Sauber (2006) argued that many mental health professionals are reluctant to become more than superficially involved in these difficult cases because each parent's attorney will challenge them unless they support that parent's position. Advocacy for one parent leads opposing counsel to attempt to discredit them, disregard their evaluation, or present their work as inadequate in an effort to remove them from the case (Sauber, 2006). If the mental health professional lacks sufficient knowledge and understanding of parental alienation, or is inexperienced in the courtroom, the opposing attorney may succeed in confusing the judge.
Fidler and Bala (2010) explained that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for one mental health professional to achieve desired objectives and meet the various complex and often competing needs of different family members. Trouble is certain to begin where a mental health professional assumes additional roles, such as arbitrator. This can compromise the practitioner's effectiveness and neutrality in the eyes of family members. Indeed, assuming the dual roles of therapist and decision maker poses serious ethical and practical issues (Greenberg, Gould, Schneider, Gould-Saltman, & Martindale, 2003; Kirkland & Kirkland, 2006; Sullivan, 2004). There are basically four roles mental health professionals occupy in high-conflict custody cases: Evaluator, Therapist, Parent Coordinator, and Reunification Specialist.
In high conflict cases, especially when claims of parental alienation are being evaluated, the child's sense of themselves and their histories – the stories they tell about themselves and their parents – must be carefully scrutinized, as these stories are where themes of alienation will be found. Sauber and Worenklein (2012) have addressed the pertinent and unique issues involved in conducting a custody evaluation in alienation cases, particularly the need to dispel false allegations with credible evidence. Evaluators must be careful to trace ideas, stories, and allegations back to their origins. In this sense, the CCE resembles more an investigation than a psychological evaluation. In order to determine the truthfulness of a given story, the evaluator is obligated to track down the factual information. One of the authors of this chapter found themselves on the phone with a bank in another state to determine if, as the father had alleged, his former wife and robbed it of all funds. A phone call to the specific bank revealed that this allegation was simply untrue. Further such investigative calls and detective work exposed other untruths, revealing the theme of false allegations against what ended up being the targeted parent. Failure to act in this investigative manner – to track down the truth – would not have revealed this important information.
Rumors may have their origins in real or imagined happenings, and must be carefully investigated in like manner. The evaluator considering them must engage in this investigative process – to track down the truth – or risk inadvertently supporting a false allegation. An allegation against a parent that is not followed up on and investigated has, by default, its own life, and tends to be considered to have some validity. Evaluators who, albeit inadvertently, perpetuate false information by failing to investigate the facts contribute to, rather than alleviate, a family's distress. In so doing, they become part of the problem (Greenberg, Gould, Gould-Saltman & Stahl, 2003; Stahl, 2003). Unfortunately, this is very common in CCE's.
Evaluators must also be cognizant of the interactive dynamics between the parents, between each parent and the children, between the children and their siblings, between the parents and the children's network of social support (stepparents, grandparents, friends, parents of friends, school personnel, etc.), and between the parents and their communities. The use of multiple interviews among the interested parties as well as collateral interviews is essential, as these interviews often serve to confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis about the dynamics of the family. For example, it is generally suspect to only hear negative information about a parent, from only the possibly alienated child and his or her cohorts. Corroboration of these negative allegations about a parent should be sought from neutral sources, not just within the potentially alienated child's environment. Repeated interviews of the children with significant members of their social support network may be very important in that they provide a field where this corroboration or disproof may be found. It cannot be stressed enough that the evaluator must perform these investigative duties in order to determine the truth or falseness of one parent's allegations against the other. Failure to do so is tantamount to malpractice.
It cannot be repeated too frequently, that the evaluator must be clear that in alienation scenarios, the alienating parent generally holds strongly negative views of the rejected parent, characterizing that parent as toxic or dangerous or unable to appropriately care for the child. It is important for the evaluator to keep in mind that the alienating parent may or may not believe their false allegations about the other parent. Alienating parents who tend to believe the distortions that they report about the other parent, do so very genuinely and earnestly, since they believe their own distortions. Additionally, the alienating parent does not often see the value of the relationship between the child and the rejected parent. They may feel this way, but also recognize that it is unwise to say this to the evaluator. They therefore may give lip service to the other parent's qualities, but their comments will be hollow and without example.
Alienating parents tend to have difficulty separating their own feelings from those of the child (Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005 referring to their study of alignment). This blurring of boundaries is typically an expression of the pathological enmeshment found within parental alienation cases. That is, the alienating parent will be angry with the other parent, and will project this anger onto the child, truly not realizing they are doing so. This projected anger will be absorbed by the child who eventually will become alienated because of it. Generally, when a parent is focused on his or her anger at the other parent, children are more likely to experience increased hostility, inconsistent discipline, or withdrawal by the parent (Grych, 2005). However, when this anger and hostility exists within the context of alienation, the damage is much greater to the child. Under this scenario, the child tends to merge with the alienating parent as a survival mechanism and the evaluator must be aware of this dynamic and be able to identify it. This again, goes back to the concept of pathological enmeshment which is axiomatic to the alienating parent-alienated child relationship. One can simply not have alienation without it.
But who are the alienators, and what do they do? In the past, Gardner was accused of asserting that mothers were the most common alienators. This is and was untrue. Hobbs (2006) asserted that alienators can be parents of either gender. Both parents are capable of being alienating parents and most estimates are that the ratio is about evenly divided at 50/50 (Gardner, 1992). Be it the mother or the father, when the alienating parent engages in alienating behavior, such behavior is manifested by attacks on the other parent through the child. As the child sits in this "conduit" position, they become alienated. Baker and Fine (2013) outline 17 empirically validated behaviors engaged in by alienating parents. All of the specific behaviors ranging from "badmouthing" the targeted parent to the child, to withholding the child from the targeted parent, to telling the child that the targeted parent does not love them, to telling the child that the targeted parent is dangerous, and all other inappropriate actions; all have the effect of falsely vilifying the targeted parent and using those false allegations to separate them from the child. All have the effect of denigrating the relationship between the targeted parent and the child and all are premised on portraying the targeted parent in very negative ways. All of these behaviors constitute some sort of negative allegation against the targeted parent that the child is exposed to and then infused with. These allegations are obviously intended not only to hurt the target parent but also to manipulate others into believing the same negative image of the targeted parent.
