Five-year-old Alex looks like the happiest kid in the world. His smiles, captured forever in photos proudly displayed around his mother's cubicle, aren't forced for the camera. But Alex's smiles might not have been so genuine had his mom continued to cling to her mistrust of his dad. Until a year ago, his divorced parents were playing a heated game of tug-of-war -- with Alex in the middle.
Leslie wanted sole custody of her son, while Scott wanted joint custody. "We're both engineers, which by default makes communication one of our downfalls, and we weren't communicating at all," Leslie says. "So I could see no way that joint custody could work."
It used to be common for courts to grant sole custody to one person -- usually the mother -- when a couple's relationship was so acrimonious that forcing the spouses to share child-rearing decisions seemed impossible. After Leslie and Scott divorced more than four years ago, she was awarded sole custody; Scott was granted weekly visits with his son. (The names of the mother and son have been changed at Leslie's request; Scott asked to be identified only by his first name.)
But sole custody didn't satisfy Leslie. She was so concerned about Scott's parenting skills that she didn't want to leave Alex in his care at all. If she had an appointment to which she couldn't bring Alex, she'd call a babysitter rather than ask Scott to watch him. If she needed to take Alex to the dentist, she wouldn't bother telling her ex-husband. In short, Leslie would have preferred that Scott had nothing to do with his son.
Even in the friendliest divorces, parents often resort to behavior that runs counter to their better judgment. Sometimes one will badmouth the other in front of their children; sometimes one will try to become the favorite by spoiling the kids with gifts or by granting them freedoms they don't normally enjoy. But some people go much further than that.
Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist and Columbia University professor, elevated bad parenting to a new level in 1985, when he gave this behavior a label: parental alienation syndrome.
"It's a continuum of behavior. Parents often say bad things about each other during the course of a divorce, but usually it's not longstanding, and usually kids aren't placed in that position forever, but there are situations where it goes on and on and on," says Les Katz, a Colorado psychologist who works with families in high-conflict divorces. "The big issue is whether a child can still have a relationship with that other parent. When a child is adamant about not having a relationship with one parent because of what the other has said or done, that's when it becomes a parental-alienation situation.
"I'm not in favor of calling it a syndrome, because that implies a kind of science that just isn't there," Katz adds. "But when you see it, you know it's bad."
"A syndrome is supposed to be something everyone can recognize because it meets certain criteria, and no one has agreed yet on what those are," says Denver psychologist Carla Garrity, who's co-authored several books on high-conflict divorces. "Gardner came up with some criteria, but they don't apply to every case. The important thing is that we understand the dynamics; they need to be picked out early and remediated early. It's the most complicated area of divorce law right now."
In Working With High-Conflict Families of Divorce, Garrity and her co-authors list alienation as the second-most serious level of family conflict, defining it as a situation in which one parent "attempts to form a permanent or standing coalition with [the] child against [the] other parent."
"The first year of a divorce is ugly; the parents are scared and hurt, so that first year isn't a good time to figure out whether there's alienation," Garrity says. "If it's gone on beyond two years, then it worries us. I'll be talking to people who got divorced in 1993, and they talk about it like it's yesterday, the feelings are so intense. That's a bad sign.
"If you ask a parent to list all of the good things that the other parent does for the children and they can't say one nice thing, that's a red flag," she continues. "You start to accumulate red flags, and when you have too many, you say, 'This is alienation' or 'This could become alienation.'"
Like Katz and Garrity, most experts refer to the behavior simply as "parental alienation." Others refer to it as "child alienation" or "visitation refusal." Whatever name it's given, the practice can be devastating to the children involved. But there's new hope for solving this age-old problem: impartial third parties appointed by the court to help couples get past their problems for the sake of the kids.
