American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 21(1):39-64

The Judiciary’s Role in the Etiology,
Symptom Development, and Treatment of the
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)

Richard A. Gardner, M.D.

The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a psychiatric disorder that arises in the course of child-custody disputes adjudicated in the context of adversarial proceedings. This article describes the central role that such proceedings have had in the development of this relatively new disorder. Our legal system does not stand alone in having produced this disorder; litigating parents as well as their children have played an important contributory role. It is the purpose of this article to focus on the judiciary’s role in the etiology, development of symptoms, and treatment of the parental alienation syndrome. It is the author’s hope that increasing recognition of the PAS by the judiciary will enhance its ability to make prudent decisions in child-custody disputes in which the children have developed manifestations of this now widespread disorder.

Since the 1970s, we have witnessed a burgeoning of child-custody disputes unparalleled in history. This increase has primarily been the result of two recent developments in the realm of child-custody litigation, namely, the replacement of the tender-years presumption with the best-interests-of-the-child presumption and the increasing popularity of the joint-custodial concept. Under the tender-years presumption, the assumption was made that mothers, by virtue of the fact that they are female, are intrinsically superior to men as child rearers. Accordingly, the father had to provide the court with compelling evidence of serious maternal deficiencies before the court would even consider assigning primary custodial status to the father. Under its replacement, the best-interests-of-the-child presumption, the courts were instructed to ignore gender when adjudicating child-custody disputes and evaluate only parenting capacity, especially factors that related to the best interests of the child. This change resulted in a burgeoning of custody litigation as fathers found themselves with a greater opportunity to gain primary custodial status. Soon thereafter the joint-custodial concept came into vogue, eroding even further the time that custodial mothers were given with their children. Again, this change also brought about an increase and intensification of child-custody litigation.

In association with this burgeoning of child-custody litigation, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the frequency of a disorder rarely seen previously, a disorder that I refer to as the parental alienation syndrome (PAS). In this disorder we see not only programming ("brainwashing") of the child by one parent to denigrate the other parent, but self-created contributions by the child in support of the alienating parent’s campaign of denigration against the alienated parent. Because of the child’s contribution, I did not consider the terms brainwashing, programming, or other equivalent words to be applicable. Accordingly, in 1985, I introduced the term parental alienation syndrome to cover the combination of these two contributing factors (1-2). In accordance with this use of the term I suggest this definition of the parental alienation syndrome:

The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent. When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present the child’s animosity may be justified, and so the parental alienation syndrome diagnosis is not applicable.

The alienating parent’s primary purpose for indoctrinating into the children a campaign of denigration against the target parent is to gain leverage in the court of law. The child’s alienation has less to do with bona fide animosity or even hatred of the alienated parent, but more to do with the fear that if such acrimony is not exhibited, the alienating parent will reject the child.

By the late 1980s the American Bar Association was already appreciative of the problem of brainwashed children. Accordingly, they commissioned Clawar and Rivlin who subsequently published their study of 700 PAS children (3).

Evolution of the Gender Shift in PAS Alienators

In the early 1980s, when I first began seeing the PAS, in about 85% to 90% of the cases the mother was the alienating parent and the father the targeted parent. Fathers were certainly trying to program their children to gain leverage in the custody dispute; however, they were less likely to be successful. This related to the fact that the children were generally more closely bonded with their mothers. Recognizing this, I generally recommended the mother to be designated the primary custodial parent, even though she might have been a PAS indoctrinator. It was only in the severe cases (about 10 percent)—when the mother was relentless and/or paranoid and unable to cease and desist from the programming—that I recommended primary custodial status to the father. I was not alone in recognizing this gender disparity, which was confirmed during that period by others.

In the last few years, I have seen a gender shift: I am seeing more fathers as primary PAS programmers than I had seen before (4). And colleagues of mine in various parts of the country are reporting a similar phenomenon. Why this shift? One probable explanation relates to the fact that fathers are increasingly enjoying expanded visitation time with their children in association with the increasing popularity of shared parenting programs. The more time a programming father has with his children, the more time he has to program them if he is inclined to do so. Another factor operative here probably relates to the fact that with increasing recognition of the PAS, fathers (some of whom have read my books) have learned about the disorder and have decided to use the same psychological weapons described in my book—especially the money and power factors. It is probable that other factors are operative as well in the gender shift, but these are the two best explanations that I have at this point.

