Parental alienation syndrome (PAS), a term that originated in the mid-1980s,
refers to a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with viewing one
parent as all good and the other parent as all bad. Conscious or unconscious
words and actions of custodial parents cause the child(ren) to align with them
in rejection of noncustodial parents during divorce or custody disputes. Issues
of concern for mediators include detection of PAS and an understanding of
appropriate remedial plans that will allow the child to restore his or her
relationship with the noncustodial parent.
An area of growing demand and concern for family mediators is in the minefields
of child custody litigation. With no-fault divorce, and a standard for
determining custody in light of the child's best interests, judges are besieged
with a backlog of disputed custody cases without clear and concrete guidelines
to follow in deciding whether to favor the mother or the father. Many experts in
family law--from both the legal and mental health arenas--have observed an
increase in deceptive and manipulative tactics used by divorcing couples. This
article looks at parental alienation syndrome (PAS), which is a complex
manifestation of mental and emotional abuse resulting from conflicted parents
fighting for custody. Recommendations are given for a model that could be
employed by family mediators to ensure that families suffering from PAS receive
prompt and effective intervention.
MEDIATION IN CHILD CUSTODY DISPUTES--HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
The surge in divorce rates during the past two decades, along with major judicial
reforms since the 1970s, has led to several significant changes in the
*488 ways that courts handle family law cases. Divorce and custody laws have
been widely revised by states, and alternatives to litigation have emerged and
gained prominence. Mediation has become a popular option, and in many states,
mediation is mandatory for divorcing couples. Judicial systems in California,
Minnesota, and Wisconsin were early experimenters with the concept of
conciliation courts, where parents were encouraged to work out divorce and
custody conflicts. In the past two decades, many states have introduced
mandatory mediation of contested child custody.
There has been research that supports mediation as a positive intervention in
custody disputes. Studies of custody cases in several large cities report that
over one half (between 50% and 90%) of the cases are settled through mediation
(Atkinson 1996). A large empirical evaluation of mediation services in three
court-based programs showed generally high levels of user satisfaction according
to the researchers (Pearson and Thoennes 1986). Both the Denver Mediation
Project of the early 1980s and a study conducted in Toronto found mediation to
be successful in keeping divorcing families out of court. The Toronto study
compared couples that mediated custody with those that litigated without
mediation; only 10% of mediated couples returned to the courtroom after 2 years
with problems related to custody or visitation, whereas 26% of the nonmediated
couples were back in court within 2 years (Herman 1990). These studies of
divorcing couples did not focus exclusively on "high-conflict" divorce
Herman (1990) challenges the suitability of mediation in some custody disputes.
He asserts that the assumption that mediation will deter the bitterness,
disappointment, and anger of divorcing couples andlead them toward cooperation,
understanding, and tolerance has not been documented. "Even a highly skilled
mediator cannot compensate for the sharp differences in sophistication and power
that often exist between divorcing spouses" (p. 56). The issue of mandatory
mediation of child custody cases has some outspoken critics. Carol Bruch,
professor of family law at the University of California at Davis, publicly
testified before the New York state legislature about her concerns that children
are not best represented in mediation and women are often at a distinct
disadvantage. She observes that there is no research evidence to support a claim
that children whose parents mediate custody settlements do better than children
of litigating parents. Furthermore, she points to her own experience with family
law attorneys and mediators to support her assertion that the husband and his
views are accorded more respect than the wife and her views (Herman 1990).
These conflicting viewpoints with regard to the pros and cons of mediation in
child custody disputes indicate a need for additional research.
*489 PAS AND CUSTODY DISPUTES
The foregoing section reviewed the historical context of mediation in child
custody disputes and some of the research findings, both pro and con, relative
to the suitability of mediation in custody cases. There are concerns that
mediation may not work to the advantage of everyone concerned in all cases of
contested custody. "In most divorce cases where there is animosity and conflict
between the parents, there is some degree of brainwashing and programming (of
children)" (Clawar and Rivlin 1991, 9). This brainwashing and programming may be
relatively mild or it may be quite severe. It may be conscious or unconscious on
the part of the parent(s). The parent's conscious or unconscious disparaging of
the separated spouse often leads to the phenomenon of PAS.
PAS refers to a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with viewing one
parent as all good and the other parent as all bad. The bad parent is hated and
verbally maligned, whereas the good parent is loved and idealized. Another
hallmark of PAS is the false charging of child abuse, which comes about when one
parent is intent upon driving away the other parent (Carper, et al. 1995). Cases
in which PAS is suspected require a diagnosis from a mental health expert prior
to being referred for mediation.