...in the carriage, her mother, all kisses, ribbons, eyes, arms, strange sounds and sweet smells, said to her: "And did your beastly papa, my precious angel, send any message to your own loving mamma?" Then it was that she found the words spoken by her beastly papa to be, after all, in her little bewildered ears, from which, at her mother's appeal, they passed, in her clear shrill voice, straight to her little innocent lips. "He said I was to tell you, from him," she faithfully reported, "that you're a nasty horrid pig!"
-- What Maisie Knew, by Henry James
Parents who use children for their own selfish means are not a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by Henry James's 1897 novel that tells the story of Maisie, a young girl torn between her divorced mamma and papa. But such bad behavior didn't get a name until Gardner came along.
"During the last ten to fifteen years, we have witnessed a burgeoning of child custody disputes unparalleled in history. This increase has primarily been the result of two recent developments in the realm of child custody litigation, namely, the replacement of the tender-years presumption with the best-interests-of-the-child presumption and the increasing popularity of the joint custodial concept," Gardner wrote in a 1992 book on the topic. "In association with this burgeoning of litigation, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the frequency of a disorder rarely seen previously, a disorder that I refer to as the parental alienation syndrome. In this disorder we see not only programming of the child by one parent to denigrate the other parent, but self-created contributions by the child in support of the preferred parent's campaign of denigration against the non-preferred parent."
At the same time that Gardner was noticing a rise in this "disorder," two child-custody evaluators in Colorado were identifying the same dynamics: social worker Leona Kopetski and psychologist Claire Purcell, who both worked at the Children's Diagnostic Center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. The center had been established in the 1960s to diagnose kids who had been abused or were in trouble with the law, but its scope soon expanded as fathers began demanding more involvement in their kids' lives. In contested custody cases, judges had the center evaluate families to help determine which parent should get custody.
Kopetski and Purcell were pioneers in their field; in other parts of the country, the mother would hire one custody evaluator and the father would hire another. But Kopetski and Purcell refused to be hired guns -- they insisted on remaining impartial and examining both parents in any disputed custody case. After university budget cuts shuttered the center in the mid-'70s, the women started a partnership called the Family and Children's Evaluation Team and continued to perform custody evaluations for the courts.
"We saw a case in which an eight-year-old child had gotten caught between her parents. The amount of contempt she had for her mother was astounding. We'd seen angry kids before, but to see a child with absolutely no positive feelings for a parent was a jolt," Kopetski recalls. The girl's father had been so successful in alienating her from his ex-wife that she lost all contact with her mother.
"Then we got another case in which a ten-year-old boy refused to have any contact with his father. This boy, who lived with his mom, was phobic, but the object of his phobia was his father -- and this was not a case in which the father was abusive -- so we decided to introduce visitation with the father very slowly. We'd seen phobic kids before and we knew the dynamics, but we had never seen it in that close of a relationship," she says.
"Then we began to see more and more of these cases. In 1987, Gardner wrote a book about parental alienation and I said, 'Oh, my gosh, this is what we're seeing.' I called him and told him we have all these cases; he talked about his experiences, and they were the same as ours."
By 1991, Kopetski and Purcell had evaluated 496 custody cases. Eighty-four of them -- almost 17 percent -- involved parental alienation, and in fifteen of those cases, the child had lost touch with the alienated parent completely. According to Kopetski, it was obvious when they were dealing with an alienating parent, as opposed to one who was simply afraid of losing his or her child. "As soon as the alienating parent got custody, she'd disappear out of state or continue litigating against the other parent for a decrease in that parent's visitation time," she explains. "The alienation doesn't stop when custody is given to the alienating parent, because the object of alienation is to eliminate the other parent from the kid's life entirely."
Delcie Robeson can attest to that. She and her boyfriend, Bill Sponheimer, separated after their daughter was born, and not only did Delcie want nothing to do with Bill, but she didn't want her baby to have any contact with him, either. "We had communication problems," she explains. "He said 'black' and I said 'white,' and we could never find a shade of gray. So how could we raise a child together?