The Three Levels of Parental Alienation Syndrome

There are three levels of parental alienation syndrome in the child: mild, moderate, and severe (Table 1). It goes beyond the purposes of this report to describe in full detail the differences between these three levels. At this point only a brief summary is warranted. In the mild level, the alienation is relatively superficial, the children basically cooperate with visitation, but are intermittently critical and disgruntled with the victimized parent. In the moderate level, the alienation is more formidable, the children are more disruptive and disrespectful, and the campaign of denigration may be almost continual. In the severe level, visitation may be impossible so hostile are the children, hostile even to the point of being physically violent toward the allegedly hated parent. Other forms of acting-out may be present, acting-out that is designed to inflict ongoing grief upon the parent who is being visited. In some cases the children’s hostility may reach paranoid levels, e.g., they exhibit delusions of persecution and/or fears that they will be murdered. There are also three levels of PAS alienators: mild, moderate, and severe (Table 2). It is crucial that evaluators properly diagnose the PAS level in both the child and adult because each level requires a different psychological and legal approach (Tables 2 and 3).

The Primary Symptoms of the Parental Alienation Syndrome

At this point I will describe the primary symptoms of the PAS with particular focus on the judiciary’s role in their development.

1. The Campaign of Denigration

Typically the PAS child is obsessed with "hatred" of a parent. The word hatred is placed in quotes because there are still many tender and loving feelings felt toward the allegedly despised parent that are not permitted expression. These children speak of the hated parent with every vilification and profanity in their vocabulary—without embarrassment or guilt. The denigration of the parent often has the quality of a litany. After only minimal prompting by a lawyer, judge, probation officer, mental health professional, or other person involved in the litigation, the record will be turned on and a command performance provided.

Typical comments of such children include: "I hate him and I never want to see him again in my whole life," "She’s mean and she’s stupid, and I don’t care if I ever see her again," and "If I have to see him, I’ll see him once a month for an hour. That’s all I can stand." A parent who was once doting and loving becomes transformed into a noxious individual or a nonperson. A parent with whom there were joyous experiences is now referred to as "boring." When asked about the activities the child engaged in with the targeted parent prior to the separation, the child will often say, "I don’t remember." When the examiner asks incredulously about the child’s lack of memory for all events that occurred prior to the separation, the child claims complete amnesia. It is as if that segment of the child’s brain in which were embedded memories of life with the victimized parent prior to the separation have been totally obliterated.

As mentioned, the primary motive of the alienating parent for inducing the campaign of denigration is to gain leverage in the court of law. The alienator’s hope is that the court will become convinced that the target parent is so loathsome and dangerous that any visitation at all will be extremely detrimental to the children. The children’s complaints about the target parent are duly noted by the alienating parent, transmitted to the lawyers, and ultimately brought before the court. Older children (especially teenagers) testify directly about how despicable they have found the target parent. And younger children may be interviewed in chambers by the judge. All too often the judge is not familiar with the parental alienation syndrome and accepts as valid their professions of hatred. As far back as 1987 I had already published an article advising judges about the special considerations necessary for properly interviewing PAS children (5).

It is important to note that we are living in a world where children have been given more power than they ever have, often to their detriment. This empowerment of PAS children is often provided by the programming parents, attorneys for the programmers, therapists, attorneys for the child, guardians ad litem, and unfortunately judges. I have discussed the problem of empowerment of PAS children elsewhere (6). Even the target parent empowers the children because of fear that implementing traditional disciplinary and punitive measures will enable them to add yet another complaint to their litany (7).

2) Weak, Frivolous, or Absurd Rationalizations For the Deprecation

Typically, PAS children provide irrational and often ludicrous justifications for their alienation from the target parent. The child may justify the alienation with memories of minor altercations experienced many years previously in the relationship with the victimized parent. These are usually trivial and are experiences that most children quickly forget, e.g., "He always used to speak very loud when he told me to brush my teeth," "He used to tell me to get his things a lot," "She used to say to me ‘Don’t interrupt,’" "He used to make a lot of noise when he chewed at the table." When these children are asked to give more compelling reasons for their vilification, they are unable to provide them. Frequently, the alienating parent will agree with the child that these professed reasons justify the ongoing animosity.

The programming parent will accept as valid these ludicrous justifications, and the hope is that the court will be naïve enough to accept them as valid as well. The programming parent generally shows better judgment in other areas, but when it comes to justifications for the alienation from the target parent, the alienator suspends disbelief and hopes that the court will be equally convinced. Unfortunately, all too often, the court accepts the child’s frivolous rationalizations as valid.

