Consider this hypothetical family. A mother is an exclusive caretaker for the children. The father exhibits little interest in them. He is a domestic tyrant mistreating both the children and their mother on nearly a daily basis. He invests nothing in the relationship with the children and all interaction is negative. Finally mom has enough and files a divorce. The children refuse to see their father. As a result, dad accuses her of parental alientation and seeks custody.
Whether parental alientation is a clinical pathology or not, the fact remains that in some divorce cases, children refuse to have a relationship with one of their parents. Unfortunately, a new dynamic has taken hold in family court. The search for a lasting remedy is being disregarded in favor of the aggrieved parent’s exploitation of the tragedy to obtain custody.
Nobody can blame a father for being angry when his child refuses to see him, especially when the mother takes no pains to hide her animosity towards him. But is he blameless if he never invested the time and effort in the relationship with the child prior to the divorce? Or, even worse, what if he was emotionally or physically abusive to the child?
Lex Familia’s experience is that children who have a good relationship with a parent prior to the divorce do not become alienated after the divorce. This is not to excuse the reprehensible conduct of a parent so distraught by her own grief and anger that she tries to hurt dad through an overt campaign to destroy his relationship with the child. But prevention is the best cure. Parents who have a firm bond prior to the divorce are rarely marginalized after the divorce.
Courts need to sensitize themselves to the incredible complexity of these situations. Coercion is not the solution, nor is automatic placement of the child with the alienated parent. The conclusion that mom assumes all the blame if the children won’t see dad is naive and simplistic. This is especially absurd if dad never established a meaningful relationship when he was living with the children.
People in divorce cases are often mercenary and will exploit even their own children to gain an advantage–real or imagined. Courts should realize that things are frequently not as they appear. A simplistic formulaic transfer of custody will not remedy this complicated problem. Unfortunately, too many custody cases are about avoiding child support rather than quality parenting. In family court, there needs to be less emphasis on blame and more emphasis on solutions. Just as most states rejected fault in divorce cases, family courts should not become preoccupied with determining fault if a child becomes alientated. Instead, courts should consider this thorny issue with patience and wisdom, acting as a healer, not an executioner.