Huffington Post Censors Mothers’ Rights Activists

This week, Arianna Huffington announced the Huffington Post’s latest section: HuffPost Divorce. Her plug: “Breaking up is hard to do… but reading about it isn’t.” Upon Monday’s launch, however, there appeared a column that women’s rights advocates took very hard: a piece by Dr. Richard Warshak promoting the discredited “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” or PAS.

Parental alienation is a dangerous custody-battle concept that has been used primarily against mothers–and in particular, mothers trying to protect themselves and their children from hostile or abusive ex-partners and fathers. As R. Dianne Bartlow explained in her Summer 2010 Ms. article, “There’s Nothing Friendly About Abuse”:

PAS theorizes that most accusations of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) made during a custody battle are actually fraudulent. Not only are the charges false, says the theory, but they are deliberately undertaken by one parent (in most cases, the mother) to “alienate” the child from the other parent (generally, the father).

Frighteningly, PAS has allowed abusive or otherwise hostile fathers to gain custody of their children and then forbid the children contact with their mothers.

Yet parental alienation is not accepted as a valid theory by the American Psychological Association, and was rejected from the DSM-V. Without a real psychological definition, it has devolved over the years into a label for any negative testimony about the father by the mother (even if it’s true). It’s also now promoted as gender-neutral, but the parent most often labeled the “alienator” remains the mother. It’s also one hell of a cash cow for psychologists who make a living from it.

In keeping with all this, Warshak’s post, “Stop Divorce Poison”, gives an overly simplified description of “alienation” that could describe nearly any hostile or cantankerous relationship: “persistent bad-mouthing, lies, exaggerations, overlooking positives, and drum-beating negatives.”

A half dozen domestic violence and motherhood activists, including myself, descended upon Warshak’s column to leave comments describing how discredited PAS really is. But, as I witnessed and others report, by the evening of November 9, most of the comments (nearly a dozen) posted by critics had been deleted in the space of five minutes. According to those I’ve spoken with, deleted comments contained valid source material from professional organizations citing:

  • how discredited parental alienation really is
  • how parental alienation did not make it into the DSM-V
  • how it is used primarily as a weapon by abusive fathers against protective mothers

Here is an example of a comment that was removed:

Another activist and I wrote to David Flumenbaum and Arianna Huffington to inform them about the censorship of opposing, critical views. Both of us received an email in return from Social News Editor Adam Clark Estes, who wrote:

I’ve double-checked the comments and all of those missing were removed in accordance with HuffPost’s commenting guidelines. You can read more about those here:

www.huffingtonpost.com/p/frequently-asked-question.html#moderation

That said, we’re in touch with Dr. Warshak about his comments and will do our best to keep the conversation flowing in the future.

When considering the above screenshots (pure facts devoid of non-objective commentary) it’s unclear which part of these guidelines apply:

(I) The Huffington Post welcomes all users to join our community and to comment and treats all members of the community equally.

(II) We want the Huffington Post to be home to open, transparent conversations in which people connect, discuss, share ideas, and debate the issues.

(III) We are also committed to maintaining a non-toxic atmosphere.

(IV) In order to preserve a functional and civil conversation, we do not allow trolls, trollish behavior, or stalking.

(V) Members of the HuffPost community deserve to be free from spam, and we do not allow posting the same comment multiple times within one thread or on multiple threads.

It’s frustrating that the supposedly progressive HuffPost has given a platform to Dr. Richard Warshak, one of parental alienation’s most fervent supporters, but won’t give the same platform to its commenters.

On November 10, activists returned to the article to comment; it remains to be seen if their comments will be deleted–or whether they’ll fall victim to HuffPost-moderation’s thin skin. If a blog can delete comments opposing their viewpoint, then what’s the point of comments? You might as well change the name to “compliments.”

Censored Venus Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Durova under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. Hi there

    I am a survivor of domestic violence and I consider myself a feminist. I have suffered physical and psychological abuse from my ex, some of which would be considered torture if I had been a prisoner of war. One of the forms of abuse I – and my daughters – continue to suffer, however, is parental alienation.

    My ex has turned our daughters against me to the point where they even left the country to live elsewhere – all with the permission of the court. The argument went in the main that our daughters, who are teenagers, are too intelligent and too mature to be influenced, and that it would not be in their best interests to go against their stated wishes. I did wonder what that was meant to say about me and anyone else who has ever been brainwashed by a manipulative spouse: not intelligent enough to see through it? Moreover, my ex's violence was documented and, surprisingly, admitted, though heavily played down, of course (ever heard of "non-contact kicks and punches"? I am inclined to laugh.) However, it was considered that the physical violence was historic – it had indeed stopped years ago because I had set him an ultimatum; that the psychological violence had essentially stopped on the day of separation; that our daughters were never the subject of it in any case, and that my ex was otherwise a great dad.

