Many cases of child abuse arise in the midst of custody disputes. It is a common and devastating error for children and youth agencies to assume the allegations are false. Children are frequently removed from nonoffending families and placed in foster homes. An already traumatized child needs the love and support of family in these situations, but the child’s needs are often ignored. Protective parents are forced to undergo psychological evaluations by court-appointed evaluators, and are often diagnosed as having mental health issues. These evaluators ignore the fact that a parent faced with the abuse of their child would undoubtedly have reactions such as fear, paranoia, lack of trust, and anger issues, but these are the “disorders” that are used against protective parents in the family courts. After-effects of abuse situations, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, or anger issues should not be used against victims or protective parents by evaluators (Sankaran, 2009). The Leadership Council is a nonprofit scientific organization composed of national leaders in psychology, psychiatry, medicine, law and public policy. Members of the Council are dedicated to the health, safety and well- being of children (Dallam & Silberg, 2006). Dr. Paul Fink, the president of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence described the theory of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as “junk science at it’s worst.” (as qtd. by Dallam & Silberg, pg. 2, 2006). The PAS syndrome can be traced to controversial psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who described sex between fathers and their children as normal and natural. Gardner blamed society’s “overreaction” to sexual abuse as the reason for children’s suffering. The development of the PAS theory came about while Gardner was working as a paid custody evaluator for men accused of sexually abusing their children. According to Dallam, “the syndrome was created as a defense theory to counter a child’s allegation of sexual abuse” (p. 10). Gardner made recommendations to family court judges that diagnosed children who revealed sexual abuse as “mentally ill”, and blamed the protective parent for causing the disorder. (2006). Richard Gardner never submitted his theory to testing and the only purpose was to deflect attention away from abusers. PAS allegations are a strategy for child abusers to fool the courts, attorneys, custody evaluators, and child welfare agencies into believing that protective parents are crazy when they express concerns for the safety of their children. Silberg (2006) has seen firsthand the long-term emotional damage caused by Gardner’s so-called theory: How do you explain to young children forced to live with abusers why the courts have considered them liars and ignored their cries for help? (p. 9). These children have been betrayed by the very system designed to protect them. The PAS theory undermines rational decision-making in the family court system when considering the best interests of children. Dallam and Silberg state that in a report by the American Judges Foundation, 70% of the time an abuser who requests custody is able to convince the court to grant it to him or her (p. 10). Many people believe that sexual abuse allegations in custody litigation are an epidemic. However, research has consistently shown that sexual abuse allegations in custody disputes are not common. The available evidence refutes the notion that allegations in custody cases are made by a parent who is vindictive or seriously impaired. “There is no evidence from present research that a significant number of parents are lodging fabricated reports to win custody battles” (Dallam & Silberg, p. 3, 2006). Many children have been prohibited from any contact with the parent seeking to protect the child from further abuse, even when there are no allegations of harm or abuse by the protective parent. In most cases, the child’s allegations are credible and physical evidence of abuse verifies the child’s disclosures. In many cases, the courts continue to ignore valid evidence. Dallam and Silberg noted a two-year study by the Research Unit of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts that explored the incidence and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody litigation. Twelve states participated in the research and confirmed that only 6% of custody cases involved sexual abuse allegations. Half of those allegations were believed to be true. Of the protective mother’s who initiated allegations of abuse, only 1.3 % was determined to be intentionally false (2006). Also noted by Dallam and Silberg was how the PAS theory made Gardner a very wealthy man for supporting alleged abusers at a rate of $500 per hour. Gardner made recommendations to family court judges that children who alleged abuse should be deprogrammed, mothers who reported abuse should receive threat therapy, and abusers should be granted full custody. Dr. Richard Gardner committed suicide in 2003 by plunging a seven inch butcher knife into his neck and heart. The family courts continue to punish protective parents because of lax standards that allow junk science to influence custody decisions (2006). Sexually abused children suffer emotionally and physically from the trauma of abuse. Many children are diagnosed with symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorder, and therapeutic intervention is necessary in the healing process. Society needs to further address the needs of sexually abused children, prevent further victimization, and provide improved ethical and legal standards of protection. Reform is desperately needed for protective parents who face scrutiny in the court system, when attempts are made to stop the abuse of their children. Child abuse and custody litigation are separate issues, and the sexual victimization of children is a criminal matter, not a family court matter. Abused children need validation for the suffering they endure, protection through the court system, and a society that does not condone violence or the abuse of children. Children must be afforded the right to a childhood that is free from abuse, and the only way to stop the abuse…is to stop the abusers.
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