California Family Law Attorney
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December 18, 2010
  Ontario, Canada Trial Court Finds PARENTAL ALIENATION - An Example of How Not To Behave!
Posted By Thurman Arnold

A Cautionary Tale:

How Not to Run Your Separation and Custody Battle

Los Angeles Family Law Mediator Forrest S. Mosten recently shared this newsworthy trial court opinion with me, and it is making the rounds among listservs for Collaborative Lawyers who have an abiding desire to help others avoid exactly the sorts of behavior that certain high-conflict families generate, as are illustrated here to such a degree that a father has lost all contact with his daughter. I find that Christmas for some folks becomes a battling holiday, and I urge you to undertake a different path beginning today for your sake and those who depend upon you. This is a wonderful example of what to avoid at all costs.

On November 29, 2010, Judge J.W. Quinn issued a thoughtful and stinging rebuke of two parents behaving abominably in their dissolution and custody battle. This unfortunate family's case is entitled McQuat vs. McQuat. The court's ruling begins:

"Paging Dr. Freud. Paging Dr. Freud.

* * * This is yet another case that reveals the ineffectiveness of Family Court in a bitter custody/access dispute, where the parties require therapeutic intervention rather than legal attention. Here, a husband and wife have been marinating in a mutual hatred so intense as to surely amount to a personality disorder requiring treatment....

... [I]t is not surprising that Larry and Catherine are having problems, serious problems, regarding the custody of, and access to, their children. The source of the difficulties is hatred: a hardened, harmful, high-octane hatred. Larry and Catherine hate each other, as do Larry and Sam. This hatred has raged unabated since the date of separation. Consequently, the likelihood of an amicable resolution is laughable (hatred devours reason); and, a satisfactory legal solution is impossible (hatred has no legal remedy)."

The decision details allegations of multiple death threats between the parents, between the parents' relatives and the other parent, between the new spouses and the other parent, changed locks on the residence, assault by Van, interferences with visitation, interrogation of children about the other parent, threats of jail, and a stream of abusive texts and phone calls, arguments that the children should be separated and divided between the parents, alienating behaviors even after court mandated counseling sessions, and more.

The court found the mother's behavior to be the more problematic of the two - "Had [mother] fulfilled her dual parental duty to foster and encourage access between [dad] and [the child] and not to speak disparagingly of him in the presence of [the child], I am confident that this case would have unfolded differently." By the time of the trial the 13 year old daughter was so alienated from her father that the Court felt helpless to devise any remedy to repair the damage. It made the following findings:

"(1) The alienation was not present before Larry and Catherine separated; (2) This is not a case where Taylor [13 year old daughter] has weighed the good and bad attributes of her father and found him, on balance, to be parentally deficient: she sees Larry as all bad - there is no ambivalence to her feelings; she is not disguising her true feelings; (3) Larry, although well-intentioned, is an inept father, who has not taken steps to identify, and fix, his shortcomings as a parent; nevertheless, the utter rejection of him by Taylor is disproportionate, unfair and unwarranted; (4) . . . Taylor has aligned herself with Catherine whose hate for Larry is palpable; the battle lines are clearly drawn and Taylor knows the side that she wants to be on; (5) I am unable to think of anything that Larry can do to quickly repair the damage in his relationship with Taylor; and, if I could, I have doubts that he has the skill-sets to pull it off; (6) I did not hear evidence of a single instance of Taylor, since separation, expressing love or affection for Larry; (7) Although children are often required by their parents to do things that they do not want to do, obligating Taylor to visit her father or to engage in counseling is considerably more complicated than insisting that she do her homework or go to the dentist; (8) The history of the parties is such that there is no reason to think they would meaningfully take part in, or benefit from, therapy or counseling; (9) While it is Catherine's duty to encourage and support a relationship between Taylor and Larry, that duty has been breached too severely to be remedied by the court; (10) It is not realistic to expect that the parties have the incentive and finances to engage in the extensive therapy and counseling that are needed; (11) Depriving Catherine of custody (sometimes an appropriate way of dealing with an alienating parent) would not benefit Taylor at this point.

It is my view, sadly, that the alienation here is so severe that it is in the best interests of Taylor not to order or enforce access by Larry. If access happens, fine.

Without professional help, Larry is incapable of addressing the breakdown in his relationship with Taylor. Although, as I have said, well-intentioned, he is an ineffective parent and, without counseling and other assistance, he will remain ineffective. While Catherine, aided and abetted by Sam, initiated the alienation of father and daughter, Larry has not improved the situation. But, I emphasize the fundamental fact that Catherine's conduct is the sine qua non of the alienation.

Absent counseling, matters will worsen, not improve. No practical purpose would be served if the court were to decree a schedule of counseling for the parties and the children. The hate and psychological damage that now prevail would require years of comprehensive counseling to undo. The legal system does not have the resources to monitor a schedule of counseling (nor should it do so). The function of Family Court is not to change people, but to dispose of their disputes at a given point in time. I preside over a court, not a church.

Larry might consider some common-sense steps, such as cards, letters or gifts, to show that he is receptive to a relationship with Taylor should she have a change of heart. However, he would be wise to have those steps independently vetted by a responsible person (preferably, a professional in the child-psychology or family-counseling field)."

I often write about divorce insanity, and how reactivity and anger when relationships end sometimes disintegrates into a form of mutual trance that is humiliating to the parties and harmful to their children. It takes on a life of its own, and at its worse seems impossible to stop until it collides with the minimal standards that courts and governments impose upon families; even then that collision at best results in a court imposed outcome where much decision-making is stripped from the parents, and of course government cannot follow the parties home once they leave the courthouse. The conflict becomes a matter of public record, visible for all to see including strangers like us.

This case is a strong argument in favor of mediation or collaborative divorce, although the McQuats evidently were not likely candidates for such processes (ironically, they had a settlement agreement that called for mediation and yet both chose to ignore that promise).

I say "evidently" because I wonder whether their journey might have been redirected had they or someone intervened early on - their mediation provision offered that opportunity (although the husband challenged the entire agreement and the Court was first required to decide whether to set it aside before addressing whether mediation was enforceable). Judge Quinn pointedly found that "[t]he alienation was not present before Larry and Catherine separated." I see this is a clear statement that the parties' circumstances by the time of trial was a consequence of the post-separation and litigation experience, and not something that was otherwise inevitable had anyone considered de-escalating early on.

Their case is on the far end of the spectrum of dysfunction. Possibly you will read something here that will help you dial back similar conduct or impulses that the hurt part of you is considering, and to ring a bell for you that might cause you to consider an alternate route before your divorce begins to escalate. Perhaps you know someone in acute divorce crisis, and this cautionary tale will help motivate you to support them by encouraging them to behave differently than what their emotional upset drives them to do. Sadly for the McQuats, it appears their family members only served as boosters for their bad behavior. This family looks to be irretrievably broken, and while it is never too late there is a mountain to climb that was once merely a hill.

Thurman Arnold, CFLS
December 18, 2010

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June 03, 2010
  "PARENTAL ALIENATION" at the 2010 AFCC Conference
Posted By Thurman Arnold

The topic of the 47th Annual Association of Family and Conciliation Court Conference is "parental alienation." Over 1,000 lawyers, judges, mediators, and mental health professionals (psychologists, therapists, counselors, and court personnel) have converged in Denver for plenaries and dozens of educational and training sessions to share wisdom and views not just about alienating parents, but also concerning many other topics including mediating high conflict partner breakups, understanding how the brain works in conflict and why people behave irrationally and reactively, the effects of parental conflict upon children, children's best interests and parenting plans, domestic violence, and much more.

This is reportedly the largest AFCC Conference turn out ever.

The AFCC a is multi-disciplinary and highly collaborative organization, made up of members of overlapping professions who are passionately cross-pollinating the international social landscape - but particularly within the U.S. AFCC is dedicated to facilitating the healthy resolution of family conflict. AFCC is probably the most important organization affecting family law trends today both in and outside the courtroom.

The concept of "parental alienation" is a highly controversial subject. There is much debate and disagreement nationally and in Denver this week whether parental alienation is really a "syndrome" or "disorder" and whether it deserves its own category in the upcoming DSM-V.

The DSM is short for the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is published is by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The current DSM-IV was first released in 1994 and has since been updated. It appears that the DSM-V may be released as early as 2012.

Mental Health Professionals (MHP's) use this manual when working with patients as a common ground for better understanding their illness and potential treatment, to communicate between themselves, and to help insurance companies and other payors decide whether to cover treatments. It is considered the ‘bible’ for any professional who makes psychiatric diagnoses in the United States and many other countries, and hence what gets in and what does not has long ranging consequences about how MHP's and judges and lawyers view certain behaviors and functioning. In effect it constitutes a consensus over what is and what is not a 'mental illness.'

Hence, the DSM has important consequences to families who find themselves within the Family Court systems, even though that is not what the manual is necessarily intended to be used for. The parental alienation question in this context is essentially whether there are predictable and discrete behaviors that, in combination and given certain levels of intensity, can form an identifiable mental illness that can be credibly diagnosed and distinguished from other disorders, and then treated.