Forensic psychologist Dr. Richard Gardner originated the term PAS in the mid-
1980s; however, the phenomenon was described in an earlier work by Wallerstein
and Kelly (1980). They characterize an "alignment with one parent" that is a
"divorce-specific relationship that occurs when a parent and one or more
children join in a vigourous attack on the other parent" (p. 77). In parental
alienation, one parent who has previously had a good relationship with the child
becomes the object of hate and degradation by the child due to conscious or
unconscious brainwashing by the other parent. Gardner (1992) claims that
between 80% and 90% of all custody cases exhibit some form of PAS from mild to moderate
to severe symptoms. This claim has not been supported by research, and many
experts in the field feel it is an exaggeration of the proportions of the
problem. Gardner, however, includes cases that he feels are relatively mild;
these very mild cases will improve as soon as the custody decision has been
made, according to Gardner. The issue of concern for mediators and court
officials is that they may have difficulty recognizing PAS and could easily
assume the "rejected" parent is indeed a poor parent and merits the child's
rejection when in fact researchers have shown the opposite is true.
Manifestations of PAS in children consist of eight elements described by Gardner
(1992) (see Table 1).
Common Characteristics of Children With
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
PAS Trait Description of Behavior
A campaign of The child is obsessed with hatred of a parent. This
denigration denigration by the child often has the quality of a
Weak, frivolous, or The child provides irrational and often ludicrous
absurd justifications for not wanting to be near the hated
Lack of ambivalence All human relationships, including parent-child
relationships, are ambivalent. In PAS, the children
have no mixed feelings. The hated parent is all bad,
and the loved parent is all good.
The "independent Many children proudly state that their decision to reject
thinker" the other parent is completely their own; they deny any
phenomenon contribution by the custodial parent.
Reflexive support of Commonly, the children will accept as 100% valid the
the loved parent allegations of the loved parent against the hated one,
in parental even after seeing evidence that the loved parent was
Absence of guilt The child shows total disregard for the hated parent's
The presence of There is a rehearsed quality to the scenarios, and they
borrowed scenarios often use language or phrases that are not commonly
used by the child.
Spread of the The child rejects the network of relatives that
animosity to the previously provided numerous and important
extended family of psychological gratifications.
he hated parent
*490 Walsh and Bone (1997) refer to parents as the "alienating parent" and the
"target parent." Another terminology, used by Johnston and Roseby (1997), is
"aligned parent" and "rejected parent." Typically, the aligned parent has an
agenda for turning the child against the other parent. The motive may include
revenge, guilt, fear of loss of the child or loss of the role of primary parent,
or the desire to have control or ownership over the child. The aligned parent
may be jealous of the other parent, or desire to obtain leverage in the divorce
settlement relative to property distribution, child support, or alimony. It may
be that the aligned parent suffers from a past history of abandonment,
alienation, physical or sexual abuse, or even loss of identity (Walsh and Bone
1997). These motives lead him or her to program the child to deny love for, or
even deny the existence of, the target parent.
*491 Johnston and Roseby (1997) offer a more sympathetic portrayal, describing
the aligned parent as one who feels rejected, sad, and afraid of being alone as
a result of an unwanted divorce. "Consequently these vulnerable people can
become acutely or chronically distressed ... and turn to their children for
nurturance and companionship, as allies against the world and salve for their
wounded self-esteem" (p. 198). He or she may project all the blame onto the
divorcing spouse and view him or her as an incompetent parent. These parents
feel self-righteous and compelled to protect their children from the other
The rejected parent becomes the victim of false allegations and may feel
frustrated and bewildered over the changes in the childs's behavior. Although
the allegations are grossly distorted, perhaps to the point of being obviously
fabricated, nevertheless the child and the aligned parent appear to deeply
believe them (Walsh and Bone 1997). Most PAS researchers have described the
rejected parents as passive victims of the other parents' vengeful rage; Johnston
and Roseby (1997) depart from this view and characterize rejected
parents as "often rather inept and unempathic with their youngsters" (p. 199).
Based on their observations, the rejected parent may contribute to the continued
alienation by a combination of counterhostility and dogged pursuit of the child
with telephone calls, letters, and appearances at the child's activities. The
argument that a rejected parent should not pursue the relationship may be in
contradiction to conclusions made by Clawar and Rivlin (1991) in their 12-year
study of 700 PAS cases. They concluded that it may prolong the alienation if a
rejected parent loses contact. The longer there is little or no contact between
a parent and a child, the more difficult the impact will be to overcome.
