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Journal of Child Custody
ISSN: 1537-9418 (Print) 1537-940X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wjcc20
When courts accept what science rejects: Custody
issues concerning the alleged “parental alienation
Miguel Clemente & Dolores Padilla-Racero
To cite this article: Miguel Clemente & Dolores Padilla-Racero (2016) When courts accept what
science rejects: Custody issues concerning the alleged “parental alienation syndrome”, Journal
of Child Custody, 13:2-3, 126-133
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15379418.2016.1219245
Published online: 11 Oct 2016.
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JOURNAL OF CHILD CUSTODY
2016, VOL. 13, NOS. 2–3, 126–133
When courts accept what science rejects: Custody issues
concerning the alleged “parental alienation syndrome”
Miguel Clementea and Dolores Padilla-Racerob
aDepartment of Psychology, Universidad de La Coruña, A Coruña, Spain; bDepartment of Public Law,
Universidad de Malaga, Malaga, Spain
“Parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) is unscientific and is an
affront to children, women who hold the custody of children of
separated couples, science, human rights, and the justice system
itself. Justice, to be just, should be based on scientifically proven
theories and evidence. This article describes investigations
carried out to show that two of the principles that underpin
PAS are false: That children lie when pressed (alienated in the
terminology of PAS), and that the principle that should guide
judges’ actions for the good of the child should be that for the
child to always be in contact with both parents. The results of
these investigations show that these two principles are false and
advocates the use of truly scientific proceedings for judges to
grant custody in case of dispute between parents, as well as for
determining the visitation for the noncustodial parent.
Child protection; custody;
forensic psychology; legal
We do not intend in this commentary to review the concept of what science is
but we consider it pertinent to recall that since Galileo, through Newton and
up to today, scientific theories are derived from experienced facts gained
through observation and experimentation. In fact some sciences have
advanced more through observation, opting for an inductive methodology,
while others have progressed more through experimentation, following
the hypothetical-deductive method. Of course, when a scientist, even though
s/he may later use the hypothetical-deductive methodology, seeks to create a
scientific theory, it stems from the real world, usually from an observation.
Perhaps that was the starting point of the American psychiatrist Richard
Gardner (1992), when in the 1980s, he thought he would classify and coin
a term for something that, to his knowledge, no one had named so far, to
try to explain the rejection that the child exhibits when communicating with
one of his parents during family breakdown. The author created the concept
of “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS), giving preference to the syndrome’s
name, most likely because of its medical origin.
CONTACT Miguel Clemente email@example.com Department of Psychology, Universidad de
La Coruña, Elviña Campus, A Coruña 15071, Spain.
© 2016 Taylor & Francis
PAS tries to explain a child’s rejection of one of his or her parents, and to
do so, it follows a scheme opposite to the one well-known within science as
“Ockham’s razor,” also called the principle of parsimony, which states that
all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the most likely.
No doubt Ockham, a Franciscan friar, would have thought Gardner’s expla-
nation about how a child might reject a parent was not the best, simply
because it is not the simplest. The simplest thing would have been (and is)
to think that the rejected parent has taken some action that caused the child’s
rejection, usually abuse, sometimes of a sexual nature. Instead, Gardner laid
out something diametrically opposed, stating that this refusal occurs as a
result of the manipulation the other parent (who is worshiped by the child)
exercises over the child, rejecting the idea that there may be other causes that
justify the rejection.
Acceptance of the diagnosis of PAS by the court systems, not by science,
automatically implements the treatment prescribed by Gardner, known as
threat therapy. This therapy aims to correct behavior, in this case the child’s
and the parent’s with whom s/he lives, so that regardless of the root causes of
the child’s rejection to visit the parent with whom s/he is not living, the child
is forced to form a relationship with the latter. To achieve this, the courts
takes a series of measures, all of which are based on threat and coercion.
Even when PAS is not used as a label in the courts cases, this same type of
intervention is recommended by to many attorneys and evaluators.
The use of PAS would possibly have more relevance if it were not for the
treatment Gardner inevitably associated thereto, which is applied coercively
through the courts of many countries. However, it has been found that this
treatment, far from solving the child’s rejection to interact with the other
parent, has undesirable consequences for the children (Bruch, 2002).
It should be noted that within the terminology used in PAS’s construction,
the parent who holds custody of the child and with whom he or she lives will
be called the “alienator” and the parent whose company the child rejects, the
“alienated.” The child, in turn, is also referred to as “alienated.”
