Why Family Courts Cannot Protect Children: ACE vs. PAS
By Barry Goldstein, NOMAS Task Group on Child Custody.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies are medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that can be used to reduce cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, crime, substance abuse, suicide and many other horrible health and social problems. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is an unscientific theory, often used by other names because of its notoriety that is used to help abusers maintain power and control over their victims. While the ACE Research is based on careful review of questionnaires from tens of thousands of patients, peer reviewed and following the standards of the CDC, PAS was concocted not from any research but rather the personal beliefs and biases of a deeply flawed man who made many public statements supporting sex between adults and children and later committed suicide. It is hard to imagine a greater disparity between the scientific basis and reliability of two reports and yet in 2017, PAS continues to have far greater influence over our family courts than the ACE Research.
The problem is far more than the need to fully integrate research that concerns the health, safety and life expectancy of children while ending the use of a biased theory that undermines the ability of courts to recognize and respond to domestic violence and child abuse. The frequency of courts favoring PAS over ACE raises serious concerns about the courts’ ability to judge what information is reliable; to adjust to new research and to keep the focus on the well-being of children in the middle of contentious litigation.
Dr. Vincent Felitti was working with morbidly obese patients. The patients were supposed to limit their intake to water and supplements. Some patients failed to follow the protocol and so failed to lose the amount of weight desired, but it was patients who were successful that dropped out of the program. When Dr. Felitti investigated their personal records and interviewed them he found that the drop-outs had a childhood history that included domestic violence and often sexual abuse. They viewed the excess weight as protective so no one would bother them.
This led to the design of a new study for the CDC to examine the health effects of adverse childhood experiences. The study involved over 17,000 mostly middle-age patients who were asked to complete a confidential health questionnaire that included questions about traumatic events when they were children. The average age of the patients was 57 so there would be no reason for them to make false reports of abuse.
The study was peer reviewed and has been repeated in different communities at least five times. The later studies confirmed and expanded the findings from the earlier research. This was medical research and was initially used by medical professionals to diagnose and treat patients. In many cases victims of ACEs went undiagnosed or were accused of hypochondria when doctors could not find physical reasons for their complaints. The research was used to help many patients. Dr. Felitti later realized that prevention is an even better use for his research because preventing domestic violence and child abuse would result in a significant reduction in many diseases and social problems.
PAS was not based on any research. Instead Richard Gardner concocted his theory based on his personal experience with his patients, his beliefs and biases. His beliefs and biases that undoubtedly influenced his theory included many public statements that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. His books and articles about his theory were self-published and never peer reviewed.
Every reputable professional organization that has considered PAS rejected it because of the lack of scientific basis. The DSM-IV and DSM-V which are the compendiums of all valid mental health diagnoses refused to include PAS because of the lack of validity. The abuser rights organizations and professionals who make large incomes helping abusers lobbied aggressively for inclusion, but were unable to justify their demands.
The notoriety of PAS led supporters to try to continue to use it by calling it other names such as parental alienation or alienation. Professionals who are part of the cottage industry sought to create the illusion of scientific research to support PAS, but it was based on the original bogus theory. The Saunders’ Study from the National Institute of Justice found that court professionals without the necessary knowledge and training regarding domestic violence tended to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports and unscientific alienation theories. These mistaken beliefs lead to decisions that harm children. Some psychologists have lost their licenses for using PAS because they are diagnosing something that does not exist.
ACE is medical research that was developed to better diagnose and treat a variety of medical conditions that are caused or exacerbated by fear and stress. The research has the ability to reduce many common health problems including ones that are often fatal. This research can be used to increase life expectancy and improve the quality of lives of children exposed to ACEs.
PAS was created to support abusive fathers and help psychologists and other professionals earn large incomes. This is how Richard Gardner used it. Most contested custody cases are really domestic violence cases. Since domestic violence is about control, including financial control, the abusers usually control most of the family resources. PAS gives the cottage industry an approach to favor the wealthy clients they are looking to help. Significantly, PAS is not used for any purpose other than helping abusers win custody or defeat reports of abuse.
The essence of domestic violence is that abusers use a variety of tactics to scare and coerce their partners to do what the abuser wants. This results in the mother and children living in fear. There are ten adverse childhood experiences. In the context of a contested custody case, the child usually starts with a score of one for the parents separating, one for domestic violence and one for emotional abuse of the child. Fathers who abuse the mother are 40-60% more likely to also abuse the children physically and sexually. If both, that would increase the score to 5. If one or both parents have a substance abuse problem or mental illness those are two more possible points. Physical or emotional neglect are two more possibilities. Significantly all of the other ACEs are more likely when a father abuses a mother. An ACE score of 6 results in an average reduction in life expectancy of 20 years.
