Complexity of "Parental Alienation" Problem Addressed by Experts

On Wednesday February 8, 2012, a evening event hosted by the Pasadena Bar Association, Family Law Section, proved to be extremely informative and beneficial for those in attendance. At the meeting, the complexity of the " parental alienation" problem was addressed by three renowned child custody experts. At the meeting, a three-panel presentation was given by Leslie M. Drozd, Ph.D., Kathryn Kuehnle, Ph.D., and Lisa Kiriakidis, certified family law specialist.

The presentation began with Kathryn Kuehnle's overview of the research and misconceptions related to parental alienation. Ms. Kuehnle introduced numerous concepts in her presentation, such as:

1. Gate keeping (restrictive and protective);

2. Estrangement and abuse;

3. The fact that parental alienation is not a "syndrome";

4. Her belief that pre‑existing relationships can matter with respect to the success of reunification; and

5. Her belief that various parental behaviors and beliefs can cause parental alienation, such as the custodial parent's desire to replace the other parent with a stepparent, or where feelings of betrayal interfere with acting in the children's best interest to foster a positive relationship with the other parent.

Next, Leslie M. Drozd discussed the complexity of the problem and introduced the concept of "and", rather than "or". Ms. Drozd explained that in many custodial evaluations, where there is alienation there is also abuse and/or estrangement. Consequently, Ms. Drozd suggested that family law professionals should not view alienation in a vacuum but should look out for other problems in the family dynamic.

Ms. Drozd and Ms. Kuehnle also emphasized that a lot of research still needs to be done in this area and that many of the existing studies are flawed. Finally, Ms. Drozd and Ms. Kuehnle cautioned those in attendance not to jump to conclusions with respect to parental alienation and to think carefully before assuming this exists in a family dynamic.

The third panelist, Lisa Kiriakidis, gave a powerful personal account of her own child custody battle where parental alienation existed. Mr. Kiriakidis gave a detailed account of how her family was impacted by the problem and at the conclusion of her summary those in attendance could have no doubt of the excruciating impact that parental alienation could have on a parent-child relationship. Ms. Kiriakidis concluded by describing how she addressed the problem in her own custody battle and how she was able to save her son from an unhealthy situation by bringing her matter swiftly to the court's attention and obtaining an order to change custody, as well participating in reunification therapy. Ms. Kiriakidis explained that reunification came swiftly in her case and that her son was appreciative of her efforts. Ms. Drozd and Ms. Kuehnle added at the conclusion of Ms. Kiriakidis' account that they observed that the success of reunification is often related to the strength of the parents' relationship prior to the custody dispute.

At the end of the meeting, I was struck by the thought of how many children do not receive the benefit of having an parent like Ms. Kiriakidis or a competent family law attorney intervene on their behalf. As a family law attorney, I am more resolved than ever to protect clients and their children where the other parent is engaging in parental alienation. I also understand the importance of prompt judicial intervention and assertive lawyering when faced with parental alienation. By the reaction of those in attendance, I know I was not the only one who appreciated this presentation.

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