When the breakdown of couples with children occurs, in the absence of
consensus between the two parents, it is the court that has to establish
custody, as well as the system of communication between the children and
the noncustodial parent. To this end, the child’s testimony, declared directly
by him/her before the judge or through the reports of the technical bodies that
assist it, sometimes is the only evidence provided in the procedure. Therefore,
the testimony acquires great importance, especially when there is suspicion of
mistreatment or abuse by a parent regarding the children. However, the
child’s testimony as such, its relevance, connotations and consequences are
secondary; it simply disappears from the scene or is interpreted opposite to
what the child expresses when ideas that underlie the PAS nomenclature
are present during the trial.
JOURNAL OF CHILD CUSTODY 127
Diagnosis of PAS
The differential diagnosis of PAS is constructed ad hoc to attribute a patho-
genic condition to the mother’s (usually) manipulation, and to interpret any
act or omission of the child in consistency with this harmful influence of the
mother on him. Custody of children is still held by mothers to a greater extent
and what’s more, abuse and mistreatment of children that lead to divorces and
child custody cases are committed to a greater extent by male parents
(Clemente & Padilla-Racero, 2015b). Gardner, when identifying the manipu-
lating or alienating parent who has custody and the alienated or rejected parent
who does not, mothers are almost automatically assigned the role of alienators
and the role of the alienated is assigned to the rejected father. The manipulated
child would also have the condition of being alienated by the mother.
The parent who is assigned the role of manipulator comes to be seen by the
court system as a harmful, toxic influence on the child, and therefore the
measures taken in the Courts will be in line with taking the child away from
the mother, to safeguard the child from dangers to his/her mental health.
Diagnosis of PAS is carried out based on the appearance of eight symptoms
that Gardner determined children to have, and treatment (threat therapy) is
set based on 10 symptoms supposedly present in the mother (usually the
alienating parent) and only secondarily depending on the child’s symptoms
(Padilla-Racero, 2013). The response or treatment is simple (and the true
purpose of the PAS diagnosis): The change of custody in favor of the father,
a victim of unfounded rejection by the child, a rejection that is presumed to be
induced by the manipulative mother.
That PAS is an ideological rather than scientific instrument is easily detect-
able in many of its approaches. For example, according to this false syndrome,
the child makes a campaign of denigration on the noncustodial parent, which is
symptom 1 of PAS in the child (Padilla-Racero, 2013). This campaign of deni-
gration against the father of the child is induced by the mother and the product
of her manipulation of the child. On the other hand, the phenomenon of the
independent thinker, which corresponds to symptom 4 of the diagnosis of
PAS in children (Padilla-Racero, 2013), refers to the role of the child in his/
her personal campaign of denigration. This personal contribution of the child
(independent of the mother’s manipulation) is what PAS advocates argue to
label the syndrome as a childhood disorder. PAS, through the rhetorical use
of language, seeks to justify hypotheses that cannot be supported scientifically,
incurring numerous contradictions, such as the one just pointed out.
Nichols (2014) explains that mental health professionals have published
dozens of reports of clinical studies purporting to support the diagnosis of
PAS during the past 20 years. All these reports, however, are based on clinical
observations and ideology rather than empirical data or peer reviewed
research. As Emery (2005) explains, authors should recognize and assume that
128 M. CLEMENTE AND D. PADILLA-RACERO
clinical experience, including case studies, prove nothing; case studies are
valuable for generating hypotheses, but not for confirming them.
PAS interprets the child as lying when s/he vilifies one parent (usually the
noncustodial parent is male), and in psychoanalytic theory, the child fanta-
sizes (lies) when s/he recounts memories of sexual abuse during childhood
(Clemente, 2010). In short, both PAS and psychoanalysis are ascribed to
the field of ideology, abandoning science in these situations. PAS has not been
scientifically validated because it originates from an invalid theoretical model
Among the ideas on which PAS is built, two stand out: the “inherent falsity in
children,” because of which they should not be believed if they accuse their parent
of mistreatment, abuse or neglect; and the idea that a parent uses the legal system
to separate the children from the other parent, using manipulative, vicious, and
vindictive nature. It was assumed that the manipulator would be a female in gen-
eral, which was the gender-biased view of Gardner. However, it is more likely that
such manipulation would be a symptom of control; issues which tends to be more
similar to a parent who commits domestic violence or child abuse. Therefore,
Gardner’s theories soon found themselves opposed by movements in defense
of children and women, in addition to the scientific community.