3) Lack of Ambivalence

All human relationships are ambivalent, and parent-child relationships are no exception. However, the concept of mixed feelings has no place in the PAS child’s scheme of things. The targeted parent is all bad, and the alienating parent is all good. Most children (normal as well as those with a wide variety of psychiatric problems), when asked to list both good and bad things about each parent, will generally be able to do so. When PAS children are asked to provide the same lists, they will typically recite a long list of criticisms of the maligned parent, but will not be able to think of one positive or redeeming personality trait. In contrast, they will provide only positive and endearing qualities for the preferred parent and claim to be unable to think of even one trait they dislike. The victimized parent may have been deeply dedicated to the child’s upbringing, and a strong bond may have been created over many years. Yet, the PAS child may not be able to think of one single thing she (he) ever liked about the targeted parent.

The adversary system routinely deals with polarizations. Attorneys for programming parents present only information and evidence that supports their position and make every attempt possible to withhold from the court information that may weaken their clients’ arguments. And the attorneys for alienated parents act similarly. The theory is that out of this juxtaposition of opposing arguments "the truth" will emerge. I suspect that very few experienced lawyers and judges actually believe this, but it is the principle upon which the adversary system ostensibly operates. Children who show no ambivalence fit well into this system, especially when their one-sided professions are brought before the court. Programming parents believe that if a child can say nothing good about the target parent that this will strengthen their positions in the courtroom. Unfortunately, there are judges who are taken in by these children and actually believe that the target parent is worthy of their children’s ongoing scorn and rejection. Such judges may actually believe that they are seeing children who have genuinely been abused and neglected and do not recognize that these absurd professions, without any ambivalence at all, are typical PAS manifestations (8-9).

4) The "Independent-Thinker" Phenomenon

Many PAS children proudly state that their decision to reject the alienated parent is their own. They deny any contribution from the programmer. And the PAS-inducing parent often supports fully this professed independence of thinking. In fact, the alienators often profess that they want the children to visit with the target parent and recognize the importance of such involvement. Yet, the alienator’s every act indicates otherwise. Such children appreciate that, by stating that the decision is their own, they assuage the programmer’s embarrassment and guilt, and protect the PAS inducer from criticism. Such professions of independent thinking are vigorously supported by the alienator, who will often praise the children for being the kinds of people who have minds of their own and are forthright and brave enough to express overtly their opinions. The professions of independent thinking, then, are actually part of the programmed campaign of denigration.

The programmers hope that the independent-thinker phenomenon will serve the child well in the court of law, whether testifying directly or speaking to the judge in chambers. The children, especially the older ones, recognize that they are under oath and recognize also that it behooves them to tell the truth. And one of the PAS "truths" is that they were not programmed and that their professions of acrimony are the direct result of their own observations and experiences. In some cases, the children recognize that they are lying to the court; in other cases, they have been so well programmed that they actually believe that the professions of hatred are truly their own.

5) Reflexive Support of the Alienating Parent in the Parental Conflict

Whenever there is a parental difference of opinion regarding an issue relevant to the child, PAS children will reflexively support the programming parent and automatically consider the targeted parent’s rendition to be invalid. Even when presented with incontrovertible proof that the deprecated parent’s position is the valid one, they will find some rationalization to justify their believing that the alienating parent’s rendition is valid. In family conferences, in which the children are seen together with both parents, the children reflexively support the position of the programming parent—sometimes even before the target parent has had the opportunity to present his (her) side of the argument. Even the preferred parent may not present the argument as forcefully as the supporting child. We see here a good example of the child’s contributions to the campaign of denigration seen in the PAS.

Such blind support for the alienating parent can also be useful for the alienating parent in a court of law, either in the context of the children’s direct testimony or when speaking with the judge in chambers. Judges are often faced with "he said/she said" evidence. Corroborative evidence from third parties often helps the court decide whose testimony is more credible. The alienators’ hope is that their child witnesses will tip the balance in their favor.

6) Absence of Guilt over Cruelty to and/or Exploitation of the Alienated Parent

The PAS child may exhibit a guiltless disregard for the feelings of the maligned parent. There will be a complete absence of gratitude for gifts, child-support payments, and other manifestations of the alienated parent’s ongoing involvement and affection. Often these children will want to be certain that the alienated parent continues to provide support payments, but at the same time adamantly refuse to visit. Commonly they will say that they never want to see the alienated parent again, or not until their late teens or early twenties. To such a child I might say, "So you want your father to continue paying for all your food, clothing, rent, and education—even private high school and college—and yet you still don’t want to see him at all, ever again. Is that right?" Such a child might respond, "That’s right. He doesn’t deserve to see me. He’s mean, and paying all that money is a good punishment for him."