In their study of 16 PAS cases, Dunne and Hedrick (1994) found that PAS does not
necessarily signify dysfunction in either the rejected parent or in the
relationship between the child and rejected parent. Instead, they argue that PAS
appears to be attributable to the pathology of the aligned parent and the
unhealthy relationship between the aligned parent and the child. All of the
aligned parents in their study experienced intense feelings of dysphoria, which
were blamed on the former spouse; in addition, the aligned parents predominantly
experienced intense narcissistic injuries. Clawar and Rivlin (1991) determined
that brainwashing and programming are intensified the more the rejected parent
succeeds in life after the separation (financial success, new and happy
The child is the most seriously affected victim of PAS. In her study of
self-concept of children of divorce, Stoner-Moskowitz (1998) concluded that when
the relationship with the rejected parent is abruptly halted, the child's
emotional development is stunted. The aligned parent's programming creates *492
confusion in the child as a result of internalizing distorted beliefs and perceptions.
In an extensive longitudinal study, 40% of the children developed
self-hatred and guilt because they were used as an ally in the war against the
rejected parent (Clawar and Rivlin 1991). Often, the family has been torn by
extremely divergent parenting styles and perhaps a history of parental conflict.
Beneath their anger and challenging behavior is a pathetic longing for the
rejected parent. "The children want to be rescued from their intolerable
dilemma" (Johnston and Roseby 1997, 199).
ISSUES IN MEDIATOR QUALIFICATIONS FOR PAS CASES
When these types of cases are referred to mandatory court mediation, the
scenarios can be quite difficult for a mediator to sort out. The child and
aligned parent will appear to have a very close and loving bond, whereas the
other parent (unknowingly) is accused of a long list of horrifying behaviors,
which often includes quite credible, although fabricated and false, accusations
of child abuse (Gardner 1992).
There are several issues of mediator competence that need to be examined. First,
the question of detection of PAS presents itself as a dilemma for mediators who
are not trained in mental health diagnostic procedures. Second, once PAS is
suspected, detected, or diagnosed, should mediation proceed and, if so, under
what circumstances? The education, training, and skills of the mediator
obviously come into play when dealing with the highly deceptive and manipulative
tactics of parents who have succeeded in programming their children. Mediators
need training to understand and recognize the underlying motives for a parent's
refusal to promote accessibility between the child and the other parent. Some
motives could be an avenging spouse who wants to punish or get even with the
spouse who left him or her; the narcissist who regards custody as a way to prove
his or her self-worth to the world after a failed marriage; or a lonely parent
who seeks to control the children for fear of losing them, or from a need for
emotional support from the children(Warshack 1992).
When divorcing couples voluntarily participate in mediation, there may be an
assumption of their willingness to cooperate on a settlement for everyone's best
interests. It may be that PAS families come to mediation not voluntarily but
rather as part of a court-ordered or mandatory mediation process. Unfortunately,
if one of the parents is unreasonable or uncooperative, the mediation effort can
easily be sabotaged (Turkat 1994).
There is a need for training to teach mediators how to detect and deal with PAS
families; again, there is no research to date indicating that family mediators
*493 are trained in PAS. A thorough literature review for this article showed no
such training procedures reported at the time of this writing, although there
are several researchers who call for training to help all family intervenors
deal effectively with brainwashing, programming, and alienation tactics by separated
parents (Cartwright 1993; Clawar and Rivlin 1991; Dunne and Hedrick
1994; Gardner 1992; Hysjulien, Wood, and Benjamin 1994; Lund 1995; Turkat 1994;
Walsh and Bone 1997). In their 1994 review of methods for child custody
evaluation used in litigation and alternate dispute resolution, Hysjulien, Wood,
and Benjamin (1994, 485) concluded that models for training competent evaluators
or for educating attorneys and the judiciary about custody evaluation issues are
ETHICAL ISSUES FOR MEDIATORS DEALING WITH PAS
It is well documented in the literature on mediation that many perceive a
successful mediation as one that produces an agreement (Umbreit 1995). Couple
this success indicator with a growing trend for courts to encourage joint legal
custody, and a mediator who is not aware of PAS could inadvertently cause
negative consequences by attempting an agreement for joint custody. Joint or
shared custody normally requires a very high degree of parental cooperation.
When an inflexible parent encourages the child to have nothing to do with the
other parent, he or she may not be capable of such cooperation. Research has
shown that the best predictor that children will adjust well to their parents'
divorce is a low level of parental conflict (Regehr 1994). Unfortunately, joint
custody in cases of parental alienation may enhance parent conflict, making the
situation worse for the children. There are varying degrees of severity of PAS,
and in severe cases the PAS dynamic may be so toxic that a relationship with
both parents may not be possible, nor will it be in the child's best interests
(Dunne and Hedrick 1994).
