Carolyn Jenkins, an associate professor in the department of social work, was recently interviewed by “Dateline NBC” on Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is often used as a defense for those accused of sexual abuse during custody cases.
What is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)? The theory behind the syndrome is that in divorce cases where sexual abuse by the father is claimed, the sexual abuse actually does not happen but is a ploy by the mother, who is so upset about the divorce and wants full custody of her children that she coaches her children to say they were sexually abused. It was proposed by Richard Gardner in the late 1980s. He never did any empirical research and there was nothing to back up his theory. He only used it when sexual abuse was being claimed. And if you read Gardner at the time, he really didn’t believe in the sexual abuse of children. He never thought it happened. He thought social workers made it up. He thought moms were implanting this or coaching their children.
How could his theory hold water if there wasn’t any research involved? I don’t think anyone really knows. It really caught on and lots of psychologists started claiming the same thing. I think it’s because judges and the court system in general don’t want to believe that a parent would sexually abuse their own child. Make it a stranger or make it someone down the street and they’re on top of it. Also, I think that the judges are very impressed that we now have these men who so want their children that they’re willing to fight for them. It’s also easier for the judges and the court system to buy into PAS because it’s easier to accuse the mom of something rather than the child to see what really happened because the court doesn’t want to be seen as not believing a child or becoming an adversary with the child in terms of what happened.
What effect does this have on the children? I can’t begin to imagine how many kids we have put back with abusers because of this. With PAS, children lose all kinds of trust because those kids thought they would get justice. The public also doesn’t understand how difficult it is for kids to disclose this. A child can’t just say, “Yes, he abused me.” It’s kind of like women who have been raped who don’t report it and can’t talk about it. It’s very traumatizing, and the older they get, the more the children tend to blame themselves. They think it must be something they did or they are too sexy. At some point, they start to confuse this with love because most fathers are not going to use a lot of physical force. Fathers “groom” the child over a period of time and use either bribes or threats to keep the child from disclosing. Many children are ambivalent—they love their fathers, but they want the abuse to stop.
How can you fight against this? I found that the American Association of Judges has put out how an attorney is supposed to fight this. And, of course, you first need to get the credentials of any experts for the defense and find out if they know anything about child sexual abuse. But, more importantly, you have to make the court pretty well prove that there was no sexual abuse. You can’t get tied up in trying to prove or disprove parental alienation. Nationally, Ohio has probably the worst reputation. Partly what happened was that father’s rights groups got really involved in this and it’s really a shame because there are men who are mistreated by the court system, but they’re kind of being used by the abusers.