It’s a Monday morning. The door buzzes and a woman walks in, struggling as she carries a bulky, clear Rubbermaid bin. One of the clips keeping the box shut is barely clasped while the other is broken, leaving the left corner popping open.
It is brimming with documents from her divorce and her ordeal: records of court motions she and her ex-husband endured, emails back and forth from lawyers and a worn book called Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind. It is a paper trail that still elicits tears.
“I have four kids,” says Cindy, 50. She digs through her purse and pulls out a small photo album. She shows me a photo of four children, sitting together. “That’s what they looked like. And now they’re 23, 21, 19 and 15,” she says in a shaky voice, sniffling.
One mom’s story
Cindy, whose real name has been changed to protect her family, struggles every day with something called parental alienation. A byproduct of some divorces, it’s when one parent is literally alienated from his or her child due to badmouthing, disparaging and, as it’s referred to by some professionals, “poisoning” by the other parent.
It’s beyond your garden-variety ex-spouse snarkiness and, according to those who work in the divorce field, it happens more often than you’d think. These professionals familiar with parental alienation believe the adversarial nature of the court system contributes to the problem, pitting co-parents against one another and sending them through programs that often don’t work.
Somewhere in meeting with lawyers and dealing with the anger and sadness, maybe kids find themselves dragged to one side or another – either intentionally or unintentionally. And, unfortunately, it’s not easy to prove, prevent or see coming.
When Cindy’s then-husband filed for divorce in 2000, she was a stay-at-home mom parenting her three daughters and son, who at the time were 10, 8, 6 and 2 years old.
After the divorce, her ex would bribe the kids with no curfews or give them cell phones and, later, cars that they were not allowed to use to see or talk to her, she says. Eventually, they stopped driving with her to family holiday parties. And then they’d “play the mom is invisible game” when she’d come pick them up for her parenting time, often ignoring her knocking on the door. Once, she went to her daughter’s soccer game and her daughter freaked out and stopped playing because she was there.
One by one, Cindy’s children left her side. For more than a decade, she’s been battling with her ex-husband in court. Through all the he-said-she-said stories, motions in court and attempts to get more time with her children, Cindy was still left alone.
“All the things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see any of my girls get dressed for a dance, you know. I didn’t see my oldest daughter’s graduation from college,” she says. “I wasn’t part of her life because he made it so.”
Around 1985, Dr. Richard Gardner came up with the term “parental alienation syndrome” to describe what Amy Baker, Ph.D. summarizes as “a child’s unwarranted rejection of one parent in response to the attitudes and actions of the other parent” in a 2008 Social Work Today article.
Psychotherapist Robert Hack, a divorce mediator, parenting coordinator and divorce coach at Associates in Divorce in Bloomfield Hills, says “hostile aggressive parenting” is another term for it. He calls it “emotional child abuse after divorce.” But as John Langlois, president of Dads and Moms of Michigan, a nonprofit that advocates for children in what they call “bi-nuclear” families, adds, “it gets complex because even the word divorce isn’t right.” He points out, “You don’t have to have a marriage license to conceive a child.”
“The topic is so new that the industry as a whole is still arguing about what the nomenclature for it is going to be. It’s that infant.”
Regardless of the name, the actions are still the same. Hack says parents may do it consciously or subconsciously, and it usually happens in what’s called a “high-conflict” divorce. Some believe they’re doing a good thing for the child, thinking, “I have to let my child know how bad mommy is or daddy is.”
Some, though, see it as a way to hurt and punish their former spouse. Langlois, who conducts supervised parenting time and exchanges at Dads and Moms of Michigan, and Hack, as a parenting coordinator, deal with these issues firsthand. Langlois says he’s seen situations in which parents kept children from seeing the other parent – or felt their ex didn’t deserve to be around their children because of what occurred in the marriage.
“I’ve been in the court and I’ve watched a mother yell and scream at the Friend of the Court that the father lost all rights to the child when he filed for divorce. Believed it. And it’s just not true,” he says.
While this emotional abuse comes in levels ranging from mild to severe, it can have a huge impact on children either way. Kids often think their parents’ split is their fault. Furthermore, when pitted against mom or dad, it can affect their self esteem.
