS has no conclusive research to support it as a psychological syndrome.  Even the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5)[i] does not list this as a diagnosis.  Rather, it refers to Parental Relationship Distress in a separate category (“V-Code”) of conditions that are not mental disorders, but that may be a source of distress or concern for treatment purposes. (Id., p. 715-16).
It is easier, however, and more tangible to show a court that the other parent (usually the primary residential/custodial parent) is acting badly to sabotage the non-residential parent’s relationship with a child.  It is easier to prove bad behavior than to prove a syndrome which requires scientific testimony.  In Court, expert testimony has to be based on good scientific underpinnings, helpful to the Court, and based on methodology and data that are generally accepted within the scientific community, or the Judge will not let it be admitted into evidence.  In a recent unpublished case[ii], the New Jersey Appellate Division stated that PAS is a “novel” concept that was not yet established as being scientifically reliable or generally accepted, although it did not preclude the possibility that this could happen in the future.
Regardless of the controversy regarding the scientific efficacy of the PAS concept, there is still the question of how the Court should handle various scenarios when it is clear that one parent is actively sabotaging a child’s relationship with the other parent.  A Court can appoint a forensic mental health practitioner to assess what exactly is going on, if it is not already clear. The Court needs also to know the effects on the child.  For example, does the child still have any relationship with the alienated parent?  Does the child have any mental health issues as a result of the parental behavior?  The bottom line is the inappropriate and damaging behavior of one parent, designed to marginalize or remove the other parent from the life of the child.  A Court can discern if this is happening also if the residential parent is purposely scheduling appointments or activities for the child during the other parent’s parenting time.  Or, perhaps that parent purposely does not make the child available for parenting time, tells the child inappropriate things about the other parent, denigrates that parent and creates a fiction of dangerousness to the child that does not exist.  In extreme cases, some parents make false allegations of sexual abuse about the other parent.
How about the parent who brings about this alienation by his/her own behavior toward the child or to the other parent (often in front of the child)?  Another term often used to describe these effects is estrangement, although estrangement is often used synonymously with alienation.  Regardless, there are plenty of children who want nothing to do with the other parent (the “alienated” parent) because of their having been subjected to abuse, witnessing domestic violence, severe neglect, or something as simple as chronically being disappointed by that parent.  Years of broken promises, lies, failures to show up, lack of loving, nurturant behavior toward a child can result in estrangement.  For that parent to subsequently complain about the child not wanting contact, or refusing to take the parent’s phone calls is disingenuous.
The Court has numerous remedies for alleged alienating behavior on the part of a parent.  The Court can impose monetary sanctions, impose other sanctions such as limiting the time the residential parent has with that child, or even transfer custody entirely to the alienated parent.  A Court can impose supervised parenting time for the alienating parent to ensure that nothing bad is said to the child about the other parent.  Reintroduction therapy or other therapeutic interventions can be set up.  Either way, much of this often will come only after many months or years of active alienation by the parent who is acting badly.  The child may be permanently damaged by the time that the intervention is put into place and the estrangement/alienation may be irreversible by then.  See my previous blog post on Permanent Damage (January 19, 2015) for a further discussion about this.
So any way you slice it, a parent who intentionally works at alienating a child from the other parent (an otherwise fit parent) is doing something bad, mean and selfish.  It has nothing to do with what is in the child’s best interests.  As I mentioned above, the exceptions include a child who is necessarily distanced due to a history of child abuse, sexual assault/molestation, witnessing domestic violence, being treated badly by the parent in general.  Sometimes a parent simply brings it upon themselves. To play the victim later in court, to make the other parent and the child jump through the hoops of forensic evaluations and the expense of trials and arguments in court, is more abuse. It can sometimes amount to harassment through litigation, and continues putting the child through seemingly endless interviews and observations.  The Judge needs some time to figure out what is in the child’s best interests, via assessments and testimony.  The Court starts from the premise of joint legal custody and co-parenting.  Anything less has to be justified, based on evidence.  Ultimately, if the parents cannot work together for the best interests of their child, if the parents continue to hate each other and to compete over their child for their own selfish reasons, then the Judge will step in and take over the decision making.  Both parents may leave court disappointed.  They will also leave court with much less money in their wallets, money that they could have spent on their child’s future, rather than on trying to obliterate the other parent at the expense of their child’s mental health.

Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015
Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

Web Site:

Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw

[i] American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Ed., Arlington, VA, Amer. Psychiatric Assoc., 2013.
[ii] M.A. v. A.I., 2014 WL 7010813 (N.J.Super.A.D.)

Monday, January 19, 2015


How Parents Lose Their Children Despite the Court

© Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

            One frequently recurring theme in Family Court is the parents’ right to a relationship with their children.  When a breakup was not amicable and there are ongoing disputes over parenting time, custody, vacations or living arrangements, the children of course, suffer.  In the course of the breakup, depending on how long it takes and how much fighting takes place in front of the children, it is easy to create lifelong damage.

