Should "Parental Alienation" Be Criminalized?

There is other recourse for this form of child abuse.

Posted May 05, 2019

In a previous blog post, I described what parental alienation is and how it occurs.  A reader of that blog inquired whether I think that parental alienation should be criminalized (i.e., be made illegal) with punitive consequences imposed for parents “convicted” of engaging in such conduct. 

When one parent methodically turns a child against the other, a “parentectomy” occurs.  In other words, the parent is cut out of that child’s life.  The child has been influenced so strongly that he or she rejects having a relationship with the demonized parent.  The affected child not only may refuse to talk to the parent, but also shun contact with relatives and friends. He may completely ignore his parent who is attending a school function, a sports event, or other activity.  All too often, the alienated parent is powerless to ameliorate the situation. The spurned parent grieves over the loss of contact with his child which he experiences as being like a death.  In a sense, it is worse.  The child lives, but the relationship is dead.

There is a contagion or ripple effect to parental alienation.  Grandparents and other relatives lose contact with the child.  Neighbors and longtime friends of the rejected parent are also excluded.  Anyone associated with the rejected parent may be treated as a toxic substance.  For example, a grandmother whose pride and joy is her grandchild may no longer be permitted to spend time with him. (In most states, grandparents do not have visitation rights.)

If an alienated child is asked why he is rejecting his parent, he provides vague responses, repeats what he has been told, or refuses to discuss the matter. He may use language that is not typical of his usual manner of speaking. In some of the most pernicious cases, while functioning as a mouthpiece for the other parent, the child may level false accusations that result in intervention by social service agencies or involvement of law enforcement officers.

Parental alienation exists and must be recognized for the damage that it inflicts.  Because the injury to the child is tantamount to child abuse, it is understandable that some people believe that an alienating parent should be charged with committing a crime.

Arguing against criminalizing parental alienation is the fact that it is often difficult to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The parent making the claim may have to demonstrate that his own behavior is not the cause of the alleged alienation. Furthermore, in many jurisdictions parental alienation is not recognized as a “syndrome” or as a formal “diagnosis.”

Such cases rarely are cut and dried, but there is recourse.  Judges in family courts, juvenile courts, and circuit courts are able to hear extensive testimony and weigh the evidence.  Courts can address parental alienation by ordering independent psychological evaluations of the parents, a custody evaluation, a family assessment and, if deemed in the best interest of the child, courts can enact changes to the custodial arrangement.