By Sadayah Q. DuRant-Brown, Esq.
To provide our readers with information about Parental Alienation and what to do in the event that they feel alienated from their child, we interviewed Dr. Amy J.L. Baker, PhD.
Phone: (201) 321-9874
Dr. Baker is a nationally recognized expert in parent child relationships, especially children of divorce, parental alienation syndrome, and emotional abuse of children. Should be changed to “Dr. Baker is an author of 9 books including “Co-parenting with a toxic ex” and “The high conflict custody battle” and is available for telephone coaching. her website is www.amyjlbaker.com
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is a family dynamic in which a parent engages in what we refer to as alienating behaviors. These are behaviors which are likely to foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent. If the child succumbs to the pressure and manipulation of those alienating behaviors, we would refer to that child as an alienated child. In New Jersey, it can be difficult to establish parental alienation is occurring because many legal and mental health professional have not been trained to identify its signs.
How can you tell if you are being alienated from your child?
First, there are seventeen primary parental alienation behaviors of the favored parent. It is helpful for all divorcing parents to know that list. A lot of times people conflate alienation with bad mouthing. However, examples of parental alienation behaviors actually include things like:
- Interfering in communication with the other parent ;
- Denying the other parent the opportunity to exercise visitation time with the child (whether court-ordered or otherwise);
- Permitting the child (especially a young child) to skip visitation with the other parent if the child does not desire to go with the other parent during visitation times;
- Making the child feel guilty if they show positive affection or interest in being with that other parent;
- Withholding information from that other parent;
- Encouraging that child to believe that that other parent is unsafe or unloving;
- Changing the child’s name to exclude the connection with the other parent
- Installing a replacement parent and/or referring to a new significant other as “Mom” or “Dad,” and/or
- Inducing the child to undermine the authority or not respect the authority of the other parent (i.e., failing to support the other parent’s discipline but instead questioning the authority of the other parent).
If one parent engaged in these behaviors it is likely to foster the child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent.
Then, there are eight behaviors that children exhibit. It is helpful for parents to be aware of these behaviors so that they might be able to intervene before their child becomes so alienated that they cut you off. Some of these behaviors include but are not limited to:
(1) Your child denies ever having a good relationship and shows no interest in having the relationship be improved
(2) Your child has weak, frivolous, and absurd reasons for rejecting you
(3) Your child always sides with the other parent
(4) Your child sees the other parent as all good and you as all bad
What should you do if your child is being alienated from you?
According to Dr. Baker:
The first thing is to make sure that you are not doing something to induce the other parent to be really upset with you. In other words, if you think the other parent is engaging in alienation behaviors, politely ask them if you’re doing something that is causing them to engage in these behaviors. Similarly, if your child is starting to reject you, or is becoming angry or mistrustful, start by asking yourself if you are doing something to cause this behavior. If you decide that you are not in fact causing these behaviors from either the other parent or your child, begin to organize your documents and collect your evidence in preparation for court.
For less serious situations, parents should consider beginning with a collaborative approach but be ready to advance a parental alienation case if the need arises. Parents should retain a family law attorney with a collaborative focus and/or seek family therapy and use of a parenting coordinator. If there is a lack of communication between the parents, the alienated parent may need to seek a remedy in court for interference with their rights to custody and visitation. It is not necessary to prove parental alienation to pursue a remedy. The alienated parent may pursue a remedy for temporary or permanent changes in parenting time such as compensatory parenting time, changes in transportation arrangements, a change in the primary residential parent, changes in pick-up and/or drop-off locations, or changes in transportation arrangements.
Under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.3 and New Jersey Court Rule 1:10 and 5:3-7(a), a court can order that the interfering parent pay the other parent’s attorney’s fees and court costs, attend parenting classes or counseling, pay any costs resulting from non-compliance with court orders, pay for counseling for the children or for the other parent, participate in community service, or comply with a warrant for arrest.
Does the accusation of parental alienation have credibility in New Jersey courts?
New Jersey does not officially recognize a claim for parental alienation, however, in the alternative, courts have recognized causes of action for intentional torts committed by one spouse against another that causes physical injury or even intentional infliction of emotional distress which does not require physical injury. Furthermore, a tort action against one spouse could be joined in a divorce action if the behavior occurs before or during the pendency of the divorce action. Dr. Baker suggests that:
At this point, the term does not have much credibility in the courts because anybody can say anybody is an alienator. You really need to have evidence that it’s happening because we don’t want the courts believing it every time they hear it. Similar to an abuse allegation, there has to be an investigation. You will need to have good documentation or “create a paper trail” if you think the other person is undermining your authority and a child custody evaluation will generally be necessary to confirm that the alienation exists. That really involves understanding the 17 strategies and then going through your documentation to see if you have evidence for it. This is important because opposing counsel will be willing to do and say things that are not true in order to muddy the water and confuse the story. They may exaggerate what we don’t know about alienation and take the areas of disagreement and explode them as if there’s nothing known about alienation and therefore, suggesting that the whole term be thrown out. Some judges are receptive to this argument.
Usually, if a parent can show through a report from a child custody evaluator, that serious alienation has occurred, a judge will often order “reunification therapy,” which is designed to repair a parent-child relationship which has been disrupted.
According to Dr. Baker:
The problem in New Jersey is that many custody evaluators ascribe to the hybrid model of family conflict and that model says that most times when a child rejects a parent, it is both parent’s fault. Many of the custody evaluators in New Jersey will do a thorough custody evaluation and conclude, regardless of the facts, that it’s a hybrid. And when they conclude that it’s a hybrid, their recommendations generally are insufficient for addressing the situation if it were actually an alienation situation. So, if it is truly a hybrid, their recommendations make sense. But, if it’s truly alienation and they’re falsely concluding that it’s a hybrid, then their recommendations are insufficient. And there’s a very strong bias, in my opinion, among New Jersey custody evaluators, to conclude that cases are a hybrid which generally works in favor of the favored parent.
Parental alienation can be difficult to prove in New Jersey courts, but it is not impossible. If you find yourself being alienated from your child, remember to act fast by gathering any supporting evidence and contacting a family law attorney. If the court is able to intervene early by entering an order preventing the other parent from practicing his/her alienating behaviors, it is more likely that you can stop the harm caused and preserve your relationship with your child.
Sadayah Q. DuRant is a recent graduate of Rutgers School of Law, where she was Editor of the Race and The Law Review Journal. Rachael Newcomb who is entering her 3rd year at Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to the blog.