            Creating damage is the natural consequence of exposure to something toxic.  When children are exposed to their parents acting in a toxic manner, a variety of outcomes can ensue, none of them good.  For example, it is difficult for many parents to wait until the kids are in school to have their arguments.  In a divorce, it is not unusual during the divorce for the entire family to (be forced to) be together after school, during dinnertime, evenings and weekends, until the parents actually separate.  During the divorce process, just being in the same house together is unpleasant, tense, weird, especially for the children (depending on their ages).  Hearing loud arguments, even from the next room, can be scary. Living in a cold, loveless household is lonely.  Having one parent threatening the other, seeing a parent crying, is worse.  It makes a child feel unsafe, terrified, and ultimately, angry.  If there is domestic violence, the results are much worse when children are home and witness a physical assault or its aftermath.
            The Courts usually will not allow the perpetrator of domestic violence to remain in the home with the victim and the children.  When children witness verbal or physical violence, it pushes the child away from the parent who is violent or emotionally abusive.  It may create in the child a pseudo-parentified role if that child becomes the victim’s comforter and protector.  Many times, an abused parent will confide inappropriately to a child who is ill-equipped emotionally or in maturity to be a parent to their own parent.  Sometimes a parent need not say anything to the child for the child to become estranged from the other parent.  It is often that parent who does the job all by themselves by his/her actions.  A parent may become estranged from their child for other reasons too.  For example, it can be from apathy, not showing up for visitations, not acting warm or loving to the child, not attending to the child’s emotional needs, breaking promises, chronically disappointing their child, etc.  A child can build a protective exterior to avoid further disappointment, hurt and emotional pain.  That protective exterior can be a wedge that is driven between child and parent.  The effects can last forever.

          Identification with the Agressor and other Roles:
            Children have difficulty remaining totally neutral, even when they might try. It is human nature to take sides, to find someone to blame.  Sometimes a child may identify with the (perceived) victim in a protective way.  Other times, the child may take on the characteristics of the aggressive and abusive parent (if that is the issue in that family) and begin to act in an aggressive and abusive way to a parent, the designated target in that family.  That child, who over-identifies with the aggressor parent, says the same horrible things to the target parent as the abusive parent.  It is almost like the Stockholm Syndrome where prisoners of war identify with their captors.  Here, it may seem safer for the child to become like the aggressor parent than to be aligned with the victim parent.  It is like the child wants to be on the winning team. He/she takes in all of the anger and hostility directed by one parent to the other, and becomes another abuser in the household. I have seen this happen and it is tragic to see.
            Accordingly, we can see a variety of outcomes in the dissolving, dysfunctional family.  Here is an overview of some possible outcomes:  First, we talked about a child who becomes their parent’s parent, acquiring the role of therapist, comforter, protector.  As this child becomes overly identified with the weaker (underdog) parent, that child can easily internalize that parent’s pain, rejection, feelings of abandonment, victim-hood.  That parent may not be able to shield the child from their feelings, and becomes comfortable sharing adult information with their child.  Their child becomes more of a parental peer then a child.  The child becomes their parent’s ally and confidant.  This is very inappropriate, dysfunctional and creates damage in the child’s emotional makeup.  As the child becomes more and more enmeshed with the victim-parent, it creates more hostility against the perceived aggressor parent. It is easy to see how this can elicit further aggressive behavior (verbal or physical) and resentment from that parent against the weaker parent and their child ally.
            In another scenario, a child may be frankly traumatized by witnessing a violent parent acting out against the other, perhaps repeatedly over time.  The bully-parent, stereotypically controlling, intimidating and perhaps explosive and frequently using corporal punishment, teaches their child to shrink away when they are present, causes mistrust, anxiety and sometimes terror.  That child may feel protective of their other (perceived victim) parent, but they have their own direct experiences including being hit or verbally abused by that parent.  That child can learn to hate the abusive parent without any help from the other parent.  If one parent works on poisoning a child against another parent, we refer to it as alienation.  If a parent becomes distanced from their child because of their own actions (or inactions), we refer to that phenomenon as estrangement. In cases of parents who expose their child to the details of their adult issues, violence, free displays of emotionality and anger, depression and victim-hood, anger, abuse, failures to cope, etc, those parents are meeting their own needs at the expense of their child.  It is selfish, perhaps narcissistic behavior.  For whatever the justification, the child gets exposed to toxicity.  Regardless of who is inflicting it, the child gets damaged by exposure to parental victimizing or victimhood, arrogance or aggression, depression, passivity, bad-mouthing the other parent, hearing about a parent’s feelings of abandonment/devastation/infidelity, or by being abused or neglected directly by a parent (sometimes while the other parent stands by helplessly and allows it to occur).  In both cases, the parental behavior is selfish, self- serving, manipulative, narcissistic and dysfunctional.  It all causes damage to children.

