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Family Wars (PAS) — Intervention in Mild Alienation Cases


2. Mild Alienation Cases

Once an alienation process has been identified, the court must intervene. Even at the mild or beginning stages there is much work to be done.  There is usually a healthy psychological bond between each of the parents and the child and at least a cognitive recognition on the part of the alienating parent that an estrangement between the child and the target parent is not in the best interests of the child.  The alienating parent is frequently willing to participate in a program to change the direction of the case, if given the information and the guidance necessary. 

Often the alienation at this stage is motivated by fear that the impending divorce will cause the child to love the alienating parent less.  The finalization of the divorce itself together with specific education and the therapy described below may ameliorate the situation. 

At the mild stage, it is imperative that the family be engaged in a "family systems" therapy that is focused on changing the behavior of the parties around the child.  The traditional individual therapies are not helpful as individual treatment tends to focus on only one side, therefore potentially increasing the alienation by advocacy for a client.  If individual therapy is necessary for a child or a parent, it must take place with a therapist who understands the alienation process and who supports the value to a child of having a relationship with each parent.  Family systems work may need to include the child at some or all sessions. 

All therapists engaged with the family must understand family dynamics and parental alienation, have a systems approach and clearly understand that children need two parents.  The therapists must be strong and forceful and able to utilize the force of the court through the Guardian ad Litem.  The therapy must be directed at the resolution of the divorce impasse. 

The Court ordered divorce impasse therapy must include all the adults directly involved in the custody of the child.  This includes both parents and any live-in lovers or current spouses and any other adult who lives in the home of either the alienating parent or the target parent and any other adult who may be involved in the alienation.  A court order may be necessary to require the warring adults to sit in the same room together, but we believe that they must actually face each other if possible, or, at a minimum, be involved with the same systems therapist if meeting together is not recommended. 

The Court order must be forceful and explicit.  The rights, responsibilities and duties of each parent must be spelled out explicitly.  Attendance in therapy as required by the therapist must be court ordered.  The custody and visitation schedule may also need to be explicit, with details of how, when and where pick-ups and drop-offs are to occur.  All parties must understand that a court order cannot be modified unless approved by the court; if modifications can be made by the family with the agreement of the systems therapist, this must be made explicit in the order. 

Confidentiality will always be an issue which should be addressed by the court, the parties, lawyers and the therapist.  If the parties are able to agree to confidentiality, it should be written into the court order.  If the therapy is confidential, it should be confidential to all, including the court and the guardian ad Litem.  The ability of the parties to agree to confidentiality would be a major step to resolution as it indicates both motivation and trust of the system. 

If the parties cannot agree to confidentiality, the court should do what it can to insulate the therapist from legal inquiry, with due regard for the parties constitutional rights.[14]  The court can order the attorneys not to speak with the therapist (except for the Guardian ad Litem) during the therapeutic process, order complete confidentiality for the therapist's working notes; delay all depositions until further court order, or otherwise limit the therapist's involvement in the litigation process. 

There must be a mechanism for enforcement of the court order.  The court should appoint a Guardian ad Litem who will have the authority, independent of further court order, to require a complete family system evaluation if the above treatment is not successful.  The order at this stage should include the mechanism for the payment of both the Guardian ad Litem and the court ordered evaluation. 

The order should also contemplate the need for rapid and complete intervention, should the parties fail to ameliorate the situation.  We suggest that the court schedule a review hearing at the time it issues the therapy order, and allow only the Guardian ad Litem to cancel it.  We are hopeful that, in most cases, the court ordered expensive evaluation will be sufficient sanction to motivate the parents to genuinely participate in treatment, but the parties must be made to feel the strength of the court behind the court order.  Sanctions for failure to comply must be explicit.  We urge the court to spell out the next stage of intervention (described below) and include an explanation of what sanctions to expect at a future date, if necessary. 

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Updates:
2001 02 09 (format changes)
2002 03 05 (added link to Table of Contents)