"I wanted him to go away completely and walk out of Alyssa's life, but he pushed the issue," says Delcie, who filed for sole custody and gave Alyssa her last name rather than Bill's.
Like Leslie, Delcie made accusations about Bill's parenting abilities; she claimed that his son from a previous relationship was hitting Alyssa and that Bill wasn't capable of watching both children at the same time. And when Delcie had to go somewhere, Bill says, she'd have her sister watch Alyssa rather than call him. (Delcie says Bill often had his mother watch Alyssa when he had to go somewhere.)
When Bill filed for joint custody, Delcie went to court to get an emergency order to ensure that Alyssa would remain with her; she was worried that Bill might take Alyssa away. Although a judge granted the order, a magistrate later dissolved it, determining that Delcie's fears were unfounded.
Until permanent orders could be handed down, Bill was granted parenting time with his daughter. Delcie did everything she could to make it inconvenient, he remembers. "A few minutes before I'd go to pick her up, Delcie would call and say that Alyssa was with so-and-so, and I'd have to pick her up at a different location," Bill says.
That happened only once or twice, Delcie responds. But she admits that she sometimes scheduled activities for Alyssa on days when Bill was supposed to see her, wouldn't allow Bill to watch Alyssa when she was sick, and once took Alyssa out of town on Father's Day.
When Bill was with his daughter, Delcie would call and ask what Alyssa was eating, when she was napping and what she was doing. Bill finally stopped answering the phone. "When she'd come to pick up Alyssa, she'd ask those same questions again and I'd answer them then," he says. "One time I asked if she'd do the same for me, and her response was, 'I don't have to. I'm the mother.'"
After three years of feuding in and out of court, Bill finally requested a custody evaluation. The court-appointed evaluator found that both Delcie and Bill wanted to be good parents but couldn't get past their differences. In her report, the evaluator wrote down this admission from Delcie: "If I get sole custody, I won't have to keep him in the loop."
If Delcie were to be awarded sole custody, she'd probably limit Bill's involvement with Alyssa, the evaluator noted. Even so, she recommended that Delcie remain the girl's primary custodial parent because Alyssa, now four, had lived with Delcie since birth.
There are many explanations for parental alienation. Sometimes it's a way to get back at the other parent for being unfaithful in the marriage; sometimes, as in Delcie and Bill's case, one parent simply doesn't want to deal with the other. Although often only one parent is doing the alienating, experts are hesitant to place blame on one person or a single incident.
"In my opinion, it's not an individual syndrome; it's a family syndrome," says Kopetski. "It's a disturbance in the family relationship."
Although Colorado courts don't track the number of divorce cases that involve parental alienation, some experts say they've noticed an increase in such behavior. "Twenty-five percent of my cases now involve parental alienation," says Robert Hinds, an attorney who's handled high-conflict custody cases for 34 years. "It's the most difficult part of my practice. And something I haven't seen until recently is that there's almost a rush to the police department to gain advantage in these cases. We spend a great deal of time extricating what happened in cases of false allegations of physical or sexual abuse. These are very sad cases, and a significant number of them are not true. And they really tend to pull kids into the middle, because the kids are invariably called upon to verify what happened, either as an alleged witness or an alleged victim."
Although Kopetski retired in 1996, former partner Purcell still practices psychology in Denver. In recent years, she's seen situations in which the tables turn and the alienating parent becomes the one who is alienated. Once a child gets older and understands what the alienating parent has done, she says, he may resent that parent and try to rebuild a relationship with the other.
In all of these cases, one thing is consistent: The kids suffer the most. "It puts children in a very difficult position," Purcell says. "They feel a lot of guilt and fear."
Over the past several years, Colorado's courts have been changing their approach to high-conflict divorces.
The shift started with language: A group of mental-health professionals, social workers and attorneys drafted a bill to replace the word "custody" with "parental responsibilities" in the state statutes. The change became law in 1998 and took effect the following year.