          Family Systems of Dysfunction:
            We often see that the family system in which this dysfunction occurs is a finely tuned system of reciprocity, reactivity and reinforcement of negative behavior.  For every perceived aggressive act (or act of abandonment) there is a reaction in kind.  For the weaker parent who is apparently acted against, the revenge often will take the form of passively (or passive-aggressively) going to the child, exacting punishment and power that way.  Having the child hate the other parent even more, can be a method of revenge, using the manipulated child as the only effective weapon available against an apparently more powerful aggressor parent.   In a more subtle sense, many seemingly rational parents, while undergoing a divorce, will secretly feel some sort of inner satisfaction when they hear their child speaking badly of the other parent.  The response of the parent to hearing that, even via nonverbal responses such as facial expression, can signal to the child that it is ok to speak badly of the other parent.  That is not ok.  It causes damage to children.
Even when the aggressor parent is a truly terrible person, a bully against the other parent, a lousy spouse, a jerk, etc., that parent still may be a good parent. It sometimes happens, perhaps in a minority of cases, but it should be individually assessed.  On the other hand, a parent with a propensity to violence or substance abuse, may be an ongoing risk, in any event.  Who makes the determination about that parent’s degree of risk of violence, or risk of relapse into substance abuse?  It definitely should not be the other parent who makes that determination for the reasons outlined above.  When someone has a genuine history, it is for the Courts to determine, perhaps with the assistance of forensic evaluations and substance abuse monitoring, as to the degree of current risk, if any, to the child.  Maybe it would actually be good for the child if that parent remained (or became) involved in their child’s life, regardless of events years ago. That is individually and professionally assessed.  Obviously if a child were physically assaulted or sexually abused by the non-residential parent, (hopefully) no one is going to force that child to spend time with that parent (nor should they). But imagine the horrible damage that is inflicted by a parent making false allegations of sexual abuse against the other parent.
          Malicious Attempts at Alienation:
In a case of a parent (who has primary residential custody of the child), working to alienate a child against the other parent, a court could (and has) changed custody from the alienating parent to the other parent previously being alienated.  That, coupled with the initiation of mandatory supervised parenting time for the alienating parent can be a remedy in a severe case of intentional alienation.  There are parents who, purely out of hatred for their former mate, believe that they are justified in alienating their child from the other parent, telling the child horrible untrue things.  That is a form of child abuse, and the Courts have and will change custody from one parent to the other, if it deems such a change to be necessary and appropriate.  This scenario seems a bit obvious, that a court will take a child out of the home of an alienating parent and place that child with the alienated parent.  That is a last ditch effort to prevent a permanent alienation.  But it is often too late.  Sometimes bad behavior (by a residential parent) goes unpunished because it cannot be.  The damage is too severe, the alienation too ingrained, to reverse it.  Forcing the child into the house of the other parent would then be traumatic, causing further damage in the child, even though it was caused by the residential parent;  A case of bad behavior being rewarded because of no consequences to that parent is still a reward.
          Forcing a Relationship or Offering Interventions:
The Courts generally want an estranged parent to get re-involved in their child’s life, but it is not so easy.  Often, the court (and a different judge) gets the case long after damage is done, after years of estrangement or alienation.  The child is now older, already aligned with a particular parent, having internalized all of the available negative beliefs about the other parent.  Perhaps the Court issues an order to resume visitation.  What if the child refuses to go?  What if the child would have to be literally dragged into a car to go to the other parent, forced, or threatened with the loss of their cell phone, etc.?    That happens more than most people realize.  Damage is already done, and it continues.  How do you repair that? By threatening punishment if the child doesn’t go?  There are single parents who try to get their child into their car to take them to the other parent’s house, under threat of being found to be in contempt of court, and they still cannot do it.  Or maybe they can do it, but they say they cannot (perhaps passive-aggressive behavior?).  The Court is left with its own frustration, not wanting to punish an otherwise fit parent, but impatient that the estranged parent is without parenting time. The Judge feels ignored as well. That is not ok.
Sometimes a Court will send a child for reunification therapy with a mental health professional.  There, visits take place in a therapist’s office or nearby pizza shop, and therapeutic interventions may be offered to estranged parent and child.  Sometimes this works.  It can be an opportunity for a child to air their grievances to the estranged parent and for a therapist to handle the responses, manage the feelings and perceptions, and to facilitate a dialog.  It is a chance for the child to see that the estranged parent may not be so bad after all.  This has to be attempted and it often is.  Reunification or re-introduction therapy can be effective and should be attempted if possible, depending on the circumstances.  Sometimes a family is referred to a program such as the Family Bridges Program, or something similar, in cases of severe parental alienation.  That is almost like a re-programming intervention to un-do the effects of severe alienation.  The fact remains, however, that after a certain point, there may be irreversible damage, a point of no return from the damage done to a parent-child relationship.  No matter what is attempted, it fails, maybe gets sabotaged, maybe goes too slowly.  Ultimately, the passage of time puts the finishing touches on a damaged parent-child relationship.  It’s like holding the ball in the final moments of the game, waiting out the clock.  Passively sabotaging the reunification process, missing appointments (e.g. “Joey has a soccer game on Tuesday and can’t make the appointment”; or: “Joey wasn’t feeling well…:”.), showing no interest in the child having a relationship with their other parent, continuing to make disparaging remarks about the other parent, makes it more difficult (if not impossible) to facilitate a  new parent-child relationship.  Eventually, the child becomes 18 and the Courts can’t do anything further.  Game over.