Mediators and other professionals who work with the divorcing population need to
be aware of the symptoms of PAS and the difficulties that these cases present. A
failure to properly identify and intervene in the early stages of PAS cases may
result in the aligned parent being given professional support, thus reinforcing the
child's need to maintain or expand complaints about the rejected parent
(Dunne and Hedrick 1994). Saposnek (1998) recommends that mediators in these
cases first determine the extent of alienation, putting the child on a continuum
of (1) equal attachment, (2) affinity with one parent, (3) alignment with one
parent, and (4) alienated from one parent. The continuum was obtained from
training materials for seminars on parental alienation developed by Joan B.
Kelly (Figure 1). For children who are pathologically*494
No Preference Ambivalent
Preference Children Unambivalent Preference
EQUAL AFFINITY ALIGNMENT
Attachment for one with one
parent from one parent
Realistically Aligned or
SOURCE: Developed by Joan B.
Kelly, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission.
alienated, an intensive therapeutic approach is necessary; without it, efforts
at mediation are likely to fail (Saposnek 1998). Gardner (1992) suggests that
professionals need to understand the therapeutic interventions necessary to
treat and alleviate symptoms of PAS before any custody or visitation arrangement
can succeed. PAS should be assessed from the perspective of how much the
programming process is influencing the child, not on the basis of the aligned
parent's attempts to program (Gardner 1998).
Another major ethical dilemma for a neutral mediator is how to deal with the
dishonesty, deception, and unwillingness to cooperate on the part of an aligned
parent. These parents can be very skillful at convincing the mediator of their
sincerity and create a bias that could be harmful for the rejected parent and
the child. Any agreement produced without mental health intervention for the
family may only serve to prolong the PAS. In their study of over 700 cases of
children who were brainwashed and/or programmed by one parent to hate the other
parent, Clawar and Rivlin (1991) conclude that most parents who brainwashed or
programmed their children extensively were "poor candidates for re-education and
counseling. They were largely 'other-blamers' and took no responsibility for
their damaging influence on their child" (p. 153).
Thus, mediators have several ethical dilemmas to resolve. Although we know that
mediators strive to maintain impartiality and neutrality, many practitioners
believe that it is impossible to attain complete impartiality, neutrality, or lack of bias
when working with people (Taylor 1997). Regehr (1994) points out
that the bias of mediators appears to have a large impact on the decisions
reached by parents. Therefore, mediators need to face some tough questions: Who
do they believe--the skillful and apparently sincere parent who has the love of
the children or the parent who has been rejected by the children for a number of
very convincing reasons? What should be done about the obvious power imbalance
favoring the aligned parent? After all, the aligned parent has the children,
they are well bonded and close to one another, *495 so the court may favor
leaving the children in that home when an understanding of PAS is lacking, which
is often the case. How does the mediator build trust with a party who is intent
on deception and manipulation? Walsh and Bone (1997) warn: "Make no mistake
about it; individuals with PAS will and do lie. They leave out ... pertinent
details or they maneuver the facts in such a manner to create an entirely false
impression" (p. 94). A study of the characteristics of children who refuse
postdivorce visits revealed that the custodial parents of the refusers often
exhibited psychopathology (Racusin 1994). Turkat's (1994) study on visitation
interference highlights the cooperation issue. "A parent who has continually
interfered with visitation may state ... that he or she will comply with the
nonresidential parent's visitation request. Immediately following the hearing,
the custodial parent returns to the visitation interference pattern, knowing
that months may go by before a return to court" (p. 741).
WHEN IS MEDIATION NOT APPROPRIATE IN CUSTODY CASES?
Mediation is an informal, but structured process in which one or more impartial
third parties assist disputants in talking about the conflict and in negotiating
a resolution to it that addresses the needs and interests of the parties.
Mediators do not impose a settlement and participation in the process is usually
voluntary. (Umbreit 1995, 24)
By definition, mediation is a voluntary process in which no one is compelled to
participate or to reach an agreement. A notable exception to voluntary
participation is mediation that is mandatory in many states' judicial systems.
The question is raised whether it is incongruent to require unwilling parties to
participate in a process that is designed to be cooperative, interactive, and
participatory. In a review of existing literature on mediation, it was concluded
that there is a need for empirically sound methods for discriminating between
couples who are ready for mediation and those who are not (Hysjulien, Wood, and
Mediation should perhaps be bypassed in cases with severe PAS symptoms.
