My introduction to the CT family court reform movement was around 2011 when Keith Harmon Snow, author of "The Worst Interests of the Child", contacted me to discuss the ways in which victims of domestic violence were losing custody to their abusers. Next, on or around 2013, father's rights advocates seized control of the family court reform movement and reframed its agenda.
Instead of demonstrating concern regarding protective mothers, they insisted that the problem of family court could only be traced back to the celebrated [or debunked, depending upon your perspective,] theory of parental alienation (PA), or parental alienation syndrome (PAS). This recently culminated in the raised House Bill 7393 [now withdrawn] which proposed either jail or fines for those whom the Court determines have committed it.
The Bill also included two separate "friendly parent" provisions which would have guaranteed that anyone who reported domestic violence or child sexual abuse would promptly lose custody. After all, it is most unfriendly to assert that you or your child are the victims of abuse. [Ok, I know, not funny. I'm just joking.]
To begin, for those who do not know, what is parental alienation, or parental alienation syndrome?
For a definition, I'm taking the easy route, and I will simply quote wikipedia. Parental alienation syndrome is, "a term introduced by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe a distinctive suite of behaviors in children that includes showing extreme but unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent. Observed repeatedly in families involved in child custody litigation, these behaviors result from manipulation or undue influence, typically by the other parent who may be attempting to prevent an ongoing relationship between a child and other family members after family separation or divorce."
The clincher in this discussion is the statement that comes next, "The syndrome has not been accepted by either the medical or legal communities and Gardner's theory has been criticized by legal and mental health scholars for lacking scientific validity and reliability."
Yet despite the fact that this syndrome has no scientific validity, father's rights people insist upon embedding it in our laws here in CT and making it a central factor in all custody determinations.
Again, in doing this, I believe that fathers' rights people have it all wrong.
If you have a problem, then you need to look for solutions. However, these solutions will not work as long as the problems haven't been defined properly. When it comes to the broken family court system here in CT, I have been increasingly disgusted with the incapacity of many advocates -- father's rights advocates in particular, the Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children (2013 - 2014), members of the legislature and the CT Judicial Branch -- to define the problem in an intelligent manner.
How can you begin to think of developing policies or crafting bills when you have no idea what is going on? For me personally, as an advocate, I don't get that approach.
For instance, blaming the victims. For too long now, starting with the "Report of the Governor's Commission on Divorce, Custody and Children" of December 2002, experts on family court, i.e. attorneys, judges, mental health professionals -- have placed the blame for the problems of family court on the litigants themselves. In the words of the Governor's report, which were again quoted in the report of the Task Force on the Care and Custody of Minor Children (2014), the problem arises from "a small minority of parents [which] engages in persistent conflict because of anger, characterological or mental health problems, or the force of personality."
The theory that character flaw or mental illness repeats itself in fathers' rights advocates insistence that the problem can be understood almost solely within the context of parental alienation syndrome. Also, that the solution should be strict punishments for PAS, i.e. jail and hefty financial fines, as well as forced shared parenting. But is this true?
For a closer look at this phenomenon, take a look at the hearing which took place earlier this month on February 5, 2019. I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday reviewing the entire video which is a little over 9 hours long. For at least the first three hours of this testimony, viewers were subjected to lengthy lectures on parental alienation theory. First came Dr. William Bernat, a parental alienation expert, who broke down the theory to its 17 recognized behaviors and 8 symptoms. After he had completed his testimony, we were forced to listen to Dr. Steve Miller, a frequent flyer at the CT Legislature, who talked about parental alienation syndrome as an epidemic plaguing our nation. Once he was done, then we were bombarded with more lectures on parental alienation from Linda Gottlieb, who I've been informed is not a psychologist. She talked more about planting false memories and false allegations in the light of parental alienation.
Then after that, we were required to hear the testimony of Ms. Joan Kloth-Zenard who runs the organization "PAS Intervention"--she apparently is qualified by an MFT, whatever that is, as opposed to an LMFT which is what we would ordinarily be looking for. What is interesting about Joan's testimony is that, for an example, she described a case where the mother was stabbed in the abdomen and labia by the father, and yet the father still got custody. To me, this looked to be a case of domestic violence. However, this is the very interesting twist on the parental alienation movement in that father's rights people have couched this theory in the language of the domestic violence movement and so many people, including women, have come to believe that parental alienation theory is just another word for domestic violence. That, in itself, is an entirely, different, but interesting story that I will hopefully touch upon in another blog.
