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Study looks at claims of parental alienation, abuse

Some New Jersey parents may be familiar with the term "parental alienation". First described by a child psychiatrist in the 1980s, it originally referred to what he saw as a rash of false claims by divorced mothers that the father of their children was sexually abusing them. In his view, many of these mothers were attempting to alienate their children from their fathers. While the claim appears now in gender-neutral contexts, some experts say there is no science behind it and that it can lead to children being placed with abusive parents in custody battles.

Both a former director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have spoken out against the concept. A Department of Justice-funded study conducted by a law school professor found that when parental alienation is used in court, fathers are generally favored over mothers. The study examined court opinions between 2005 and 2014 and looked at more than 4,300 child custody cases.

It found that when mothers had custody and fathers claimed parental alienation, the mothers lost custody 44% of the time compared to 28% percent of the time when the genders were reversed. In cases when the court considered the abuse to be proven, mothers still lost custody in 13% of cases compared to 4% for fathers.

As this study demonstrates, if one parent believes a child is unsafe with the other parent, the process of ensuring that custody is modified is a complex one. Parents who are in this situation may want to talk to an attorney about the best way to present their concerns in family court. In many other cases, parents may simply disagree about what custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child and might be able to resolve this without litigation.

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