‘Bitter Custody’s’ Bitter ‘Journalism’ on Parental Alienation

March 17, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

We’ve seen effort to discredit both the very idea of parental alienation and efforts to help alienated children and their targeted parents before.  And it looks like we’ll be seeing them again.  Here’s another, this time courtesy of “Reveal” for the Center for Investigative Reporting (Reveal News, 3/9/19).  But if this is investigative reporting, I’ll eat my hat.

The program that was aired by, among others, National Public Radio, runs to type.  Its message is that (a) the idea of parental alienation is “controversial,” (b) that if a kid says he/she despises one parent, there’s a good reason, (c) the idea of parental alienation is nothing but a legal “strategy” with which an abusive parent can gain custody and (d) programs to help alienated kids don’t work.

The program, entitled “Bitter Custody” uses the usual tactics to get those points across.  First, the reporters only interviewed kids who were found by a court to have been alienated but who swear they weren’t.  Second, they assiduously avoided the science on parental alienation.  Third, they assiduously avoided the science on the program Family Bridges.  And last, they assiduously avoided the evidence produced in court that made judges rule that one parent was alienating the kids from the other parent. 

That may be reporting, but it’s certainly not investigative.  After all, how hard could it have been to have picked up the phone and called Dr. Richard Warshak?  How hard could it have been to have read his studies of Family Bridges?

“Bitter Custody” interviews two sets of children, all of whom are now either in their early 20s or late teens.  All were found to have been alienated by the judges hearing their custody case and all were ordered to take part in a program aimed at helping them deal with their alienation.  One program was Family Bridges; another was Transitioning Families.

Among the strangest of Reveal’s take on the two cases is that the reporters never entertained the notion that the judges might have been right.  To do that they managed to introduce listeners to essentially none of evidence on which the findings of alienation were made.  Oh, there are lengthy portions of trial transcripts, but nothing about the behavior on which the mental health experts made their diagnoses.  Indeed, one reporter, Trey Bundy dismissed all that as “noise.”  Really.

“Bitter Custody’s” take on the matter of parental alienation is that courts don’t listen to the children who say they don’t want to spend time with one parent and that the kids should be believed and mental health experts (apparently) should not be.  I’m all for listening to children, particularly older ones, but it apparently never occurred to the reporters that alienated kids are the last people who should be unquestioningly believed when they talk about their parents.  It’s the whole point of alienation that kids turn on a parent who’s perfectly fit and caring.

Paralleling that is the program’s interview with Joan Meier who’s never made a secret of her antipathy for fathers.  Meier first describes claims of parental alienation as a “strategy” employed by fathers only.  She never mentions that mothers can do the same thing or that fathers can utilize parental alienation against mothers as well as vice versa.

More remarkably, Meier points to a study she conducted that found that fathers who claim their kids have been alienated from them are three times as likely to win custody as are other fathers.  “Bitter Custody” takes that at face value, but neither the reporters nor Meier stop to wonder why that might be.  Both assume it’s evidence that PA is a nefarious business conducted by nefarious parents.  But of course what also might be true – Occam’s Razor-wise – is that those fathers who claimed alienation might have been right and that judges who found Mom to have alienated the kids rightly concluded that maternal custody wasn’t such a good idea.  It’s an amazing failure of basic common sense to have never considered that possibility, a failure only made by those with pre-conceived notions about the matter under discussion.

And of course “Bitter Custody” never managed to address the studies of the Family Bridges program conducted by Warshak that find a high degree of success.  In a prime example of journalistic legerdemain, the reporters accomplish that feat thus:

Are you aware of any research or evidence that says that family reunification programs are effective, that they actually work in terms of healing relationships between parents and kids who do not wanna see them?

They asked that question, not of a mental health expert, but of Florida judge Leon Firtel who, unsurprisingly had read none of the literature on the subject.  Refusing to ask someone who probably does know about the scientific support for Family Bridges in favor of someone who doesn’t is a clever way of insinuating that there is no such research and of avoiding its findings.

About other matters, the reporters simply ignore what people say.  About PA, for example, Firtel said

Until you come to court and see one of these deals and see the people and talk to the mother and talk to the father and talk to the children, don’t tell me that it doesn’t exist. It exists, period.

And psychologist Dr. Abe Worenklein had this to say:

I am speaking about the phenomenon of parental alienation. I believe that nobody denies the fact that parental alienation does exist, it has always existed since the beginning of custody disputes.

Against emphatic statements like those, against the hundreds of scientific papers from all over the world written on the subject of PA over several decades and against the DSM – V that includes the concept under different names, “Bitter Custody” can only come up with four kids who claim they weren’t alienated and a single word – controversial.

The only things controversial are publications and programs like “Bitter Custody” that seek to cast doubt on the phenomenon of parental alienation and genuine efforts to reverse the damage done by it.  To the extent they’re successful at either (and so far they haven’t been), they tend to lend support for one of the most destructive of all parental behaviors.  Parental alienation is well understood to be a form of child abuse.  That’s what “Bitter Custody” went to bat for.

The program was underwritten by several foundations.  Everyone who cares about the truth about PA should write to those foundations and let them in on the facts of PA, the facts about Family Bridges and the scurrilous dissembling of the reporters whose work they paid for.

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