This then has the effect of expanding the number of voices in a growing chorus against the targeted parent. The result will be that the targeted parent will begin to feel shunned by, for example, the children's school personnel, when they had been warmly welcomed before. It may take the form of the targeted parent no longer getting information about the medical care of their child from the doctor's office and being told that only the "other parent" should be given this information. The list of examples can go on extensively. The point is that the targeted parent begins to feel themselves being treated in cool and aloof ways when such was not the case before. It is important for the evaluator to take a "temperature" of this environment of rejection and vilification that the targeted parent now feels. Again, the competent evaluator will investigate this change and speak to those who have begun to reject or shun the targeted parent in order to discover the source of the change of attitude. In cases of alienation, the evaluator will find that the source ultimately leads back to the alienating parent, either directly or indirectly. In such cases, the evaluator will find that those collateral sources did rarely, if ever, observe anything directly, but were told of troubling events.
When the targeted parent begins to experience this sort of generalized rejection, for reasons unrelated to any actions of their own, it is common for the targeted parent to react with emotion, often with expressions of anger and confusion. Whatever the reaction, the targeted parent is at risk of having their reaction taken as not an exception to their normal behavior, but as emblematic of that parent. Consequently, if the alienated father goes to the child's school and is upset by the schools resistance to speaking to the teacher or counselor, and then raises his voice in protest over this unreasonable response, his raised voice is then misinterpreted by the school personnel who begin to think to themselves, "Oh, I see why this child does not want to see his father. He has an anger problem." In this way the alienation process continues to grow and evolve. It is the evaluator's job to capture this process. The only way to do this is through speaking to the school personnel to determine the source of negative information.
Johnston and Roseby (1997) describe this process as "sabotage," in that the false vilification of the targeted parent directly sabotages and damages the child's view of that parent. In other words, the alienating parent may not even be aware that their animus towards the other parent and its expression has a directly damaging effect on the child's relationship with that other parent. Furthermore, when a child does become alienated from a parent to the degree that they lose that parent in their life; that loss is and will be devastating to that child's wellbeing (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).
Assessing The Best Interests Of The Children
Given the substantial damage that parental alienation can cause, it is critical that it be diagnosed early on and accurately. Given that this question is raised within the intersection of mental health and family law, such diagnosis is typically made by court appointed custody evaluators. These evaluations are complex psychological assessments that evaluate the parents as individuals, the child individually, as well as the parent-child relationships. The sources of data for this evaluative process are multiple and typically enormous in volume. The various strategies involved in such evaluations have evolved over time, and the details of this history are not the subject of this chapter. Suffice it to say that there is agreement that the concept of the Best Interest of the Child is the proper focus of such evaluations. Consideration of the wishes and wellbeing of the parent have little or no place in the evaluation, the sole focus being on what is best for the children. There are several extant and detailed discussion-descriptions of custody evaluations that go far beyond the scope of this chapter which outline this evolution (Gould & Martindale, 2007; Birnbaum, Fidler, & Kavassalis, 2007; Stahl, 1999b; Stahl, 1994). The specific focus for this discussion however, is the subset of Custody Evaluations wherein parental alienation is suspected and evaluated for.
In cases where parental alienation is being evaluated or is suspected, there is a common element: the child(ren) are resistant to or refuse to see one parent and are closely aligned with the other. The evaluator's role is to determine the cause of this alignment and then to potentially make recommendations to the court as to the best interest of the child. When children either refuse to see or are resistant to seeing a parent, assuming that a prior relationship existed between the child and the parent, such behavior derives from two basic sources. The first, termed "estrangement," comes from negative, neglectful, abusive or otherwise objectionable behavior on the part of that parent, towards that child. Estranged children do not wish to see that parent due to that parent's past behavior, resulting in that child being frightened of them or angry at them. The second possibility, termed "alienation," results from the child being resistant to or refusing to see that parent, not due to that parent's actions, but rather due to the other parent's improper influence. Alienated children show very strong sentiments about not wishing to see that parent and are often bereft with explanation as to why. The mission of the custody evaluator in this situation is to consider these two competing hypotheses – Estrangement vs Alienation – and to elicit data that tests both hypotheses. If properly done, the result and outcome should unfold directly from the data. The purpose of this section is to alert the reader as to what to be aware of in eliciting these data, either as an attorney representing a client, or as a forensic psychologist called upon to perform such an evaluation.
States are nearly unanimous in their agreement that the best interests of the child involve joint custody (American Law Institute, 2002), and this view has been supported by empirical research indicating that children fare better in the post-divorce environment with either joint custody or substantial contact with the noncustodial parent (Emery, 1999). Put another way, it is widely accepted that children have more favorable adjustment to their parent's divorce and have fewer psychological problems from it, when they have a strong attachment to both parents. Obviously, such attachment is premised on the child having ongoing contact with both of their parents. Both the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Herman et al., 1997) and ALI's Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution (American Law Institute, 2002) recommend assessing parent-child attachment when defining the "best interest of the child". The American Law Institute's (ALI) Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution (2002) highlights that the primary objective when determining custody placements is to serve the child's best interests.
Given the complexity of custody evaluations, it would seem reasonable that there would be rules and standards to be followed in the performance of these complicated tasks. Virtually all of the models and guidelines to be discussed below are in agreement that any such evaluation must be based in the scientific method and be empirically validated with scientific principles (Gould & Martindale, 2007). As Gould and Martindale write, "Science is characterized by its utilization of methods that help reduce or eliminate the inherent bias of casual, unfiltered impressions based on personal belief and expectation. Scientific methods also help reduce bias attributable to professional beliefs and expectations" (Gould & Martindale, 2007). They go on to delineate between a "clinical evaluation" and a "forensic evaluation," with the Child Custody Evaluation (CCE) being an example of the latter. By contrast, the clinical evaluation derives from the treatment process where the clinician is acting as an advocate for the client. In so doing, the therapist accepts rather uncritically the patient's view of things, "meeting the patient where they are," as therapists often say. The forensic evaluation on the other hand, is not based on advocacy and unconditional acceptance, but rather developing neutral, unbiased scientific information to be conveyed to the court very often, in the form of recommendations as to what is in the child's best interest. In an effort to protect this level of objectivity and avoid bias, several Guidelines have been developed to aide in the performance of the CCE, and to protect its objectivity.