"One of the driving forces behind the new law was a desire to remove the sense of ownership associated with the word 'custody.' In essence, the new law represents an effort to encourage parents to focus on their parenting responsibilities rather than viewing their children as possessions which are 'won' or 'lost,'" explains an article in The Colorado Lawyer. The piece also notes that other states had already made similar changes. "It has been suggested that the change in the law is simply a matter of semantics. The reality, though, is that words are powerful tools, and careful usage can determine whether a divorce will be highly conflicted or more cooperative."
"It's done a lot of good," Hinds says of the legislation, which he helped to craft. "But it still hasn't stopped parental alienation."
At the same time the word "custody" was eliminated from the state statutes, another, more concrete change was made to the way the courts handle divorce cases: The position of "special advocate" was written into the law. "Judges started using special advocates out of frustration with the way things were done before," explains psychologist Katz, himself a special advocate. "There were custody evaluators, but they tended to escalate things; they had to write reports that sometimes contained some damaging things about people. It wasn't a facilitation role; it was really a reporting role, whereas special advocates can intervene and help parents understand that they need to share in the raising of their kids."
Although special advocates can be attorneys, they don't have to be. Sometimes they're ordered by the court to investigate accusations made by one parent against the other, but they can also be assigned to help foster communication between the sparring parents -- without attorneys present. In Leslie and Scott's case, a special advocate did both.
Leslie filed for divorce in January 1998, when Alex was just a year old. She and Scott had been married for two years, and it took almost that long to finalize the divorce. "I wrote an $800 check to my lawyer every month for a year and a half," Leslie remembers. "We were haggling over every little thing."
They were also haggling over a very big thing: their son.
"The battle began when she filed for sole custody," Scott says. And that battle would continue well beyond the culmination of their divorce.
Until the judge in Douglas County, where both parents lived at the time, could decide on permanent arrangements for Alex, Leslie's house was ordered to be his primary residence, and Scott was granted visitation. Going from seeing his son every day to several hours a week left Scott feeling like a babysitter. He feared being in that situation forever, so he requested that the court order a custody evaluation. "I felt that that was the only way to get joint custody," Scott says.
But the custody evaluators recommended that Leslie get sole custody, and the judge agreed. Joint custody wasn't an option, they determined, because Leslie and Scott couldn't tolerate each other enough to make small talk, let alone make joint decisions about their son's upbringing.
The battle didn't end there, however. Leslie soon filed a motion requesting that a special advocate be appointed to investigate her claims that Scott wasn't feeding Alex properly or putting him to bed on time. "She told me that if I didn't agree to a special advocate, she'd push for a reduction in my parenting time," Scott says.
Scott agreed to the special advocate -- reluctantly. "I felt so burned by the custody evaluation that I wanted nothing more to do with the family-law system," he explains. "I felt that her accusations were a way to build a case that I was an unfit parent so that I would have no contact with Alex at all."
Shortly after they started seeing the special advocate in April 2001, Scott wanted to take Alex to Oregon for a family reunion. He needed Leslie's permission to do so, and when he made the request, she flipped. "Alex had never spent 24 hours alone with his dad, and now we were talking four days," Leslie remembers. "The question was not only could baby handle it, but could Mommy handle it."
The special advocate was meeting frequently with Leslie and Scott -- sometimes with both parents together, but usually separately. During one of her meetings with Leslie, she kept asking what was the worst thing that could happen if Scott took Alex on that trip. "I couldn't come up with anything," Leslie says. "I figured there was nothing I could do to stop it, but that didn't mean I had to like it. It was a hard weekend. I think I paced the whole time."
As much as she hated parting with her son, that four-day weekend proved a catalyst. Alex returned home safely, and Leslie slowly accepted that she could trust Scott with her son. Over the course of her visits with the special advocate, which continued through that August, she discovered a lot more. The special advocate helped her realize when she was raising legitimate concerns and when she wasn't. She also convinced Leslie how important it is for children to have relationships with both parents.