Probably one of the best examples of guiltless disregard for the feelings of the victimized parent is the child who knowingly and consciously participates with a programmer in promulgating a false sex-abuse accusation. Such accusations are generally considered more credible when the mother is programming such an allegation against the father than when a father attempts to program such an accusation against the mother. In such situations fathers’ lives have literally been destroyed, and many fathers have been sent to jail, even for years. The lack of guilt here is not simply explained by cognitive immaturity (often the case, especially for very young children), but is a statement of the fact that children can be programmed to such points of cruelty that they are totally oblivious to the effects of their sadism on innocent victims. Accusing children in the course of the Salem witch trials exhibited dramatically this lack of guilt for the victims of their accusations.

It is one thing for a child to guiltlessly denigrate and exploit the target parent in the home and neighborhood. It is another thing to do so in a court of law, especially if one is being asked to take an oath with one’s hand on a Bible. In the early stages of indoctrination, before the programmed material has become deeply embedded in the child’s brain circuitry, the programming parent may not want to take the risk that the child might become guilty on the witness stand, or in the judges chambers, and admit that many of the professions of hatred are not reality based. In the early phases, the children especially the older ones, recognize that they are being deceitful. During that phase, programming parents will ask their attorneys to fight vigorously against their children’s testifying directly or being interviewed by the judge in chambers. However, over time, the children’s fabrications become delusions and they actually come to believe their lies. After that point is reached, programming parents will often ask their attorneys to fight vigorously for the children’s testifying directly or being interviewed by the judge in chambers. In my original article to judges (5) I alerted them to this marker for the PAS. Unfortunately, too few judges recognize the PAS and have been taken in, despite these red flags.

7) The Presence of Borrowed Scenarios

Not only is there a rehearsed quality to PAS children’s litanies, but one often hears phraseology that is not commonly used by the child. Many expressions are identical to those used by the programming parent. A father tries repeatedly to call the children’s home in order to communicate with them. Each time he calls, the mother screams, "Stop harassing us!" and hangs up. The four-year-old son, then, when asked why he does not want to see his father, responds, "He harasses us." One four-year-old girl told me that she did not want to visit with her father because "He makes me watch R-rated movies." When I asked her exactly what R-rated movies are, she replied, "I don’t know." Another child said to me, "I have bad dreams when I stay at my mommy’s house." When I asked her to please tell me what were in those dreams, she replied, "I don’t know. My daddy says I have them there." One four-year-old girl told me that she never wants to see her father again because "he penetrated me." When I asked her what "penetrated" meant, she replied, "Ask my Mommy. She knows what that means."

Triers of fact do well to be alerted to the presence of these terms because they provide strong evidence that the child has been programmed.

8) Spread of the Animosity to the Extended Family and Friends of the Alienated Parent

The vilification of the targeted parent often expands to include that parent’s complete extended family and network of friends. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents—with whom the child previously may have had loving relationships—are now viewed as similarly obnoxious. Loving grandparents now find themselves suddenly and inexplicably rejected. The child has no guilt over such rejection, nor does the programming parent. Greeting cards are not reciprocated. Presents sent to the home are refused, remain unopened, or even destroyed (generally in the presence of the alienating parent). When the despised parent’s relatives call on the telephone, the child will respond with angry vilifications or quickly hang up on the caller. (These responses are more likely to occur if the programming parent is within hearing distance of the conversation.) With regard to the victimization of the relatives, the child is even less capable of providing justifications for the animosity, e.g., the child may say, "I hate them because they like my father." The rage of these children is so great that they become completely oblivious to the privations they are causing themselves. Again, the alienating parent is typically unconcerned with the untoward psychological effects on the child of this rejection of the network of relatives and friends who previously provided the child with important psychological gratifications.

The child’s campaign of denigration is basically a "house of cards." It needs frequent booster shots if it is to survive against the child’s actual experiences with the target parent. Accordingly, the enlistment of a coterie of enablers and supporters can be useful in that many of these people can serve as assistant programmers, especially when the alienating parent does not have direct access to the child. These individuals can often be relied upon to testify in court about the despicable behavior of the targeted parent, especially with regard to his (her) abuse and/or neglect of the children, justifying thereby their complete rejection of them. Alienated parents may similarly provide the court with a parade of witnesses and a pile of affidavits that confirm ongoing, loving dedication throughout the child’s upbringing prior to the onset of the PAS. Judges who are aware of the PAS are less likely to say, "All the testimony of these witnesses, all their affidavits, just cancel one another out" and conclude that they were a waste of the court’s time.