Acceptance of the diagnosis of PAS or is theories by the courts means the
immediate application of the Threat Therapy, which is intended to dissuade
the children and the mother from breach of visitation. This is a coercive inter-
vention, which aims to correct the behavior of the child and the parent with
whom s/he lives, using the tools of threat and judicial coercion. Such threats
are supposedly intended to be therapeutic and are implemented by the court
on the grounds that they are the most suitable for the child, from an interpret-
ation of the same interests that coincide exclusively with the interests of the
manipulator. These threats consist of a range of coercive measures ranging
from fines, house arrest or imprisonment of the parent diagnosed as manipu-
lative and harmful to the child, until the change of the child’s custody in the
favor of the rejected parent. Sometimes, this change of custody is carried out
after a period of detaining the child in a juvenile facility or “deprogramming
camp” until s/he does not go back on the accusations regarding the rejected
parent and accept the situation. Contradictorily, the court record will become
almost a clinical record. An alleged syndrome that has no place in the area of
public or mental health where it has been continually rejected is used to diag-
nose and intervene by the courts and those who promote it in the legal system.
As Gardner himself acknowledged, the differential diagnosis of PAS is not
capable of determining whether the child has been mistreated or abused by
the parent that is rejected or if it is an invention of the minor, or a product
of manipulation on the part of the alienating parent (which is attributed to
the manipulation). PAS’s lack of scientific grounding, the high probability
of misdiagnosis recognized by its creator and subsequent defenders, as well
JOURNAL OF CHILD CUSTODY 129
as the legitimization of the use of coercion by the State through the courts to
impose affection are some of the ethical considerations that should prevent
the application of such threat therapy.
The consequences of treatment involving PAS diagnosis for children are
dramatic. As Nichols (2014) states, survivors of domestic violence and child
advocates argue that Gardner’s theory overshadows the legitimate causes of
estrangement between parents and children, such as abuse, neglect, or the
feeling of abandonment in the child caused by the divorce itself. Bruch
(2001) states that Gardner confounds a child’s reaction to the divorce and
the high level of parental conflict (including violence) with his approach.
The authors who devote their efforts to the defense of children fear that the
“diagnosis” of PAS within the resolution of cases of custody disputes can
result in the courts handing children over to their abusers (Dallam, 2008).
Clemente (2013), Padilla-Racero (2013), and Rozanski (2013), among other
authors, have devoted their efforts to studying and explaining the phenomenon
called PAS. Examples are the works of Meier (2009), Nichols (2014), Pepiton,
Alvis, Allen, and Logid (2012), and Pignotti (2013). Paradoxically, this issue that
initially does not have by itself any scientific interest has come to draw in many
authors to contest it, knowing that it is highly topical because of its application
in the Courts of many countries and the certainty that this real action leaves
children in a more than regrettable situation of risk and vulnerability.
The main idea on which PAS is based, as previously noted, is that when a
minor expresses his suffering of mistreatment or abuse by one parent (usually
the father) during a separation or divorce process, this statement is false and
induced by the other parent (usually the mother). An empirical study showing
that children generally do not lie about these types of situations and that
they are also not easily manipulated has been conducted (Clemente &
Padilla-Racero, 2015a). The ideas raised by Gardner are not supported by
the data. It is rare for a child to lie about what s/he has seen or experienced.
Our research raised the ire of supporters of PAS, who even demanded its
withdrawal from publication, showing their ways of acting to be inquisitorial
(Bernet, Verrocchio, & Korosi, 2015), and was contested by the authors who
carried out this work (Clemente & Padilla-Racero, 2015b).
Another important aspect to investigate was to determine the importance
of PAS ideas given by judges to the various reports submitted as evidence
in family courts. Clemente, Padilla-Racero, Gandoy, Reig-Botella, and
Gonzalez-Rodriguez (2015) tried to verify what weight the different pieces
of evidence have in court decisions regarding the determination of custody
and visitation. In some countries, as is the case of Spain, teams of psycholo-
gists working for the Administration of Justice often produce reports that are
130 M. CLEMENTE AND D. PADILLA-RACERO
clearly pro-PAS, which requires custodial parents to resort to psychologists
outside the Administration of Justice to determine whether the child’s testi-
mony is true. Pro-PAS mental health professionals systematically start with
the idea that the child is lying. The testimonies of the parties involved (both
parents) are part of the evidence in these trials. Given these various reports
and testimonies, combined with the principle that the judge understands to
be taken as a guide for the decision for the welfare of the child, there may
be very different decisions about the types of communication of the child with
each of his parents in the cases that concern us.