"I learned not to care about things as much," Leslie says. "As a parent, you have such ideal expectations for your child, like three square meals a day, but then life gets in the way. Now if Scott takes Alex to McDonald's, it's not a big deal. It's about letting go; it's a control thing. I could give you nineteen things that I don't think Scott does right with Alex, but none of them are harming Alex, and I'm sure he could give you nineteen things about me.
"The whole time we were seeing the special advocate, it was so hard. Some of what we talked about brought up unhealed things from the divorce. I still can't tell you why Scott and I didn't get along -- we just didn't," Leslie continues, explaining that her mistrust of Scott had more to do with the ugliness of their divorce than anything he ever did or didn't do with Alex. "Trust is something you build up slowly, and change isn't easy, but now I trust Scott explicitly with Alex, whereas I wouldn't have a year ago."
Now there's a push in Colorado to legislate another position -- that of parent coordinator. The goal of a parent coordinator, who can be a psychologist, attorney or social worker, is to resolve disputes between separated or divorced parents outside of the courtroom.
"Often, the fastest solution in an alienation case is to appoint a parent coordinator, because they don't let the alienation get out of hand -- that person essentially parents the parents," says psychologist Garrity, whose book, Working With High-Conflict Families of Divorce, is a training guide for parent coordinators. She and her five co-authors travel the country training people in this new role. "Sometimes the parent coordinator can't let the parents see each other because they hate each other so much. I know of one woman who climbed onto her ex-husband's windshield at their kid's school and broke the window."
Although the work that parent coordinators and special advocates do is very similar, their role and power differ. Special advocates usually are appointed to make recommendations, which the judge can choose to adopt or not; they work with parents for the duration of their case. Parent coordinators, however, often continue to help out long after court orders have been finalized. They typically get involved at the request of one or both parents, and they can be given decision-making authority over minor issues that the parents can't agree on, such as whether one parent should be allowed to take the children on a trip or whether to change the kids' doctor. In order to grant the parent coordinator that authority, however, both parents must agree to it in writing. And before a parent coordinator's decisions can be considered binding, a judge has to approve them.
While he considers the special-advocate role an improvement over that of a custody evaluator, Katz doesn't see much of a distinction between special advocate and parent coordinator. "There are far more special advocates operating right now than parent coordinators, but special advocates often act as parent coordinators," he says. "It doesn't matter what you call them; they're just people who intervene."
But the overlap between the two has caused enough confusion that some people would like to see the parent-coordinator position defined by Colorado law. Oklahoma and Vermont have each established parent coordinators by statute, Garrity points out.
"Right now, parent coordination is done by custom. There are no rules for how they should do their job, and I think there should be," says Doris Truhlar, an attorney and parent coordinator. Three years ago, Truhlar tried to establish guidelines in the state statutes for parent coordinators, but a bill that would have done so died in the legislature.
Betsy Barbour Duvall, a parent coordinator and psychotherapist who helped Garrity write Working With High-Conflict Families of Divorce, believes the proposal failed because people feared the power it would have given parent coordinators. "A lot of attorneys don't think parents should give up decision-making authority, and I don't think parents should be forced to do that, either," she says. "The authority of a parent coordinator needs to be clearly spelled out so that it's not a blank check."
Truhlar agrees that a parent coordinator's power should have limits: "They should not have the authority to change the child's primary residence or to allow one parent to move out of state with a child, but they should be able to make decisions about non-life-changing things."
The Metro Denver Interdisciplinary Committee, an organization made up of attorneys, judicial officers, mediators and mental-health professionals that works on ways to help families through divorce, will poll its members to see if they are interested in pushing for a bill that would give the parent-coordinator role legal status. If a survey conducted by the Colorado Interdisciplinary Committee at a May conference is any indication, support for a parent-coordination bill is high: All but one of the 42 family-law professionals surveyed said they'd like to see such a law, and 37 said the courts should be allowed to appoint a coordinator even over the objection of one or both parents.
