FACT CHECK: Florida SB 1342 and Parental Alienation Syndrome

Once again, those who have suffered through the emotional rawness of being systematically alienated from their children are hopeful that their cause is being addressed, that finally some legislature somewhere will recognize their plight and offer statutory relief. These efforts have failed across the nation in the past, and the latest one, this time in Florida, will fail as well.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Most advocates and parent support groups are focused completely on the recognition of the deep psychological harm that a vindictive parent inflicts on  the child when they target and alienate the other parent. In order to address this issue, advocates have been petitioning state legislatures to enact child-abuse reporting laws that include parental alienation. In Florida, the celebrated language is remarkably weak. Even so, advocates on social media are doing a collective happy dance, but it’s premature. Florida Senate Bill 1342 doesn’t recognize parental alienation syndrome (PAS), nor does it even acknowledge that parental alienation is psychologically harmful. To make matters worse, it slams the door on getting evidence of PAS admitted in family court, because the language in Section 3 specifically omits any language acknowledging that licensed mental health professionals should receive training in PAS. This directly impacts evidentiary standards in Florida courtrooms, where scientific evidence must meet the Daubert standard. This is a much, much higher bar than the Frye standard, which Florida eliminated in 2013. Some proponents point to a decision by Florida’s Supreme Court that purports to reject the Daubert Standard, it is important to remember that it is the legislature, not the court, that decides evidentiary standards. The February decision by the Florida Supreme Court doesn’t change the standard. In the federal courts and in Florida and 36 other states, it’s Daubert.

Let’s start with the following language in the bill:

(30) “Harm” to a child’s health or welfare can occur when
   20  any person:
   21         (m)Inflicts mental injury, as defined in subsection (42),
   22  on a child through the use of manipulation or psychological
   23  abuse, including, but not limited to, parental alienation, which
   24  creates a significant developmental pathology, personality
   25  disorder pathology, or delusional-psychiatric pathology as
   26  diagnosed by a mental health professional licensed under chapter
   27  490 or chapter 491.

First, the language doesn’t state that any of the described activities do cause harm, only that they can, putting the burden of proof squarely on the proponent to establish “harm” within the definition. Harm is not assumed simply because one parent targets another for alienation.

Second, look at the language that describes pathological consequences already recognized within the mental health community. There is no language to suggest that the Florida legislature intends to recognize a new pathology. No mention at all about PAS.

Third, and most important, is that the Florida legislature has included language that will make certain Florida family courts will not be recognizing PAS any time soon. The language in the bill clearly omits any requirement that licensed professional be trained in PAS:

 Section 3. The Board of Psychology within the Department of
   44  Health shall revise the requirements for renewal of a license to
   45  practice psychology, pursuant to s. 490.007, Florida Statutes,
   46  to require continuing education regarding child psychological
   47  abuse, including, but not limited to, abuse through the use of
   48  manipulation or parental alienation.

Don’t be fooled by the “not limited to” language. It has no legal significance. It’s nothing more than an emollient to ease the truth: the Florida legislature does not recognize PAS. The reason for this lies with the evidentiary standards adopted by the legislature in 2013, which make it incredibly difficult to get new scientific evidence admitted at trial. The new standard, known as the Daubert standard, requires that the evidence be based on sufficient facts and data analyzed via peer review and published studies, and accepted within the specific scientific community that specializes in the relevant area. This is where the real obstacle is. In a report to the Department of Justice, a group of respected mental health experts wrote:

Many professionals are also skeptical about the empirical basis for parent-alienation syndrome and parent alienation. In one survey of professionals involved with custody decisions (evaluators, judges/trial attorneys, and court facilitators), most rated themselves as very knowledgeable about parent alienation (Bow, Gould, & Flens, 2009). The majority did not believe that parent alienation had much empirical support and they believed that parent alienation syndrome had even less empirical support. As a group, survey participants estimated that parent alienation occurred in 26 percent of their cases, with mothers more frequently being reported as alienators than fathers (66 vs 34 percent). A low percentage (12 percent) believed that parent-alienation syndrome met the Daubert criteria for admissibility in court proceedings.[1]

While there is remarkable work in the area of PAS, it is not a recognized condition in the mental health community. Proponents like Dr. Craig Childress continue to produce volumes of research and supporting studies for peer review. Even so, there is still much disagreement among the experts. Some experts claim that the proponents of PAS are dangerous:

“Parental Alienation Syndrome” was invented by a therapist who also thought pedophilia should be normalized, blamed on a child, and that sexual abuse itself is not a harm (more here). Would that approach take the claims of children alleging abuse to be true? Of course not. Would that approach give any credence to the harms done to children that common sense recognizes? Of course not. [2]

While some ill-informed lay people may see this battle between the experts as a bad thing, in reality it is the best possible process. While it may take awhile for the mental health community to recognize PAS, once they get there, it will be a solid claim and defense in family court. Until then, family law practitioners will have to play the evidentiary hand they’ve been dealt in their jurisdiction. This almost always results in people on social media complaining about their attorney who wouldn’t offer evidence or judges who wouldn’t allow it. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that there are rules that must be followed. The courts are following their rules, but unless or until mental health professionals get their acts together and quit fighting among themselves, it will be children and families who continue to suffer.

PLAN is currently working on a policy paper to assist members of the Family Law Bar to better understand the plight of clients who want to claim PAS. We hope that a thorough discussion of the legal issues involved will aide attorneys in finding a way over or around the high evidentiary bar associated with new science by helping them to identify other, currently recognized pathologies that are admissible in every jurisdiction.

~J.L. Cook, juris doctor
PLAN Executive Director

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1. Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations: Their Relationship to Evaluator Demographics, Background, Domestic Violence Knowledge and Custody-Visitation Recommendations, pg. 23, p3. Daniel G. Saunders, Ph.D., Kathleen C. Faller, Ph.D., Richard M. Tolman, Ph.D., June 2012. Retrieved from www.parentsunitedforchange.com/uploads/Parental_Alienation_Syndrome.pdf

2. Jennifer Baker, Ph.D. The Strange Advocacy for “Parental Alienation Syndrome” A Perfect Tool for Harming Children, Psychology Today, December 17, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-love-wisdom/201512/the-strange-advocacy-parental-alienation-syndrome

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