The Three Levels of PAS Alienators

Whereas the diagnosis of PAS is based upon the level of symptoms in the child, the court’s decision for custodial transfer should be based primarily on the alienator’s symptom level, and only secondarily on the child’s level of PAS symptoms. The criteria I have found useful for assessing the alienator’s level are to be found in Table 2. In the course of the evaluation, the evaluator should attempt to assess how obsessed the alienating parent is with attempts to exclude the victim parent from the child’s life. The evaluator should also assess, to the degree possible, such areas as the frequency of the programming process, the frequency of exclusionary maneuvers, and the frequency of the violation of court orders. An assessment should be made of the successes the alienator has had in manipulating the legal system to enhance the programming. This is not usually difficult to do, because the alienator can predictably rely on court delays, court reluctance, and even court refusal to penalize the alienator via such measures as posting a bond, fines, community service, probation, house arrest, incarceration and custodial transfer that would prevent or interrupt further alienation. Last, the evaluator should assess the risk of intensification of programming if the alienator has gained primary custody.

The Judiciary’s Role in the Treatment of PAS Children

I know of no better example of the value of psychiatry and the law joining forces than when one is dealing with parental-alienation-syndrome (PAS) families. When the law and psychiatry work together, there is a good likelihood of success when dealing with these families. In contrast, an approach to this disorder in which either discipline works independently is almost doomed to failure. The therapist does not have the power of the court, and the court does not have the expertise of the mental health professional nor the opportunity to work in depth on an ongoing basis with these families. The judge in the courthouse is not available to reach out and deal with the details that are crucial to attend to if one is to be helpful to PAS families. And lawyers, although they are certainly more available to their clients than judges, are still not accessible to deal with the whole family, because they are ethically prohibited from having any direct contact with their adversary’s client. Furthermore, judges and lawyers do not have the training to provide these families with the specialized kind of psychological and psychiatric services they require.

Mental health professionals are basically impotent when it comes to requiring their patients to do anything. They can analyze, help people gain insight, suggest and recommend, but they have little if any power over their patients. They basically cannot order anybody to do anything. Rather, it is through the power of the judge—specifically by recommendations to the judge—that he (she) has potential power, and it is through the threat (I have no hesitation using the word) of reporting to the judge those who are not cooperating in the treatment program that such power is wielded. Since the late 1980s the role of courts in the treatment of PAS children has been described in many legal publications. These authors have all emphasized the importance of courts working together with mental health professionals in treating such children (10-22)

Court-ordered Therapy

One of the problems that I have observed is the judiciary’s quickness to refer PAS families into treatment. There is no question that therapy has been oversold to the public and is far less efficient and effective than it is purported to be by most mental health professionals. Judges have often bought into this. I suspect that most judges do not have the respect for therapy that they profess in the courtroom, but it can serve as an ostensible solution to the case. By ordering everyone into therapy, they can make a quick decision and then move on to the next case. Most PAS indoctrinators are not candidates for therapy. To be a proper candidate for meaningful therapy two provisos must be satisfied: 1) the individual has insight into the fact that he (she) has psychiatric problems and 2) the individual is motivated to alleviate these problems. PAS indoctrinators do not generally consider their brainwashing of their children to be a manifestation of a psychiatric problem. They do not recognize that what they are perpetrating is a form of emotional abuse, because poisoning a child against a loving parent is very much a form of emotional abuse. Accordingly, they do not satisfy the first proviso. Furthermore, without insight into the fact that they have a psychiatric problem, they do not have the motivation to change anything—especially in the realm of the PAS indoctrinational process. Accordingly, the second proviso is not satisfied either. Judges do not seem to appreciate that they cannot really order someone into meaningful treatment. They might be able to order somebody to spend some time in a room with a therapist who is naïve enough to take on such a patient, but they cannot order the person to be motivated to change. Furthermore, most people do not follow through with the order anyway, from the recognition that the judge is not going to follow up on it in the immediate future. What happens then is that the PAS indoctrinator continues to program the children, and the PAS becomes more deeply entrenched.