Cartwright (1993) states that whereas negotiation is often a good solution in
other forms of litigation, it tends not to be effective in cases of PAS. He
the lack of a swift, clear, forceful judgement is often perceived by the alienator as
denoting approval of the alienating behavior. This tends to
reinforce the behavior *496 and renders a great disservice to both the child and
the petitioning parent.... Courts must not fall victim to the alienator's scheme
of stalling for time in order to continue the program of vilification. (p. 211)
Palmer (1988) also recognizes the duty of judges to take a stronger stand with
regard to aligned parents who try to alienate their children from the other
Issues of abuse and violence are prevalent in custody disputes. It has been
argued that mediation may not be appropriate for couples who have experienced
domestic violence because it may place women and children at risk for ongoing
intimidation (Hysjulien, Wood, and Benjamin 1994). The mediation process can and
has allowed an abusive spouse to maintain control and domination with the
sanction of the courts (Geffner and Pagelow 1990). A number of states now recognize
the paradox of mediating in abusive relationships, and mediation is
waived where parties allege domestic violence or child abuse (Bruch 1988 and Sun
and Thomas 1987 [cited in Geffner and Pagelow 1990]). Although PAS has not been
formally linked with domestic violence or spouse abuse cases, the issues of
control, domination, and emotional abuse are present in both types of cases. PAS
and child brainwashing are forms of child abuse (Clawar and Rivlin 1991; Gardner
1992; Herman 1990; Walsh and Bone 1997) and, as such, could fall under the same
mediation precautions as other types of cases that exhibit violence and abuse.
One of the major strategies for protecting domestic violence cases from the
limitations of mediation is to use a premediation screening process.
Premediation screening is highly recommended by many practitioners in the field
to determine which cases can be mediated and which cases are not suitable for
mediation (Girdner 1990; Perry 1994; Chance and Gerencser 1996; Pearson 1997;
Salem and Milne 1995; Thoennes, Salem, and Pearson 1994). Such a model could be
adapted for PAS cases. Those cases that are severe may need the attention of the
court immediately rather than delay the case waiting for a mediation process
that is not likely to resolve the issue.
A MEDIATION MODEL FOR SUSPECTED PAS FAMILIES
The question remains about whether mediation is an appropriate form of
intervention in cases of PAS. Pearson and Thoennes (1986) contend that mediation
will not transform hostile couples into cooperative ones and will not eliminate
future conflict, but it is perceived to be a less damaging intervention than
court. Murray (1999) agrees that "children of high-conflict divorce may benefit
from the potentially harmful effects of the adversarial approach"*497
TABULAR OR GRAPHIC MATERIAL SET FORTH AT THIS POINT IS
(p. 94). Lund (1995, 315) believes that it is important to lower the overt
conflict in PAS cases so that the children are not drawn into the parents'
conflicts. A mediator may be successful in helping inflexible custodial parents
respond to changes in visitation schedules and other situations that require
cooperative interaction between the parents.
Incorporating the issues raised in this article, a mediation model designed to
intervene in custody disputes where PAS is suspected must address four areas of
concern (Figure 2). The first area is the need for mental health expertise both
to diagnose the underlying motives and extent of alienation and to prescribe
appropriate therapeutic interventions prior to any agreement or decision on
custody and visitation. Second, the mediation process would need the assurance
that the court will take swift, clear judicial action when necessary to
discourage tactics of stalling and deception by the aligned parent. The third
component needs to balance the power discrepancy felt particularly by the
rejected parent who has been isolated from the child's life and love. The last
and very critical element of a mediation model is a mechanism to manage the
manipulative and deceptive behavior exhibited by the aligned parent, as well as
an ongoing process to monitor cooperation with court orders or agreed-upon steps
in the mediation process.
An additional critical element, which needs to precede the actual mediation
process, is the determination of which PAS families are "ripe" for mediation. It
is very possible that in mild to moderate cases of PAS, mediation could be
effective for achieving a number of goals to help conflicted parents. However,
in severe cases, the research cited herein indicates that negotiating with an
aligned parent who exhibits serious psychopathology would be futile.