          Glazing-Over and the Reformulation of History:
The Judge may have a gut feeling that the residential parent caused or contributed to the alienation but there is no solid proof of this.  The residential parent blames the non-residential parent.  The child has no interest in spending time with that parent.  After a while, even legitimate stories about past abuse, neglect, domestic violence, emotional abuse, etc., however, start to ring hollow, the Judge may glaze over, listening to old accusations and new denials and counter-accusations, and the Court slams the residential parent for not cooperating, for not trying to get the child to attend visitations with the estranged parent, etc.  My perception is that in some cases, even in the cases with significant domestic violence histories, eventually (over years) the victim begins to be looked at as being responsible (or partially so) for the child not having a relationship with their other parent, due to perceived malice.  After years go by leaving the bruises and the bad times in the past, the Court is reluctant to permanently write off a parent for their past deeds, especially when that parent still has parental rights.  Currently, that parent is banging on the courthouse doors, demanding parenting time, crying about their love for their child (which may be 100% genuine).  The only one we hear saying “no” is the previously abused parent!  If the children are heard, and they say no, the Court may still criticize the residential parent, saying that the children should not be running the show.   So the parent who in the past may have actually been the true victim of domestic violence is now being criticized by the court for apparently not cooperating enough with a new plan to reinstate parenting time with their former abuser. That residential parent may be chronically traumatized, to this day.  So that parent starts to feel like they are being re-traumatized, abused again—this time by the Court.  And to make matters worse, the old domestic violence may now be looked at as having been blown out of proportion or “concocted” by the residential parent.  Or maybe that it is not relevant to the current time and to the parent’s desire to be in their child’s life.  Unfair maybe to the victim, but it happens. Things become blurry with the passage of time.  At some point, in some cases, the Court may see the history of the case differently (especially if a new judge gets appointed to the case), saying that it wasn’t just one parent’s fault (it usually isn’t), and that  the residential parent may be accountable for any further failure to get the visitations back on track (e.g.:  “I believe that things happened by the hands of both parties against the other…”)  The court, in its own frustration, wants it fixed, wants the estranged parent back in the child’s life now, no matter what (the “enough is enough” doctrine).  And the clock is still running, and someone is holding the ball, waiting out the clock until end of game.  Who is holding the ball?  The victim? Is that victim purposely holding the ball or is he/she just plain traumatized (chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?).  Who really loses?  Maybe the non-residential parent caused this 100 percent, or is mostly responsible for it in reality, but the bottom line, is that the child lost a parent, and not through death. It is a big dilemma for any Judge.  So there is no closure. No resolution.  It just hangs there like a cloud, through the rest of the child’s life.  Somehow that seems very unfair and sad.

Further Realities, Disclaimers and Reflections: 

Someone who sexually molested their child or was physically abusive to that child is a special case that should be individually assessed via the Court.  In other cases, the court should take into account the effects of spousal abuse on a residential parent and that person’s ability to foster a relationship between their child and their abuser.  It may be impossible for some. Impossible to comply is different from refuses to comply. Therapeutic interventions are essential. Or perhaps should have been put into place years ago when they would have been more effective. The Court should not underestimate the traumatic effects of spousal abuse years ago to the current time. Chronic PTSD can last forever if not treated.  How can a residential parent with chronic PTSD foster a relationship between their child and the person who abused them?   Often, the non-residential parent goes to court against their previous victim of spousal abuse, and attempts to play the victim role to the Judge, not taking responsibility for how they all got to this point.  It is all too easy for an abuser to blame the victim.  Taking that victim to court, accusing that parent of alienation, is just a continuation of the abuse that has been going on throughout the years.  The bottom line is that everyone should be accountable and be expected to take responsibility for their actions, especially involving children.  If a parent has unclean hands, they should not be in a very strong position to ask the court to punish the other parent for an estrangement that this parent brought on him/herself by his/her own actions.  Sometimes you simply reap what you sow.                       

 Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

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