In June 2012, a Sydney magistrate, Tom Altobelli, made headline news by writing a letter to two children involved in a custody case that he presided over. In this letter, he explains his decision to separate the children from their father and asks that they consider renewing their relationship with him when they are old enough to do so. He ordered the letter to be opened when the children (then ages 6 and 11) turn 14.
The background story is that the mother believed the daughter had been sexually abused by their father. This belief was formed after her own mother (the children’s grandmother) visited a psychic who predicted the abuse. The children also claimed that the daughter has experienced this abuse.
However, the judge stated in his letter to the children, “Both of you were saying things and doing things, that told me you did not like your dad, and did not want to spend time with him. I don’t think you really meant this. I think maybe you were picking up the things that mum was worried about.” Furthermore, Mr. Altobelli wrote that “My job is to look at all the information, and listen very carefully to what everybody says including the experts. I decided that you had not been hurt by your dad. Even after I told your mum what I decided, I think she still believed in her heart that your dad hurt you.”
There is a danger during very high conflict divorces of something called Parental Alienation happening to the children. Some people call it Parental Alienation Syndrome, although it has not been officially classified as a syndrome, and the courts can take offense at the use of the word syndrome. Many parents in the heat of their divorce, may say something regrettable and negative about the other parent. This should certainly be avoided. However, this is not the same thing as Parental Alienation. Parental Alienation is a very severe and serious situation in which one parent deliberately and consistently campaigns to turn the children against their other parent.
Children who are affected by this possible syndrome often parrot the words of the offending parent (the parent who has perpetuated the alienation) and express dislike or distrust towards the parent that they have been alienated from. Many people who have studied this phenomenon consider Parental Alienation to be a form of child abuse. This means that the parent who has perpetrated this, who is the parent that the children are listening to and believing, is an abuser.
In the case that Tom Altobelli presided over, the judge chose to give custody to the mother, who may have been the perpetrator of Parental Alienation. It is not possible to know the truth about this particular family. I use this story to illustrate the problem that can exist in regard to Parental Alienation and the court system. There are many people who have studied Parental Alienation who believe that the only way for the children to recover from this terrible affliction, is to be put into the care of the parent who they have been alienated from, so that they can become close to that parent again. One might also think that the parent who has perpetrated the alienation may not be the most stable and reasonable of people. Truly, a healthy individual would likely not go about destroying the trust and bond between their children and their other parent.
One may think that the children need to have more space from such an influence and have time in the care of the parent who has need to rebuild the bond and emotional stability of the (undermined) relationship. Mr. Altobelli, however, stated in his letter to the children, “despite the grossly distorted lens through which she views the father and the events that bring this matter to court, she is a more adequate parent.”