The American Psychological Association published such guidelines for the performance of custody evaluations in 1994, and then revised them in 2010. As the revised guidelines state; "Guidelines differ from Standards in that standards are mandatory and may be accompanied by an enforcement mechanism. Guidelines are aspirational in intent" (American Psychological Association, 2010). These 2010 guidelines are divided into three categories: Purpose of the Child Custody Evaluation (CCE), Preparing for the CCE, and Conducting the CCE. It is clear that the goal of the various guidelines is to stress the scientific foundation of the evaluation and the importance of following the basic principles of science to reduce subjectivity. It is also clear that clinical judgment is to be used by the evaluator in performing the evaluation. Hence, the principles are guidelines and not standards. With this we can see that there is sensitivity to establishing some sort of balance in both maintaining a foundation in science, while still giving the evaluator the freedom to exercise his or her clinical judgment. Related to the Custody Guidelines, the American Psychological Association also maintains Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, first published in 1991 and then updated and revised in 2013. These guidelines are, like the Custody guidelines, aspirational in nature.
We note that the CCE guidelines state that "comprehensive child custody evaluations generally require an evaluation of all parents or guardians and children, as well as observations of interactions between them." Gould and Stahl (2000) clarify the importance of this requirement when they write, "We can think of no defensible position in which an evaluator does not directly observe parent-child interactions when conducting a child custody evaluation" Stahl (1994) recommends home visits for children 5 years of age and younger due in part to concerns about the child's comfort level in the office. He also referred to getting "a qualitative feel for the differences between parents" and the type of situation that they provide for the young child.
The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), a multidisciplinary body of judges, attorneys, and forensic psychologists, concerns itself with advancing best practice models to aid the Family Court in its difficult task of deciding custody and visitation issues. In so doing, they published their own standards, "Model Standards for Practice for Child Custody Evaluation," which represents perhaps the most detailed and fleshed out of the various sets of guidelines (AFCC, 2006). In both in the AFCC's previously published standards as well as its newest draft, the group insists that evaluators observe parents and children in interactions together as part of gathering useful data from a variety of sources and in multiple ways (AFCC, 1995; AFCC, 2006). While this may seem obvious, the fact that it had to be stated so clearly is evidence of the wildly inconsistent manner in which custody evaluations had been performed in the past.
Furthermore, an understanding of pathological enmeshment is especially important to our topic of custody evaluations in cases where parental alienation is present, since the relationship between the alienating or favored parent and the alienated child is one of pathological enmeshment. If an evaluator is not clear on this, he or she may easily misinterpret the close "appearing" relationship between the favored parent and the child as being simply close and healthy, when in fact is actually pathologically enmeshed. The evaluator must be equipped to evaluate this relationship closely. To do this, the evaluator must be mindful of the language usage, nonverbal communication and lock-step similarity between the parent and the child's stories. This is best done in both individual sessions with the child and then in joint sessions with the child and the favored parent. Additionally, testing the child's ability to have a different point of view from the parent is also helpful. The point is, that the competent evaluator in a parental alienation case must have this information and these tools "on board" to discern between a healthy and close parent child relationship and a pathologically enmeshed one. They can look very much alike on the surface, but are very nearly at opposite end of a spectrum internally.
Observing And Interviewing – Some Basic Research Findings
During the course of the evaluation, the evaluator will have multiple opportunities to speak to the child(ren), both alone and presumably with each parent. Very often, alienated children will have been interviewed by other adults about rumors or stories concerning the targeted parent. Examples of this would be the child who has been interviewed by a Child Protective Team or a therapist. It is important for the evaluator to be aware of these prior interactions, since they may impact the content of what the child is saying. Children usually bring preconceived notions about communicating with adults based on their experiences with adults, whom they naturally experience as sources of authority. These implicit conversational rules – developmentally driven – will impact a child's understanding and language. For example, younger children tend to assume that adults are honest and sincere and that a speaker's comments are always congruent with his or her true beliefs and purpose (Grice, 1975; Demorest, Meyer, Phelps, Gardner, & Winner, 1984).
Children learn at a very young age (2 to 3 years) that conversation is an interactive, cooperative exchange between people that involves a discernible pattern of one person asking a question and the other providing an answer (Bloom, 1991). Children by the age of 2 years also believe that they should begin speaking immediately after their conversational partner has stopped doing so (Bloom, Rocissano, & Hood, 1976). When an adult repeatedly questions a child about a specific topic or an event, the child is likely to assume that the adult knows the correct answer to the question. When the child observes that adult asking the same question repeatedly, the child is likely to interpret the interaction as the child having provided the wrong answer. Under these circumstances, the child is very likely to produce a different answer to the same repeated question, in an effort to get the "right answer" (Siegal, Waters, & Dinwiddy, 1988). A competent evaluator will understand and be able to explain that: "Young children interpret adult questions such as 'Are you sure?' or 'What about this one?' as a cue that their first answer must have been incorrect and they should produce a different response" (Ricci, Beal & Dekle 1996).
Many times the descriptions made by alienated children are virtually impossible as they violate the laws of physics. Additionally, the adult may overestimate the child's ability to accurately communicate information to an adult (Asher, 1976). Hughes and Grieve asked 5- and 8-year olds a series of "bizarre" questions (i.e. questions that did not permit direct answers, such as "Is milk bigger than water?" and "Is red heavier than yellow?") and discovered that children of both age groups frequently provided answers to such questions.
Perry, McAuliff, Tam, and Claycomb (1995) and Carter, Bottoms, and Levine (1996) have also done empirical research that yielded findings mirroring those of the Hughes and Grieve study. Both groups of researchers observed that children of various ages often attempt to answer questions that contain linguistically complex language features (e.g., double negatives, multiple parts, difficult vocabulary) that clearly exceed children's developmental capabilities. Within the context of alienation, the evaluator must be familiar with these subtleties of language and age appropriate communication abilities. When children become alienated they come to believe things that did not occur and often simply echo language that they have heard from adults. For example, a very young child might say that they were "molested" but when asked what that means, be unable to provide an answer, making it highly suggestive that this is something they overheard or were even told directly. The sub-topic of the evaluation of sex abuse allegations is addressed below.
