Father? What Father?
By Chaim Steinberger
Part One Preface
“[A] twelve-year study commissioned by the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association of over 1,000 divorces found that ‘parental alienation,’ the programming of a child against the other parent, occurs regularly, sixty percent (60%) of the time, and sporadically another twenty percent.”
There is no doubt that every child needs “frequent and regular” contact with both parents to develop in a psychologically healthy manner.2 A custodial parent is, therefore, obligated by law to ensure the continued relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent.3 The Appellate Division, Second Department, explained why frequent contact is needed between them: Only [with frequent contact] may a non-custodial parent provide his child with the guidance and counsel youngsters require in their formative years. Only then may he be an available source of comfort and solace in times of his child’s need. Only then may he share in the joy of watching his offspring grow to maturity and adulthood. . . .
Indeed, so jealously do the courts guard the relationship between a non-custodial parent and his child that any interference with it by the custodial parent has been said to be “an act so inconsistent with the best interests of the children as to, per se, raise a strong probability that the [offending party] is unfit to act as custodial parent.” . . . The decision to bear children, [moreover], entails serious obligations and among them is the duty to protect the child’s relationship with both parents even in the event of a divorce. Hence, a custodial parent may be properly called upon to make certain sacrifices to ensure the right of the child to the benefits of visitation with the noncustodial parent. The search, therefore, is for a reasonable accommodation of the rights and needs of all concerned, with appropriate consideration given to the good faith of the parties in respecting each other’s parental rights.4
Nevertheless, a twelve-year study commissioned by the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association of over 1,000 divorces found that “parental alienation,” the programming of a child against the other parent, occurs regularly, sixty percent (60%) of the time, and sporadically another twenty percent.5 New York courts have in the past “zealously protected” the non-custodial parent’s visitation rights against interference by the custodial parent.6 Custodial parents seeking to exclude the other parent have, therefore, taken to socially and psychologically turning the child away from the other parent so that the child, and not the custodial parent, refuses the visitation.
This type of “alienation” has been characterized by the Second Department as a “subtle and insidious” form of visitation interference that may cause even “greater and more permanent damage to the emotional psyche of a child” than the garden variety visitation interference.7 This article will summarize the leading literature in the field of alienation. Part One will review the different techniques employed by alienating parents to marginalize and exclude the other parent from their children’s lives. It will set out the most common symptoms of alienation so that the reader will be more attuned to recognize and deal with potential alienation, and counsel clients who are effected by it.
Finally, it will describe the profound and enduring devastating psychological, emotional and social consequences alienation has on its primary victims—the children. Part Two of the article will appear in a subsequent issue and describe the effective treatments for alienation, and how New York courts have traditionally and recently dealt with the issue. Because alienation has such profound inter-generational consequences, judges and lawyers must be ever-vigilant to detect and deal with alienation, no matter the guise by which it is concealed. 10 NYSBA Family Law Review | Spring 2006 | Vol. 38 | No. 1