One of the sharpest swords in a dad’s arsenal when it comes to custody cases is often a parental alienation claim. It’s an easy thing to claim, and it often creates a really tricky “he said, she said” situation that can make it hard to asses the truthfulness of anyone involved.
That’s the problem with custody cases, isn’t it? How do you refute something that he just seems to pick out of the air? And, when it comes to parental alienation claims, it’s typically NOT something that can be easily refuted or that you can prove without a doubt that you have not done. That’s part of what makes it so challenging.
Even worse? Judges are really attuned to these types of cases, and tend to take these types of allegations very seriously. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; let’s take a step back, first, and talk about what parental alienation is, and then we’ll talk a little bit about what to do about it, and how to combat an allegation like that.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation happens when one parent uses his or her influence over the children to damage the children’s relationship with their other parent. In normal cases, this is usually just verbal. One parent says something about the other in front of the child, like, “Oh, daddy is just so irresponsible,” or something like that. Obviously, though it’s certainly better if you don’t say anything negative about your child’s other parent in front of the child, what we’re typically talking about here is much more serious.
To the extent that a parent uses the child as a confidante to discuss the terms of the divorce or custody case, or to discuss all the ways that the other parent has wronged that parent in front of or with the child, it can be very damaging. It happens with children of all sorts of different ages. For younger ones, it can be harder to diagnose, given that it’s harder for them to have the vocabulary to express that one parent’s words have made them mistrustful of the other parent – but it can be profound and significant. It happens fairly often when parents have discussions around (though not necessarily TO) their child, thinking that the child doesn’t understand.
With older children, it can become a really big issue very quickly, as the children’s allegiances are pulled in a number of different competing directions.
To the extent that your communications, either to the children or around the children, have harmed their relationship with their other parent, you may be “guilty” of parental alienation. Even things like using the children as messengers between the parents (i.e., “Could you please tell daddy that…?) can be damaging, and should be avoided.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be true – and, in many cases, it’s not. Sometimes, it’s as simple as dad making up an allegation in order to undermine you or to increase his chances of getting what he wants in court. In other cases, it’s an easy way for him to save face as he realizes that his relationship with his children is profoundly changed by the choices he has made (say, for example, to move out, to not pay support, to get a new girlfriend, to fail to show up for visitation, etc). Rather than accepting that his conduct has something to do with the way these relationships with his children have changed, it’s easy to point the finger at his child’s mother and say that it MUST be because she’s talking badly about him to the children behind his back. That’s the only explanation! (I’m being sarcastic here, obviously.)
What can you do about a claim of parental alienation?
Parental alienation is especially difficult because, oftentimes, the only witnesses are the children. I probably don’t need to tell you that we don’t really want to drag the children into court to testify. Not only would that typically equate to a missed day of school (something that the judge would NOT prefer to see), but the potential damaging impact of asking the child to do something like that – to testify AGAINST one parent or the other, or even to give the impression to the child that he or she can choose whether to live with his mom or dad – is just too great to risk.
Judges don’t like children in their courtrooms. They try to avoid it at all costs. In fact, in all my years practicing, I can’t think of a single time a child was asked to testify. I’ve had children sit in the waiting room (which I still prefer not to happen) while a case is happening, but I’ve never had one actually testify. Though I’ve heard it can happen, I’ve also never had a case where a child met privately with the judge and discussed the case. Frankly, as a mom myself, I’d do just about anything I could to avoid a child being thrown into the middle of the litigation in that manner. If I wouldn’t want it to happen to my child, I wouldn’t want it to happen to yours.
So, what do we do? When the child is the only witness, but we can’t call the child as a witness (and, anyway, the child may or may not be credible as a witness anyway)?
Typically, the answer to a parental alienation claim is a Guardian ad litem. A Guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed to represent the children’s interests to the court. A Guardian ad litem (or a GAL, as we sometimes refer to them) will meet with the child, do home studies, talk to the child’s teachers, therapists, or doctors, and, ultimately, make a recommendation to the court. A GAL will interview both parents, too.
So, the GAL will talk to you and talk to dad as well. Though GALs are a mixed bag (just like any other group of people on the planet), a good one can help shoot down a parental alienation claim. Of course, it’s not conclusive – it’s not like just because one or the other of your performs really well for the GAL that the parental alienation absolutely, positively 100% is not happening – but it can go a long way towards convincing the judge.
What can I do to help show the GAL that I’m NOT alienating my children from their father?
It’s a tough situation to be in, but there are things you can do to help show that you support your child’s relationship with their father. For one thing, speaking that way – as in, recognizing that your child’s father plays an important role, and repeatedly telling the GAL that you want to do what you can to support their developing relationship – will go a long way. Of course, you have to back your words up with actions, too. Placing a photo of your child’s father in the kid’s rooms, being flexible when he asks for reasonable accommodations to be made to the visitation schedule, and speaking positively about your child’s father in front of your children, can go a long way.
In every interaction with the GAL, you should show her that you’re doing what it takes to support the children’s relationships. It’s not a bad idea to take a coparenting class, whether or not the judge has ordered you to complete one, and to use the information that you learn there to help improve your relationship with your child’s father. To the extent possible, share the information that you get from school, doctors, therapists, coaches, and other important people in the children’s lives. Scan and share information, send screen shots of texts with information you think he needs to know, and give him the tools (i.e., login information to apps that allow him to stay informed about what’s going on in the children’s classes) to participate on his own. Things like school pictures, report cards, progress reports, school performances, and parent/teacher conferences should be shared.
You can even use a digital forum to share this information. We typically recommend OurFamilyWizard. It’s an online platform that will allow you to share calendar information, upload important documents, and even chat. If your case is heavily litigated, the GAL and your attorneys can also have access to your forum. It’s pretty cool, and it’s a good way to ensure that all of your communication is in one easy-to-access place. (Also, since it’s all written, it’s good evidence for court, if we need it.)
Parental alienation cases are complicated and, honestly, kind of scary! But by working with an attorney experienced in handling these cases, not to mention taking all the steps I’ve described here to help avoid some of the common pitfalls that women whose children’s fathers allege alienation, you can put yourself in a much better position moving forward. For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.