Intervention for moderate alienation cannot be only the educational and counseling
intervention described for mild alienation. Education cannot be successful because
the alienation at this level is not a rational process and reason alone will not change
irrational behavior. At this level the alienating parent's individual internal
difficulties have become so intense that insight and judgment as to the target parent is
impaired. Further, the alienating parent's interactions with and about the target
parent are based not on observed behavior but on inner fears and serve to reaffirm the
belief that the target parent is bad. Additionally, external forces (individual
therapists, attorneys, extended family) have become polarized on behalf of one party and
serve to perpetuate the alienation.
We believe that the family system must be thoroughly evaluated by a professional or a
team of professionals competent in the "family systems" approach. The
evaluation must be of the entire system, including all adults directly involved in the
life of the child, as described above. The evaluation must be generated by a single
source or team; multiple individual psychological evaluations will not be able to advise
the court as to the interrelational issues that are affecting the functioning of the
The purpose of the evaluation is to 1.) identify the specific motivations and behaviors
that are causing the divorce impasse or subsequent alienation; 2.) to assess whether or
not individual therapy might be beneficial for any party to help resolve intrapsychic
issues; and 3.) to develop a complete behavioral plan to intervene in the alienation
process. The behavioral assessment must be very specific as to the motivations for
the impasse behaviors that are causing the alienation, and the changes necessary to alter
the system. Once the behaviors and beliefs are identified, the evaluator can make
recommendations as to specific behavioral measures to counter the alienation. The
recommendations must be sufficiently detailed and specific to be quantifiable.
We wish to emphasize here that individual psychological evaluations and therapies, or
"talking" group or family therapies are of minimal value in these situations, as
they may only serve to perpetuate the alienation process. The goal of appropriate
treatment is not only to gain understanding of the divorce impasse but also to
behaviorally reduce or eliminate alienation within the system. In order to intervene
in alienation, behavior and group dynamics must be modified.
We suggest the Individual Educational Plan (the IEP) as a model.
The Recommendations must be as specific and goal oriented as the IEP, and compliance must
be targeted in much the same manner.
Compliance should be approximately 70% compliance the first two months; 80% the third or
fourth month; 90% the fifth month and thereafter.
1. The child will see Target Parent X times per week without parental conflict at times
2. The child will telephone Target Parent X times per week and talk about positive
things for a minute or two; (depending on the age of the child); (depending upon whether
telephone calls to a hostile environment would be beneficial or not to the child);
3. During the visit, the Alienating Parent may call only "x" number of times
(or may not call at all);
4. The child will send Target Parent a picture or painting in the mail once per week,
with a positive note attached;
5. The child will bring home from visits a project done or a note to Alienating Parent
about what was enjoyed during each visit.
6. The Target Parent will provide a photograph of himself to the child, and the
Alienating Parent shall encourage the child to display it.
Essentially, what the evaluators must do is to understand the impasse, address it
directly and compassionately. Clearly, this plan will work best if the internal and
the interactional issues which created the divorce impasse are concurrently addressed and
alleviated. At the same time the court must mandate the occurrence of specific
behaviors that counteract the battle forces. The court must make the parents
demonstrate that they can follow a plan whose ultimate goal is the mutuality of interest,
even if they don't feel it. It is our position that the alienating parent must
become the welcoming parent in deed if not in thought.
Finally, the plan must cover a specific and lengthy period of time during which
behavioral requirements of the parties and the child are explicitly laid out. This
will provide the parties sufficient predictability to calm the system down and to allow
every one in it to get used to the idea that different relationships between the members
are going to be established in a predictable manner. We suggest that the plan cover
approximately six months with an automatic court review at that time.
Procedurally, we suggest that the Guardian ad Litem be authorized at the first stage of
intervention, as noted above, to require the evaluation, and that the Guardian's request
have the force of the court behind it. When the evaluation is commenced, the
Guardian ad Litem simultaneously should request the Court to schedule a hearing to be held
before the Court when the evaluation is complete. At the hearing, all parties could
present to the court proposed remedial measures; the Guardian ad Litem would present the
evaluator's report and recommendations which will likely include individual therapy to
address the impasse and an IEP-like behavioral management program. The Court should
then issue a detailed, quantifiable, specific order with sanctions enumerated, as to the
behavioral changes necessary to ameliorate the alienation and order the parties into
therapy, if recommended.
There will be no confidentiality by the time a family is in this stage of alienation
and need for intervention. The court needs to be able to monitor the progress of the
family through the behavior management therapy. The behavior management therapist
will need to be able to communicate with any individual therapists involved with family
members so that there is a full and complete exchange of information and no family
Creative sanctions must stand behind the court order as compliance at this stage will
be motivated only by fear. The ultimate sanction is a change of custody, but there
are many others we could suggest. The legal system has traditionally used fines and
loss of liberty as punishment for failure to comply with court orders. Certainly,
these are sanctions that could be used in these cases, but they may harm or confuse the
children as much as the contemnor. Obviously, an award of attorney's fees, the
threat of attorney's fees, the threat of weekend jail time may be a useful sanction.
Threats of transferring or assigning responsibility for the Guardian ad Litem's fees, the
cost of the evaluation, the costs of the child's therapy or even therapy for the other
parent can all be used to motivate compliance in this early stage of intervention, subject
always to the best interests of the child.
We also suggest that the court could shift both time (expand visitation or award
cherished holidays and birthdays to the complying parent) and function (assign areas of
traditionally joint parental authority such as medical care, education) in favor of the
target parent, both as appropriate sanctions, and as possible preparation for the ultimate
sanction, a change in custody.
The careful monitoring of such a detailed court order is an essential piece of this
intervention, and we suggest that there be a monitoring team to do it. The Guardian
ad Litem and a therapist, most likely the evaluator or the original post-divorce
counsellor, should work together monitoring compliance. Such monitoring perforce
will be largely through reports of the principles involved, the parents and the child, but
can also be done by teachers, individual therapists, friends, etc. through reports to the
Guardian ad Litem. For instance, teachers can be asked to report on the emotional
condition of a child before and after visits and to report on any information the child
offers in school. A child can be asked where he keeps the photograph of the Target
Parent (as an indicator of the degree of comfort the child has in the display in the
allegedly hostile environment).
A team is necessary to lessen the danger of the professionals becoming caught into the
polarization in the family system. In extreme cases the monitoring team may even
want to have a third consultant monitor available to them to oversee the case as a more
distant figure, not caught up in the everyday details these kinds of cases chronically
present. A consultant monitor could stay aloof of the various warring
If the parties fail to comply with the court orders there needs to be swift access to
the courts and a second look at the custody situation.
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