Given the significant influence that adult interviewers potentially have over child interviewees, it is important for the evaluator/interviewer to create as non-threatening an environment as possible. One basic way to achieve this goal is to begin the interview by simply describing what will happen during the interview. In language a child can understand, interviewers should explain the purpose of the interview and stress that they are asking questions because they do not know the answers. Interviewers should remind children that they are not being questioned because they did something wrong or because they are in trouble, but because the interviewer needs the child's help and input. Framing the task as a cooperative endeavor to discover the truth minimizes the confrontational nature of the interview, thus reducing children's worry about answering and expressing their lack of understanding or knowledge. Interviewers should ensure the child understands that there are no right or wrong answers as long as the child is telling the truth.
Children should be encouraged throughout the interview to ask for clarification when they do not understand a question or something the interview has said. Finally, the interviewer should frame questions in open ended ways, in an effort to avoid influencing the child's answer. For example, if there is concern that a father might have abused a child, the interviewer should pose a question more like, "How are things with your dad?" rather than "Did your daddy hurt you?" The latter, overly determined question, directs the child's attention to basically a yes or no answer. This kind of over narrowing tends to make the child search for the "right answer" and is much less likely to provide useful and valid information.
Empirical research has revealed a trade-off between the amount and the accuracy of information obtained via open- versus close-ended questions. Open-ended questions tend to yield highly accurate, although somewhat limited, accounts from children (Dent & Stephenson, 1979; Hutcheson, Baxter, Telfer, & Warden, 1995). A competent evaluator will also be prepared to point out that researchers Yael Orbach and Michael Lamb (2001) documented that:
Option posing, yes/no, and suggestive questions subvert children's competency, foster acquiescence to misleading information, and increase the retrieval of erroneous information…. Option posing utterances… focus the child's attention on details or aspects of the alleged incident that the child has not previously mentioned.
Research has examined children's memories for a wide variety of events, ranging from fairly innocuous incidents such as playing games with an unfamiliar confederate (Goodman & Reed, 1986) or performing and imagining various activities (Gordon, Jens, Shaddock, & Watson, 1991) to more serious events, such as participating in pediatric examinations (Baker-Ward, Gordon, Ornstein, Larus, & Clubb, 1993; Steward & Steward, 1996), visiting the dentist (Vandermaas, Hess, & Baker-Ward, 1993), or receiving venipuncture or inoculations (Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991). This research has consistently documented children's tendency to accurately, but incompletely, report events in response to open-ended and free recall questions. In contrast, studies examining the effects of close-ended questions on children's reports show that this type of question typically elicits more complete and thorough, yet less accurate, accounts than open-ended question do (King & Yuille, 1987; Dent, 1992). The additional information gained by using close-ended questions often comes at the cost of decreased accuracy.
For these reasons, most researchers agree that interviewers should strive to maximize the use of open-ended questions when interviewing children. Others (e.g., Lamb, Sternberg, & Esplin, 1994; M. S. Steward & Steward, 1996) have recommended that when more specific, directive questions are used during an interview, they should be followed by open-ended prompts to help shift the child back to the free recall response style (Lamb et al., 1996). Moreover, if a professional combines the open- and close-ended questioning strategies, every effort should be made to let the child relate the information in his or her own words before posing more specific, close-ended questions.
We emphasize the concerns about questioning for several reasons. First, evaluators must be aware of and conversant with current research concerning the manner in which parents can influence children's memories. Second, because brainwashing and parental alienations involve manipulation, evaluators must be familiar with current research concerning suggestibility. Finally, we emphasize the issue of questioning because evaluators will often be asked to assess children who have been in therapy and in this regard, a competent evaluator must know how various therapies for children can be deleterious and how memory modifications occur in adult / child interactions.
Parental Influences On Children's Memory
What children "remember" changes dramatically under parental questioning. Memory, in the most general sense for adults as well as for children, is more akin to being a constructed estimate of the past than it is to being a recording of the past (Schacter, 2002). This is counterintuitive since memory certainly feels more like a recording than a construct, but there is a great deal of research that shows otherwise. The consequence of this constructive process is that memory is quite malleable and even arbitrary. This is vitally important for the evaluator to understand in investigating the content of what a child is describing as being a memory.
Adults and especially parents have a great influence over how a child remembers events. Anxious parents have serious impact, for example, it has been shown that, "…maternal over reporting of anxious symptoms was related systematically to the level of maternal anxiety" (Frick, Silverthorn & Evans, 1994). Parents, their friends and others in the community can likewise have an impact on how a child remembers an event. For example, if an alienated child's alienating parent is effective in convincing other parents of some event that has been distorted and portrayed in a negative manner, these other adults who have begun to believe the distortion, will have an impact on the child's' memory of the event.
For example, suppose that a child was upset and tearful at a given event, and the target parent was seen holding her in an effort to appropriately comfort her. Then suppose further that this actual comforting exchange between father and daughter was later described by the alienating parent as the little girl being tearful because she was afraid of her father. Then suppose after that, the child conveyed this myth within her community of friends and parents. The result of this group influence could likely be that the child began to believe the distortions leading to her actually describing herself as being afraid of her father. The evaluator must be conversant with this phenomenon of influence within the child's recollection of events.
Pipe and Wilson (1994) found that children may conceal information from an authority figure that they have been asked to keep secret by an adult. Further, there is evidence that children may be more likely to keep secret, serious transgressions, perhaps because of the negative consequences that would result from their revelation (e.g., Bottoms, Goodman, Schwartz-Kenney, & Thomas, 2002; Talwar, Lee, Bala, & Lindsay, 2004). In other words, the cautions that the evaluator/interviewer must be sensitive to, in order to avoid contaminating a child's answer, are precisely the same influences that parents and other adults impact children with every day.
To add to the dizzying evidence that objective reporting of any event is subject to enormous influences, and is therefore easily subject to distortion, there is also research that parents are not "able to accurately recall whether [statements] were the child's own words or if her statement is a reconstruction of a conversation in which the child provided one-word answers to a series of direct and possibly leading questions from the mother" (Bruck, Ceci & Francoeur, 1999).
