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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

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September 14,2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

No effort to convince readers that, against all the evidence, family courts are biased against mothers would be complete without eliding the differences between Parental Alienation Syndrome and parental alienation.  And Natalie Pattillo’s piece in the New York Review of Books doesn’t disappoint. 

The reason for doing so is to tar the concept of PA with the name Richard Gardner.  He’s long dead and therefore presents no risk of a libel or defamation suit and so is fair game.  Pattillo introduces the term “parental alienation” and, just one sentence later pretends that it’s the same as PAS.

And no such article would be complete without misrepresenting what PA and PAS actually are.  Again, following the script closely, Pattillo does the same.

“Parental Alienation Syndrome,” a widely rejected theory coined by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner, asserts that a child who is traumatized by communication and/or visits with an abusive parent is only reacting that way because the other parent, who he claimed is often a vengeful mother, brainwashed or “alienated” the child to dislike the abusive parent.

No, actually the definition of either term, PA or PAS, has nothing to do with children responding appropriately to abuse by a parent.  On the contrary, both terms refer to children’s inappropriate rejection of a parent due to the alienating efforts by the other parent.  It’s a simple concept and one that’s observed fairly frequently, particularly in divorce cases or their aftermath.  The simple truth is that some parents use alienating tactics in an effort to marginalize the other parent in the life of the child.

The anti-Dad crowd, of which Pattillo appears to be a card-carrying member, hates the idea that courts and mental health professionals more and more acknowledge both the reality and the deleterious effects of PA on children.  Not only that, they increasingly take steps to rectify alienation of children.  The reason Pattillo and her fellow travelers hate the idea is that they see it as depriving mothers of power over children and fathers and, as far as that goes, they’re right.

But what they miss is that fathers can be alienators too.  If courts were to follow the dictates of those who oppose recognition of PA, fathers would be able to remove mothers from the lives of their kids as readily as vice versa.  Setting aside the fact that parental alienation is a clear form of child abuse, is that what they really want?  It seems unlikely, but the obvious result of their campaign would be exactly that.

Make no mistake about it, the opposition to recognition of PA wants no evidence thereof to be admissible in court.

Guidelines from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), a judicial membership organization that aims to provide guidance to judges and court officials on cases involving domestic violence, advise that any “parental alienation” claims should be ruled inadmissible. 

I can’t imagine on what they base their claim that evidence of PA should be inadmissible in court.  After all, on one hand the anti-Dad crowd talks of little but domestic violence and child abuse, both of which are relevant to child custody issues, but then turns around and wants evidence of one particular (and particularly damaging) form of child abuse ignored altogether.  It doesn’t make sense, but there it is.

Finally, Pattillo stoops so low as to cite a laughably bad – what to call it?  Paper?  Assertion?  Myth? – by Joyanna Silberg.  She does so, as she does with essentially everything she cites or quotes, because Silberg agrees with her take on fathers, domestic violence and child custody.  Now, sensibly, Pattillo nowhere mentions Silberg’s name.  That’s sensible because Silberg is well known as an advocate for mothers who claim abuse or DV by fathers.  She’s a licensed psychologist, but neutral or balanced, she’s anything but.  Despite her paper credentials, Silberg’s opinions are routinely ignored by judges or ruled inadmissible due to her plain bias.  Here are a few words from a trial judge in the 2017 Maryland case of Holt v. Holt:

I need to say something about Dr. Silberg. I’m going to say not as much as I’d like to say. First, I don’t believe her. I disbelieve her testimony. She clearly came to this case with a view. She clearly, respectfully was wearing a jersey. She did not approach this case, in my judgment, scientifically or clinically. She presented, in my opinion, as a cheerleader. There were tremendous analytical gaps in her testimony. While she is certainly qualified on paper, in this case her opinion in my judgment lacks any credible or adequate factual basis…

She waved off anything that didn’t fit with her hypothesis. She disregarded facts that were clearly contrary to hypothesis. I don’t believe her to be blunt. I don’t believe her. She had no factual basis which I credit. She did not employ methodology which to my mind was sound. This was the case of Walt. She gave me a couple, three I told you so opinions, which as Judge Moylan said, are not worth anything. So I give her opinion zero weight. 

This is not atypical of Silberg’s reception in court.  She’s biased from start to finish, ignores facts that conflict with her pre-made opinion, does not approach the matter as a scientist and her opinion merits “zero weight.”

Not to Pattillo who cites a piece cobbled together by Silberg for the sole purpose to which Pattillo puts it.  The piece is, like Silberg’s courtroom testimony, asserted for a purpose – to convince the unwary or the credulous that there is an epidemic of judges giving primary custody to child abusers.  Specifically, Silberg purports to “find” that some 58,500 such children are delivered into the hands of their abusive parents by family courts every year.

That’s an impressive number, but is it valid?  Who knows?  Certainly Silberg’s “methodology” is so plainly shoddy, so obviously used only to arrive at the pre-conceived conclusion, that the piece is useless.  Put simply, no one - not me, not Joyanna Silberg, nor anyone else - knows how many allegations of DV or child abuse are made in family courts each year, how many of them are meritorious or how many of them result in the abuser receiving custody.  The reason we don’t know those things is that no one keeps records of them.  So Silberg’s conclusion is based entirely on supposition that, I hardly need add, is made for her own unscrupulous ends.

Pattillo’s article is a disgrace.  The New York Review of Books should have the self-respect, and the respect for its readers, to take it down.

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