“What (parents) lose track of is the very key fundamental truth in that all children, throughout all time, were a product of both of their parents,” Langlois says. “So all children throughout all time have identified at some level with both of their biological parents.”
In ADEPT, or After Divorce: Effective Parenting Together, an eight-week educational program for co-parents in Oakland County, Hack, who is one of the facilitators, cautions parents against saying harmful things to children about their other parent “because you’re destroying half your kids,” he explains.
Over time, Hack says, kids may respond with extremes like dropping out of high school or getting into drugs. They’re also likely to face difficulty in future relationships due to their lack of knowledge on handling conflict.
“The whole thing is about education,” Langlois says. “The one thing all parents will agree on when they walk in is they want the best for their children.”
In Oakland County, when parents of children younger than 18 file for divorce, they meet with a Friend of the Court referee for an “early intervention conference” to discuss things such as custody and child support.
Immediately following, they’re sent to SMILE, or Start Making It Livable for Everyone – a required program through Friend of the Court designed to help the divorcees co-parent successfully. In Wayne County, divorcing parents are required to go to the Kids First program, and in Macomb both parents are required to attend SMILE before their judgment is entered. Macomb and Wayne don’t conduct early intervention conferences.
The SMILE program
Suzanne Hollyer, administrator of Friend of the Court in Oakland County, says that while the term parental alienation “is loaded in the field,” she says “we all agree that parents should not disparage one another, particularly in the presence of their children.” In the SMILE program, they “talk to parents about how much that hurts their children.”
The SMILE program, which is one hour-long session, is about “refocusing on children,” Hollyer says. Its mission is to show parents that rather than discouraging children from seeing their other parent, the “best gift” they can give their children during this time is “permission to love the other parent.”
So why is it that some of the parents who went through programs like SMILE end up in supervised parenting time with Langlois or in ADEPT with Hack?
Sometimes, the material from SMILE doesn’t stick. Langlois says it’s right to send all parents to SMILE, but because the program – at least in Oakland County -– is about 60 days after filing for divorce and is short, “it needs to continue.”
“(Parents) aren’t ready to hear it, and it’s the Reader’s Digest version,” he says. “I know people that I talk to five years later swear to me in Oakland County they never went to that, and I know for sure they did.”
Randall B. Pitler, attorney and mediator at Pitler Family Law and Mediation in Royal Oak, specializes in what’s called amicable or collaborative divorce. He says SMILE “is a good introduction” and a “good first step,” but he, too, suggests maybe it needs to be more frequent – or be taken sooner.
At his divorce practice, he involves mediators and mental health professionals early on before people get “dug in” and are “less likely to compromise.”
“I have this belief that most people, when they decide to get a divorce, their first thought (is) ‘I want to get through this, I want to kind of come to an agreement, I want to do what’s best for my family,'” he says, but, “then the next thought is, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go hire some pit-bull attorney’ – and that’s when things start. So to me, the earlier we can get them into some sort of mediation or a SMILE program or anything before they go down that road,” he says, the better.
The Friend of the Court has the ability to conduct investigations, rearrange parenting time and enforce custody orders. But Hollyer says that if problems persist in a family, she can send people back to SMILE for a “refresher.”
She also refers them to the ADEPT program. This private program costs around $295 per parent. Hollyer says the public probably wouldn’t support requiring parents to go through even more sessions or programs.
“I don’t think people would want us to be able to call up a parent and say, ‘I hear you’ve been talking bad about the other parent,'” she says, because the Friend of the Court is already involved in “very private family matters.”
Hollyer says the information is out there for parents who are ready to make the “difficult transition” into divorced life with children. But with mediation, she notes, “you have to have two willing parents.”
Court system woes
Some divorce professionals argue that certain aspects of the court system contribute to hostility, and in turn fuel parental alienation.
“Because they’re divorced now … the only way to punish the other parent is through the only vehicle they have, (which) is the court system,” Langlois says. He says often people will file motions to do this, “which in essence leads to emotional child abuse, because the children are caught in the middle of these conflicts.”
Pitler agrees. “Once they get in there, they just want to fight.
“The court system, from my point of view, is designed to basically get people into the process, to move them through, and to get them out,” Pitler adds. “It benefits the judges, because it gets cases off their docket; to a large extent it benefits the attorneys, because they gain financially. I don’t think it benefits the parties, the families, the children.”
