Parental alienation is a phenomenon that occurs when one parent alienates the other parent, physically or emotionally, or both. It involves a set of strategies utilized by an alienating parent to foster a child’s rejection of the other parent. In Parental alienation, one parent intentionally interferes with their child’s relationship with the other parent. Kelly Schwartz, The Kids Are Not All Right, 56 B.C. L. Rev. 803, 805 (2015) (discussing the background of parental alienation). Parental alienation generally involves behaviors on the part of the alienating parent that ultimately cause the child to reject the alienated parent, such as denigrating the alienated parent to the child and isolating the child from the alienated parent. Id. The law provides legal remedies for parental alienation in both family law and tort law. Id.
Some examples of Parental alienation are as follows; the mother may tell the child that their father doesn’t love them, and doesn’t want to see them, or that their father is “working” and can’t see them, or sometimes even egregiously that their father is dead. Or, the father may tell the child that their mother is “crazy”, or is “breaking up the family”, and doesn’t want to see them. Children start to evaluate their parent’s behavior and make assumptions about their alienated parent, colored by the negative commentary from the alienating parent.
Parental alienation can be as simple as refusing to allow timesharing with the other parent, or making impossible timesharing schedules, with the ultimate objective being to keep the child from the other parent. This occurs often with babies and toddlers, and younger children.
Parental alienation is insidious and detrimental to children, and families. Parental Alienated children are at a higher risk for attachment disorders, and difficulty forming and keeping healthy relationships throughout their lives. The children develop a fear of abandonment, an inability to trust, depressive disorders, and often end up in emotionally or physically abusive relationships down the road.
The pain of being “rejected” by the alienated parent (because this is how the child processes and perceives the separation from the alienated parent) is excruciating to the child, and can cause lifelong, and sometimes generational, relationship difficulties and depression.
Florida law provides a number of court-prescribed remedies to ameliorate parental alienation. The court may modify parental responsibility or timesharing schedules due to parental alienation if the Alienated parent or parent without substantial timesharing (“non-custodial”) can establish that there has been a: (1) substantial and material change in the parties’ circumstances, subsequent to the dissolution or final order of the court and, (2) a change of parental responsibility and/or timesharing schedule would promote the “best interest of the child” involved.
Florida Statute § 61.13 provides that: the court may approve, grant, or modify a parenting plan … for purposes of establishing or modifying parental responsibility and creating, developing, approving, or modifying a parenting plan, including a time-sharing schedule, which governs each parent’s relationship with his or her minor child and the relationship between each parent with regard to his or her minor child, the best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration. Fla. Stat. § 61.13 (2020). A determination of parental responsibility, a parenting plan, or a time-sharing schedule may not be modified without a showing of a substantial, material, and unanticipated change in circumstances and a determination that the modification is in the best interests of the child. Id. Determination of the best interests of the child shall be made by evaluating all of the factors affecting the welfare and interests of the particular minor child and the circumstances of that family including, but not limited to those prescribed in the statute. Id.
Additionally, courts may also find a parent in civil contempt of court when the parent withholds or violates a court order. Woodward v. Woodward, 776 N.W.2d 567, 569 (N.D. 2009). In Woodward v. Woodward, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court finding a mother in contempt for denying the father visitation rights and failing to undergo an evaluation for parental alienation. Id.
Moreover, courts may prescribe therapy, such as the reunification therapy or multi-modal therapy intervention, for the child, parent, or entire family. Thompson v. Melange, 45 Fla. L. Weekly 150 (Dist. Ct. App. 2020). Another remedy courts may prescribe is parenting coordination by the appointment of a parenting coordinator. Parenting Coordination is a nonadversarial dispute resolution process that is court-ordered or agreed-on by the parties. 1 Florida Family Law Practice Manual § 8.04A (2020).
The court may modify a parenting plan for a variety of reasons as illustrated by the case law below. To modify a custody decree, a court must decide that changing custody would promote or improve the child’s well-being to such an extent that maintaining the status quo would be detrimental to the child. McKinnon v. Staats, 899 So. 2d 357, 359 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005). The non-custodial parent seeking modification bears an extraordinary burden and there must be “competent and substantial evidence revealing that substantial or material changes in the parties’ circumstances had occurred subsequent to the dissolution” and that a change of custody “would promote the best interest of the child involved.” Zediker v. Zediker, 444 So. 2d 1034, 1038 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1984). The court also does not have the same degree of discretion as it does in entering the original decree. Id. at 1037.
In Wade v. Hirschman, the Supreme Court of Florida affirmed a judgment that found that a parent unreasonably and consistently refusing to abide by a parenting coordinator’s plan, refusing to work with the coordinator, frustrating the coordinator’s efforts, and being “totally disruptive” was a “substantial and material change in circumstance”. Wade v. Hirschman, 903 So. 2d 928, 935. ( Fla. 2005). Alternatively, a court held that an immediate change from the mother’s custody of her young children was “not in the best interest of their well-being” even though an older sibling was negatively influencing their view towards the father. Sueiro v. Gallardo, 105 So. 3d 585, 588 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012).
A finding of parental alienation may be disregarded if the “alienated” parent has a history of domestic violence, and the “alienation” is traceable to the history of domestic violence. Ford v. Ford, 700 So. 2d 191 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997). In Ford v. Ford, a District Court of Appeal held that a trial court erred in awarding an ex-husband primary physical residence of the child after the trial court concluded that the mother manipulated visitation during the litigation to the detriment of the father. Id. at 194. The Court of Appeals found that the trial court failed to offset what was recognized in a temporary relief as the mother’s “justifiable reason to fear the Husband, because of the Husband’s history of harassment, physical harm and uncontrollable temper and anger, although there was no evidence to support the position that the Husband has been, in any way, abusive to the minor child.” Id. at 192-193. The court cautioned application of its opinion to facts less exceptional. Id. at 197
Education is the ultimate solution. Various experts have proposed strategies to prevent Parental Alienation, including education for parents and judges, to change the entire family court system. Of course, prevention is far more effective than early intervention. We can educate the parents and family court judges just how detrimental Parental Alienation is to the long term mental health and neurological development of children. Parental Alienation can affect both the child’s mental and physical health.
- Gardner, R. (1998) Parental alienation: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics Inc.
- Andre KC, Baker AJL.(2009) I Don’t Want to Choose: How Middle School Kids Can Avoid Choosing One Parent over the Other. New York: The Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection.
- Richard D. (2020). Non-adversarial resolution: All cases between parents of minor children. In: Lorandos D, Bernet W, eds. Parental Alienation- Science and Law. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.