Parental Alienation: “Syndrome” or Not — A Real Consideration Regarding Custody

Parental Alienation Syndrome

In the past, custody disputes across the country have increasingly referred to the concept of parental alienation syndrome, which has been defined by one court as “a systematic programmed alienation of a child from one parent brought upon by the other parent.” Ellis v. Ellis, 952 So. 2d 982, 992; see also A.C.H. v. F.R.S., 247 S.W.3d 921, 926 n.4 (Mo. App. 2008) (parental alienation syndrome is where parent attempts to emotionally alienate child from absent parent).

Connecticut and Parental Alienation Syndrome

Like other jurisdictions, Connecticut has not affirmatively adjudicated the issue of whether parental alienation syndrome is a scientifically reliable theory. See, e.g., In re Marriage of Rosenfeld, 524 N.W.2d 212, 215 (Iowa App. 1994).  Connecticut courts have, however, expressly referred to and discussed the syndrome in numerous decisions, including Ruggiero v. Ruggiero, 76 Conn.App. 338, 339 fn.1, 819 A.2d 864 (2003), where the Appellate Court distinguished between the trial court’s factual finding of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, an alleged psychiatric disorder not listed or set forth in the American Psychiatric Association’s current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM-IV”), stating: “As we will discuss, the court made a factual finding that the plaintiff had engaged in parental alienation. The plaintiff’s claim concerning parental alienation dealt with the issue of the validity of a finding of parental alienation syndrome. The court did not address any potential mental health condition. This opinion utilizes the court’s factual conclusion that the plaintiff’s activity as a parent alienated the defendant, and this court makes no decision concerning the validity of such a syndrome.” See also Snyder v. Cedar, 2006 Ct.Sup. 3216, No. NNH CV01 0454296, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven, 2006 Conn. Super. LEXIS 520 (Pittman, J., February 16, 2006); Coleman v. Coleman, 2004 Ct.Sup. 11232-a, No. FA 02-0174562, Superior Court, Judicial District of Middlesex, Regional Family Trial Docket at Middletown, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2147 (Munro, J., August 5, 2004); In re Katherine W., 2000 Ct.Sup. 13285, Superior Court for Juvenile Matters, Child Protection Session at Middletown (Quinn, J., October 26, 2000).

Parental Alienation Claims

Even without any explicitly universal acceptance of a “syndrome” of parental alienation, courts in Connecticut routinely examine parental alienation claims in the context of whether a parent has, in fact, fostered the relationship with the other parent or whether he or she has undermined or restricted that relationship.  As a Superior Court judge once noted, “This court need not reach the question of the reliability of the claims of the theoreticians espousing the parental alienation syndrome. Whether it is legitimate or not is not a determination necessary for a proper determination of the custodial orders in this case.” Bowles v. Bowles, No. 356104, 1997 Ct.Sup. 9863, 9869-70.

Therefore, instead of focusing on the science and diagnosis (or lack thereof) connected to parental alienation, family lawyers know that courts will regularly admit evidence that goes to instances of negative behavior towards a parent in front of the children, especially where that behavior adversely impacts their perceptions of the aggrieved parent.  This behavior could include disparaging remarks about the other parent regarding finances (such as child support or alimony), discipline of the children, the pending court proceedings themselves, opinions concerning the other parent’s motivation in seeking court intervention, or a variety of other issues.

Custody Disputes

For these reasons and for many others, litigants in custody disputes are forewarned to cautiously limit from a minor child any communications that relate to the underlying custody dispute and the court proceedings.  Some (but not all) parents who try to be “helpful” or even simply “truthful” with their children in custody actions may find that A) their actions and communications may do more harm than good; and B) their statements may be seized or acted upon by counsel for the opposing parent and/or the Guardian ad Litem as patently damaging examples of parental alienation.  In the alternative, parents are best served by either diverting communications with their minor children away from the issues relating to pending custody proceedings (while instead accentuating the positives and love that both parents have and will continue to have for the child), or in the alternative, by consulting with a mental healthcare professional who would advise the proper forum and method for communicating essential information to the child at the appropriate time and in manageable doses.

In contested custody cases concerning issues of parental alienation, litigants are best served by engaging an experienced family law attorney.  Questions about this posting or confidential inquiries may be directed to Attorney Joseph C. Maya at 203-221-3100 or jmaya@mayalaw.com. Call today for a free initial consultation.