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Family Wars (PAS) — Intervention in Alienation Systems

    VI. Intervention in Alienation Systems

    1. Prevention

      A. Education

      In the ideal cooperative divorce, there is little or no alienation occurring.  Parents recognize the difference between their own needs and the needs of their children.  They fully believe that their children have needed both parents throughout the marriage and will continue to need them after the divorce.  Each parent values the role that the other parent can play in the lives of the children and the different interests and talents the other has to offer the children.  There is no motivation for alienation because of the value attributed to the other parent. 

      This ideal is infrequently realized in real life because divorce is such an intense change of role, life stage and life style for almost all who go through it.  Participants need as much education, support and information as possible to help mitigate the harms that result from high conflict divorce. 

      Certain counties, court systems and other governmental entities are requiring all parents of children involved in a divorce to attend an educational program designed to help them understand the impact of the divorce process on themselves and their children and to recognize the value to children of having both parents involved.  The parents are educated as to the typical stages in divorce and child development and the impact they can anticipate their divorce having on their children.  The studies of the long term effects of divorce and the usual problems that occur are discussed.  These programs are designed to be preventative of the kinds of problems that commonly arise when parents do not understand the psychological and emotional consequences their divorce has upon themselves and their children.[7]

      Other states require mandatory mediation prior to a court trial as a way of avoiding litigation.  Mediation advocates believe that mediation is more successful than the courts at avoiding future litigation.[8]

      While there have been no studies as to the effectiveness of these programs in preventing or ameliorating alienation, in one such program the participants themselves have reported great satisfaction with the program and have recommended that it be expanded.[9]

      B. Attorneys

      Attorneys and therapists are the front line professionals in most custody battles.  They, too, have an obligation to educate their clients that divorce involves anger, rage, upset, distress, loyalty binds, and kids and parents who manipulate each other in crisis.  The clients must be helped to understand the normality of these themes and to learn the strategies for controlling them and outgrowing them.  Alternatives to intense battles must be explored. 

      It is the duty of the attorney to advocate for her client.  Good representation will include assessing the family system clearly from the client's point of view, and to advocate for that client's interests zealously.  However, we believe that such zealous advocacy must occur in the context of the client's long term interests as a member of a restructuring family system.  Whatever the outcome of the immediate litigation, the client will remain in the family system with contact and relationship with all other members of the family system for the rest of his or her life.  Long after the lawyers are gone, the client will live with the effects of the positions taken and the statements made in litigation.  The client may later regret the vitriol and the permanency of the damage done by a high conflict divorce. 

      It is the attorney's job to help the client through the immediacy of the pain and the rage and to help the client see the long term view of involved family relations. 

      Attorneys must also be acutely cognizant of the divorce impasse system itself and the important part they play in it.  Maligning the other spouse, requiring the client to have no further contact with the spouse, prohibiting any temporary agreements or a temporary separation can interfere with a real resolution of the conflict.  Zealous advocacy is a poor excuse for actually damaging a client's long term familial relations. 

      Alienation cases present the greatest difficulty for attorneys.  In the advocacy role, an attorney is bound to allow the client to define the goal of the representation and to advance that position zealously.[10]  An attorney is also bound not to bring or defend frivolous actions.[11]  We believe that actions harmful to children could fall under that prohibition.[12]

      If alienation is in progress, accepting at face value all derogatory comments about the opposing party will ill serve both the client and the attorney, as the client's judgment is emotionally tainted.  It is incumbent on the attorney to sufficiently explore with the client his motivation and the reality basis of his beliefs before litigation is undertaken.  Careful and thoughtful exploration with the client about the good times in the marriage and the positive parenting traits of the other side will give the attorney much information about both parties, and will tell the attorney just how balanced a view the client holds. 

      We believe that under no circumstances should an attorney encourage a client to gain information about the opposing party from a child.  Nor should an attorney interview a child even if the child is unrepresented. [13]  The willingness of a client to directly involve a child in the litigation should be a red flag that the parent may well be using a child to further her own agenda, even if the child is apparently acquiescent. 

      It is crucial to note, however, that we are describing cases where alienation exists, and other forms of abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse, do not.  If abuse is honestly suspected, safety of the spouse or children becomes paramount and full evaluation by a competent professional is a necessity. 

      C. Courts

      Courts must recognize the initial seeds of alienation and seek information    about family structure to examine the degree of risk in the family:  Are the adults using or manipulating the children in furtherance of their own emotional needs? Are the children vulnerable to alienation? 

      All children can be enlisted into the battle, but, generally speaking, the children who are most vulnerable may be overly dependent, fearful and passive.  These children may express guilt feelings about their parents' divorce, identify with or play the rescuer of the alienating parent, assume caretaking roles of a parent, and/or feel conditionally loved. The more vulnerable children pick up and resonate with the parental feelings.  Generally, the children will have little insight into their situation. 

      The factors that identify families where alienation is less likely are: abundant positive contact between both parents and the children; sibling groups who all have good relations with both parents; good relations of the children with family and friends of both parents; free communication to the child by others of the good qualities of both parents; lack of defensiveness on the part of each parent as to the emotions, statements and criticisms of the other; ability of each parent to discuss schedules and parenting concerns with the other parent; ability of each parent to accommodate the schedules and desires of the other. 

      Many high conflict families view the court as determining not only custody and visitation, but also making judgments about the right and wrong, good and bad parenting.  Court is seen as a place where one person is judged to  be fit, and the other unfit.  The court can help ameliorate this unfortunate scenario by making explicit the legal and pragmatic grounds for a decision.  If appropriate, the court can declare neutrality on personal and moral issues that do not expose a child to harm. Compassionate communication that does not further the anger, loss, shame and humiliation in this public forum can be immensely healing. 

      Next …

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