The Huffington Post, in an effort to beef up its divorce section, is featuring controversial psychologist and author, Richard Warshak. In his first column “Stop Divorce Poison,” Warshak speaks of the equally controversial topic of parental alienation (PA); he or HuffPo have censored comments made by domestic violence advocates and survivors, and many of the remaining comments espouse misinformation, stereotypes, and sexist remarks.
Why should this concern women and those in the reproductive rights community?
"Parent Alienation," the idea that one parent (typically the mother) poisons the mind of the child against the other parent, is dangerous because it casts doubt on mothers’ claims of child abuse; the more she tries to protect her child and gather evidence, the more she exhibits “parental alienation.” If she fails--and she’ll face an uphill battle fighting bias, paying exhorborant fees, and fearing for her child(ren)’s safety trying to succeed--she can be fined, jailed and/or she could lose custody. PAS can and has turned the table on women trying to protect themselves or their child(ren) from abuse. (Several cases that have received media attention can be found here, here, and here.
We fight for rights during pregnancy; we can’t leave women in the dust after they deliver. Villifying a protective mother, jailing her or taking her offspring is the worse you can do to a woman – abusers understand this, it’s time we do, too.
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Warshak and the idea of PA
Warshak starts off with, “Mother Theresa does not marry Saddam Hussein.” But then we would have to ask, what was Hussein’s wife like?, because Warshak is making a comparison between spouses. Perhaps she was no Mother Theresa, but surely she wasn’t as evil as Saddam. Already we have an imbalance. All human beings can exhibit evil or wrong-doing, but not all humans are equal in this respect, as Warshak wants us to believe. Some are worse than others. And while women are far from perfect, many women in abusive relationships fall in love with a guy only to find out months or years later that he is abusive. Abusers, unfortunately, don’t come with a sign on their forehead.
Warshak then explains that parents who alienate their child(ren) cannot “harness the emotions unleashed by divorce and they exhibit “rage,” “enlist children as allies,” and use “bad-mouthing, lies, exaggerations…,” which Warshak likens to political mud-slinging campaigns. Some parents may deliberately or inadvertently denigrate the other parent. This may be evident in their parenting skills, but the main problem with PA is that it’s indistinguishable from the fear that comes from an abusive situation and can harm protective parents while rewarding abusive ones.
Jay Silverman’s study at Harvard, as reported in Newsweek, found 54 percent of custody cases were in favor of the batterer and nearly every case used parental alienation to counter the claims of abuse.
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Warshak’s belief that “abused children cling tightly to their abuser” must explain why he seeks to reunite children with potential abusers then. Warshak runs a “treatment facility” in Texas that, for the whopping price tag of $40,000, reunites child(ren), at times forcibly, with the denigrated parent. I’ve included a link to a case in Canada, where an alienated mother, who had the financial resources, sought to reunify with her sons at his center. Note Warshak never actually met the sons but called it alienation nonetheless.
Domestic violence advocates and censorship
The domestic violence community, along with many major medical and psychological associations, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, rejects PA as a legitimate diagnosis. At least eight of us, representing domestic violence advocates and survivors, tried to post comments on Warshak’s article explaining our position. While a few posts remained, most, in our supposition, were deleted because they disagreed with the author. One advocate was banned. Apparently, this is not the first time people have complained about the comment section of the Huffington Post.
Nearly all the comments were citations to research, quotes and other factual information, including how PAS does not meet the standard of scientific reliability, about Warshak’s reunification center and its $40,000 price tag, and quotes from experts in the field, among other comments calling into question his analysis.
I included this quote from Dr. Paul Fink, President of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence and a former President of the Amercian Psychiatric Association:
“PAS is junk science at its worst…Science tells us that the most likely reason that a child becomes estranged from a parent is that parent’s own behavior. Labels, such as PAS, serve to deflect attention away from those behaviors.”
Mothers have informed us that when they make a good faith allegation, it is they who are doubted (see, for instance, cases such as those of Katie Tagle, where the judge called her a liar, gave the ex custody, and her baby was murdered by its father; or Amy Castillo, another woman who was denied a protective order and lost three children when her ex-husband drowned them in a hotel bathtub) and labeled abusive or ordered to undergo a polygraph test or psychiatric evaluation. The stereotype that women lie to gain the upperhand in custody cases, which occurs in only a fraction of cases, has more branding power than do mere facts. According to research, men in cases where both abuse and custody are in question actually make more false claims, according to research. The American Bar Association provides further information on custody myths.
Many of us understand the origins of PA are rooted in the misogynist and pro-pedophilia attitudes of Dr. Richard Gardner, who thought the mass sexual-abuse hysteria was caused by vindictive women falsely accusing fathers of abuse. (8) In reality, many protective parents feel as if this were a witchhunt against them -- mothers are not trusted, they’ve cast a spell on the kids to hate Dad --they must be punished! Jail them! Fine them! Take away their children! Like the “witches” of long past who would either sink or swim, mothers are in a similar bind – if they report abuse, they’re punished for being an alienator; if they don’t report it, they can be punished for failure to report.
Meanwhile, many of the alienating behaviors readers commented on can be attributed to personalities, parenting skills, or, in cases of abuse, domestic violence by proxy, whereby one parent continues to exert control and/or abuse over another. One advocate keeps a blog of parents that kill their child(ren) in cases pertaining to divorce and custody. She’s up to 136. Despite the fact that these marriages ended, the domestic violence continues and these deaths would be classified as domestic violence fatalities.Overwhelmingly, these killings are committed by men – with no tango partner, Mr. Warshak. In other words, party of one.
You can tell from the comment section how much these guys like women. If they got together, I can just imagine them in a big smokey room with leather chairs giving each other the wink and nod about the comment pertaining to Mother Theresa and Saddam Hussein. The idea of ‘equality with a vengeance’ comes to mind.
One poster, Target NoMore, refers to those opposing PA as a ‘special interest group’ that doesn’t want to stop the problem. People who want to protect children are not “special interest groups.”
If HuffPo is going to feature controversial authors whose work is not only rejected by the scientific community but also puts children at risk, why not at least allow evidence to be introduced in the comments section? What are they afraid of?
This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice