"Parental alienation syndrome": It's not a real disease, but some people want it to be.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 17 2011 7:09 PM

Mommy Hates Daddy, and You Should Too

The extraordinary fight over "parental alienation syndrome" and what it means for divorce cases.

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Even without a scientific basis, parental alienation, like climate denialism, has its own language, passions, and saliency. Right or wrong, recognized or not, most family courts now take PAS extremely seriously. Experts testify, court-appointed advocates offer diagnoses, and family-court judges regularly adopt alienation explanations as a way of rejecting abuse allegations. As Meier wrote in a 2009 article: "Despite the palpably extreme and unbalanced quality of both the PAS theory and the thinking of its author, as well as the lack of scientific basis, the theory has for over a decade become virtually ubiquitous in family courts."

The science just doesn't matter now. Even though no appellate court has found evidence of PAS to meet the scientific standards for legal admissibility, courts admit evidence of precisely the same phenomenon all the time, and by calling it "parental alienation," they achieve the same effect: overlooking allegations of abuse by one parent in order to blame the other for "alienating" the child. In other words, whether science supports them or the DSM-5 ultimately validates them, the supporters of Richard Gardner and parental alienation may have already won. While nobody was looking, a mythical legal argument known as parental alienation may have already taken over family courts.

Correction, May 18, 2011: This article originally misidentified William Bernet as Richard. (Return to the corrected sentence.)