"PARENTAL ALIENATION" at the 2010 AFCC Conference

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