    Even though for a long time I did not know what parental alienation was, I could see it happening very clearly in the changes of behaviour in my daughters, which were in fact the same changes of behaviour described in the parental alienation literature. Whether one wants to call it a syndrome or not is irrelevant to me. The evidence of alienation was right in front of me in the form of my daughters words and odd, out-of-character behaviours.

    I found that none of what was happening was actually surprising, because it seemed to work in much the same way that my ex used to manipulate me, and given that he never, never gives up on a grudge, it was clear that he wanted to punish me for leaving him and finally talking about what he had done to me over the years. I came across Dr Warshak's *Divorce Poison* at a time when I felt incredibly disempowered by the rulings of the court, I was depressed and heart-broken and felt I had no way of getting my daughters back unless they miraculously "got it" one day. Dr Warshak's book has been immensely helpful to me, and because of following its advice I am now in a position where I have some contact with my daughters. The issue to me is not a gender issue at all, it is a question of abusive behaviour, which can be perpetrated by men and women. Parental alienation affects both mums and dads, and Dr Warshak, more than other researchers in his field perhaps, makes that very clear. It seems to me that you got the wrong end of the stick, as parental alienation is very clearly defined, by Dr Warshak and others, as EXCLUDING cases where children have just cause to reject a parent who is abusive, and where one parent may well be justified in trying to protect the children from an abusive ex. The fact that abusive parents – perhaps successfully – use alienation as an excuse to obscure their violent behaviour and avoid having to face up to it makes no difference to the definition. We expect abusers to manipulate and pervert things which are essentially good and helpful.

    Moreover, the literature shows that there can be a connection between domestic violence and parental alienation, which is discussed at length by Jaffe et al. (2008). They report that , in the case of what they term “abusive controlling violent relationships” (ACV),
    “[a]busive ex-partners are likely to undermine the victim’s parenting role. In a range of obvious and more insidious ways, abusive ex-partners are likely to attempt to alienate the children from the other parent’s affection (by asserting blame for the dissolution of the family and telling negative stories), sabotage family plans (by continuing criticism or competitive bribes), and undermine parental authority (by explicitly instructing the children not to listen or obey; Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005). This facet of the abuser’s parenting needs to be considered when deciding what access, if any, the perpetrator should have to the children, what interventions are needed to address these problems, and the prognosis for change with treatment (Scott & Crooks, 2004).” (503)

    It seems to me that your energies in criticising Dr Warshak are misdirected. As I see it, Dr Warshak is very much on the same page as anti-violence campaigners and supportive of victims of violence, in whichever way it occurs. I think we feminists and those that research parental alienation should tackle the real issue together, the fact that parental alienation is emotional abuse, whoever perpetrates it. I hope you will be open to considering the merit of Dr Warshak's work. It is the single most important thing that made a difference to me this year in addressing the continued emotional abuse from my ex.

  2. I'm also astonished at the reaction of certain victims' advocates to Dr. Warshak's work. I don't doubt that some men falsely accuse women of alienation, just as some women falsely accuse men of DV, to gain an advantage in a custody dispute. I simply don't see PA as a gender issue. The most important thing is that we work together to put a stop to this emotional abuse of our children.

    • padsupport says:

      I concur with your comment and Janta's comment.. I also do not see alienation as a gender issue. I think it is viewed as such, because when the term was first introducted, more mothers obtained custody. Later on, future studies indicated that both women and men could be targets of this hate crime. I too hope we can work together, not against. I have worked with survivors of domestic violence and understand the dynamics of power and control. Some of the women managed to leave the abuser. But because the abuse "was not deemed bad enough" they were awarded "forced joint custody." In order for the man to get even he will use the child to get revenge. Their logic is: if I cannot have the woman, I will turn the kids against her. It works too. It is what many call parental alienation and others call it DVBP. The problem is that not all women meet the definition of leaving a batterer. Some leave a person that may have "only" shoved them at one point. Or, as Janta describes, the physical violence was historic. If the abusive ex-partner no longer has access to the woman (or man) they will use the children through emotional manipulation.

    • I agree with padsupport. Why is it apparently so difficult for some to understand that a child being fearful of an abusive parent, and a child rejecting a loving parent without reasonable cause, are two completely different things? The latter meets the definition of parental alienation, the former – explicitly – does not. It is not the fault of those who educate about parental alienation, or those who are truly victims of it, that abusive parents will use the term deliberately as an accusation against the other parent in order to hide the fact they are or have been abusive. It is also not the fault of parental alienation experts such as Dr Warshak when this kind of deception proves to be successful. Judges and lawyers are human, and they, too, can be deceived by master manipulators. This makes education about the relevant issues – such as power and control, psychological and emotional abuse, and parental alienation – all the more important, to make such dirty tactics more transparent to decision makers.

