Parental Alienation in Virginia
In Virginia, courts are required to base custody and visitation determinations on the best interests of the child. The specific factors courts should consider in determining what is in a child’s best interests are set forth in Virginia Code § 20-124.3. One of these factors is:
[t]he propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child.
This factor generally appears in custody and visitation cases where one or both parents is speaking negatively about the other parent around the child, or overtly barring access to the child without cause. (Speaking negatively about the other parent “around the child” can include denigration of the other parent on social media.)
This factor also comes into play when the primary custodian fails to actively encourage the child to maintain or establish a relationship with the other parent; for example, by encouraging the child to call the parent or enjoy spending time with the parent.
However, what happens when a parent not only fails to actively support the child’s relationship with the other parent, but in fact takes the opposite approach? For example, when a parent actively and deliberately degrades the child’s relationship with the other parent, possibly going so far as to make the child believe they have suffered abuse at the hands of their other parent? In cases such as this, the child can exhibit a very real fear of their other parent, even though the basis for that fear has been entirely fabricated. In these and similar situations, the behavior of the misbehaving parent may rise to the level of “parental alienation.”
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation syndrome is a concept first developed by psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the early 1980s based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. Parental alienation, generally speaking, is a dynamic in which a child’s relationship with one parent is damaged or severed as the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent or by other family members.
Parental alienation may come in the form of conveying negatively skewed views of interactions with the other parent. For example, dad conveys to mom that an emergency has arisen and he will be unable to pick up the child for a scheduled visit. Mom withholds the dad’s reason for missing the visit from the child, and actively encourages the child to view the missed visit in a negative context. In the child’s eyes, dad has failed in his obligation for no good reason. By her actions, mom has sown seeds of discord in the child’s relationship with the father and possibly engaged in a form of parental alienation.
Parental alienation often occurs when one parent has the ear of the child and actively discusses litigation with them, giving them a “blow by blow” of the case while failing to contribute any positive information about the other parent.
The most severe form of parental alienation is when one parent manipulates the child into believing they have been abused by the other parent, when no such abuse occurred.
In many cases of parental alienation, the child appears to have a real fear or anxiety towards the alienated parent—e.g., panic or anxiety attacks immediately leading up to a visit or phone call—but cannot convey any specific reasons for their fear or anxiety (because none exist).
Obviously there are cases of real abuse or neglect, cases where the child has legitimate reasons for their fear or anxiety toward one parent. Those are issues for another blog post, and I won’t be addressing those cases directly here. However, it should not be overlooked that some experts in the psychiatric field have equated parental alienation in itself with mental or emotional abuse of a child.
The Impact of Parental Alienation in Virginia Custody Cases
More often than not, a custody and visitation case hinges on the custodial parent’s active involvement and active support of the relationship between the child and the other parent. For example, consider the following hypothetical:
A teenage girl, who has primarily resided with her father since birth, conveys to the court a fear of her mother and the desire to stay with her father. The girl has close relationships with her two brothers, who have also resided with the father since birth. These facts would usually support the father maintaining primary physical custody of the girl. However, the mother introduces evidence that the father engineered the destruction of the girl’s relationship with her mother: barring contact, fabricating a history of verbal and physical abuse, conveying only the low points in the mother’s parenting and acknowledging none of her positive contributions to her daughter’s well-being. Based on this evidence, the court could transfer the girl into the custody of her mother—a woman she has real fear of (although based upon the father’s fabrications)—because of the father’s parental alienation.
In cases of parental alienation, courts very seriously consider the detrimental impact that one parent’s active degradation of the parent-child relationship has on the overall well-being and best interests of the child. While no one factor is wholly determinate, the impact of parental alienation can substantially sway a judge’s decision.
For much more information on how Virginia courts decide custody cases, see our Guide to Custody in Virginia.
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