Our firm recently attended the Forensic Forum seminar, Parental Alienation: What it is. How to Manage it. Practice tips & ethical considerations. The seminar featured Dr. Richard Warshak, along with Judges Grace Dickler, Donna-Jo Vorderstrasse, Kevin T. Busch, and Pamela Loza. There were approximately 200 people attending the seminar.
Warshak’s new book, Divorce Poison, was being offered for sale at the event. He even signed it for us!
The book discusses some of the common mistakes that lawyers and judges make, and one that stood out for me was what Dr. Warshak referred to as the “cooling down period.” This is something I’ve fought against, usually unsuccessfully in court, and I was glad to hear that it is a common mistake. With some divorces, the case starts out badly….orders of protection, one parent moving out, and some general upheaval. When I try to get my client some parenting time during this time, and the other parent resists, I will often hear the judge say that they want everyone to cool down for a couple of weeks, and then we can come in and get some parenting time started. But it is during that cooling off period that we see some disparaging comments start about the parent who is no longer in the house (called the rejected parent by Warshak). And this period away from the child is never good in my opinion. Fairly soon thereafter, the parent with whom the children live, stop wanting to see the parent who moved out.
“The children do not want to see their mother.” Or in another family, “They refuse to leave the house and get in his car when Dad shows up for his weekend.” Such protests, when chronic, firm, without adequate justification, and usually in the context of the children sharing their other parent’s negative attitudes, challenge those who try to alleviate the problem. Judges, lawyers, and other child representatives, mediators, child custody evaluators, parenting coordinators, psychotherapists, and parents often report being stymied by children’s refusals to cooperate with the court-ordered parenting time schedule. This is especially true when the children are adolescents.
Warshak’s book says that you need to convince the judge that this cooling off period is a mistake, and I’ve always agreed with that principle. Soon, the child doesn’t want to see the parent, and oftentimes, parental alienation begins. If you’ve never heard this term before, its described as children who treat the rejected parent with extreme hostility, disobedience, defiance, scorn, and withdrawal. They may resist or refuse contact, vandalize and steal property, threaten and perpetrate violence. Many alienated children send letters and texts expressing death wishes toward the parent. Children at the severe end of the parental alienation continuum typically display such venom. Often these children behave well with all other adults except the rejected parent and people associated with that parent. Rather than express contrition for behavior that far exceeds the bounds of decency and normal behavior, alienated children show no apparent shame or guilt for mistreating a parent.
Warshak had a lot of advice regarding how to not only recognize the problem, but how to treat it, and he encouraged the lawyers in the group to: 1) encourage your client’s regular contact with the children, 2) secure orders that have teeth in them for noncompliance, and 3) move quickly for sanctions when the orders are violated.
Moving quickly seems important and it is also important not to blame the child, since the child is as much a victim as the parent. Bringing the matter to court for each infraction is the only way to make the court understand that without early intervention, the chances of the child and the other parent having a relationship in the future will be slim.