A competent evaluator must be familiar with these works, very often to be able to explain it to the court. One final example of such research can be found in Debra Poole and Stephen Lindsay's stunning report of the "Mr. Science" (1995) experiments where parents merely suggested a behavior that Mr. Science may have performed when in fact he did not. The fact that the parents stated that an event may have occurred was enough to impact the child's description and presumably their memory of this event that never occurred. In this series of experiments, the researchers plainly stated that "Misinformation provided by parents is an extremely powerful contaminant of preschoolers' testimonies" (Poole & Lindsay, 1995). It is familiarity with this kind of research that can be very helpful to the court when trying to understand how and why a child may be describing events that simply did not happen.
Basic Suggestibility Research And Evaluators
In high conflict custody cases, the competent evaluator must be familiar with concepts like confirmatory bias, the repeated question effect, and source monitoring error, as well as other cognitive errors. Familiarity with these concepts requires that the evaluator should have on hand standard references in the field of suggestibility, such as Ceci, Toglia & Ross, 1987; Wakefield & Underwager, 1990; Ceci, Ross & Toglia, 1989; Doris, 1991; Ceci & Bruck, 1993; Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Johnson, 1993; Bruck & Ceci, 1997; Loftus, 1997; Poole & Lamb, 1998; Campbell, 1998; Hyman, 1999; Ceci & Friedman, 2000; Kuehnle & Connell 2009.) The susceptibility to recollection and memory manipulation is called suggestibility and can be defined as the degree to which the encoding, storage, retrieval, and reporting of events can be influenced by a range of internal and external factors that can be present before or after the event.
Additionally and most recently, Miller (2013) has an excellent discussion of the various cognitive errors, biases and other sources of clinical error as it applies specifically to parental alienation cases. Perhaps the classic volume on the subject of children's description of events alleging abuse is Jeopardy in the Courtroom (Ceci & Bruck, 1995). In this book which was developed for a lay audience, Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck point out that adults may tilt the odds toward false disclosures for two reasons. First, the presence of extra adults, all of whom share the same beliefs about what may have transpired, may induce a child to join them. Second, extra adults multiply the number of questions that the child is asked about the same theme, "Tell us how you were sexually abused" (Ceci & Bruck, 1995). Among others, Ceci and Bruck use infamous interviews like those conducted by Lou Fonolleras in the Margaret Kelly Michaels case and Kee MacFarlane in the McMartin Preschool case to illustrate what interviewers should never do.
A competent evaluator should be prepared to inform the trier of fact about the standard reported experiments in child suggestibility such as:
- The Mousetrap study (Ceci, Huffman, & Smith, 1994)
- The Sam Stone study (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995) and
- The Simon Says study (Lepore & Sesco, 1994)
These three experiments are discussed for lay audiences in Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck's Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).
Why is all of this necessary? It is necessary because in high conflict custody disputes, the evaluator will be faced with parents who intentionally try to persuade their children that the other parent is unfit or otherwise unsuitable as a parent. As we have described, empirical evidence strongly suggests that children do incorporate parental suggestions into their memory for events, essentially contaminating and changing them (Poole & Lindsay, 1995). We remind that the evaluator should be concerned about one parent coaching a child to lie about the actions of the other parent. Research has demonstrate that under laboratory conditions, some children deliberately will tell a falsehood to an adult (i.e., that they played with a toy they had never touched) when asked to do so by another adult (Tate, Warren, & Hess, 1992). This evidence points to the extremely sensitive nature of adult – especially parental – influence onto the child's sense of reality and their reported memories of it.
Source monitoring, intelligence, and memory are often cited as predictors of individual differences in suggestibility and are included in many models of false memory development (Bruck & Ceci, 1997; Hyman, 1999; Johnson, 1993; Loftus, 1997). Additionally, findings regarding the relationship among self-confidence, self-esteem, and suggestibility are relatively consistent because children with higher self-confidence and higher self-esteem are less likely to acquiesce to suggestion (Vrij & Bush, 2000; Baxter, Jackson, & Bain, 2003; Gudjonsson & Sigurdsson, 2003; Peiffer & Trull, 2000). When these findings are applied within the context of parental alienation, the protective effects of intelligence and high self-esteem are mitigated. When children are in an alienator's environment, they are systematically encouraged to NOT think for themselves. They are actually punished, threatened or rejected for doing so. The net effect of this eventually overwhelms even the brightest and most confident. Therefore while the protective effects of intelligence and self-esteem are at work in children in normal environments, such appears to be much less the case with alienation. Anyone who has worked extensively in the field of parental alienation can describe many very bright, very self-confident (appearing) children who have nonetheless been manipulated and become alienated.
Observations And Interviews With Collaterals
With a good grasp for research findings concerning parental influences, suggestibility and the potential impact of therapy and therapist modifications, the evaluator will be better prepared for observations in natural settings. To those ends, there are tools which an evaluator may choose to use. The Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) is a well-researched and frequently cited environmental process measure initially designed specifically to sample certain aspects of the quality and quantity of social, emotional, and cognitive support available to 3 to 6 year old children in their home (Bradley & Caldwell, 1979; Linver, Brooks-Gunn, & Kohen, 2002).
The HOME was later expanded to address issues through mid-adolescence (Totsika & Sylva, 2004). Because any home observation is labor intensive, Frankenburg and Coons (1986) developed the Home Screening Questionnaire based on the HOME but completed in the office by parents. There was adequate validity and reliability for this measure, especially for toddlers, when compared to the HOME. As a result, about 85% of the issues that put an infant or toddler at risk were successfully identified by the less expansive questionnaire. These tools, while available, are rarely used in custody evaluations. We mention them as potential aid to the natural setting interviews which must be completed.
Interviews with collaterals are of the utmost importance in these evaluations. This cannot be stressed enough. Sadly, this is a component of custody evaluations that are often done more as an afterthought than as an essential tool of investigation and corroboration. As with all forensic evaluation, comparison of the history gathered from interviewing the parties with data from collateral sources who observed the family at other times and in other contexts can be extremely informative regarding alienation and abuse. In particular, observed interaction between parent and child should be compared to observations made prior to the parents' separation.
