Mothers, Children at Risk as Fathers' Rights Groups Seek Legitimacy for Phony Mental "Disorder"

June 11, 2012

For decades now, many women involved in child custody battles have been victimized in court by the use of a phony syndrome labeled "parental alienation syndrome (PAS)" or "parental alienation disorder (PAD)." Proponents of PAS, predominantly right-wing "fathers' rights" groups, have been trying for years to force legitimacy upon this unfounded theory by pushing for its inclusion in a reference volume used widely in the mental health field. As the deadline approaches for comments on revisions to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it now appears that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) may bow to political pressure and include PAS/PAD, but under another name.

PAS is a tactical ploy used by attorneys whose clients (primarily fathers) are seeking custody of their children. Often these fathers face allegations of domestic violence and/or sexual abuse of their children, and their use of PAS is an extension of years of controlling behavior. It works like this: A protective parent who accuses her/his ex-spouse of harming their child(ren) is deemed mentally ill -- solely by virtue of the accusation. If the child fears the accused parent, the child is said to also suffer the same mental illness of PAS. Ludicrously, the PAS theory holds that the protective parent and child can only be "cured" of their "disease" by being totally separated, with the child placed in the exclusive custody of the feared parent. Only in centuries past could this be thought to improve the mental health of protective parents or their children.

It is true that high-conflict divorce and child custody cases can engender intense emotional responses. Many divorcing couples go through a phase of feeling deeply wronged and completely innocent, and they want everyone they know -- including their child(ren) -- to choose their side. For their part, children may go through a phase of "splitting" their parents, lavishing love on one and anger toward the other. Responsible research has shown these phases to be temporary. Describing such behavior as a mental disorder is unjustified.

NOW chapters across the country have heard from hundreds of women who have been harmed by PAS accusations in custody cases. Many mothers have lost custody of their children to abusive ex-spouses due to PAS. The APA should not legitimize this theory, which is not used to improve mental health outcomes but merely to discount a child's fear of a hostile or abusive parent, discredit and legally punish the protective parent, cover up abuse and other bad behavior, escape child support payments, and "win" possession of the child.

Even though APA reviewers have indicated that they will not be adopting the terms PAS or PAD, women's rights advocates believe they may give credibility to this supposed disorder in another way. Dr. Darrel A. Regier of the DSM-5 Task Force informed NOW Foundation recently that the current recommendation is to have a "Parent-Child Problem designation." Regier did not clarify whether this meant that PAS/PAD could be included under a different name within the "Parent-Child Problem" category. Until this is spelled out, the possibility remains that this discredited syndrome will be legitimized through its inclusion in the DSM-5. Regier declined to share further information or draft language for the "Parent-Child Problem" section. The controversial and highly politicized nature of PAS seems to have resulted in a lack of transparency in the process. It is also worth noting that the DSM has been criticized previously for including mental disorders for which there is insufficient or biased evidence.

Inclusion in the DSM-5 of any designation similar to PAS will invite judges and other court personnel -- who may not understand that no valid, empirical evidence exists for such a mental disorder -- to dismiss women's claims of abuse at the hands of their spouses. Children of a violent or sexually abusive parent could be placed at further risk.

NOW Foundation opposes the inclusion of the so-called PAS/PAD in the DSM-5 under any name or category. The American Psychiatric Association is soliciting final comments on the revisions to the DSM-5 by June 15. We encourage you to send messages to the APA via their interactive website. Tell the APA that you oppose the inclusion of the so-called parental alienation syndrome in DSM-5 in ANY FORM. Please make sure to emphasize the fact that the American Bar Association has determined PAS to be inadmissible in court because it does not meet evidentiary standards. Accusations of PAS protect real abusers at the expense of women and children who have already been victimized.

NOW Foundation's law intern contirbuted to this story.

More Information/Resources:

NOW Foundation Letter to the American Psychiatric Association opposing recognition in the DSM-V of the so-called Parental Alienation Disorder/Syndrome

"Parental Alienation Syndrome and Alienated Children -- getting it wrong in child custody cases" - Carol S. Bruch, UC Davis School of Law

"A Historical Perspective on Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation," Joan Meier, 6 Journal of Child Custody 232-257 (2009)

"The Misuse of Parental Alienation Syndrome in Custody Suites," Joan Meier, in The Family Context, p. 147-164 (volume 2 of Violence Against Women in Families and Relationships) Edited by Evan Stark and Eve S. Buzawa, Santa Barbara: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2009