The concept of parental alienation emerged in the 1980s after a child psychiatrist proposed that most abuse allegations in child custody cases were lies told by mothers hoping to deny custody to fathers. Although critics have noted that the psychiatrist’s claims appeared unsubstantiated, parental alienation remains an influential argument in child custody disputes in Massachusetts and nationwide. Research by a law professor uncovered evidence that the parental alienation defense against abuse allegations particularly favors fathers over mothers.

After analyzing 4,388 custody cases, the researcher found that when fathers accused mothers of alienating them from their children, mothers lost custody in 44% of those cases even after making claims of domestic violence, child physical abuse or child sexual abuse. When the roles were reversed, and mothers claimed parental alienation, and fathers alleged abuse, courts only awarded mothers full custody in 28% of the cases.

Proof of abuse did not always sway child custody decisions. In 13% of cases, mothers lost custody of their children despite courts accepting that the abuse had taken place. Once again, when the circumstances were reversed for fathers and mothers, fathers lost custody in only 4% of cases against mothers who had been proven to be abusive.

The stakes are always high for parents during child custody disputes, especially when abuse has occurred. A parent confronted by this situation during a divorce might want legal representation before attending a child custody hearing. An attorney might organize evidence to strengthen a person’s position and counteract arguments made by his or her ex-spouse. A lawyer might connect the family with a therapist who can provide testimony that is pertinent to the case. Overall, legal support might improve a parent’s ability to communicate how a proposed custody arrangement would promote the best interests of his or her child(ren).