Delcie Robeson and Bill Sponheimer wish they'd been assigned an impartial third party -- whether a special advocate or a parent coordinator -- from the start. Instead, it wasn't until April 2001, at a meeting with Bill and the custody evaluator, that Delcie finally realized her behavior was harming Alyssa. "It was the first time we had sat down together and talked since we broke up," she recalls. "Before that, he would always talk through his lawyer and I'd talk through mine. The custody evaluator, who was a psychologist, made us tell each other how we feel. Bill said that I was trying to deny him the ability to be Alyssa's father and that he felt like he was just a babysitter. And I guess that's how I treated him -- as a babysitter. To hear him say that really struck a chord in me."
That day, Delcie decided to change her behavior -- a decision inspired not just by Bill's statement, but by the evaluator's warning that if the two went back to court, the stress of the situation could impact Alyssa's cognitive development.
"We both thought that we were doing what was best for our child, but really, we were also taking into consideration what was best for us," Delcie says. "We've come a long way."
Leslie and Scott have come a long way, too: They actually talk to each other now.
Before they were assigned a special advocate, they would bicker, not communicate, and they eventually noticed the effect that was having on Alex.
"At transition times between his mom and me, Alex would pull into a shell and not say anything. You could tell he was afraid to say something for fear of angering one of us," Scott says. "I used to not be able to tell Alex when his mom was coming to pick him up because I couldn't stand to see the stress build in him. He wasn't getting upset because he was going back to his mom, but because he dreaded that transition between the two of us."
Scott admits he played a role in the ugliness. "We all know you shouldn't fight in front of your kids, but that doesn't mean we don't," he says. "We would fight about fighting right in front of him."
They also noticed that Alex was taking advantage of their disdain for one another. "He'd try to pit us against each other. When I would tell Alex that he couldn't do something, he'd say his dad told him he could," Leslie says.
All that changed once the special advocate taught them how to communicate with each other. "One day, Alex pitched a fit about going to the dentist, so I told him he couldn't watch TV," Leslie remembers. "I told Scott about his fit and how I didn't want him watching TV because of it, and when Scott came to pick him up, he also told him there would be no TV. Alex was shocked."
Leslie is thankful that she and Scott worked things out while Alex was still too young to take sides. "I was doing nothing to foster Alex's relationship with his dad. I wouldn't even talk about his dad," Leslie says, conceding that she didn't always have the best interests of her son in mind. "It's hard to admit it, but it's the truth."
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While Leslie has changed her outlook considerably, she knows she'll continue to struggle. She still calls the special advocate, because sometimes she needs to hear someone else tell her that she's overreacting. This past June, for example, Scott asked Leslie if he could take Alex on a ten-day trip. Because their court order only allows Scott to take Alex on three seven-day trips each year, Leslie's first inclination was to say no, but instead of immediately denying his request, as she would have in the past, she told him she'd sleep on it. Then she dialed the special advocate's number. "I said to her, 'I know I'm being silly, but Scott wants to take him away for ten days, and I probably have no reason to say no.' She talked to me about it, and I ended up saying okay," Leslie says.
Although Scott was initially wary of having to answer to a complete stranger, he, too, is now grateful for the special advocate's help. "She was the first person in the court system who was interested in getting both of us to get along and change our behavior. Prior to her, everyone wanted to force one of us to make a change," he says. "If she hadn't come along, we'd still be in court battling. It would have gone on for several years, and I eventually would have given up and probably moved out of state. I was paying $1,000 to $1,500 a month in attorney's fees, and that really hurt. Plus, this took up so much of my time and energy that I didn't hang out with anyone much anymore. I felt like a turtle crawling into a shell. There was only so long that I could have done that."
Although Scott was never granted joint custody, his visitation time was increased. "I won't pretend I'm happy with everything," he says, "but I can live with this."