The State of Parental Alienation Case Law

Parental alienation influences many children of divorced parents. In parental alienation cases, one parent manipulates the child into rejecting the other parent. The resulting condition of this emotional and mental abuse is parental alienation syndrome (PAS), which can manifest in children by causing behavioral issues, psychological trauma, and other negative characteristics.

Parental alienation and PAS directly conflict with custody and parental visitation rights, which cause them to be crucial concerns in divorce courts. There are a number of significant case law rulings surrounding the topics of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome. These, as well as their excerpts, are discussed below. 

Early Stages of Parental Alienation Case Law 

A number of parental alienation cases rose in the United States shortly after the term “parental alienation syndrome” was coined in 1985. Although most of the cases did not use the term as a reason for custody decisions, the manipulation of one parent upon the children and the resulting negative behaviors were often cited. Some of these included:

  • 1991 Supreme Court of Florida, Schutz v. Schutz. In this groundbreaking case, the court ruled that a wife could no longer legally speak badly about her husband to her children. They determined that this kind of order did not breach the right of the parents to free speech as ensured in the First Amendment:

“Therefore, not only is the incidental burden placed on her right of free expression essential to the furtherance of the state’s interests as expressed in chapter 61, but also it is necessary to protect the rights of the children and their father to the meaningful relationship that the order seeks to restore…construing the order as we do, we find no abuse of discretion by the trial court, nor impermissible burden on the petitioner’s first amendment rights.”

  • 1996 District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fifth District, Tucker v. Greenberg. This court ruled that alienation on the part of a parent was harmful to the child’s health. In language reminiscent of that used to prove parental alienation syndrome, the court stated: 

“The Former Wife’s interference with the Former Husband’s visitation and access to his children, in addition to her negative parenting decisions over the years have had negative impact on the children’s behavior at school; their level of self-assurance and their feelings towards their father.”

  • 1997 Indiana State Appellate Court case, Hanson v. Spolnik. In this successful appeal, attorneys cited the need to reconsider divorce terms based upon “whether one parent’s animosity and conduct towards another may justify the modification of a joint child custody arrangement.”

While the cases cited above are relatively straightforward, there have been cases where both parents participated in the alienating behaviors, causing negative consequences in their children’s lives. In the 2000 Michigan State Appellate Court case Spenceley v. Spenceley, the court ruled that both parents were actively counteracting with the child’s best interests due to their alienation tactics. The court in this case ruled that neither parent would receive custody of the child, and they would instead be charged with serious child abuse crimes. 

Recent U.S. Court Decisions in Parental Alienation Cases

More recently, courts have been taking active stances against parental alienation and its resulting consequences such as PAS. While there is still debate over the parameters of parental alienation, its burden of proof, and the parental alienation syndrome it causes, there is a substantial amount of case law that supports these topics.

In the 2011 case Matter of Bond v. MacLeod, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court decided that the family court properly observed that the children’s wishes are not influential even though the desires of the children concerning visitation ought to be regarded. The appellate court specified that it thought some extent of parental alienation of the father had transpired. As such, it realized that ending the mother’s visitation would help the best interests of the child.  This case is another in a string implying that courts are starting to comprehend the intricate undercurrents of parental alienation. As alienated parents realize, the refusal of the children to obey the parenting schedule ordered by the court can be a challenging hurdle to conquer. 

In the 2011 New Hampshire State Supreme Court case Matter of James J. Miller and Janet S. Todd, the court cited the Vermont State Supreme Court by stating that even though clearly well-intended, the ruling of the court successfully disregarded a parent’s deliberate isolation of a child from the other parent. According to this court, the lower court’s decision conveyed the deplorable message that others may, with liberty, take part in analogous misbehavior. The court also stated that if permitted to be intact, the lower court’s ruling would invalidate the belief that the child’s best interests are broadened by means of a strong and caring relationship with both parents. 

This case even quoted constructively a judgment from a Vermont case, which was stated as follows:

Across the United States, the tremendous authoritative weight views that one parent’s behavior that is inclined to isolate the affections of the child from the other is so detrimental to the child’s wellbeing as to be the bases for a refusal of custody to, or a modification of custody from, the parent who is culpable of such behavior.”

In addition, the court cited its judgment in a previous New Hampshire case, which stated the following:

“The hindrance by a custodial parent of visitation between a child and the noncustodial parent might, if incessant, represent conduct so contradictory with the best interest of the child as to produce a potent likelihood that the child will be hurt.”

In the 2015 case Matter of Robert Coull v. Pamela Rottman, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court had suspended child support based on a trial court’s decision of a parent’s isolating actions. The court recognized that the mother’s alienating pattern kept the father from visiting his son, and ordered child support to be put on hold. The ruling explicitly avoided characterizing the pattern as a psychological diagnosis. 

This characterization of parental alienation – as a pattern rather than a psychological diagnosis – permits a court to establish its ruling on recognized psychological notions and diagnoses without mentioning the proactive and possibly incendiary notion of PAS. New York has adhered to this method, with a court describing:

“PAS, basically disdained as ‘junk science,’ is not normally recognized in the scientific community, as it is not an accepted word or diagnosis in the psychiatric field and no New York court has permitted the admittance of testimony regarding PAS…”

Despite their avoidance of characterizing consequences of parental alienation like PAS, New York and other courts have accepted parental alienation itself as a notion. Many have made rulings based on the definition of parental alienation as a parent’s active meddling with or hindrance of a noncustodial parent’s moderate right of access to the child. As the definition continues to grow, it is likely more rulings will be made to combat parental alienation.

Conclusion

Courts have recognized that parental alienation is a serious issue regarding child custody. They are completely aware that it is extremely harmful to the child’s best interests. As a result, courts are seeing that it is in breach of this standard and are not allowing it. Cases like the ones mentioned above are becoming more frequent in the U.S. family court system. Courts are becoming more observant when examining the alienating parent’s behavior and the negative consequences this behavior has on children, such as PAS.