Pitler says in an amicable divorce, he has all clients and lawyers meet to work out the divorce for as long as it takes. They “work at the pace of the parties” and get therapists – sometimes even for the child – involved.
“(The court system is) not set up to deal with family issues. It’s not set up to deal with children,” he says. “When parties have a conflict, they go to court, they get 10 minutes with a referee who’s going to make a recommendation, then they may get 10 minutes with the judge who’s going to make a decision.”
Pitler says the State Bar of Michigan doesn’t require any special certification to be a family lawyer – they just need to pass the bar.
“So what folks do when they decide to get divorced is they run to an attorney. Sometimes, they’ll pick an attorney that actually knows something about family law. Sometimes they will not,” Langlois explains. “But even if they pick a family law attorney, the likelihood that the person has anywhere close to the understanding of the emotional factors” is “very low.”
Pitler says that the court system almost encourages parental alienation.
“Our system is plaintiff versus defendant, and there’s the perception when somebody files for divorce or files for custody, it’s ‘me versus my spouse’ or ‘me versus the other parent,’ so people are gearing up for a fight,” he says. “It almost encourages behaviors that would have the child align themselves with that particular parent, so they can feel like they’re winning.”
However, Hollyer says the Michigan Supreme Court tested using “non-adversarial” language – i.e., in the matter of “the Smith family” instead of “plaintiff versus defendant” – and they didn’t find a significant decrease in conflict. Hollyer notes that a lot of people do end up in family court – and, she admits, “it is harsh and cold.”
“We have 54,000 cases,” she says. “But they’re real families … going through something devastating.”
That’s why Friend of the Court exists, and programs like SMILE and ADEPT are available, she says, to find the best way to help families in the system.
“I do this for a reason; I believe in it,” she says. “(Friend of the Court is) here, and we may make people angry, but I’d rather them have the ability to be angry at us, an agency, than to be angry at each other, which will spill over into parenting.”
Pitler believes “the people in the system want to do a better job.”
“Most of the people, in my experience – the judges, the referees, the family counselors – they want to do the best job possible, but they’re limited in time, they have a case load, (and) they have deadlines.”
How to stop
Stemming parental alienation means not involving your child in the argument at all – despite how challenging it may be.
“It’s keeping the focus on the kids, and that’s very difficult,” Pitler says. “It’s not putting your interest first. It’s putting the kids’ interest first and doing what’s best – and recognizing that the children need two parents.”
Pitler also says getting mental health professionals involved early on can “cut through” emotional issues.
“I emphasize that mom and dad have to be intimately involved with the kids,” Hack says. “If you have a problem with mom, you talk to mom, not through the kids. If you have a problem with dad, talk to dad, not through the kids. No notes go in their backpack.”
And try to recognize the good in your children being with their other parent.
“When the child is with the other parent, you want to encourage that. You want to speak positively about the other parent – you don’t want to undermine what the other parent is doing,” Pitler says.
If problems persist, Hack recommends going to ADEPT “before things fester and the kids really get destroyed.”
Although Hollyer says kids are “resilient” and “different age groups fair differently” in divorce, she encourages parents to love their child and put hatred for their exes aside.
“Just be the best parent you can throughout the process,” she says, “regardless of what the other parent is doing.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember how much divorce has an impact on children – even when you feel overwhelmed with anger caused by your former spouse.
“Even in the most amicable divorce where the parents are fully supportive and the parents are doing all the right things, the kids suffer,” Pitler says. “So if you take parents who aren’t doing all the right things, the kids have less of a chance.”
Toward the end of our Monday meeting, Cindy pulls out the small photo album from her purse again to show me a few more pictures.
“It just started like this – innocent, sweet,” she says through tears.
“I would never in a million years have dreamed that my family would have been torn apart like this.”
But she hasn’t given up on patching it back together in some way.
Her oldest daughter, now 23 and graduated from college, has intermittent contact with her. “She called me and said, ‘I feel like I woke up from a bad dream,'” Cindy says.
She still has not spoken with her third daughter in about five years, or her son in more than three years. But she recently had lunch with her second oldest child, now 21.
“Step by step,” she says, “I remain patient and confident that my children will find their ways back to me.”
Illustration by Meredith Miotke
This article was originally published in 2013 and is updated regularly.