Parental Alienation Case Law

By Laura Terwilliger
Courts must decide what happens in cases of parental alienation.

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Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) affects some children of divorced parents. In cases of PAS, one parent works to turn the child against the other parent. This complicates issues of custody and visitation rights of the parents, which makes PAS an important consideration in divorce court. Important case law on the subject has been made in many U.S. states.

Function

Parental alienation syndrome complicates rulings on divorce proceedings. In many cases of PAS, a parent encourages the child's dislike of the other parent in order to gain custody. Attempts to convince the child that the other parent is an enemy may be accidental or malicious, but in either situation, parental alienation is considered emotional abuse.

Parental Rights

Parents jeopardize their custody rights by causing parental alienation syndrome in their children. When a parent is found to have caused PAS, the alienated parent may sue for custody. In many cases, courts have placed the child with the alienated parent, finding that the alienation on the part of the other parent was detrimental to the child's well-being, as in Florida's Greenberg v. Greenberg in 1996 or Hanson v. Spolnik in Indiana in 1997. However, in cases where children exhibit extreme alienation, courts may place them with the alienating parent because the relationship with the alienated parent has been irreparably destroyed, which occurred in the case of Chambers v. Chambers in Arkansas in 2000.

Constitutional Issues

Courts can work proactively to prevent parental alienation by ordering parents to stop speaking derogatorily about one another. In Schulz v. Schulz in Florida in 1991, the court found that this type of order did not violate the parents' right to free speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment. This type of ruling prevents PAS from occurring, rather than trying to fix the damage later on.

Mutual Alienation

In some cases, each parent is guilty of alienating the children from the other parent. In such cases, custody of the child is not as easily determined. Since both parents work against the best interest of the child, the court may remove the child from both of them and even charge them with crimes such as neglect and child abuse, as happened in 2000 in Michigan, with the case of Spencley v. Spencley.

PAS in Court

Psychologist Richard Gardner coined the term "parental alienation syndrome" in 1985, making PAS a recent addition to considered psychological conditions. As such, it has been challenged in court on several occasions. This has helped define PAS for use in court. In Williams v. Williams in Florida in 1996, courts determined that PAS could be caused by the mother or father, and that it was not gender-specific. In other cases, when parents argue against a charge of PAS, the behavior is enough to influence the court. This allows PAS to be a part of the court system without having to be a diagnosable condition.

Potential

Dozens of medical articles have referenced PAS as a legitimate psychological malady, and PAS may be considered by the American Psychological Association (APA) for inclusion in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Making PAS a diagnosable condition would allow for it to be taken more seriously in court cases.

About the Author

Laura Terwilliger has been a professional writer since 2009. Terwilliger holds a B.A. in history and anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law.

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