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Rejecting a "Win" through Establishing "Alienation"

A father takes the high road versus trying to "win" custody in court.

Key points

  • What looks like parental alienation may be something quite different
  • Forsaking what might seem to be a "victory" in court can reveal a lot about a parent's fitness
  • A careful, extensive forensic evaluation may be necessary to understand what may appear to be a "no brainer" on the surface

Steven Turner and his wife were involved in protracted litigation for custody of their three children.* As an independent child custody evaluator, I interviewed all the parties, reviewed pertinent documents, and spoke with several collateral sources of information. From the outset of my investigation, I found that each child vehemently expressed a preference to live with Mr. Turner. All three Turner children were extremely negative toward their mother.

From the beginning of my involvement in this case, it seemed as though a process of parental alienation was at work. Rarely had I encountered a situation where the stated preference of the children was so unequivocal and vociferous. Joan (11 years old) Tony (13 years old, and Michael (12 years old) reeled off a litany of complaints against Ms. Turner. They said that their mother did little for them in routine matters including cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, or assisting them with homework. She sometimes failed to transport them to medical appointments or extracurricular activities. Emotionally, the children seemed estranged as they said Ms. Turner argued constantly, embarrassed them, and behaved erratically.

The children were specific about the problems that they experienced with their mother. Tony remarked, “She has mood swings. One minute, she’ll say something and five minutes later do something different.” Michael recalled having to wait three hours for his mother to pick him up after a soccer game. Joan said, “She says she cleans the house. It doesn’t look like she does too much.”

All three children reported that their mother watched a television evangelist and talked about giving a lot of money to his ministry. They said that Ms. Turner often secluded herself for hours in her room, preoccupied by religious matters. Tony said, “She doesn’t watch the road too much when she’s listening to religious music.” He also noted, “If she didn’t have her mom helping her, I don’t know what she’d do.”

All three children were especially dismayed by Ms. Turner’s constant denigration of their father. In their eyes, their father could do no wrong. Joan said, “He just tries to make us happy. She tries to make us feel sorry for her.” From their standpoint, Mr. Turner assumed all the responsibilities, including cooking, doing laundry, transporting them wherever they needed to go, and helping them with homework. Joan said, “He loves us a lot, takes care of us when we’re sick, and cares about our education.”

Before the marital separation, the family situation had deteriorated to a point where Mr. Turner and the children went out to dinner without Ms. Turner. They also took a vacation, leaving her at home. Mr. Turner told me that he should have left the marriage earlier instead of continuing to live “in hell the last few years.” He explained that divorce was alien to his family and that he stayed in the marriage for two reasons. One was that he hoped his wife would change. The other was that he did not want to subject the children to her erratic behavior on a nearly a full-time basis while waiting months for a court hearing and custody decision. “She is destroying these kids,” he told me. He declared that he had to move toward separation and divorce to “rescue” them.

When children hold such extreme views of their parents, one having no flaws, the other as having no redeeming features, it is reasonable to suspect that alienation is playing a role. Furthermore, Ms. Turner emphatically contended that her husband had been turning their children against her: “He has mentally tortured me for a long time. He’s brainwashed them. There’s nothing I can do.”

As I proceeded to interview each of the parents and children over the course of a month, I made two important discoveries. One was that Ms. Turner had longstanding and severe psychological problems. At times, she seemed confused and would lose the thread of what she was trying to tell me. Some of her allegations had a paranoid aspect to them, suspicions that had little basis in fact. Occasionally, she contradicted herself while making back-to-back statements. She seemed uncertain, frightened, and tentative. It was her mother who made appointments for her and the children to be interviewed during my evaluation. Her mother acknowledged that Ms. Turner had been absorbed by the televangelist to a point that “she hasn’t functioned well this past year.”

I spoke with a psychiatrist who had treated Ms. Turner as an inpatient and later as an outpatient a half-dozen years before this evaluation. He said that she had been a “functioning paranoid schizophrenic” and was “noncompliant” about taking prescribed medication. She had received no treatment since.

Ms. Turner continued to suffer from an untreated psychological disorder that was impairing her daily functioning. She adored her children and was devoted to them. However, her mental illness interfered with her offering much beyond the most basic care. I found that Mr. Turner was not “brainwashing” or alienating the children. Ms. Turner had become her own worst enemy and alienated herself from Joan, Tony, and Michael. Mr. Turner was seeking to preserve the children’s relationship with their mother, not destroy it. He knew that it would be of benefit both to him and the children if she received the professional help she needed.

Joan, Tony, and Michael were resilient children who were functioning well, despite all the family turmoil. They preferred to live with their father whom they regarded as more competent, nurturing, and more involved. They also perceived a financial benefit in living with him. However, all three clearly indicated that they wanted their mother involved in their lives.

The children never thought that their positive feelings about their mother would be interpreted as disloyalty by their father. (This regularly happens in cases of parental alienation.) Mr. Turner did his utmost not to denigrate his wife. In fact, he did the opposite. He said that, if the children lived with him, he would not move them out of the area. Wanting them to remain close to their mother and in the same school district, Mr. Turner already was looking at property in close proximity to the marital residence. The children told me that, even if they resided with their father, they wanted to live near their mother and spend time with her frequently. , Joan said that she wished her mother could still live with them. Tony told me, “Our Mom will visit us. She can still spend the night. She says she loves us. We believe her.” He added, “I’d expect to see her. She could come over anytime.”

Tactically, Mr. Turner might have had a huge advantage at a Court hearing if he had chosen to capitalize on his wife’s mental illness and turn the children against her. Instead, he acknowledged to me that, for years, she had been a good mother who made the children the center of her life. Mr. Tuner commented, “People say I’m a soft person. If my wife acts normal, she can have visitation at any time if the kids want to see her.”

The judge hearing the case assigned temporary physical custody to Mr. Turner and specified that Ms. Turner should have unlimited visitation. If she received treatment and her condition improved, the judge was open to having a further hearing to reconsider the custodial arrangements.

Instead of using his wife’s psychological disability against her and alienating the children (which would not have been difficult to do), Mr. Turner thought about the best interests of Joan, Tony, and Michael. He never viewed the custody litigation as a “win-lose” matter.

*The names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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