Parental alienation (syndrome) in child custody cases

Parental alienation (syndrome) is a controversial issue, criticized by experts in different fields. However, this concept is often used by professionals and is frequently cited in courtrooms. This qualitative study focuses on parental alienation and explores women’s experiences as well as legal and social services’ practices in child custody cases. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with separated mothers who were victims of intimate partner violence, and with social workers and psychologists/psychiatrists designated by courts to evaluate parenting skills. Expert reports, psychological assessments and legal documents were also analysed. Results show that professionals endorsed parental alienation and considered it a ‘feminine problem’. Women were often blamed and labeled as ‘engaging in parental alienation’ when they were trying to ensure their children’s safety. Children’s accounts were interpreted as being a result of their mothers’ manipulation. In contrast, fathers were treated as victims of vindictive women who want to keep children to themselves. Men’s violent behaviours were not considered, and their role as fathers was seen as ‘inviolable’. These practices seem to reflect the ‘good-enough father’ approach, according to which the presence of the father is essential for children’s development, regardless of his violent behaviours.

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