In cases of alienation, the evaluator must be very sensitive to the collateral's source of information. Specifically, did they witness this with their own eyes and ears, or where they told about it by a third party? While it may seem obvious that this would be carefully discerned, one must be aware of the fact that alienating parents are expert at convincing collateral sources of an event to the degree that the collateral witness portrays him or herself as being a witness – actually witnessing the event – when close questioning reveals that they were not actual witnesses. In the author's experience, these collateral sources are very often duped into conveying this misinformation and are not even aware of it until they are asked directly.
We reiterate, alienating parents often do not recognize that their behavior is problematic or even that they are engaging in behaviors that influence the child. Research has demonstrated that parents of severely alienated children have a very high incidence of Axis II personality disorder, specifically Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Lorandos, 2013). One common characteristic of these personality disorders is that these individuals have a deficit in their ability to critique or to even view their own behavior. As a consequence, if one cannot "step outside" of oneself and critique one's own behavior, wrongdoing always appears to be due to the actions of others.
Consequently, persons with these personality disorders, are notorious victims and have great difficulty taking responsibility for their own behavior. They simply cannot see it. As a result, they commonly exhibit these behaviors during observations of the parent with the child, and when confronted with it, they will often deny what they had just said, and do so with great credibility. An alienating parent's behaviors may take the form of direct statements to the child about the inadequacies of the other parent, telling the child to be sure to tell the evaluator about some negative aspect of the other parent, and manifesting approving gestures when the child says negative things about the other parent. Sometimes these interactions are sufficiently subtle that they are best observed and documented through video recordings.
Standardized Testing In High Conflict Custody Cases
Some evaluators and researchers hold that the use of a psychological test battery makes it possible to obtain data that shed light on a large number of personality, cognitive, emotional, and other dimensions at one point in time. Consequently, the use of psychological testing in child custody evaluations is very often considered a standard procedure among these psychologists (M. J. Ackerman & Ackerman, 1997; Bow & Quinnell, 2001; Quinnell & Bow, 2001). A number of studies have looked at assessment methodology in the child custody context in terms of the use of psychological tests (M. J. Ackerman & Ackerman, 1997; Bow & Quinnell, 2001; Horvath, Logan, & Walker, 2002; Karras & Berry, 1985; Keilin & Bloom, 1986; Quinnell & Bow, 2001)
The tests used in custody evaluation are of two kinds: tests primarily designed to evaluate psychological qualities whose results are applied to custody issues, and tests designed primarily to address custody issues. While the frequency of use of specific psychological tests has been challenged (Hagen & Castagna, 2001), their continued use remains common. However, in its Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC, 2006) declares:
The use of formal assessment instruments is not always necessary. Where those who are legally permitted to administer and score psychological assessment instruments elect not to do so, they shall recognize that they may be called upon to articulate the basis for that decision (Model Standard 6.1).
Proponents of standardized measures like Meyer and colleagues (Meyer et al., 2001) explain that the use of a psychological test battery provides an empirically based set of data that allows for more precise measurement of individual characteristics than is usually obtained from interviews alone. However, other reviewers have suggested that there are few psychometrically sound assessment instruments and strategies in this field (Emery, Otto, & O'Donohue, 2005; O'Donohue & Bradley, 1999; Otto, Edens, & Barcus, 2000). As Otto and colleagues (2000) noted, a common error is to use psychological tests that do not address psycho-legal issues directly relevant to the child custody questions. The argument could be made that no readily available standardized measure picked for use in a high conflict custody case can meet appropriate use criteria.
For example, Heilbrun (1995) gives eight criteria that tests should meet in order to be used in a child custody evaluation: The test must (1) be commercially available; (2) have a published manual describing development, psychometric properties, and procedures for administration; (3) be peer-reviewed in professional journals; (4) have ongoing research exploring its usefulness (validity); (5) have test-retest reliability that is at least .80; (6) be relevant to the legal issues or the psychological construct underlying a legal issue; (7) be administered in a standardized fashion; and (8) have measures of response style.
Hurley and colleagues (Hurley, Huscroft-D'Angelo, Tout, Griffith, & Epstein, 2013) established criteria for validity and response bias and conducted an analysis of 164 measures ostensibly designed to assess parenting skills. Of the 164 assessment tools they reviewed, the team looked very closely at 25 measures which met many of their criteria, noting that only 5 of the 164 measures met 7 or more of their 10 criteria. They gave their top ratings to the Child Abuse Potential Inventory (CAPI); the Alabama Parenting Measure (APM); the Parenting Alliance Measure (PAM); the Parenting Scale and the Parent-Child Relationship Inventory (PCRI). Curiously, only the Child Abuse Potential Inventory (CAPI) and the Parent-Child Relationship Inventory (PCRI) had response bias measures.
Indeed, other commentators have criticized the use of standardized measure in custody evaluations (Brodzinsky, 1993; Grisso, 1986; Grisso, 2003; Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1997). While early criticism focused on the selection of inappropriate tests and the use of psychological test data to develop diagnostic impressions that were misleading, pejorative, or invalid (Grisso, 1986). Other criticisms pointed to overutilization of psychological tests without psycholegal relevance (Brodzinsky, 1993; Melton et al., 1997). Recently, professional debates have raged over the use of surveys (Ackerman & Pritzl, 2011; Ackerman & Pritzl, 2012; Martindale & Bow, 2007; Martindale, Tippins, Ben-Porath, Wittmann, & Austin, 2012) as well as use or misuse of the ubiquitous MMPI (Ben-Porath & Flens, 2012; Butcher & Williams, 2012). Certainly use of any survey or psychometric measure in a high conflict child custody case must be done with the American Psychological Associations' Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings (American Psychological Association, 2010); Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2013) and the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2010).
Another approach which focuses more on the relationships within a family, blends observation with standardized measures developed by Bricklin and Elliot (2006). These researchers have spent decades scrutinizing children's sense of their relationships with others. Their diligent work with their Perceptions Of Relations Test (P.O.R.T.), provides a detailed and ever expanding data base of children caught in high conflict custody cases. However, even with the avalanche of data generated in such tests, credible critics find fault with their claims (Heinze & Grisso, 1996; Melton et. al, 1997; Krauss & Sales, 2000; Otto & Heilbrun, 2002). For the evaluator who chooses to use standardized measures, certainly actuarial approaches are more scientifically credible and tend to avoid the errors that come from personal opinions masquerading as scientific knowledge (Meehl, 1996). These approaches are increasingly preferred in legal contexts. It is also asserted that objective psychological measures such as the ubiquitous MMPI-2, have immediate utility in high conflict contexts as demonstrated by Gordon and colleagues (2008) as well as by Hoppe and Kenny (1994) and Siegel and Langford (1998).