Premediation screening could be used to determine which cases are suitable for
mediation, which is also a recommendation for mediation of domestic violence
cases advanced by a number of practitioners (Girdner 1990; Perry 1994; Chance
and Gerencser 1996; Pearson 1997; Salem and Milne 1995; Thoennes, Salem, and
*498 Intervention models that may be useful for PAS cases have been developed
and proposed by various researchers. Four such models are referenced in this
review, and selected elements from these models support the major areas of
concern outlined above. The mediation models are (1) the American Association
for Mediated Divorce (AAMD) (Herman 1990), (2) the Step-wise Mediation Process
for Psychiatric Family Mediation and Evaluation Clinic at the University of
Kentucky Medical Center (Miller and Veltkamp 1987), (3) a three- phase system of
child custody dispute resolution proposed by Gardner (1992), and (4) the
Remedial Plan described by Michael Walsh, a certified family lawyer, mediator,
and arbitrator, and J. Michael Bone, a psychotherapist and certified family law
mediator (Walsh and Bone 1997).
In the AAMD process, couples are first screened to determine their suitability
for mediation, and their motivation and ability to negotiate with each other are
assessed. Couples that seem appropriate and are willing to enter into the
process sign a premediation agreement and begin sessions. Co-mediators are
suggested by the AAMD (Herman 1990, 48). The concept of co-mediators
representing each gender, and complementing one another's expertise in mental
health, legal background, and mediation skills, fits very well with the criteria
established in this article for a useful mediation model.
NEED FOR EXPERTISE IN MENTAL HEALTH
The attachment/alienation continuum model (Figure 1) would be an excellent tool
to determine the extensiveness of the child's alienation from the noncustodial
parent. After that determination is made, Gardner's (1992, 313) concept of mediation
could be initiated. He recommends that training programs be set up to
ensure that only qualified mediators will be used. He envisions court-designated
mental health clinics that would provide mediation services at a fee
commensurate with the parents' financial situation. Implicit in the stepwise
mediation process is the fact that the process is conducted by professionals
trained in psychiatry at the Child Psychiatry Clinic of the University of
Kentucky Medical Center. In the stepwise model, it is first determined if
reconciliation or mediation is possible. When mediation proves unsuccessful,
there is a shift toward (psychiatric) evaluation (Miller and Veltkamp 1987).
Warshack (1992, 221) also recommends that a professional with a background in
child psychology would be preferable to an attorney-mediator in disputes
involving children because such a mediator could better evaluate the children's
needs. Johnston and Roseby (1997) caution that children who have witnessed
family violence may need to be treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome before
relationship rebuilding can be expected to succeed. A well- developed
premediation screening process to identify which *499 cases require
interventions prior to mediation could reduce the need for mediators to be
highly skilled in child evaluative procedures.
NEED FOR SWIFT, CLEAR JUDICIAL ACTION
Palmer (1988) and Walsh and Bone (1997) argue that successful intervention of
PAS requires coordination by the court and all members of the legal and mental
health community. The court-appointed psychologist initially identifies the
causation factors and determines (1) the motives of all family members, (2) the
defense functions of PAS in the family, and (3) the specific techniques and
patterns involved. When the psychological evaluation is completed, it is
forwarded to the court. At that point, the parents can attempt to negotiate a
plan. If the conflict continues, the court must quickly intervene and use its
authority (Walsh and Bone 1997).
Gardner (1992, 315) also recognizes the need for court intervention if mediation
breaks down. Step two of his three-phase system proposes an arbitration panel
consisting of two mental health professionals and one attorney who are empowered
to subpoena evidence and interview witnesses. The arbitration panel would work
within the court structure. Ideally, the decision of the arbitrators would be
timely and clear and have the quality of a binding legal decision. It is
certainly likely that arbitration would result in a more expedient decision than
court litigation. Gardner's recommended process, however, could be very
expensive for either parents or taxpayers.
POWER IMBALANCE FAVORING ALIGNED PARENT
In PAS, the aligned parents seem to have power tipped in their favor. The
children profess love for them and a desire to live with them. The court and
legal and mental health professionals may initially be swayed by the child's
stated preference, particularly if he or she is an older and articulate child.
After all, PAS is not widely recognized; there are relatively few individuals
with sufficient expertise to diagnose PAS in the early stages. As Walsh and Bone
(1997) point out, many therapists shy away from making a PAS diagnosis for fear
of being wrong. Clawar and Rivlin (1991) agree, stating that many professionals
know it exists but are frustrated with detecting it, objectifying it, and
deciding what is best to do for the parents and children.
In its purest form, mediation is expected to be a neutral, impartial, and
nonbiased process; however, scholars and practitioners alike recognize that the
mediator will have subjectivity and that subjectivity can influence the decision
of the parents (Regehr 1994; Taylor 1997). To compensate for a natural tendency
to favor the aligned parent, mediators must be well trained in detection, *500
causation, underlying motives, and common patterns of deception that may be
employed by the family members (including the children). Gardner (1992, 322)
recommends that the mediators be trained in mental health, family law, and
mediation skills. He believes training in intensive custody evaluations is also
necessary. In addition, the natural gender difference can be addressed by using
co-mediators of each gender.