Let me get back to my point. This is the dilemma that arises when folks define the problem of family court as a mental health problem among litigants, whether you want to define it as parental alienation or some other ailment. It simply isn't true.
If you look at the Governor's Report of December 2002, there is one paragraph in that report on that nasty, chronic, minority of litigators who they said cause all the trouble. After that, you get the 65 page detailed report regarding all the systems malfunctions within the family court system itself which actually cause the problems in family court.
Likewise, once you plow through the insistent litany in regard to PA or PAS in the first 3 hours of the video of the February 5, 2019 day of testimony, which father's rights people provided as the ideological context for the later citizen testimony, you will find 6 additional hours of testimony from at least 30 victims of family court detailing the many systems breakdowns within the CT Family Court system itself. In other words, the problem is not PA or PAS. The problem is a broken family court system.
One person spoke about the fact that there are no consequences for disobeying orders, a failure to obey the ADA, and judges would not listen to her testimony or look at her evidence. She lost everything, her job, her home, her income. Here is another person who spoke of the collusion between court actors, the failure to obey the constitution, in chambers hearings where parents are not included, impacts including alcohol and drug addiction, homelessness, bankruptcy, trauma, and PTSD. Another person spoke of the denial of due process, attorneys hiding exculpatory evidence, having to be in court so often it was like a full time job, his case discussed behind closed doors without the parties present, financial costs of up to $300,000 - $500,000 and even more.
Again, corruption, collusion, racketeering, slander, perjury, lack of ethics, no checks and balances, absolute immunity for negligent and incompetent GALs and other vendors, failure to adhere to the rules of court or case law, financial and emotional blackmail, hired guns, perverted custody evaluations and psychological evaluations, no oversight, no accountability, false allegations, inexperienced and unqualified court personnel, unnecessary continuances, documents that disappear from the court files, transcripts that are tampered with, and on and on. This is exactly the same testimony we heard during the daylong testimony on February 9, 2014 and the breakdown of family court here in CT.
Forced shared parenting, punishments for so-called alienation, and for not being "friendly", will not correct engrained and deliberately engineered systems failures which are kept in place for profit. In fact, given the introduction of harsh punishments, settling disputes over whether one parent did or did not alienate the other, will invite additional corrupt vendors into the courtroom, and exacerbate already existing problems within the system.
These systems problems were originally detailed in the Governor's Commission report of 2002 and, for the better part, they have gotten worse, and not better.
Parental Alienation theories are about the gender wars taking place in America. Forced shared parenting is about the Men's Rights movement and the backlash against the Women's Rights movement of the 1970s. It is about ideology, and it is about indoctrination. If you talk to the people who promote PAS theory, you quickly get the idea that these are people who act as though they are in a cult reciting their treasured mantras.
Ideology is like religion. If you try to enshrine it in your statutes and laws, it will lead to endless confusion. Thinking we can solve the problem of family court by sprinkling holy water on it in the form of the ideology of parental alienation, I think is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, if we are serious about resolving the problems of family court, we have to do the hard work of looking again at the system itself. In other words, we have to investigate the machinery of the CT Family Court system which is operating on a daily basis. We have to examine what works, and what does not. It is a difficult and painstaking job, one which often does not have any easy answers, but it is at least a fairly concrete task from which we can garner measurable results.
In 2002, every member of the Governor's Commission is notable for being at the center of the corruption and malfeasance in family court which we are looking at today. The membership list is literally a who's who of legal and mental health professionals who later became famous for exploiting and taking advantage of family court victims. It is paramount that we make sure nothing like that happens again. When these kinds of criminal court actors take advantage of Moms and Dads, those parents are not mentally ill, they are victims of corrupt family court practices.
This doesn't mean that the Commission didn't do a good job of laying the groundwork for future reform in its examination of the family court system. It's just that they immediately ignored the outcome of the report and used the network they estalished doing the work to exploit and harm family court victims. I simply believe we need to retrieve that work and use it to continue to make progress here and now.