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Parental Alienation and Child Custody

Recently, certain child custody cases that have made the headlines have brought scrutiny to the concept of parental alienation, and what role the courts should play where children have a very clear preference for how they spend their time with separated parents. Judges forcing children, against their will, to spend time with one parent or another has drawn a lot of attention and opinions from both sides; some arguing that court decisions are abhorrent, and others that they have made the right call.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the issue, it is clear that the issue of parental alienation is a difficult one for the courts to deal with, particularly since they do not spend time with the families or children at issue outside of the courtroom.

What Is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is a descriptor assigned to behaviors that are geared towards interfering with the relationship between a parent and child. In other words, it is the act of turning a child against the other parent.

Some of the methods identified by mental health professionals that can lead to parental alienation include:

  • Bad-mouthing the other parent;
  • Limiting contact with the other parent;
  • Forbidding any discussion about the other parent;
  • Forcing a child to reject the other parent;
  • Leading child to believe the other parent is dangerous;
  • Forcing child to choose between parents; and/or
  • Limiting contact with extended family of other parent.

Some psychiatrists have identified a syndrome related to this issue (but not identical)—known as “parental alienation syndrome”—and described it as a disorder that arises in the context of child custody disputes. It is manifested as a child believing that the other parent is the enemy and/or to be avoided or feared. Although both parental alienation and the syndrome involve similar concepts, the syndrome is typically distinguished by not necessarily correlating with parental behavior (as in, the child can develop these strong negative emotions towards a parent without it being caused by the other parent).

That being said, there are, of course, instances where children have a valid reason to refuse to have a relationship with one parent, such as a history of violence in the family (even if unreported) which is caused by that one parent. Obviously, courts are going to have a difficult time figuring out the difference between actual and baseless reasons at times, sometimes necessitating the need for the child to have their own advocate in court to serve as a third party investigating the issue.

Florida Courts and Parental Alienation

Similar to other states, Florida courts are most interested in making custody decisions based on the best interests of the child, which includes, as one factor, a parent’s capacity to act on the needs of the child versus their own. The Florida Supreme Court has held that evidence of parental alienation is one factor that can lead the court to warrant a modification of a parenting plan and child time-sharing. Specifically, substantial evidence of parental alienation has contributed to the conclusion that there were substantial and material changes in circumstances to warrant adjusting a parent plan, and even awarding primary custody to the other parent. Specifically, the court found that shared rotating custody was no longer in the best interest of the child, but rather, primary custody should be awarded to the parent who did not contribute to parental alienation.

Contact Us for Assistance

Whether you are facing a child custody dispute, or feel that there is a substantial need to modify a parenting plan and child timeshare, we can help you through the process. Please contact Sandra Bonfiglio, P.A. in Boca Raton to schedule a consultation.

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