Common Pitfalls Of Therapists And Guardian Ad Litems In Alienation Cases And Unreasonable Preferences Of The Alienated Child

Although very experienced in all aspects of family law, Kelly Peterson also has specific expertise for and specializes in cases involving parental alienation, gatekeeping, and parent time interference.

In this article, you will discover:

  • Common pitfalls of therapists and guardians ad litem
  • How seriously the preferences of the alienated child should be taken

What Are The Most Common Pitfalls Of Therapists And Guardians Ad Litem In Alienation Cases?

Parental alienation is a very specialized, complex, and counterintuitive field. Unfortunately, many professionals, such as therapists and guardians ad litem, rely mostly on their own experience – their gut. They think that because they have been a practitioner for a long time, they can intuit or feel their way correctly to right solutions. Research shows that even psychologists very often fail to use the intervention supported by the science and instead rely on their own clinical experience. However, this is problematic for a variety of reasons.

There is a disconnect between what science has discovered and what occurs in the clinician’s/professional’s office. A therapist who fails to stay well-informed on the research and well-trained on how to implement the research-based interventions can easily harm a family and an alienated child. For example, an insufficiently trained clinician can confuse an unhealthy and enmeshed relationship between a parent and a child with a healthy close bond between the child and the favored parent. In the parlance of medical science, we must first “do no harm,” but therapists and guardians ad litem who are unaware of the research often do such things as simply send an alienated child to traditional therapy. Traditional therapy has been found to be not only ineffective, but often harmful and contraindicated. Oftentimes, it merely provides a platform for the child’s distorted view to be further entrenched and reiterated by the favored parent and also by the alienated child. The child lists their grievances about the non-favored parent repeatedly to the therapist.

Sometimes, the therapist will require the non-favored parent to “show empathy” for this distorted view, and even to apologize in a way that reinforces the distorted view. Guardians ad litem and therapists also often recommend a “cooling off” period for the non-favored parent during which that parent is required to give the alienated child “space” with the hope that the child’s angst against the target parent will somehow magically disappear. Although well-meaning, these kinds of strategies often advocated by ill-trained professionals can feed and embolden the alienated child and alienated parent. After all, by complaining loudly about the non-favored parent, the goals of the alienating parent and alienated child have been realized. Thus, they will consider it to be a working strategy and continue more of the same.

Additionally, private guardians ad litem often spend little effort in ensuring that the appointed therapist has the requisite training, knowledge, skill, and experience in dealing with alienation in a potential alienation case.

In Utah, a private guardian ad litem is tasked with representing both the child’s best interests and the child’s wishes. However, guardians ad litem in alienation cases, particularly if they are insufficiently trained, often do not know what is in the child’s best interest. Because of this, they latch on to the one clear piece of evidence in their possession: the child’s preference. When they latch on in this way, they become a “supercharge” to the alienating parent and alienated child’s arguments in court, thus causing more harm than good. What guardians ad litem often fail to realize or to sufficiently take into account is that they should not advocate for their client’s preference if the child lacks sufficient capacity to make a reasoned decision because of the influence of the alienating parent. Where a guardian ad litem does not know what is in the child’s best interest but evidence if alienation exists, the guardian ad litem should candidly admit that, and suspend the judgment rather than advocating for the child’s preference to diminish parent time with the non-favored parent.

Guardians ad litem should thoroughly study this alienation and its affects so that they may understand how profoundly counterintuitive this area can be. Often, guardians ad litem are either volunteer or are paid very little. This creates a disincentive for them to thoroughly research and understand alienation or to fully familiarize themselves with the facts: historical patterns, police reports, DCFS records, school records, mental health records etc. These should be studied by the guardian ad litem.

Professionals who do not understand this area can also mistake the anxiety or frustration of the non-favored parent to actually be the grounds to limit their parenting time. In other words, the child or the alienating parent makes vague statements about how angry the target parent is, and when the target parent expresses their frustration over losing their parent time and the relationship with the child, the alienated parent’s explanations seem validated. It is easy for an untrained or unmotivated professional to stop investigating the reasons behind the alienated child’s displeasure at that point.

Without clear evidence of abuse, guardians ad litem should advocate for strict adherence to parent time rather than “taking a step back” from parent time to give the child “a break”. Guardians ad litem should understand that court orders must have teeth and must be enforced.

How Seriously Should The Court, Therapists Or Private Guardians Ad Litem Take The Preferences Of The Alienated Child?

Where a child’s preference and opinions regarding their own best interests are reasonable, these should be taken into account. Unfortunately, all too often, therapists and private guardians ad litem heavily weight the unreasonable preferences and opinions of an alienated child. Just because the child expresses an opinion that is strong or clear does not make it reasonable. Indeed, even a 16-year old’s preference and capacity to make a preference can be tainted and compromised.

Unfortunately, courts, guardians ad litem, therapists and other professionals often fail to adequately investigate whether the child has “diminished capacity” due to alienation or undue influence. Such an investigation would include looking under every available rock to determine the validity of any abuse claims, the origin of them, collateral interviews with teachers, therapists, family members of both sides, doctors, friends, etc. This is particularly true if the CPS or DCFS investigation resulted in an “Unsupported” or “Unfounded” finding meaning that they investigated and could not find that abuse had occurred.

If a private guardian ad litem, therapist, or court believes that the child’s capacity has been diminished, such preference should be given much less weight, if any. Finally, professionals should keep in mind that a child’s preference is only one of approximately 15 different factors that court considers in determining a child’s best interest. Professionals should not allow this single factor to eclipse the others. Sending a child to Reconciliation Therapy for an hour or so a week will be ineffective when the child spends the other 167 hours that week with the alienating favored parent.

Although very experienced in all aspects of family law, Kelly Peterson also has specific expertise for and specializes in cases involving parental alienation, gatekeeping, and parent time interference.

For more information on Parental Alienation Issues In Utah, an initial consultation is your next best step. Contact Us online or call us to arrange a consultation at (801) 616-3301 today.

Specialist For Cases Involving Parental Alienation, Gatekeeping, and Parent Time Interference.

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*Child Welfare Law Specialist Nat’l Assoc. of Counsel for Children