In addition to assessing possible pathology, objective measure and standardized structured interview methods lend themselves to the assessment of a parent's positive abilities. These are often neglected, yet it is these capacities that account for most of what parents provide for their children (Bornstein, 2002). They should be of paramount importance in determining parenting arrangements. Recently, increasingly sophisticated methods have become available for measuring human strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). There is a growing body of literature on the use of objective measures to assess emotional intelligence. This has been defined as,
Distinct from executive function and refers to the effectiveness in understanding one's emotions and of others, the effectiveness in managing these emotions in relationships, and being able to facilitate the emotional and cognitive demands of the situation effectively (Posthuma, 2014).
Canadian clinical and forensic psychologist Allan Posthuma has argued for the assessment of E.I in custody cases and emphasizes the use of the new Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) (Posthuma, Siegel, & Goldstein, 2011; Posthuma, 2014). This measure has recently become available to psychologists and shows promise in understanding high conflict litigants from an alternative perspective. Also, the research of Jude Cassidy and colleagues concerning measuring attachment, the Preschool Assessment of Attachment or the Adult Attachment Interview may be of value to the evaluator (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008). In this vein, the child's sense of acceptance by her parents has been extensively researched by Ronald Rohner (Rohner, 2004). This research has lent itself to the development of the Rohner Parental Acceptance – Rejection Questionnaire (Rohner & Khaleque, 2005); which may have application in demonstrating a child's sense of acceptance by the alienating parent and rejection from the target parent.
For this host of reasons and concerns, and being fully cognizant of the debate concerning the validity and reliability of psychological tests in custody matters, we nonetheless advocate for the use of standardized measures as a compliment to fact finding via document review, observation and interviewing. However we add this caveat: testing should be used only for hypothesis generation, and should never be used as a confirmation of a hypothesis. Even the most rigorously studied objective test, the MMPI 2, cautions that the results should be used to generate hypotheses, which should then be confirmed or disconfirmed by other sources.
Evaluating Alleged Claims Of Sexual Abuse
The circumstance where children's perceptions of relations, multiple interviews and the use of psychological measures are put to the strictest test is in the evaluation of child sexual abuse allegations (CSA). As Campbell (2013) describes in detail, one of the earliest reviews of CSA related to custody and visitation disputes was reported by Blush and Ross (1987). Gordon Blush and Karol Ross worked in a clinic that operated as an arm of a family court in the 1980's. They began to track complaints and motions brought to the court in high conflict cases. In reviewing the court file for any particular case, they learned to identify what issues provoked parental disputes between the parties, and when those disputes originated.
Blush and Ross' "SAID Syndrome" (Sexual Allegations In Divorce) directed evaluators to carefully assess the background and history of a couple before any allegations of sexual abuse developed. Campbell (2013) explained that by carefully reviewing the legal history predating any CSA allegations, the evaluators may identify how escalating exchanges between the disputing parents could have triggered CSA allegations. In their SAID Syndrome article, Blush and Ross (1987) emphasized the necessity of considering the timing of the allegations. Were the allegations timed in such a manner that they gave the accusing parent significantly greater power and influence? In response to CSA, for example, a Department of Social Services would often pursue an alienator's agenda by blocking the target parent's visitation.
Blush and Ross (1987) and Campbell (1992a) referred to factors they identified as "Sequence-Escalation-Timing" (or SET factors) when reviewing the background and history of any particular case. SET factors direct evaluators to look at the context in which allegations occurred. Disputes related to child support, costs of activities such as sports, music lessons, special camps, etc. could have led to escalation and retaliation. Acrimonious exchanges also involve requests to modify visitation, or petitions to relocate or tend to occur when a romantic adult partner enters the children's lives. Campbell (1992a) pointed out that SET factors create situations that are misinterpreted, because of relaxed thresholds of disbelief. These relaxed thresholds may develop into child sexual abuse allegations, which are driven by rumor formation and dissemination.
Psychologist researcher Hollida Wakefield and Lutheran Minister turned clinical psychologist, Ralph Underwager, taught that the "natural history" (origin, timing, and nature) of a child abuse allegation must be examined (Wakefield & Underwager, 1990; Wakefield & Underwager; 1991). While they focused primarily on sexual abuse accusations, their strategy is applicable to other forms of alleged abuse as well. They provided preliminary guidelines for the determination of true versus false accusations. They defined factors behind false allegations of sexual abuse, including the character of the accuser, the persons who aid and in many cases abet the accuser, and the use of leading or manipulative questioning. A competent evaluator should be mindful of the list Wakefield and Underwager (1990, 1991) provided to differentiate between real and false allegations; they suggested the fact finder examine the:
- Origin of the disclosure;
- Timing of the allegations;
- Age of the child;
- Behavior of the accusing parent;
- Nature of the allegations;
- Characteristics of the child's statement;
- Personality characteristics of the parties involved; and
- Behavior of the Professionals involved.
The Association for Family and Conciliation Courts published a document in 2010, which defines and outlines court-ordered therapy as different and distinct from psychotherapy, entitled Guidelines for Court-Involved Therapy… The guidelines formulated by the AFCC were intended to serve as a reference for those who depend on mental health services or on the opinions of mental health professionals in
promoting effective treatment and assessing the quality of treatment services. The guidelines also are intended to assist the courts to develop clear and effective court orders and parenting plans that may be necessary for treatment to be effective. The purpose of these guidelines is to educate, highlight common concerns, and to apply relevant, ethical and professional guidelines, standards, and research in handling court-involved families… While appropriate treatment can offer considerable benefit to the children and families, inappropriate treatment may escalate family conflict and cause significant damage.