Guidelines to the Court for the Treatment of PAS Children

Table 3 provides what I consider to be the best guidelines for the judiciary to follow in PAS cases. Again, it is important to emphasize that the diagnosis of PAS is based upon the level of symptoms in the child, whereas the court’s decision for custodial transfer should be based primarily on the alienator’s symptom level and only secondarily on the child’s level of PAS symptoms. It is to be noted that the legal approaches take up much more space than the therapeutic. The reason for this is that the legal approaches in Table 3 serve as the foundation for the therapeutic. Without the court’s imposing proper restraints and restrictions on the alienating parent, the therapist is impotent. The reader should note that I recommend two plans of legal/therapeutic intervention in moderate PAS cases. In Plan A primary custody can still remain with the alienating parent. The court should appoint a therapist, but not just any therapist. The therapist must be someone who is knowledgeable about the special techniques necessary for the treatment of PAS children (7-8). Most important are the warnings to the alienating parent that the court will impose sanctions if there is any violation of the court’s orders regarding the children’s visitation with the alienated parent. In Table 3 are six levels (a. to f.) of recommended judicial action, all of which can be readily implemented by the court, because an alienating parent who does not cooperate with a visitation schedule is basically in contempt of court.

I have been testifying in PAS cases since the early 1980s. I have made recommendations along these lines in many cases. Not once has a court gone along with any of these six recommendations. On occasion, a court will threaten to implement one of these measures for getting alienating parents to comply with the court-ordered visitation schedule, but not once have I been in a case when a court has actually done so. Alienating parents know well that courts are not likely to come down heavily upon them for violating a court-ordered visitation schedule. Without such consequences, they continue to program the children. They know well how to "work the system." They violate court-ordered visitation schedules, and they know that they can most often do so with impunity. They recognize that the courts are slow, and that time is on their side. The longer they have access to the children, the more deeply entrenched will become their PAS symptoms.

This is the most common sequence, a sequence I have repeatedly seen: The alienator successfully alienates the children. The target parent goes to court (the time gap between the onset of the alienation and the court hearing is often a year). The trial drags on over a few weeks or a few months. The court orders an evaluation (often the evaluator is someone who may know little, if anything, about the PAS). The evaluation takes four-to-five months. Five-to-six months later there is another court hearing, at which point the judge orders therapy for everyone. (And the therapists may know nothing about PAS either.) The alienator does not go, nor does the alienator bring the children. The alienator recognizes that he (she) can do so with impunity. The alienated parent, in desperation, decides to bring the case back to court. By this time another six-to-nine months may have elapsed. Another hearing is scheduled six months to a year later. By this point, in typical cases, the PAS has become even more deeply entrenched in the children’s brain circuitry, and the children, by this time, have been alienated for three years or more (23). Back in court, the judge decides that the original evaluation is too old and orders a new evaluation . Sometimes this may be an update of the earlier one, and sometimes a new evaluator is brought in. In either case, the judge takes the position that any evaluator will do and is not concerned with whether the evaluator has any knowledge at all of the PAS. This takes another six months to a year. The new evaluator recommends more therapy. After the third or fourth round, the children are in their teens, and the judge (by this time the fourth or fifth one) throws up his (her) hands, claiming that there is nothing that can be done with teenagers. At that point, the children have become permanently alienated, and the judiciary has basically joined forces with the alienating parent in bringing about this all too common tragic result (24). At any point, had the court seen fit to impose the aforementioned sanctions program, it is highly likely that the PAS would have been prevented (in the early stages) and reversed (in the moderate forms, and even in some of the severe forms). This tragedy is being played out daily in courts of law throughout the United States, Canada, and many countries abroad.

It is in this realm that the judiciary has failed in its obligation to serve children’s best interests and to protect them from abusers. In the PAS situation, the abusers are the PAS indoctrinating parents. Poisoning a child to hate a loving and dedicated parent is a form of emotional abuse per se. It is important to note that courts have been very eager to impose the same sanctions on parents (usually fathers) who renege on their financial commitments to their spouses and children. However, the same sanctions are rarely imposed when courts deal with PAS alienators.

In some cases, courts have indeed implemented Plan B and transferred custody to the home of the alienated parent. Unfortunately, in most cases in which this transfer has taken place, the court has not recognized the importance of significant reduction of the alienator’s access to the children. Often, a traditional visitation schedule is implemented for the alienator. Under such circumstances the children continue to be alienated and thereby visit significant grief upon the target parent. The courts do well to view a PAS alienator like other kinds of abusers who require very restricted time frames of access, sometimes with supervision. I know that there are cases in which courts have so restricted PAS indoctrinators, but they are so uncommon that they are considered newsworthy by the media. I, myself, have had cases in which the court has transferred custody, but I have never personally seen one in which the court has also ordered extremely restrictive visitation for the programmer (such as two-to-four hours a week), and I have never seen a court ordered supervision for such an abusing parent.

The State Bar of Texas, recognizing the importance of both legal and mental health professionals having knowledge of the PAS, invited Warshak to write a PAS article for its Expert Witness Manual (25).

