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Parental Alienation

Children Are Harmed When Decisions Are Based on Stereotypes

Racism, gender bias, and Islamophobia in family court.

Key points

  • Nine-year old Adam was physically abused by his mother, and his father was helpless to intervene.
  • Biases, such as racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, can keep professionals from protecting children in danger.
  • Psychologists may be in the best place to dispel stereotypes and bias to help protect children.
Africa Studio / Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Child Abuse

Omar was going through a divorce from Asha, his wife of 10 years. The couple had a 9-year-old son named Adam, and Omar was concerned. He had seen acts of violence by Asha that included slapping, dragging and even choking their son. When he would pick up Adam from Asha’s care, he noticed clear signs of mistreatment, such as bruises, and evidence of neglect, such as matted hair and dirty clothes. Eventually, young Adam was showing symptoms of trauma that included anxiety, depression, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. Omar took Adam to the ER one day when the boy said he would kill himself if he had to see his mother again.

Omar knew that Asha was abusive. He personally experienced violence from her during their marriage and separation, and he had seen her mistreat Adam even when they were together. Over the years, the violence got worse. Omar asked the court for full custody on the grounds that Asha was harming Adam.

Omar was careful to document all of the abuse. Further, Adam disclosed his experiences to school teachers and mental health professionals. This should have been an open-and-shut case. But it wasn’t, and nothing was done. Omar felt helpless as Adam was sent back to his abuser week after week, and Omar’s lawyer eventually told him to stop reporting the abuse or documenting it. How would Adam ever be safe?

Barriers to Protection

Omar was a brown-skinned Muslim man of Arab and South Asian heritage. Asha, also a Muslim, denied being abusive and claimed that she was a victim of parental alienation as retaliation for emancipating herself from her oppressive husband. She explained that their child was making up stories of abuse at the behest of his controlling father.

The judge in the case consistently sided with the mother. He ignored instances where she violated court orders and openly stated his opinion that the father was engaged in parental alienation, purposefully causing the child to reject his own mother. Eventually, Omar’s lawyer told him to stop reporting the abuse or documenting it (for example, photographing his son’s bruises), as it was making him look like an alienator. A psychologist diagnosed Adam with PTSD, but the judge continued to treat the matter as a parental alienation case. The court-appointed parent coordinator aligned with the mother and pressured Omar to allow his son to spend time with Asha.

Key Errors by the Court

In this case, there were several errors made by the court, those appointed by the court, and child protective services in terms of handling the situation, which all worked together to prevent Adam from getting the protection he needed.

Notably, there was an assumption that mothers are unlikely to abuse, which led to a failure to adequately investigate abuse allegations, resulting in a lack of intervention to protect Adam from harm.

Further, notes a social worker took showed that the mother’s claims of being controlled by Omar were treated as a fact despite a lack of evidence. This led to professionals ignoring mounting evidence of abuse presented by the child, the father, and numerous others in their lives.

Why did this happen? Gender and Racial Bias

Men of South Asian and MENA heritage are often subject to racist stereotypes, which include being overly traditional and conservative—loyal to foreign cultural and religious beliefs and adherent to antiquated patriarchal gender roles. These types of stereotypes create the perception that such individuals are unwilling to adapt or accept more progressive ideas. There is a presupposition that Muslim women are victims and Muslim men are abusers, and research shows that belief in these stereotypes can start as early as age 6 (Brown et al., 2017). Narratives from news media and even popular movies (such as Not Without My Daughter) compound biases that promote racism and Islamophobia linked more broadly to “brown men” (Gill & Day, 2020; Poolokasingham et al., 2014).

Further, research has noted clear biases against fathers for custody allocations, despite the fact that mothers are more likely to abuse, and this bias persists internationally (Costa et al., 2018). In this case, acceptance of stereotypes and the good intent to rescue the mother, based on the idea that Muslim women need saving from Muslim men, interfered with the safety and well-being of a child (Mishra, 2007). The judge was acting as a white savior, where his personal notion about what is best for people of color is imposed in an attempt to be recognized as benevolent and morally superior.

What Should Have Happened

Professionals cannot rely on stereotypes or intuition when determining the credibility of marginalized individuals, as biases influence perceptions and decision-making. Courts should consider a range of resources when making decisions, such as testimony from family members or acquaintances, service providers, counselors, police reports, criminal case records, restraining order records, medical records, and school records (Campbell, 2017). But most critically, when children report abuse, it should be taken seriously. The professionals should have believed Adam.

In family court, psychologists play a critical role in determining the best interests of the child, they but are subject to all these same biases due to the societal influence of stereotypes. Further, psychologists may “excuse” abusive behavior, as we saw in Omar’s case, if they are trying too hard to be accepting of supposed cultural differences. Psychologists should arm themselves with facts and critical thinking based on their training rather than relying on stereotypes or cultural assumptions. As purveyors of research, psychologists may be in the best place to dispel misconceptions and advance counter-stereotypical facts for the court to consider in these critical cases.


Brown, C. S., Ali, H., Stone, E. A., & Jewell, J. A. (2017). US children's stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes toward Arab Muslims. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 17(1), 60-83.

Campbell, E. (2017). How domestic violence batterers use custody proceedings in family courts to abuse victims, and how courts can put stop to it. UCLA Women's Law Journal, 24(1), 41-66.

Gill, A. K., & Day, A. S. (2020). Moral panic in the media: Scapegoating South Asian men in cases of sexual exploitation and grooming. In Gendered domestic violence and abuse in popular culture (pp. 171-197). Emerald Publishing Limited.

Harman, J. J., Kruk, E., & Hines, D. A. (2018). Parental alienating behaviors: An unacknowledged form of family violence. Psychological Bulletin, 144(12), 1275–1299.

Mishra, S. (2007). Saving Muslim women and fighting Muslim men: Analysis of representations in the New York Times. Global Media Journal, 6(11), 1-20.

Poolokasingham, G., Spanierman, L. B., Kleiman, S., & Houshmand, S. (2014). “Fresh off the boat?” Racial microaggressions that target South Asian Canadian students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 7(3), 194-210.

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