The trial decision of the Ontario Superior Court in A.G.L. v. K.B.D., 2009 CanLII 943 (ON.S.C.) has created a lot of discussion about Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). The case is a sad one, and reminds us how upsetting and complex these disputes can be.

After 17 days of trial the court found that the mother had alienated the parties’ 3 daughters – aged 14, 11 and 9 – from their father. The court granted custody to the father despite an 8 year status quo in which the children were in the primary care of their mother. It did so after finding that the mother had engaged in an outrageous course of conduct which had alienated the children from their father. The trial judge found the mother’s conduct to be child abuse.

A cautionary note: the mother’s conduct in this case was so outrageous, and the father’s behaviour was beyond reproach, so there was little discussion about “realistic estrangement” – alienation that is reasonable or warranted between a child and parent. Given the dysfunctions faced by many families undergoing separation, “realistic estrangement” may arguably be more common than PAS.

PAS is not new. The term was coined in the mid-1980s by Richard Gardner. There is much debate about its meaning, and it appears to be more of a “phenomenon” than a disorder. Nonetheless, the court accepted the expert evidence of Dr. Barbara Jo Fidler regarding the warning signs of behaviours of “pathological alienation” (at pages 13-15 of the decision). The court relied on Dr. Fidler’s evidence that children are more susceptible to alienation in certain age ranges:

 

  • Dr. Fidler gave expert evidence that children can have shifting allegiances to parents from ages 5 to 8, and that children can become confused at that time in their development when they can hold both positive and negative views about a parent.
  • At age 10 or 11, children may choose to side with one parent over the other in order to free themselves from emotional conflict and the stress it causes.
  • In children of 12 years old and older the alienation can become extreme, to the point where the child can find his or her own reasons to dislike or hate the alienated parent, even ones which are not real.

The court accepted Dr. Fidler’s evidence that there was a broad range of effects of this type of alienation on a child:

  • Low self-esteem to self-hatred, guilt, feelings of abandonment, feeling of being unloved and unworthy;
  • Self-doubt and doubt about their ability to perceive reality;
  • Simplistic or rigid information processing;
  • Poor differentiation of self;
  • Aggressive and poor impulse control;
  • Where court orders are disobeyed, children learn that it is acceptable not to obey court orders; and
  • Alienated children can lack compassion and remorse and can also develop an ability not to feel guilt.