The PAS Therapist

With regard to the court-ordered therapy described in Table 3, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the court must order treatment with someone who is knowledgeable about the special techniques necessary for treating PAS children (7-8). However, such treatment will prove futile if the children still have significant access to the alienating parent. The analogy to youngsters who have been inveigled into a cult is applicable here. One cannot successfully treat such youngsters as long as they are living primarily in the cult compound. Seeing them once or twice a week for 45-60 minutes is not going to work as long as the children spend the rest of the week with the cult indoctrinators. I often say that treating children under these circumstances is "like throwing pebbles at a tank." It just will not work, and courts must appreciate this. Therapy is not a panacea. Therapy is far less effective than some judges would like to believe. But it has no chance at all for success if the therapist is not familiar with the PAS and comfortable with the special techniques necessary for treating such families.

It goes beyond the purposes of this article to describe in detail the special techniques necessary for therapists to utilize if they are to successfully treat PAS families. However, I will comment here on a few of the provisos that need to be satisfied for such therapists. They must be comfortable with waiving traditional confidentiality in that they must be able to communicate freely with attorneys and the court regarding what goes on in the treatment. They must be comfortable with dictatorial approaches: "If the children are not dropped off at the father’s house by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, on Monday morning, I will notify the court that you have been in violation of the court-ordered visitation schedule," "If the children are not returned at 7:00 p.m. Sunday evening, as ordered by the court, on Monday morning I will recommend that the court impose sanctions—starting with posting a bond, and then a fine. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to recommend that the court order you into a specified number of hours of community service. This should help you remember to comply with the court-ordered visitation schedule," "If the children refuse to visit, I will consider you to be responsible, not the children. It is clear to me that you are the one who is pulling strings here, and are the primary reason why the children will not visit." Therapists who are not comfortable using these authoritarian techniques, which are clearly at variance with traditional approaches, should not be treating PAS children. And courts who are not willing to order treatment with such therapists are not working in accordance with the children’s best interests.

Guardians ad Litem

Once again, a guardian ad litem who is not familiar with the PAS may cause serious psychological damage to children suffering with this disorder. A guardian ad litem who is not familiar with the causes, manifestations, and proper treatment of children with PAS will not serve their best interests. The guardian who takes pride in supporting what children profess they want is likely to perpetuate the psychopathology of children suffering with PAS. The guardian must recognize that PAS children need to be forced into doing things that they profess they do not want to do. In order to do this, the guardian must "switch gears" and unlearn certain principles learned in law school regarding being a zealous supporter of one’s client’s requests and demands. Guardians must be ever aware that the client is a child, not an adult. Furthermore, he (she) must be ever aware that the client is just not any child, but a child with a PAS. If these considerations are taken into account, then the guardian will be comfortable doing just the opposite of what the client requests. Such a guardian must be comfortable with the children’s criticisms and must be willing to be used as the excuse for the children saying to the alienating parent: "I really hate that lawyer. He says I must visit my father (mother). I really hate him (her). You know, Mommy (Daddy), I love you, and I don’t want to go there, but that stupid lawyer makes me go." In this way, the guardian is used as a vehicle for assuaging the child’s guilt over disloyalty to the alienator implied by any willingness to visit with the alienated parent.

The guardian who is truly working for the children’s best interests will be able to say to the court: "It is not in these children’s best interests for me to rubber stamp what they claim they want, for me to zealously support their professions of refusal to visit their (mother/father). It is in their best interests that the court order them to visit, and they should be put on notice that if they do not visit, their (father/mother) will be considered in contempt of court and punished by the court." Guardians who are comfortable with this approach to their clients will indeed be serving their clients best interests.

