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Fathers' Fight by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

page three

The invention of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Author Katie Allison Granju described her total shock when her soon to be ex-husband announced he was vying for custody of their children in her New York Times essay, "Losing Custody of My Hope" (8 May 05). Granju, the author of a guidebook on attachment parenting, had been the parent to step back from the workforce and serve as the children's primary caregiver. She wrote that her former spouse cited possible "parental alienation syndrome" as a bolstering factor in his bid for custody.

Psychiatrist Richard Gardner coined the term in the late 1980s: "One outgrowth of this warfare (over custody) was the development in children of what I refer to as the Parental Alienation Syndrome. Typically, the child viciously vilifies one of the parents and idealizes the other. This is not caused simply by parental brainwashing of the child. Rather the children themselves contribute their own scenarios in support of the favored parent. My experience has been that in about 80 to 90 percent of cases the mother is the favored parent and the father the vilified one."

"Parental Alienation Syndrome" seems to have entered the courts based on Dr. Gardener's anecdotal observations. Fathers' rights advocates and bloodthirsty lawyers seized upon the idea and pushed it further, although it remains relatively undocumented and hasn't received much formal study. The internet quickly reveals many resources (particularly for men) for those disheartened by their own divorce negotiations. It takes little effort to stumble upon descriptions of PAS; for example, Dr. Reena Sommer defines PAS on her Web site as "the deliberate attempt by one parent (and/or guardian/significant other) to distance his/her children from the other parent" and describes PAS as "a form of child abuse." Among the attributes that signal PAS during high conflict divorces, according to Sommer, are conflict between the divorcing spouses and change of geographical location on the part of one spouse. She neglects to point out either of these situations could occur without the desire to poison the children against the other parent during such a split. Sommer's advice -- "No one knows your children and what is best for them better than YOU" -- comes with a price tag. Scrolling down her page are multiple opportunities to buy her book, Children's Adjustment to Divorce: Educating Yourself, Your Attorney & The Court (available on sale at $37 to download for immediate consumption).

While some courts have begun to take PAS into consideration as a factor in custody deliberations, the term has not been accepted by the American Psychiatric Society nor entered into the DSM-IV, which is considered the bible of psychiatric diagnoses. Despite this, various paid "expert" witnesses in child custody cases across the country assess PAS as a presenting factor.

Fighting over child support

Introduction of PAS is just one of many strategies that fathers' rights advocates are employing to bolster men's quests for shared or sole custody. Ginetta Candelario, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Smith College, found her divorce negotiations suddenly turned contentious a few years ago. "The divorce was almost finalized, we had a date, parenting plan, mediation results entered into the court record, everything," recalls Candelario. "Then, I got a Fulbright [scholarship], which would take me and the children away for six months. He [her ex-husband, Juan Romero] was upset about that. He also didn't want to pay a lot of money."

Candelario explains further that Stephanie, her ex-husband's girlfriend, has a daughter by an ex-boyfriend. "The boyfriend is an engineer who made about eighty thousand dollars a year to her customer service position pay of about thirty thousand. Although the ex-boyfriend hadn't been terribly interested in the daughter, he obtained joint custody. Juan said, 'He's so lucky not to pay child support.' Before she moved in with Juan, Stephanie had to live at friends' houses with her daughter for six months while her ex-boyfriend kept the beautiful house."

Romero had a child in New Jersey from his first marriage. With this daughter, he had visitation rights but not custody. Candelario never envisioned he'd seek joint custody for their son and daughter. Because the Fulbright would mean a change in the kids' visitation schedule short-term, Romero was in a position to contest existing agreements. For months, Candelario wondered why Romero was suddenly engaged in such bitter battle. "Was it money or feeling he'd lost control of his child after the dissolution of his first marriage or did he believe me to be a bad mother?" she wondered at the time. "Eventually, I dreamt, 'Google him.'"

She did. Upon reading a testimonial posted on the internet by Romero, Candelario better understood why he was fighting her so hard. Part of Romero's testimonial reads, "In my case, I have a lawyer; however, who can afford to call a lawyer with every little question during this emotional rollercoaster time in our lives. After leaving a brief email at the National Brotherhood Of Fathers Rights describing my circumstances, I received a phone call from Dennis Gac. I was very impressed with Mr. Gac's legal knowledge and personal experiences. On May 2002, I became a member to the National Brotherhood Of Fathers Rights. The amount of information that I have received, thus far, is more than worth the membership price of $675.00; and I have unlimited consultation for this price for one year!"

On his web site, Gac describes his own history with divorce in an open letter to fathers. "I have formal legal training from the University of Michigan, and William Howard Taft Law School in Southern California. But 15 years ago, despite all my legal training, I was not prepared for the prejudice that I faced when I went through my divorce. I quickly got up to speed and fought my way to fairness against an extremely disagreeable 'X' wife. Shared custody, no child support and a fair property settlement resulted after I learned the correct approach and legal techniques. And I did it all using the same 'Legal-Kung-Fu' methods you're about to learn. Because the family court system is becoming more and more 'skewed' against us as fathers, more men are falling behind in their child support payments and receiving less time with their kids. You can actually help by pursuing your own case with vigor before it's too late."

This is followed by a pitch to subscribe to his newsletter (free online but described as being a $147 value). Gac offers advice such as, "You can snatch the momentum of the case from the opposition -- increasing your odds of success by 80%. After working with nearly 10,000 fathers, I've learned that you must remain on offense. Filing first gives you a psychological edge. It sets the tone for the entire case; making her respond to you rather than the other way around. Not only will that boost your chances of getting more time with your kids, the chances of paying less child support are also more likely. In fact, the court actually appreciates this approach!" Anger and equity rate a mentioned in Gac's introduction; but there's not one word about the well being of the children. Searching for information about Gac on the internet, he not only promotes his services for divorcing fathers, he also advertises his ability to help snare sports scholarships.

Candelario says her ex-husband was able to negotiate considerably less financial responsibility than their original agreement as a by-product of the drawn out proceedings. She also describes how the process was affected when the Guardian Ad Litem turned out to be a friend of Romero's lawyer. Candelario says, "After missing our appointment three times, she spent forty minutes with me, and refused to meet my partner or any family friends. Because I saw the bill, I know that she spent over two hours at Juan's house with him, his girlfriend and the neighbors. I handed her six pages of references to call and she called none of them. In court, she testified that although Juan hadn't assumed much responsibility for the children when we were married he should be given a chance now, basically because he was a nice guy. My lawyer was able to discredit her on the stand because she'd checked none of the references."

"After all that fuss about how my going to the Dominican Republic for the Fulbright would be too long a separation from the kids, he never once visited them. He didn't have to pay child support during the months I was away. And then he decided to drop most of his visitation. These were days I'd scheduled to commute and teach an extra class at another university to help pay for the twenty-six thousand dollar legal bill I'd acquired re-negotiating the divorce agreement. I had to scramble. He wasn't responsible to help pay for any childcare on those days that were 'his' because the judge ruled that 'visitation is a right, not an obligation.' He sees the kids from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon twice a month."

Having an economic upper hand and using that muscle in a very aggressive manner doesn't always work. In 2000, a Massachusetts judge ordered Peter Basel to pay $100,000 of his ex-wife's legal fees, because her bills were "a direct result of the husband's manipulative, nefarious conduct as it relates to his fraudulent portrayal of his wife as an unfit parent." Historically, probate court judges have been reluctant about assessing hefty fees, because their awards are often reversed on appeal.

the financial security of custodial parents

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