DEALING WITH MANIPULATION, DECEPTION, AND UNCOOPERATIVENESS
The co-mediation team process advocated by the AAMD would consist of an
impartial lawyer and an impartial mental health professional meeting with the
divorcing couple. The model also uses a process to screen couples prior to
mediation, as well as the premediation agreement mentioned earlier. The couple
understand that they are working toward a three-part agreement: (1) part one
reaffirms the need for both parents to be actively involved with their children
after the divorce and the need for mutual cooperation toward this goal, (2) in
part two, both parents agree how to share the duties of parenting and how to
cooperate when decisions are made, (3) part three includes a foundation for
agreement about financial issues and provides for future mediation should
problems arise (Herman 1990, 48). Parties who cannot agree to this type of
openness and cooperation would be screened out to bypass the option of mediating
Additional provisions or ground rules could be addressed up front that specify
unacceptable behaviors such as deceptions, fabrication, accusations,
allegations, and the like. If the court is already in possession of a
psychological evaluation that identifies PAS, the aligned parent may recognize
that he or she needs to try to negotiate rather than stall. If the aligned
parent is unwilling or incapable of cooperating, he or she may lose custody
until he or she is emotionally fit to cooperate with the other parent. Although
switching custody may seem like an unwise decision, it is the only recourse
proven by various researchers to reverse the damaged relationship between the
child and target parent in severe cases of parental alienation (Gardner 1992;
Clawar and Rivlin 1991; Dunne and Hedrick 1994). The court must take the swift
and forceful action necessary.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PAS MEDIATORS
Some of the implicit assumptions of this article may lead the reader to assume
that mediators are expected to be highly directive in leading parents to a *501
custody decision. The role of the mediator is to honor self- determination, but
it is common for parents in protracted disputes to be emotionally and
financially drained and ready to settle for almost any reasonable suggestion
made. For this and the reasons outlined in this article, mediating cases in
which there is severe parental alienation is usually inappropriate. Unsuccessful
mediation may prolong emotional damage to the family by delaying the kinds of
intervention and treatment necessary to alleviate brainwashing and programming
of the children. If PAS symptoms are present in even one half of Gardner's
(1992) estimate of 80% of custody cases, all family mediators dealing with
custody cases need a thorough understanding of the challenges prevalent in PAS
In their 12-year research study of 700 to 1,000 cases of programmed and
brainwashed children, which is published by the Family Law Section of the
American Bar Association, Clawar and Rivlin (1991, 163-72) conclude that the
legal system in most states is not currently adequate to protect children from
this form of abuse. They also determined that 80% of the children wanted the
brainwashing detected and terminated, and that there was often a substantial
difference between a child's expressed opinion and his or her real desires,
needs, and behaviors.
An intervention model is needed that is appropriate to the capacity of the
aligned parent to recognize and abstain from his or her programming tactics,
which may be unconscious. A screening process could be used to determine which
families are suitable for mediation and which cases require mental health
intervention before parties can negotiate. Co-mediators need knowledge and
skills that include mental health expertise, an understanding of child custody
evaluation techniques, familiarity with the legal system, and
communication/facilitation skills that promote building trust and cooperation
between disputing parties. Additional skill development techniques are
recommended to help professionals (1) detect PAS and methods to objectify it,
(2) determine the extent of the psychological and emotional damage done, and (3)
determine how to develop an appropriate remedial plan.
With regard to the question of whether PAS cases can be mediated, Ramona Buck,
director of mediation services for the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Maryland,
Mediating cases in which parental alienation syndrome is present is usually
inappropriate. For one thing, mediating such cases may provide a platform for
the accusing parent to continue to espouse his/her hurtful views which causes
more pain to the other parent. Secondly, since one parent is framing the other
parent as a villain, it is most unlikely that any agreement can be reached.
Thirdly, since one parent is, in a sense, psychologically imbalanced, such a
*502 psychological problem in one parent is usually an indicator that a case is
not appropriate for mediation.
Atkinson, J., and American Bar Association. 1996. Guide to family law. New York:
Carper, D. L., N. J. Mietus, T. E. Shoemaker, and B. W. West. 1995.
Understanding the law. Minneapolis, MN: West.
Cartwright, G. F. 1993. Expanding the parameters of parental alienation
syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy 21:205-15.
