For California victims of domestic violence, the abusive behavior of the perpetrator can, at times, follow them into the courtroom. Many victims are frequently urged to leave their abuser, but they may also suffer when they attempt to seek safety. For example, victims have been accused of parental alienation when they raise the issue of abuse in a child custody hearing. The phrase “parental alienation” may seem simple, as if it refers only to one parent spreading negative ideas about the other parent and undermining the parent-child relationship.
However, the history of the parental alienation concept is murky and controversial, many experts argue. The theory was developed by one child psychiatrist who thought that many abuse allegations during child custody hearings were likely driven by vengeful parents, particularly mothers. However, other child psychologists and researchers have said that there is no science to back up the theory. While the initial concept has somewhat fallen by the wayside, replaced by a facially gender-neutral concern, researchers still argue that this argument tends to protect abusers and discourage victims from raising legitimate fears.
In one study of 4,388 child custody cases, researchers found that fathers were far more likely to succeed when raising claims of supposedly gender-neutral parental alienation. They also found that mothers claiming abuse were more than twice as likely to lose out on custody if fathers responded with a parental alienation claim. In 13% of the cases, proven and documented abusive behavior was still trumped by an allegation of alienation.
Victims of domestic violence who are planning to divorce their abusers may be concerned about how best to protect their children during and after the process. A family law attorney may help abuse victims to advocate for their rights to sole physical child custody.