Whether parental alienation is deserving of its own category within the DSM is an important debate. In forensic parenting evaluations the DSM-IV may be used to label parents in ways that can seriously impact and impede their parenting rights. Therapists, psychologists, social workers and others who must rely upon its system of coding often provide diagnoses and recommendations to judges and other MHP's that are used to establish parenting rights and parenting plans in custody disputes and move-away situations.

I will attempt to Blog some information about current parental alienation research soon. In the meantime, consistent with my goal of providing educational materials to individuals who are investigating legal questions involving families, my hope here is to introduce these important concepts. Given the nature of Blogs it is easiest to do this in 'layers.'

Thurman Arnold

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June 02, 2010
  Proposed Text for a new diagnosis of PARENTAL ALIENATION in the DSM-V
Posted By Thurman Arnold

The following text was taken from the AFCC materials provided in Denver. The DSM-V has not been adopted, nor is there any agreement that the following diagnosis should be added. Ultimately it was not adopted.


Proposed Text for Parental Alienation Disorder in DSM-V


The essential feature of parental alienation disorderis that a child - usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce - allies himself or herself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justification. The primary behavioral symptom is the child's resistance or refusal to have contact with the alienated parent (Criterion A).

The behaviors in the child that characterize parental alienation disorderinclude a persistent campaign of denigration against the alienated parent and weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the child's criticism of the alienated parent (Criterion B).

The following clinical features frequently occur in parental alienation disorder, especially when the child's symptoms reach a level that is moderate or severe (Criterion C). Lack of ambivalence refers to the child's belief that the alienated parent is all bad and the preferred parent is all good. The independent-thinker phenomenon means that the child proudly states the decision to reject the alienated parent is his own, not influenced by the preferred parent. Reflexive support of the preferred parent against the alienated parent refers to the pattern of the child's immediately and automatically taking the preferred parent's side in a disagreement. The child may exhibit a disregard for the feelings of the alienated parent and an absence of guilt over exploitation of the alienated parent. The child may manifest borrowed scenarios, that is, rehearsed statements that are identical to those made by the preferred parent. Also, the child's animosity toward the alienated parent may spread to that parent's extended family.

The diagnosis of parental alienation disordershould not be used if the child's refusal to have contact with the rejected parent is justifiable, for example, if the child was neglected or abused by that parent (Criterion D).


Parental alienation disordermay be mild, moderate, or severe. When the parental alienation disorderis mild, the child may briefly resist contact with the alienated parent, but does have contact and enjoys a good relationship with the alienated parent once they are together.

When the parental alienation disorderis mild, the child may have a strong, healthy relationship with both parents, even though the child recites criticisms of the alienated parent.

When the parental alienation disorderis moderate, the child may persistently resist

contact with the alienated parent and will continue to complain and criticize the alienated parent during the contact. The child is likely to have a mildly to moderately pathological relationship with the preferred parent.

When the parental alienation disorderis severe, the child strongly and persistently resists contact and may hide or run away to avoid seeing the alienated parent. The child's behavior is driven by a firmly held, false belief that the alienated parent is evil, dangerous, or worthless. The child is likely to have a strong, severely pathological relationship with the preferred parent, perhaps sharing a paranoid world view.

While the diagnosis of parental alienation disorderrefers to the child, the preferred parent and other persons the child is dependent on may manifest the following attitudes and behaviors, which frequently are the major cause of the disorder: persistent criticisms of the rejected parent's personal qualities and parenting activities; statements that influence the child to fear, dislike, and criticize the alienated parent; and various maneuvers to exclude the rejected parent from the child's life. The behavior of the preferred parent may include complaints to the police and child protection agencies with allegations about the rejected parent.

Parental alienation disordermay be the basis for false allegations of sexual abuse against the alienated parent. The preferred parent may be litigious to the point of abusing the legal system. The preferred parent may violate court orders that are not to his or her liking. Specific psychological problems - narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, traumatic childhood experiences, and paranoid traits - may be identified in these individuals. Also, the rejected parent may manifest the following attitudes and behaviors, which may be a minor or contributory cause of the disorder: lack of warm, involved parenting; deficient parenting skills; and lack of time dedicated to parenting activities. However, the intensity and duration of the child's refusal to have contact with the rejected parent is far out of proportion to the relatively minor weaknesses in the rejected parent's parenting skills.