The enormous harm from adverse childhood experiences is hard to fathom because of the long history of tolerating what we now call domestic violence and child abuse. The present level of abuse is tied to the present level of the horrific diseases and social problems discussed earlier. Improved practices to prevent domestic violence and child abuse would result in a significant increase in life expectancy. The United States spends well over one trillion dollars annually to tolerate domestic violence and more for child abuse. This takes a huge toll on our economy but we haven’t noticed because we never lived in a society that took effective steps to stop this abuse.
The Quincy Solution which would dramatically reduce domestic violence crime based on proven practices includes reform of the custody courts. In Quincy, District Attorney Bill Delahunt noticed that victims stopped cooperating when their abuser sought custody. This did not derail the success in Quincy, because at the time this tactic was rare. Today it is a standard abuser legal tactic to seek custody as a way to regain control over mothers trying to leave their abusers. Approaches that make it hard for courts to recognize and respond effectively to domestic violence discourage victims from leaving and force children to live with the fear and stress that leads to a lifetime of harmful consequences.
The failure of custody courts to integrate the ACE Research into their standard practices means they are not asking the most important question concerning the best interests of children. When a child has been exposed to one or more ACEs, is there anything we can do now to save the child from the awful consequences? Doctors who work with the ACE Research say the answer is probably yes, but it will require two specific actions. The children will need therapy and medical treatment both to respond to specific problems and to reduce stress. They must also be protected from exposure to further abuse because they cannot heal if they continue to witness abuse. Giving this protection to the children would require the safe parent have complete control over medical decisions and the abuser must be limited to supervised visitation until he changes his behavior. Few courts provide the safeguards the children need so they are condemned to a lifetime of fear and ill-health.
PAS is a poison that has infected the courts and continues to promote decisions that destroy children. In some ways it is a solution looking for a problem. I have heard many judges respond to the lack of scientific basis for PAS and the rejection by all reputable professional organizations by taking the position that regardless of research clearly there are cases where parents bad mouth the other parent. While this is true it misses other important points. These judges are then speaking about bad behavior and not some form of mental illness. Accordingly the use of psychologists is not helpful as courts know how to judge bad behavior. Based on the ACE Research, alienating behavior does not rise to a health or safety issue unless it results in denying any relationship with the child. In other words, in addition to promoting false claims of alienation, PAS focuses attention on a far less important issue for the welfare of children than domestic violence and child abuse which it is used to discredit.
PAS by any name has caused courts to fail to believe true reports of abuse and therefore place children in jeopardy. The Leadership Council found that every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visits with dangerous abusers. In a recent two year period, researchers found news stories about 175 children murdered by fathers involved in contested custody cases. In many cases the court gave the abusers the access they needed to kill the children. The preliminary findings from a National Institute of Justice study led by Professor Joan Meier found that although deliberate false reports by mothers occur less than 2% of the time, fathers win 69% of the abuse cases and 81% of the sexual abuse cases.
One of the reasons I have written this article is because it is so easy to see that the quality and reliability of the ACE Research is beyond question vastly superior to PAS and yet the courts continue to pay more attention to PAS often using other names for it.
Clearly no judge wants to hurt children and yet they continue to use a theory that causes enormous harm and deny themselves research that would help courts protect children. There are historic and other reasons for this mistake. When lawyers for abusers first started presenting PAS, the mothers’ attorneys usually were unaware of the origins or lack of credibility of PAS and so offered little objection. The misinformation was presented by professionals who were supposed to be the experts. Over time most lawyers and judges often heard this misinformation. The superior funding of abusers usually means they have more resources to make a stronger presentation of their case.
This common mistake has been compounded and continued by other problems. Certainly inertia and defensiveness on the part of court officials have discouraged necessary reforms. In many cases, critics are silenced or face retaliation for exposing failures in the court system. Professionals with a financial interest in using PAS often exercise strong influence on the courts. The use of the same professionals who tend to focus on child custody instead of broader societal issues and the failure of the media until recently to expose the problems in family courts has encouraged an insular atmosphere and discouraged introduction of new research that would better protect children.
In the summer of 2014 the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges co-sponsored a roundtable discussion with OVW concerning evaluations in domestic violence custody cases. Articles about ACE and Saunders were an important part of the discussion. Most of the judges had some familiarity with this research and were open to using it. One judge said she wanted to go back to family court after reading my article about the ACE Research. These were the best judges and I am sure many are taking advantage of this valuable research but most of their colleagues are ignorant or even hostile to approaches they are not used to.
It is outrageous that the court system has taken so long to integrate important research that would help them protect children while continuing to use bogus theories that are designed to undermine our work to prevent domestic violence and child abuse. The courts must develop practices to review patterns to the outcomes of their cases so they can know when common approaches are failing to protect children. They also need to work with professionals working in the outside world and not just custody who can make the courts aware of valuable new research and approaches. We now have a specialized body of knowledge and expertise concerning domestic violence and child abuse. The failure to access this information is not neutral. The failure creates a bias in favor of abusers, makes it harder for victims to leave and shortens the lives of our children. No court that gives credence to PAS and ignores ACE can accomplish their job of protecting children.