An Ontario, Canada, Superior Court Judge issued a thorough well-reasoned but very unusual decision on January 16, 2009, changing custody of three (3) girls, ages 15, 11 and 9, from their primary caregiving mother to the father based upon evidence of a long pattern of parental alienation. In fact, Mother had denied Father, a vascular surgeon, any contact with the girls for about two (2) years before these proceedings.
Judge Faye McWatt not only changed custody to the father, but denied Mother any contact with the girls for at least 90 days. The Court concluded that Mother had conducted a “consistent and overwhelming campaign for more than a decade to alienate the children from their father”.
The Court was impressed with the testimony from Dr. Barbara Fidler, an expert in the field of parental alienation. The Court, in its decision, stated:
Dr. Fidler testified that children are more susceptible to alienation in certain age ranges. She explained that from 5 to 8 years of age, children can have shifting allegiances to parents. Once a child’s brain develops to a point where the child can hold both positive and negative information about a parent, though, children can become confused. They begin to question whether a parent is telling the truth about things in general or the other parent in particular. When the child reaches the ages of 10 or 11 years old, it can become very difficult for them to hold the different views they may have come to about their parents and, as a result, may choose to side with one parent over the other in order to free themselves from emotional conflict and the stress it causes. This becomes extreme in alienated children of 12 years old and older. These children, Dr. Fidler testified, can internalize the effects of alienation to the point where even the alienating parent could not get the children to visit the alienated parent. The child creates its own reasons to dislike or hate the alienated parent – ones which are not real.
There is a broad range of effects of this severe sort of alienation on a child. Some of them are low self-esteem to self-hatred, guilt, feelings of abandonment, feelings of being unloved and unworthy. Children may feel self-doubt and doubt about their ability to perceive reality. They may have simplistic or rigid information processing. They can have inflated self-esteem. They may have poor differentiation of self. They may be aggressive and have poor impulse control. Where there are court orders and children become aware that the orders are not being obeyed by the alienating parent, these children can learn that it is acceptable not to obey court orders. Alienated children can lack compassion and remorse and can also develop an ability not to feel guilt.
Dr. Fidler testified that long-term research by Amy Baker on adults who were alienated from a parent as a child suffered depression in 70% of the individuals studied. Two-thirds of the same population became divorced themselves – a quarter of that group more than once. The adults talked to researchers about interpersonal problems, dysfunctional managing of their lives, and difficulties trusting other people. One-third were reported to have substance abuse problems. Fifty percent of this group in this study became alienated from their own children.
Courts are unlikely to take the drastic step Judge McWatt ordered absent overwhelming evidence of a long-standing pattern of parental alienation and powerful testimony from an expert witness on parental alienation. Here, the Court also concluded that the Mother had failed for 14 years to act in the best interests of her children and that she is incapable of supporting the three children in a relationship with their father!
To read the 29 page decision, click here.
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.