Chance, C. B., and A. E. Gerencser. 1996. Screening family mediation for
domestic violence. Florida Bar Journal, April, 54-7.
Clawar, S. S., and B. V. Rivlin. 1991. Children held hostage: Dealing with
programmed and brainwashed children. Chicago: American Bar Association.
Dunne, J., and M. Hedrick. 1994. The parental alienation syndrome: An analysis
of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 21:21-37.
Gardner, R. A. 1992. The parental alienation syndrome. Cresskill, NJ: Creative
______. 1998. Recommendations for dealing with parents who induce a parental
alienation syndrome in their children. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 28 (3-
Geffner, R., and M. D. Pagelow. 1990. Mediation and child custody issues in
abusive relationships. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 8:151-9.
Girdner, L. K. 1990. Mediation triage: Screening for spouse abuse in divorce
mediation. Mediation Quarterly 7:365-76.
Herman, S. 1990. Parent vs. parent. New York: Pantheon Books.
Hysjulien, C., B. Wood, and G. A. Benjamin. 1994. Child custody evaluations:
A review of methods used in litigation and alternate dispute resolution. Family
and Conciliation Courts Review 32:466-89.
Johnston, J. R., and V. Roseby. 1997. In the name of the child: A developmental
approach to understanding and helping children of conflicted and violent
divorce. New York: Free Press.
Lund, M. 1995. A therapist's view of parental alienation syndrome. Family and
Conciliation Courts Review 33:308-16.
Miller, T. W., and L. J. Veltkamp. 1987. Disputed child custody: Strategies and
issues in mediation. Bulletin of American Academy of Psychiatry Law 15 (1):
Murray, K. 1999. When children refuse to visit parents. Family and Conciliation
Courts Review 37 (1): 83-98.
Palmer, N. R. 1988. Legal recognition of the parental alienation syndrome.
American Journal of Family Therapy 16:361-4.
Pearson, J. 1997. Mediating when domestic violence is a factor: Policies and
practices in court-based divorce mediation programs. Mediation Quarterly
Pearson, J., and N. Thoennes. 1986. Mediation in custody disputes. Behavioral
Sciences and the Law 4:203-16.
Perry, L. 1994. Mediation and wife abuse: A review of the literature. Mediation
Racusin, R. J. 1994. Characteristics of families of children who refuse post-
divorce visits. Journal of Clinical Psychology 50:792-802.
*503 Regehr, C. 1994. The use of empowerment in child custody mediation: A
feminist critique. Mediation Quarterly 11:361-71.
Salem, P., and A. Milne. 1995. Making mediation work in a domestic violence
case. Family Advocate 17 (3): 34-8.
Saposnek, D. T. 1998. Mediating child custody disputes. San
Stoner-Moskowitz, J. 1998. The effect of parental alienation syndrome and
interparental conflict on the self concept of children of divorce. Ph.D. diss.,
Miami Institute of Psychology of the Caribbean Center for Advanced Studies.
Abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 59:1919.
Taylor, A. 1997. Concepts of neutrality in family mediation: Contexts, ethics,
influence and transformative process. Mediation Quarterly 14:215-35.
Thoennes, N., P. Salem, and J. Pearson. 1994. Mediation and domestic violence:
Current policies and practices. Denver, CO: Center for Policy Research; Madison,
WI: Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
Turkat, I. D. 1994. Child visitation interference in divorce. Clinical
Psychology Review 14:737-42.
Umbreit, M. S. 1995. Mediating interpersonal conflicts. West Concord, MN: CPI.
Wallerstein, J. S., and J. B. Kelly. 1980. Surviving the breakup: How children
and parents cope with divorce. New York: HarperCollins.
Walsh, M. R., and J. M. Bone. 1997. Parental alienation syndrome: An age old
custody problem. Florida Bar Journal, June, 93-6.
Warshack, R. A. 1992. The custody revolution. New York: Poseidon Press.
[FNa1]. Anita Vestal is a doctoral student in dispute resolution at Nova
Southeastern University. She has been recognized by the American Bar
Association and the Association of Broward County Mediators for essays on the
topic of parental alienation and mediation. She is the principal investigator of the
PEACE Project, a research study on conflict resolution strategies for preschool
children that is funded by the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families.
Note 1. Author's Note: This article was selected as the winning entry in the
1998 Student Essay Contest of the American Bar Association Section on Dispute
Resolution. The author appreciates the review and comments made by the following
practitioners: Sean Byrne, John Lande, Ramona Buck, Marcia Abbo, Loree
Cook-Daniels, and Susan H. Shearouse.
END OF DOCUMENT