Anyone who works with families of divorce, whether lawyer, judge or therapist, must be acutely aware of the phenomenon known as Parental Alienation. I’ll skip the controversy as to whether it should be referred to as a syndrome, disorder, or just plain alienation.
For a non-polemical discussion of some of the issues, see this: http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/faq.htm)
Definitions of parental alienation may differ, but I would be surprised if people in the field wouldn’t agree that, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I may have a tough time defining it, but I know it when I see it.
I’m also fairly confident that those familiar with the phenomenon would agree that it is incredibly difficult to overcome and deal with in effectively. Over the years I have come to believe that contrary to what common sense might dictate, alienating a child is a remarkably fast process, while undoing the process – if at all possible – is a long, slow road.
In Israel, and perhaps even more remarkably in Jerusalem with a large religious population, we find a unique twist to this; of all the justifications for alienating a child, what we encounter here with disturbing frequency – and in fact I think that I only had one parental alienation case where this did not happen – is that the distance between the children and the non-custodial parent is blamed on the fact that the alienated parent is less religious than the custodial home, that the alienated parent doesn’t respect the child’s religious values, and that (Heaven help us!) all of this is being done for the sake of a higher good and a Higher Truth.
As with any motives masquerading as “religious”, one can blame a multitude of evils on a higher truth and commit a variety of wrongdoings while foisting it on the invisible shoulders of You-Know-Who.
Given the difficulties confronting parental alienation, using ostensible fealty to Torah observance as an excuse for bad and destructive behaviour never fails to make my skin crawl.
If a case like this hits the beit din, it’s pretty much impossible to deal with since the dayanim, rabbinic judges, will have utmost sympathy for the parent who wishes to inculcate the children with “more” religious values, regardless of whether that same parent is inflicting damage by alienating the children from the non-custodial parent. Ultimately, despite paying lip-service to the importance of two parents involved in the children’s lives, making sure the child’s religious framework is maintained or intensified will always be the best interests of the children, the cost to the child’s healthy emotional development be damned.
Stuck in a war with their ex-spouse, the alienating parent who has transformed their personal conflict into a religious war for the soul of their child, will feel empowered by the battle since now, they have a heavenly ally.
As Joan Baez put it in a different context:
Unfortunately, my experience in the Family Court has been that judges (and the social workers assigned to the cases by the court) are reluctant to identify a situation as parental alienation. In those rare cases when they do, they are loathe to take strong steps to intervene effectively to limit the parental alienation in general. Nor have I seen that they are willing to openly confront the use of the gap in religious observance as justification for alienation, and call it for what it is.
And if neither the beit din nor the courts will identify the alienation as such, the delusion that the alienating parent is actually fighting the good fight in which compromise and accommodation are actually transgressions, will then be exacerbated by the support given by the community at large to this parent. The religious community is generally eager to believe that the custodial parent is not motivated by base motives left over from the narcissistic injury sustained by the divorce, but truly motivated by a desire to save the child’s mortal soul from the pernicious impact of the less or non-observant parent. To be fair, I have seen educators or key members of the community recognize the behaviour for what it is – a devastating blow to, the wellbeing of the children – but the moment they speak up and advocate on behalf of the alienated, less-observant, parent, they are quickly marginalized.
I write this post in sadness and pessimism. As I said, I don’t think courts or social workers deal effectively with parental alienation. However, once the equation is tipped, and the absolutes of religious conviction are coopted to justify malevolent behaviour, the chances for constructive intervention are close to nil.