In a comprehensive overview of the literature on alienation and mental health professional intervention, Fidler and Bala (2010) argued that the goals of therapy should include not only reunification with the rejected parent, but also the facilitation of healthy child adjustment and coping mechanisms. This must include correcting the child's distorted and polarized views and replacing them with more realistic views of each parent, improving the child's healthy relationships with both parents, addressing divorce-related stress, boundaries, and age-appropriate autonomy, and restoring adequate parenting, co-parenting, and parent–child roles. Birnbaum and Radovanovic (1999) and Warshak (2010a) argued for several tiered options of court-ordered therapy. Conventional therapy, they wrote, is most likely to be effective in early stages with less severe problems and when the favored parent and child are likely to cooperate.
Mental health professionals working in court-ordered therapy must be prepared for the rationale they're going to hear from alienators. Kopetski (Kopetski, Rand, & Rand, 2006) listed the primary justification for alienation in each case. She identified 19 different justifications, including separation anxiety, child fearful of the other parent, child doesn't need father, child abuse, spousal abuse, and child has a right to refuse visits. Mental health professionals who work to aid courts in ordered therapy must remember that many children who participate in court-ordered therapy do so with overt resistance and reluctance. Parents who support or accept their children's rejection of the other parent usually lack motivation to participate in therapy when the professed goal is to heal the damaged parent–child relationship.
Mental health professionals who begin this work must also be ready to stop it as well. Donner (2006) explained that family therapy, co-parenting counseling, parent education, and cognitive- behavioral therapy may be insufficient to modify the complex behavior of alienating parents. These parents in therapy, wrote Donner, are unable to think beyond their own needs and harbor unconscious desires to hurt their children.
Parent Coordinator's Role
Parent coordination was a concept introduced in 2001 and developed by the Task Forces of AFCC in the years of 2002 and 2003. The AFCC process resulted in Model Standards of Parent Coordination and finally the Guidelines in 2005. The overall objective of the parent coordinator is to assist high-conflict parents to implement their parenting plan, to monitor compliance with the details of the plan, to resolve conflicts regarding their children and the parenting plan in a timely manner, and to protect and sustain safe, healthy, and meaningful parent–child relationships (AFCC Guidelines, 2005). Essentially, it is an alternative dispute resolution process to help conflicting parents make parenting decisions and comply with parenting agreements and orders.
Sauber (2006) encouraged that the PAS-trained parent coordinator "does not need to tiptoe around in his or her treatment of the child, and his or her requests of the parents." The court appointment, access to the judge, and credibility with the court provide the power necessary to recommend and follow up with changes that need to be implemented within the family system. Sauber (2006) states that when the child or parent understands that the parent coordinator can change or determine the parenting time schedule, therapeutic efforts to implement the parenting time or repair the family relationships will be more likely followed.
Reunification Specialist's Role
Severe cases of parental alienation involve significant parent psychopathology and character disorders, which may include paranoia, severe mental illness, disordered thinking, lack of insight capacity, and sociopathy. Discussions in the social science literature describe few options for children who suffer severe and unreasonable alienation from a parent and highlight the ineffectiveness of available remedies. Rand, Rand, and Kopetski (2005) reported similar findings in their follow-up study of the 45 children from 25 families Kopetski had studied over 20 years starting in 1976. A range of moderate to severe PAS characterized these cases. Alienation was interrupted by judicial action for 20 children from 12 families where there was enforced visitation or a change of custody. For those in the treatment group where there were orders for therapy and gradually increased access, alienation remained uninterrupted and in some cases became worse. Fidler and Bala (2010) concluded that severe cases "…are likely to require a different and more intrusive approach if the relationship with the rejected parent is not to be abandoned and the alienation is to be successfully corrected." Qualitative case studies and experienced clinicians supporting recommendations and orders to reverse custody maintain that therapy, as the primary intervention, simply does not work in severe and even in some moderate alienation cases (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Gardner, 2001a; Kopetski, 1998a, 1998b, 2006; Lampel, 1996; Lowenstein, 2006; Lund, 1995; Rand, 1997b; Rand et al., 2005).
Dr. Richard Sauber has developed a questionnaire to aid in the selection of a reunification specialist. This Questionnaire will assist the "selection committee," which may be comprised of the clients, attorneys, and/or the attorneys and their clients. This questionnaire is designed to determine the actual capability, experience level, and willingness of the therapist to adhere to a well-developed reunification plan or at least participate in the formulation of an effective approach to reunification as the process unfolds (Sauber, in press).
Short of reversing custody, one reunification option is for the court to order a prolonged period of residence with the target parent, such as during the summer or an extended vacation, coupled with counseling and temporarily restricted or suspended contact with the alienating parent. This arrangement, which in the long run provides less disruption and greater continuity of care, may be more appropriate than reversing custody permanently. This period of prolonged residence also affords the child and target parent the uninterrupted time and space needed to repair and rebuild their relationship. When an intermediate plan such as this will not work, Warshak (2010b) and Warshak and Otis (2010) recommended a more thorough approach called Family Bridges. This process was, in large part, developed by psychologist Anthony Rand in his work using video and educational materials in police officer training. Rand later honed the presentation in his work for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children [NCMEC]. Sometimes called in the middle of the night by the State Department to aid children recovered from abduction, Rand found that his police officer video and didactic material could be reimagined for these children. This is a program in which the target parent and the alienated child travel to a program site, a family home, or vacation resort, for four consecutive days. The alienated children and the target parents share their experiences with one another and reexamine indoctrinated false beliefs to which the children have become accustomed.
Discussing her review of the Family Bridges program, Kelly (2010) offered that the daily structure and presentation of the Family Bridges workshop were guided by well-established evidence-based principles and incorporated multimedia learning, positive learning environment focused lessons addressing relevant concepts, and integrated learning materials. She noted that the most striking feature of the Family Bridges workshop was the empirical research foundation underlying the specific content of the 4-day program. The lessons and materials were drawn from universally accepted research in social, cognitive, and child developmental psychology, sociology, and social neuroscience. Another important feature of the Family Bridges workshop, wrote Kelly (2010), is the safe atmosphere created by the program leaders from the very beginning. She saw this as an essential feature of the program that promotes more willing participation and active learning. Kelly (2010) summarized that the Family Bridges workshop is a rigorous and disciplined approach designed to help participants repair parent–child relationships that have been severely derailed as a result of the dynamics of the separation and additionally fueled in some instances by the parenting and parent–child relationships prior to the separation.