The PAS vs. PA Controversy

A parent accused of inducing a PAS in a child is likely to engage the services of a lawyer who may invoke the argument that there is no such thing as a PAS. The reasoning goes like this: "If there is no such thing as the PAS, then there is no programmer, and therefore my client cannot be accused of brainwashing the children." This is an extremely important point, and I cannot emphasize it strongly enough. It is a central element in the controversy over the PAS, a controversy that has been played out in courtrooms not only in the United States, but in many other countries as well. And if the allegedly dubious lawyer can demonstrate that the PAS is not listed in DSM-IV, then the position is considered "proven." The lawyer may have seen PAS in many cases and even argued for its existence in them. He (she) may recognize as well that there were too few articles on the PAS in the early 1990s to warrant submission to the DSM-IV which was published in 1994, but that it certainly will be a candidate for DSM-V, scheduled to be published in the year 2010. The lawyer may recognize that there are now 143 peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature on the PAS (26) and that there are now 70 legal citations from courts of law that have recognized the disorder, including two Frye Test hearings in which the court has ruled that the PAS has gained general recognition in the relevant scientific community and warrants admissibility in courts of law (27). Such a lawyer may actually believe that such deceitfulness is serving the client. The lawyer hopes, however, that the judge will be taken in by this specious argument and will then conclude that if there is no PAS, hence there is no programming, and so the client is thereby exonerated. Substituting the term parental alienation (PA) is done in the service of this misrepresentation perpetrated upon the court. PAS demands investigation for an alienator. PA does not. No alienator is identified, the sources are vaguer, and the causes could lie with the mother, the father, or both. The drawback here is that the evaluator who only uses PA may not provide the court with proper information about the cause of the children’s alienation. It lessens the likelihood, then, that the court will have the proper data with which to make its decisions (28). Warshak (29) has also addressed himself to this controversy.


Indoctrinating parents are the primary initiators of PAS in their children. The children, in order to protect themselves from rejection from their alienating parent, contribute to the expansion and intensification of PAS campaigns of denigration. Lawyers who work within the adversary system, although they are doing what they were taught to do in law school, that is, zealously support their clients, are playing an active role in promulgating and entrenching the PAS. They join the coterie of supporters and enablers that surround PAS indoctrinators. Some even do this when they recognize that their client is a PAS indoctrinator. Although such lawyers may get an A+ from their law school professors, they get an F- from this medical school professor. They are contributing to the corruption of youth, the poisoning of young minds, and the attenuation and even destruction of the important parent-child bond (7-8, 30-33). But my comments about their role go beyond the purposes of this article.

Therapists also play an important role in the etiology and development of the PAS. This is especially done by their empowerment of children. Many sanctimoniously profess that they really listen to children (as opposed to the rest of us who do not). They profess that they really respect what children want (with the implication that the rest of us do not). What they are basically doing is contributing to pathological empowerment, which is a central factor in the development and perpetuation of the PAS (6). Again, it is beyond the purposes of this article to describe their role. PAS indoctrinators know well that they can rely upon most therapists to empower their children in this way so that they are readily duped into joining the parade of enablers and supporters.

One would hope that by the time the parade of enablers reaches the courtroom that the judiciary would recognize what is going on and bring an end to this abomination. Unfortunately, this rarely proves to be the case. Rather, the judiciary gets drawn in and contributes immeasurably to the perpetuation and entrenchment of the PAS, often with the result that children become permanently alienated from a loving and kind parent. Compelling evidence for this is to be found in my follow-up study of 99 PAS children. When courts chose to reduce the children’s access to the alienating parent, especially by a transfer of custody, there was an alleviation of symptoms in all cases. In contrast, when the court chose not to restrict such access, there was an intensification of the PAS, with the result of permanent destruction of bonding in over 91 percent of cases. This study provides compelling evidence that judicial decisions play a vital role in what happens to PAS children (24).

In closing then, it is my belief that the PAS is primarily a product of the utilization of the adversary system for adjudicating child-custody disputes. A parent’s primary reason for indoctrinating a PAS into a child is to gain leverage in a court of law. In countries in which people cannot afford to take such disputes to court, there is little public recognition of PAS. Somehow, some way, they resolve these disputes without the utilization of the courtroom proceedings. PAS is a widespread phenomenon in western Europe and, until recently, it was not seen in eastern Europe. Although there were many reasons for this difference, the primary one relates to the fact that people in eastern Europe just did not (and still do not) have enough money to hire lawyers and take such disputes to court. It is reasonable to predict that with economic improvement, eastern European countries will see more PAS. I know this is now happening in the Czech Republic. Furthermore, PAS cases in which the parents are from different countries and the alienating parent abducts the child to his (her) homeland are becoming increasingly common. Many such cases have already been brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Sobal has dealt with this issue (34). I believe that if courtrooms were not available for the adjudication of child-custody disputes, some children would certainly suffer, but more would be better off. Years of exposure to and embroilment in courtroom litigation scar most children. To recommend that the courtroom doors be closed to such parents at this point is not realistic. However, I am convinced that such blockage, such unavailability, would protect more children than it would harm. The number of children who would suffer untoward consequences from not having a court of law available to protect them would be small compared to the benefits enjoyed by those who would not have that forum available to them. In short, the system as it exists today is doing PAS families much more harm than good and is not serving the best interests of the children. It has been the purpose of this article to focus on the judiciary’s role in the perpetuation of this tragic situation.


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