Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

What Is Fairness?

In parental alienation cases, a presumption of equal blame can be unfair.

Posted Oct 12, 2017

I was chatting with a family law attorney the other day. He seemed like a nice guy. He was definitely receptive to the idea of parental alienation—I was feeling quite positive about him. That changed suddenly when he declared that when he worked as a law guardian he felt that he succeeded at his job if everyone ended up mad at him. He expressed the belief that when both sides are equally upset, he must have been fair. I hear the same sentiment from custody evaluators and even judges. On the face of it makes sense and feels intuitively right. If everyone is mad, then the evaluator did his job because he avoided bias. He was impartial, equally critical of the two parents, and was therefore fair.

Like many aspects of parental alienation, this sentiment was another indication of how counter-intuitive parental alienation can be. I had such a visceral reaction to the expression of this belief that I probably over-reacted when I chided him for equating spreading the blame with fairness. “What if one parent is abusing the children and the other parent is not?” What if the blame is not even in reality, should your report and findings evenly allocate blame under that circumstance? I asked in a rather pointed fashion. I proceeded to explain that, in cases of alienation, it is wrong to have a presumption that a good job means being equally critical of both parents. I would argue that fair—rather than having a presumption of equal contribution to the problem—means having no preconception at all and therefore being open to the truth of each case.

According to Merriam-Webster, fair means “marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” If one recognizes the reality that in many cases of high conflict custody battles the two parents are not equally culpable, then it would be actually unfair to conclude that they were. This is why it is so important to train legal and mental health professionals that—although it might feel right and pleasing to think of every dispute as resulting from two badly behaving parents, this is not always the case. It is actually fairer to start with no assumption one way or the other. A fair conclusion in one that holds each parent accountable for his or her behavior A fair conclusion is one that identifies parental alienation for what it is, an insidious form of psychological maltreatment. A fair solution is one that allows a child to love and be loved by both parents.