Roland Thomas was the victim of a crime.* Yet the perpetrator of that offense was not arrestable.
When Roland and Amy, his wife, decided to end their marriage, Mr. Thomas had no idea that nearly four years would pass until he could spend time with Mindy, his daughter. Roland would miss all the moments that parents treasure while watching their children grow up.
Although Amy and Roland were not getting along, both adored 4-year-old Mindy. With plenty of advance preparation and without giving notice, Amy spirited Mindy away and took up residence with Barbara, a close friend. Roland had no idea where they were living for many months, even though they remained in the vicinity.
Long divorced, Barbara enjoyed having Amy and Mindy as housemates while sharing living expenses. In fact, they created a family of their own. Amy had decided that she and Mindy would be better off without Roland’s presence or interference, although Amy certainly wanted to collect his child support. She and Barbara schemed to remove Roland from Mindy’s life.
Taken to a psychologist by her mother and coached in advance, Mindy told the therapist that she did not want to see her father because he screamed at her, hit her, and called her names. The psychologist notified Child Protective Services, whereupon Amy sought a protective order from the court.
Knowing the allegations against him were false, Roland thought he could represent himself at the protective order hearing. Although the judge guided him, Roland had not the slightest idea of legal procedures. Presented with the CPS investigation results, equivocal though they were, and the mother’s assertions, the judge acted to protect the child. Roland was at a loss as to how to prove a negative—to demonstrate that he had not done what he had been accused of. The judge ordered Roland to have no contact with the child and to commit no more acts of “family abuse.”
Roland’s world had collapsed. People who knew him were stunned at the preposterous allegations. Family and friends had personally observed how close he and Mindy had been. Moreover, Roland had home movies of Mindy at different ages affectionately crawling all over him while they played.
The issuance of the protective order was Roland’s wake-up call. He embarked upon what was to turn into a three-year process. He hired an attorney who filed a motion with the court for Roland to undergo an independent psychological evaluation. It took six months for that to occur and for a report to be filed with the court.
The result was the elimination of the protective order, but Roland still had no contact with Mindy. The court then ordered an independent child custody evaluation, a lengthy and expensive process, during which the parents and Amy would be examined to determine what was in Mindy’s best interest. By this time, Mindy had not seen her father in more than two years. She was nearly seven and wanted nothing to do with him. By the time the custody evaluator completed her report and a custody hearing was scheduled, Roland had become a stranger to his daughter.
Mindy had remained in therapy, and the therapist thought it inadvisable to force the child to spend time with her father because she expressed terror just at the prospect of seeing him. Throughout this period, Amy had been able to influence Mindy so that a “parentectomy” occurred—one parent was removed from the child’s life. Mindy recognized only one person as her parent.
The court then recommended a process of “reunification therapy.” Another year passed during which, against her will, Mindy spent brief periods with her father while a third party who was approved by the court supervised the visit.
Some parents abandon hope and walk away in comparable situations. This occurs when reunification fails or the relationship is too damaged to be resurrected. A parent may be destroyed financially and unable to afford legal and other professional fees.
Roland’s situation and others like it reflect the outcome of a malicious process known as “parental alienation.” It occurs when one parent takes steps to remove the other from a child’s life. It is a deliberate effort to influence a son or daughter so that he or she comes to fear and hate the maligned parent. Put more simply, the child is “brainwashed."
One might think in Roland’s case that there must have been something really wrong with him and thus more to the story. Ultimately, the mental health and custody evaluators did not find this to be true. It had taken years and tens of thousands of dollars for Roland to be vindicated. No independent professional found him to be abusive or psychologically impaired. But the damage had been done.
“Parental alienation” is a “crime.” However, it is a matter dealt with not in a criminal court but in lengthy civil proceedings.
The thinking patterns that give rise to parental alienation, more often than not, result in massive emotional and financial harm to a parent and severe damage to a child who loses a parent in the process.
The alienating parent weaves a web of lies while gaining total control over a child. The boy or girl who is dependent on the alienating parent internalizes that parent’s view that the other parent is to be feared and detested. For the alienator, it is about winning and losing while employing any means to an end. Ultimately, a parent-child relationship is irrevocably harmed if not totally destroyed.
*Although this case is in some ways a composite, as a forensic psychologist, I have encountered a number of situations with some, if not all, of the features in the particular case cited above.