Parental Alienation in High Conflict Custody Cases
One of the most challenging aspects of divorce for parents is learning to move past the marital conflict in order to promote a healthy relationship between the children and a soon-to-be ex. All too often, in high conflict divorce, parents lose sight of how their behavior towards one another affects their children. Regardless of how contentious the divorce becomes, it is crucial that parents keep children out of the marital conflict as it can have lasting and damaging emotional consequences for the children and legal consequences for the parent. In recent years, courts have adjudicated an increasing number of custody cases involving parental alienation, which is when one parent consciously or unconsciously undermines and interferes with the children’s relationships with the other parent.
In cases involving parental alienation, some of the most common parental behaviors include one parent attempting to frustrate the other parent’s visitation by refusing to abide by a custody schedule or purposely scheduling activities for the children during the other parent’s time, discussing the divorce case with the children, encouraging them to take sides and disparaging the other parent in front of the children. Warning signs in children that have been alienated include children refusing to spend time with one parent (and perhaps that parent’s extended family) and mimicking or parroting the adult language of the alienating parent.
Fortunately, there are legal tools to combat parental alienation. An increasing number of courts in Pennsylvania have been able to identify and address custody cases involving parental alienation. In determining the best interest of the children in awarding custody, courts look at sixteen factors, including which parent is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact with the other parent, the attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent, the level of conflict between the parents and the ability of the parents to cooperate with each other. In the recent case of A.D.H. v. M.H., Pa. Super Unpub. LEXIS 907, the appellate court addressed the issue of parental alienation, remanding a case where the mother “was not prepared emotionally, mentally or psychologically to encourage continuing contact” with the father, the mother called the father a “weirdo or something similar in front of the children” and the mother told the children that the father wanted to send her to jail.
Divorce is difficult but parents need to realize the effects that their words and actions have on their children. It is important not to denigrate each other in front of the children or let the one party prevent the other party from spending quality time with the children. Regardless of divorce, it is always in the best interests of the child to maintain healthy and strong relationships with both parents.