No Definition of ‘Abuse’ and Inaccurate One of ‘Parental Alienation’ Flaw Study

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September 28, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Last time I pointed out that the author of the study on which the Washington Post article is based, law professor Joan Meier, claimed that “fathers have been winning far more than mothers for decades and that joint custody or shared parenting is already the overwhelming norm in state family courts.”  There is of course no data to back up those transparently untrue claims and much to refute them.  Still, it’s valuable, when assessing the validity or lack thereof of a person’s study, to know their mindset. 

So Meier and colleagues set out to learn what happens in family courts when a mother claims, in the course of custody proceedings, that a father has been abusive, either to her or the child or both.  They also wanted to know to what extent counterclaims by fathers of parental alienation by mothers affected case outcomes.

They relied exclusively on published case opinions – 4,338 in total – 84% of which were appellate cases.

From the outset, the study is dogged by methodology that likely renders its findings of little or no value.  As law professor Nicholas Bala pointed out, when using nearly all appellate cases, Meier, et al automatically introduced selection bias into their sample.  Bala called their sample “very skewed.”

Worse, nowhere is “abuse” ever defined.  According to the study, apparently all claimed abuse was equal in severity.  While domestic violence is never acceptable, no effort was made to differentiate between the most brutal beatings and or verbal abuse, between repeated abuse and a one-time argument in the midst of a divorce.  That’s an obviously fatal omission.  In minor cases of DV, a judge is right not to permanently deny a child contact with the offending parent.  There is a new consensus forming that people who commit acts of domestic violence need to be held accountable, but most importantly help and treatment so they can form healthy relationships.

The Post article said that Meier isn’t saying that judges’ findings about whether or not DV occurred were wrong, but nowhere does that realization, or its consequences for her findings, make it into her write-up of the study.

Worse still is the fact that, unlike abuse, Meier does define parental alienation.  Unfortunately, her definition bears no resemblance to the actual definition of PA.  Here’s Meier’s:

Parental alienation (or “alienation”), while lacking any universal definition, at its essence, is the theory that when a mother and/or child seek to restrict a father’s access to the child, their claims of dangerousness or harm are not true, but due to the mother’s anger or hostility, or pathology.

Actually, parental alienation is the manipulation of the child by one parent to reject, fear, distrust, etc. the other parent when such feelings are unwarranted by the targeted parent’s behavior.  Most importantly, PA is not a gendered phenomenon.  Mothers can do it, but so can fathers.  The reason we see more mothers accused of PA is that vastly more mothers than fathers have custody of children and are therefore better positioned to alienate the child should they choose to do so.  Equalize custody and we’d almost certainly see roughly equal efforts at alienation.

Further, Meier, et al seem not to grasp the fact that, whoever does it, parental alienation is child abuse.  Throughout their study, the terms “abuse” and “alienation” are opposed as if the latter were not a form of the former.  But mental health professionals who deal with alienation cases know full well the extremely deleterious effects on children, particularly very young ones, of PA.  If Mom claims Dad abused little Andy or Jenny and Dad responds by saying Mom is alienating them, both are claiming child abuse.  But Meier and those she had coding the cases didn’t code PA as abuse.

In short, Meier’s study is fatally deficient as a guide to whether judges are generally getting matters wrong when one parent claims spousal or child abuse and the other PA.  Especially given that there’s no attempt to ascertain whether the judges’ findings were accurate or not, and with no information regarding the seriousness of the abuse claimed, it’s impossible for Meier to say whether we should be concerned or not about judges’ actions.  She clearly thinks we should be and has recruited Post writer Samantha Schmidt to her cause, but the truth is that no one can rely on her study to draw the conclusions she seems to prefer.

Next time, we’ll look at some of Meier’s numbers and perhaps be more able to decide whether there’s a problem in the way courts handle claims of abuse and PA or not.

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

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