The American Psychiatric Association (APA) maintains a manual listing all of the recognized mental health disorders in a publication known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This manual is commonly referred to as the “DSM” and the APA is getting ready to publish its fifth edition. The manual will be known as “DSM-5”.
One of the largest debates facing the APA task force charged with updating the DSM was whether to include Parental Alienation Syndrome as a recognized mental health disorder. Those individuals involved in a family law dispute may have come in contact with a situation where a parent is perceived as actively taking steps to cause an estrangement between a child and the other parent. This activity is commonly known as Parental Alienation Syndrome and it can be, if proven, a powerful tool in determining the scope of parenting plans in custody disputes.
The decision by the APA is not without controversy. One the one hand, a significant and serious group of individuals and associations advocated that inclusion of Parental Alienation Syndrome in the DSM-5 would provide fairness in a system designed to develop parenting plans and visitation schedules. These advocates believed that official recognition of the disorder would assist judges and practitioners in being able to identify parents whose behavior was harming the child by alienating that child from the other parent.
Opponents of inclusion questioned whether recognizing Parental Alienation Syndrome as a mental health disorder was merely going to be a windfall for psychologists and other experts who could be expected to generate revenues from consulting on the syndrome either in or out of Court.
Women’s groups in general advocated against inclusion of Parental Alienation Syndrome into the DSM-5 as most found the science both unproven as well as a tool that could be abused by parents who were trying to justify behavior towards a child that was outside of societal norms.
Regardless of its inclusion in the DSM-5, there are clearly situations where one parent is actively trying to reduce the value of the other parent in the child’s eyes. The child is the one human being in the equation who is almost certain to be harmed by such behavior. However, family law practitioners and individuals experiencing Parental Alienation Syndrome in their relationship should take heart in the notion that Judges are very attuned to activities of parents designed to negatively impress a child relative to the other parent. It is generally not required that an expert come into Court and explain Parental Alienation Syndrome to the Judge. The Judge is usually an experienced individual and very often a parent. Factual presentations of actual events and the impact of such events on the child can demonstrate Parental Alienation Syndrome sufficiently without an expert and without inclusion in the DSM-5 so as to permit a Judge to fashion a parenting plan that takes into account the harmful impact of alienation.
In our experience, it is not the label that is placed on activity that controls the outcome of contested custody disputes. Rather, a close and carefully presented evidentiary plan will demonstrate that a parent is actively interfering in the relationship between a child and the other parent.
Finally, one should not discount the potential that there are times during a child’s development that the child simply prefers not to be around another parent for reasons unconnected with parental alienation. The awareness of children to the acrimony surrounding them during a divorce can just as easily sway a child away from one parent as can active attempts at alienation. A child’s unwillingness to be around a parent must be explored to determine if alienation is occurring or if the problem is the result of a not unnatural reaction to the divorce process itself.