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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