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Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Abuse Allegations and Parental Alienation

Award Information

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Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2014, $501,791)

Arguably the most troubling aspect of justice system response to intimate partner violence is custody courts' failure to protect children when mothers allege the father is abusive. Family courts' errors in assessing adult and child abuse, and punitive responses to abuse allegations, have been widely documented. A significant contributor to these errors is the pseudo-scientific theory of parental alienation. Originally termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS), the theory suggests that when mothers allege that a child is not safe with the father, they are doing so illegitimately, to alienate the child from the father. PA labeling often results in dismissal of women's and children's reports of abuse, and sometimes trumps even expert child abuse evaluations. PAS was explicitly based on negative stereotypes of mothers and has been widely discredited. However, the term parental alienation is still widely used in ways that are virtually identical to PAS. However, because PA is nominally gender neutral (and not called a scientific syndrome)it continues to have substantial credibility in court. The first goal of this Project is to ascertain whether empirical evidence indicates that parental alienation is also gender-biased in practice and outcome. Drawing from courts' own reports of facts, findings, and outcomes, such research could powerfully inform advocates and the courts regarding the validity or invalidity of relying on parental alienation to strip mothers of their children and potentially subject children to ongoing abuse. Second, inspired by some tentative findings, the study seeks to explore outcomes in custody/abuse litigation by gender and by differing types of abuse. The study relies solely on electronically available published opinions in child custody cases; to date we have identified 240 involving alienation and alienation plus abuse. We seek to expand the database to include non-alienation abuse cases as a comparison, and to address additional questions about custody/abuse adjudications. The Principal Investigator, Joan Meier, Professor of Clinical Law at GW Law School, will be supported by consultants Chris O'Sullivan, PhD, Leora Rosen, PhD, Sean Dickson, MpH, Esq., and the Institute for Women's Policy Research. First year - collect data set of opinions coded by relevant factors; second year - perform statistical analyses; third year - develop scholarly publications and practice tools. The Project will also produce an invaluable database identifying 15 years of published cases involving alienation, abuse, and custody while coding parties claims and defenses, outcomes, and other key factors by gender and parental status. ca/ncf
Date Created: September 16, 2014