A local father who has for years been involved in a bitter struggle over custody issues involving his son is working to increase awareness in Nevada of a child custody-related syndrome he says can lead to depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts among the children of estranged parents.
“There is a lot of hurt, anger and resentment when you get divorced,” said Shawn Evans, a divorced father of a 10-year-old son.
“One parent will sit there and bad-mouth the other parent in front of a child. It’s the kids in the middle who are being terrorized and having to defend their parents.”
Evans has formed an educational and support group dealing with Parental Alienation Syndrome, defined as a form of child abuse that generally occurs in messy divorces and can destroy the bonds that a child has with one of his or her parents.
It can even result in false abuse accusations against the alienated parent, Evans said.
“The child is having to decide which parent to side with,” he said. “A child should not have to do that.”
But many mental health workers and advocates against domestic violence say that although custody battles can cause stress and behavioral problems in children, an actual “parental alienation syndrome” does not exist and legitimizing it could lead to abusive parents getting custody of their children.
“The syndrome suggests that if you are saying someone else has done bad things to the child, you are not to be believed,” said Sue Meuschke, executive director of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence.
“We are concerned that this unproven thing (the syndrome) will harm children and protective parents.”
Critics say that when Parental Alienation Syndrome is acknowledged as a real condition, a parent who is accused of abuse can claim the other parent has made up the abuse claims and that their child has gone along with the claims because the child is suffering from the syndrome. A judge could even grant custody to the abusive parent because of perceived Parental Alienation Syndrome.
The syndrome is a controversial theory first developed in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Gardner. Gardner identified the syndrome as an unjustified denigration of one parent in the context of child-custody disputes. He believed the syndrome was a result of one parent’s brainwashing of a child to vilify the other parent. The child would then buy into the negative image of the targeted parent.
Evans said his own battle over custody issues with his ex-wife has led to signs of Parental Alienation Syndrome in his son. The parents’ conflicts were aggravated by his ex-wife’s disapproval of Evans’ lifestyle, he said. Evans is gay.
His ex-wife has custody of their son.
Ronald Lawrence, who heads the Community Counseling Center of Las Vegas and is both a marriage counselor and family therapist, said he frequently works with clients affected by Parental Alienation Syndrome.
“It’s a form of emotional violence,” Lawrence, who serves as an adviser to Evans’ new group, said. “It’s when one parent is working to influence the child against the other. It usually occurs post-divorce. The child ends up feeling very much in the middle.”
But Dr. Paul Fink, a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine and founder of The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, called the syndrome dangerous “junk science” that, since being introduced into the court system, has led to judges granting custody to abusive parents.
“When he (Gardner) invented this, he would go into court and testify that if a woman accused a man of sexually abusing their child, she was automatically an ‘alienator’ and the judge would give the children to the accused perpetrator.”
Fink said it’s important to distinguish between parental alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome, which he says does not exist. Things can get ugly between estranged parents, he said, and that can spill over to the children.
“There are parents who alienate their children from other parents,” he said. “That’s a different story.”
Gardner died in 2003, but his theory has lived on.
Several states have proclaimed April 25 as “Parental Alienation Awareness Day.” Gov. Jim Gibbons’ office recently presented Evans with a certificate of recognition, dated April 25, 2007, for “Parental Alienation Awareness.”
While the word “syndrome” does not appear on the certificate, the recognition still angered Meuschke.
“We are concerned about recognizing something that is not based in any scientific process,” she said. “We are concerned that the state government of Nevada would recognize this day.”
Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for the governor, said a certificate of recognition does not constitute a stamp of approval.
“We get an innumerable amount of requests for proclamations on a regular basis,” she said. “We are not able to do scientific background checks for each organization.”
But, she said, “we do screen them and ensure they are legitimate organizations. We don’t hand them out frivolously.”
Fink said The Leadership Council receives several calls each month from distraught mothers who are dealing with accusations of Parental Alienation Syndrome in their custody cases.
“It has been picked up by fathers’ groups to try to get custody of their children,” he said.
But Evans said mothers, too, have been negatively affected by the syndrome in their children and can be the victims of an alienating parent in custody disputes. He said Parental Alienation Syndrome should only be invoked in custody cases if there is hard evidence to substantiate it.
“You can’t just go off somebody’s hearsay,” he said.
Children sometimes make up false abuse claims against one parent at the urging of another, he said.
“Kids are not going to make up something like that on their own. They have to hear it somewhere.”
Those cases should be easily distinguishable from actual abuse cases, Evans said.
“In abuse like that, there is usually some tangible evidence,” he said. “There are doctor’s reports, psychological evidence.”
Meuschke and Fink say the Parental Alienation Syndrome theory is ripe for misuse.
“When any kind of allegations are made, they have to be investigated and substantiated, and that is what’s missing in almost all of the Parental Alienation Syndrome cases,” Fink said.
Meuschke said she doesn’t personally know of a Nevada case in which a parent has lost custody because of Parental Alienation Syndrome being used in court. But that is a real concern, she said.
“It’s a belief that anyone who characterizes the other parent as abusive is suffering from this syndrome and should not be believed, and therefore custody should go to the abusive parent,” she said.
As founder of PASSAGE, which stands for Parental Alienation Syndrome Support Awareness Group and Education, Evans said he wants to help others who have been scarred in custody battles.
The group’s members participated with other parents in a March protest at Clark County Family Court, hoping to draw attention to their fight for shared and equal custody of children.
Another protest is scheduled for 9 a.m. on April 25.IF YOU WANT TO JOIN THE LAS VEGAS GROUPPASSAGE meets at 6:30 p.m. each Monday at The Center, 953 E. Sahara Ave., Suite B-31. For more information, call 630-9197.