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Parental Alienation Syndrome: family law's paradigm for child abuse

By Elspeth McInnes - posted Monday, 19 May 2003

The controversy over Peter Hollingworth's response to allegations of Child abuse within his diocese provides an opportunity for reflection on the way we respond, as a nation, to allegations of child abuse. In recent times, evidence of systemic abuse and inappropriate handling of them has come to light in a number of institutions in Australia and overseas. In most cases, this has led to the development or refinement of policies and procedures for handling such allegations in ways that try to protect the alleged victim while allowing the alleged perpetrator a presumption of innocence - a difficult balancing act.

However, I would argue that one of the highest institutions in the land, which deals with child abuse on a daily basis, is ill equipped for such a role. The absence of a publicly funded investigative capacity in the Family Court of Australia when there are allegations of child abuse by a parent gives defacto support to the operation of the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) paradigm in the courts.

PAS - invented by American psychologist Richard Gardner - begins from the premise that children who allege serious abuse by a parent are lying and that they are made to lie by an apparently protective parent. Without a publicly funded professional child protection investigative service available to inform the family court, the private adversarial system of family law commonly fails to substantiate allegations of child abuse, thereby systematically producing the outcome that child abuse allegations will be deemed to be false. PAS thus offers violent controlling ex-partners a pseudo-scientific set of "symptoms" to deny allegations of child abuse and pathologise the alleging child and protective parent.


The popularity of the PAS paradigm survives extensive empirical research findings showing that false allegations of child abuse are very much the exception rather than the rule.

It is necessary to distinguish between some practices of "parental alienation" and the content of the Parental Alienation Syndrome paradigm. Generally, the term "parental alienation" in the context of parental separation has come to refer to practices by a separated parent of disrupting and denigrating a child's relationship with their other parent to give expression to their own hostility towards the other parent. These may include denigrating the other parent in front of the child, condemning aspects of the child's appearance or conduct as being just like the other parent, expressing anger if the child speaks positively about the other parent and preventing communication between the child and the other parent.

These behaviours express adult-centred emotions with harmful effects for the children who are prevented from enjoying a relationship with their other parent. Despite the alienating parent's reactions, many children maintain positive feelings for their other parent and may even resent the hostility of the alienating parent, specifically when they have not been exposed to any violence or abuse.

In contrast, expressions of fear, disclosures of abuse, emphatic rejection of the abusing parent and a strong connection with the protective parent are consistent with exposure to abuse yet, paradoxically, are the main symptoms given for the PAS paradigm.

The outcomes of PAS assist child abuse. PAS relies on denying the capacity of children to recognise and articulate their experiences and further denies the child's right to safety, while privileging the rights of the accused parent to enforce a relationship with the child. PAS is a winner with violent parents because (a) it enables the abuser to occupy the role of victim and (b) assists and legitimises their continuing access for abuse.

According to PAS logic, children's complaints of harm by a parent are proof that the child is subject to PAS by the other parent. Gardner's recommendations start from a regime of fines and imprisonment for the "recalcitrant" parent (as he calls mothers) through to removing the child and making it live with the parent the child states has harmed him/her, without contact with the protective parent.


In Australia, mothers who defy court orders exposing their children to further abuse by their father face escalating consequences of education courses, fines, imprisonment and reversal of custody, with restricted and supervised contact. The regime that has been operating in Australian courts mirrors Gardner's recommendations.

Paradoxically this failure to protect children properly from parental violence creates the circumstances where mothers have increasingly fled in preference to handing their children over for abuse during contact. This in turn is used to justify a reversal of custody. In one case a three year old child was taken from her mother - the only parent she had ever lived with, and who had successfully raised two other children from a previous relationship - and ordered by the court to live with her father who suffers from AIDS and has a long criminal record including sex offences. The mother was placed on supervised restricted contact for three days a month.

This regime has remained unchanged for four years, despite the mother's attempts to increase time spent with her daughter and many reports by teachers and others to state child protection services based on the child's disclosures of abuse. At Easter this child, now aged 7, held her mother and the supervisor of contact at bay with a knife and begged her mother to kill her rather than take her back to her father. This father has accused the mother of Parental Alienation Syndrome. This outcome is a consequence of the mother running away with the child in preference to presenting her for contact with a person who the mother saw as dangerous to the child. Such outcomes reinforce the court's power to impose its decisions, and to punish those who disobey.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article is based on a paper presented to the Child Sexual Assault: Justice Response or Alternative Resolution conference in Adelaide, 1-2 May 2003. Click here for the full report (Word doc, 48KB).

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About the Author

Dr Elspeth McInnes is a Lecturer at the University of South Australia, Convenor of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children and a member of the ACOSS Executive. Dr McInnes' most recent research has focused on mothers' transition into lone parent family structures, exploring the impact of violence on mothers and children during separation and their subsequent adaptation and access to community resources and to both market and non-market income.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Australian Council of Social Services
Australian Institute of Criminology
Family Court of Australia
Family Law Council
University of South Australia
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