When parents separate, anger or resentment can impact their ability to cooperatively raise a child. The theory of parental alienation describes the negative effect of one parent's conduct in harming the other parent's relationship with their child. Some lawyers and psychiatrists use parental alienation to explain a child's refusal to spend time with a non-custodial parent. In Pennsylvania, state laws on child custody and domestic violence can help parents worrying about parental alienation.
When parents have a Pennsylvania court order for child custody, the order determines each parent's rights, including the amount of time spent with the child. The court order explains legal custody as well as physical custody. In Pennsylvania, most parents share legal custody, which means both parents have a right to participate in major decisions related to the child's life. In shared custody, one parent can't control the child's life and make decisions without the other parent's participation. Accordingly, a mother or father who worries about parental alienation may want to seek shared legal custody. The parents' court order for physical custody explains the frequency of contact between the child and each parent and determines the child's residence.
Even when parents have a court order for child custody, either parent might interfere with the other parent's relationship with the child by preventing visits or otherwise violating the terms of the court order. If a parent disobeys a court order, the other parent may seek modification or enforcement by a Pennsylvania court. For example, if a custodial parent prevents visitation required by court order or a non-custodial parent refuses to return a child after a visit, the other parent may seek help from the courts. Under Pennsylvania law, the parent seeking enforcement can file a petition for civil contempt against the parent who doesn't comply with a custody order. In a contempt case, the judge can punish the non-compliant parent with a monetary fine, an order to pay the other parent's legal fees or a period of jail time. Contempt can serve as a deterrent for conduct leading to parental alienation.
Research and scholarship into the theory of parental alienation discusses allegations of domestic violence as a way for one parent to limit the other parent's relationship with their child. Pennsylvania law includes many provisions to protect children and families from domestic violence. The law also sets legal procedures to eliminate false allegations made for the sole purpose of custodial litigation. The state sets specific timing and procedural requirements for issuance of a domestic-violence protective order. A parent may be able to get a temporary order of protection, but issuance of a long-term protective order depends on a judge's assessment after a full hearing. The full hearing allows the accused parent to present evidence, offer an explanation and proceed with a lawyer's help, if necessary.
Domestic Violence and Custody
If a Pennsylvania court issues a finding of domestic violence committed by one parent, state law requires consideration of the parent's abusive conduct in custody proceedings. State law protects against parental alienation by requiring full proceedings to determine whether domestic violence has occurred. The court must review evidence of domestic violence when deciding on a custody arrangement to serve the child's best interests. The court can't impose limited custodial rights, including an order for supervised visitation, without sufficient evidence.
- Parental Alienation Syndrome and Alienated Children -- Getting It Wrong in Child Custody Cases; Carol S. Bruch; 2002
- Protection From Abuse; Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network; August 2008
- Allegheny County Bar Association: Domestic Violence Frequently Asked Questions
- "Deciding Child Custody When There is Domestic Violence: A Benchbook For Pennsylvania Courts"; Women's Law Project; 2008
- Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images