This line of research was intended to highlight the importance of child
sexual abuse from a different point of view, which is the way to treat it from
a judicial perspective. Clemente (2013) and Padilla-Racero (2013, 2015, 2016)
sought to verify how important the different professional testimonies and
reports are to judges according to how they understand that they must act
for the good of the child and based on the existence of statements in the
reports. It has been found that the reports of the teams assigned to the courts
are second in terms of credibility given to them, which makes us reflect on the
importance of their development; professionals have to be guided by knowl-
edge and techniques that have a scientific backing, abandoning unscientific
constructs, such as PAS. Data from this study show how effective different
judicial behavior is depending on the variables analyzed, and how the reports
of the psychosocial teams are specifically second in being taken into account
to support court decisions on children.
The main conclusion is that faced with the event itself, which would be the
story or account presented, judges make a decision that is influenced by variables
that are manipulated, with the professional evaluations embodied in the Admin-
istration of Justice’s technicians’ psychosocial report being of great relevance
among such variables. Unfortunately, in most cases, these reports state that there
is PAS or follow the same principles even if they do not use the label.
PAS advocates, to this day, have not produced any evidence or empirical data
demonstrating its existence. What they mean by scientific evidence is bound
solely to the merely theoretical circulation of Gardner’s work, the creator of
the PAS concept. The authors cited by proponents of PAS as alleged research-
ers are mere disseminators of PAS, not actual researchers who have published
in peer reviewed research journals.
The data obtained in our research allow us to affirm that in general, chil-
dren do not lie about abuse they have experienced, and they are not easily
manipulated. These data refute, therefore, one of the main ideas on which
PAS is based. By not being based on sound theoretical principles and not
being able to be verified, PAS and its framework cannot generate a diagnostic
JOURNAL OF CHILD CUSTODY 131
tool. Consequently, you cannot establish an intervention program for a
suspected syndrome that cannot be diagnosed, because it is impossible for a
diagnostic tool to be derived from it, with it not being supported in a valid
theoretical model. Without a solid theoretical model, one cannot make a
diagnosis and possible treatment for it. In short, you cannot measure what
does not exist and that is what is happening with PAS.
The social utility of science is to deliver justice between individuals, which
is why when scientific instruments or techniques such as PAS are used, it
constitutes social injustice (Clemente, 2013). The followers and believers of
PAS promote threat or coercive treatment/intervention, and removal of the
child from the person who may have been the primary caretaker. It is not
possible to derive a treatment from a theory that is not falsifiable, and even
less, if an instrument that meets the appropriate psychometric requirements
is not derived, for without such an instrument, it is impossible to verify
whether the treatment produces improvement in children. PAS is ideology,
not science. It is a whole system of ideas based on a mirage of equality, which
does not stand up to any scientific, legal, or social analysis.
PAS projects on the women the suffering of mental disorders, and on
children the presumption of being liars and easily manipulated; and quite
unfortunately, because of the undeniable weight of these two pseudosciences
in our society, both theories correspond to subjective approaches of interpreting
reality and of undeniable gender bias.
The testimony of minors must be duly taken into account in these proceed-
ings, since it is empirically verified that children tend to tell the truth and that
furthermore they are not easily influenced or manipulated to give a false
testimony, but quite the opposite. Therefore, if you want to ensure the good
of the child, you cannot do it without their testimony being heard and duly
taken into account in judicial decisions that concern them.
PAS is a false attribution, a cause–effect relationship that does not exist,
unprovable, unscientific, but generates three types of victims, two of them
custodial parents (usually mothers) and children. The latter, who sometimes
suffer abuse, including sexual abuse, sometimes only find a single solution in
their lives, suicide. The third victim is society, which instead of defending the
existence of a more just society for all, allows the opposite to occur. For the
sake of the child, we must struggle to conceive PAS and those who follow
and promote its principles as what it is: False.
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