Although parental alienation disordermost often arises in the context of a child custody dispute between two parents, it can arise in other types of conflicts over child custody, such as a dispute between a parent and stepparent or between a parent and a grandparent. Sometimes, other family members - such as stepparents or grandparents - contribute to the creation of parental alienation disorder.On occasion, other individuals - such as therapists and child protection workers - contribute to the creation of parental alienation disorderby encouraging or supporting the child's refusal to have contact with the alienated parent. Also, parental alienation disorderdoes not necessarily appear in the context of divorce litigation, but may occur in intact families or years following the divorce.


It is common for children to resist or avoid contact with the noncustodial parent after the parents separate or divorce. There are several possible explanations for a child's active rejection of contact. Parental alienation disorderis an important, but not the only, reason that children refuse contact.

In the course of normal development children will become polarized with one parent and then the other depending on the child's developmental stage and events in the child's life. When parents disagree, it is normal for children to experience loyalty conflicts. These transitory variations in a child's relationship with his or her parents do not meet criteria for parental alienation disorderbecause they do not constitute "a persistent rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a campaign."

If the child actually was abused, neglected, or disliked by the noncustodial parent or the current boyfriend or girlfriend of that parent, the child's animosity may be justified and it is understandable that the child would not want to visit the rejected parent's household. If abuse were the reason for the child's refusal, the diagnosis would be physical abuse of child or sexual abuse of child, not parental alienation disorder.This is important to keep in mind because an abusive, rejected parent may misuse the concept of parental alienation disorderin order to falsely blame the child's refusal of contact on the parent that the child prefers. In shared psychotic disorder, a delusional parent may influence a child to believe that the other parent is an evil person who must be feared and avoided. In parental alienation disorder, the alienating parent may have very strong opinions about the alienated parent, but is not usually considered out of touch with reality.

When parents separate or divorce, a child with separation anxiety disorder may become even more worried and anxious about being away from the primary caretaker. In separation anxiety disorder, the child is preoccupied with unrealistic fears that something will happen to the primary caretaker, while the child with parental alienation disorder is preoccupied with unrealistic beliefs that the alienated parent is dangerous.

It is conceivable that a child with specific phobia, situational type, might have an unreasonable fear of a parent or some aspect of the parent's household. A child with a specific phobia is unlikely to engage in a persistent campaign of denigration against the feared object, while the campaign of denigration is a central feature of parental alienation disorder.

When parents separate or divorce, a child with oppositional defiant disorder may become even more symptomatic - angry, resentful, stubborn - and not want to participate in the process of transitioning from one parent to the other. In oppositional defiant disorder, the child is likely to be oppositional with both parents in a variety of contexts, while the child with parental alienation disorder is likely to focus his or her negativism on the proposed contact with the alienated parent and also to engage in the campaign of denigration of that parent.

When parents separate or divorce, a child may develop an adjustment disorder as a reaction to the various stressors related to the divorce including discord between the parents, the loss of a relationship with a parent, and the disruption of moving to a new neighborhood and school. A child with an adjustment disorder may have a variety of nonspecific symptoms including depression, anxious mood, and disruptive behaviors, while the child with parental alienation disorder manifests a specific cluster of symptoms including the campaign of denigration and weak, frivolous rationalizations for the child's persistent criticism of the alienated parent.

Parent-child relational problem (a V-code) is the appropriate diagnosis if the focus of clinical attention is on the relationship between a child and his or her divorced parents, but the symptoms do not meet the criteria for a mental disorder. For example, a rebellious adolescent may not have a specific mental disorder, but may temporarily refuse to have contact with one parent even though both parents have encouraged him to do so and a court has ordered it. On the other hand, parental alienation disorder should be the diagnosis if the child's symptoms are persistent enough and severe enough to meet the criteria for that disorder.


A. The child - usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce - allies himself or herself strongly with one parent and rejects a relationship with the other, alienated parent without legitimate justification. The child resists or refuses contact or parenting time with the alienated parent.

B. The child manifests the following behaviors:

  • a persistent rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a
  • campaign
  • weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the child's persistent criticism of the rejected parent

C. The child manifests two or more of the following six attitudes and behaviors:

(1) lack of ambivalence

(2) independent-thinker phenomenon

(3) reflexive support of one parent against the other

(4) absence of guilt over exploitation of the rejected parent

(5) presence of borrowed scenarios

(6) spread of the animosity to the extended family of the rejected parent.

D. The duration of the disturbance is at least 2 months.

E. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social academic (occupational), or other important areas of functioning.

F. The child's refusal to have contact with the rejected parent is without legitimate justification. That is, parental alienation disorderis not diagnosed if the rejected parent maltreated the child.

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