      • After 12 years living with the father they feared, this mother’s sons now reject her efforts to reconnect. My friend’s case is one of the worst examples of the way family court botches divorce cases involving domestic violence and child abuse. I know it’s going to be almost impossible to believe this goes on in the U.S.A. Elsa Newman has been in custody for 12 years for a crime she didn’t commit and Maryland’s highest court acknowledged there was no evidence to tie her to the crime. (I can give you citations). Yet powerful forces put her in prison and a lot of us want to see this tragedy eviscerated. Essentially she is in prison because she stood up for her children in family court. Her young children refused to visit their father during the divorce. Every single expert—and the best were involved—confirmed the children’s complaints. The children were honest. Elsa was the good mother we expect. A family court got it all wrong and their brethren in the local criminal court allowed a vicious prosecutor to scapegoat Elsa with the same myths and stereotypes only now Elsa was charged as a co-conspirator in another individual’s crime. The other individual refused the prosecutor’s offer of leniency and honestly testified Elsa was not involved in the crime. But those myths and stereotypes, that gender bias, enabled a ruthless prosecutor to gain a conviction in a second trial after the first was thrown out for major errors. Her case lingers on in the court system of a small state where, I think, it is not too much of a stretch to say everyone knows everyone. Elsa’s horrific divorce, out of which arose a bizarre criminal case against her, is not the first mishandled case in the Montgomery County Court House but it is the most mishandled. I can vouch for all the suffering that court house is responsible for and I can vouch for the looks of bewilderment that come over the faces of my Quaker friends and over the faces of everyone else I tell.
        Whether it is the dark sin of persistent prejudice that Elsa battles or whether it is a congenital inability to face uncomfortable truths, this nightmare I am witness to cannot be allowed to continue. I implore everyone who reads this to connect me with a major source of support. Everything I write here is backed by credible documentation. Stand up for Elsa as I do. Please sign the linked petition.
        http://www.justice4elsanewman.com
        Margaret Candler
        Citizens for Fairness and Justice

  3. Like Jane’s comment, I also hope readers will keep an open mind. Women who report that their ex-spouse is manipulative and makes disparaging remarks to her child, are told they, “have it wrong.” They get the message that they are mistaken when their children are suffering emotionally. Alienated mothers are told that a child could not turn against a loving mother, unless she had done something to warrant the rejection. Moreover, alienated mothers are informed that what they have actually experienced is Domestic Violence by Proxy, not parental alienation.

  4. The leadership council reports that “parental alienation” is not strong enough to convey the criminal pattern of terroristic behaviors employed by batterers. However, a batterer is defined as: one who beats with successive blows so as to bruise, shatter, or demolish. I am not diminishing the suffering that survivors of domestic violence have endured. But what about women who are not stalked or battered? What about women whose ex-spouses use the children to get even? DVBP describes that children are used as a tool to punish the victim for leaving the relationship or filing an injunction for protection. What if he uses the child as a tool, but the woman did not have to file an injunction? What if she did not leave a batterer, but she just left ? Thus, given this scenario, parental alienation may convey the message, quite accurately, although some misunderstand the meaning.

  5. Your article attempts to debase the work of Dr. Warshak by departing to theories and the DSM. Neither was mentioned in his column. As noted by Dr. Warshak, “To a good mother who grieves the loss of her children’s love and respect, alienation is not “theoretical” and there is nothing in sounding the alarm about this form of emotional abuse that conflicts with advocating on behalf of victims of domestic violence” (2010). Your diversionary tactic is feeble; the concept of DVBP is also not in the current DSM. Why dismiss that fact that an ex-spouse, male or female, through manipulation can use a child as a tool? Moreover, some of the comments ridicule emotional abuse and maintain that a child cannot be brainwashed. It may be helpful for some to review the Cornell University Sam Stone Study, or other studies regarding children’s susceptibility to suggestion.

  6. Lastly, some propose that Dr. Gardner made up the theory. No, he made observations and he introduced the term. In fact, Patterson notes, “Domestic Violence by Proxy (DVBP) is a term I have invented to describe specific tactics used by abusive individuals to continue controlling their victims after they are no longer present.” Manipulating an ex-spouse to get even by using a child occurred long before Dr. Gardner introduced parental alienation syndrome. Lastly, others claim his work was self-published and had never been peer-reviewed: They may have missed the following, just to name a few:

    Gardner, R. A. (1999). Family therapy of the moderate type of parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy, 27(3), 195–212.

    Gardner, R. A. (2003). The judiciary’s role in the etiology, symptom development,& treatment of the parental alienation syndrome (PAS). American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 21(1), 39–64.

    Gardner, R. A. (2004). Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s “The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome.” Family Court Review, 42(4), 611–621.

    Regards,

    Monika

  7. I agree with frog and Monica.
    Yes, it is odd, is it not, to accept battered woman's syndrome, which is essentially a kind of brainwashing to the extent that a woman will defend her abuser (been there, done it), but not to accept that children can be brainwashed, too. People can be brainwashed by cults. I think part of the problem is that "brainwashing" is often used as a term that denotes contempt for the brainwashed person. That is unfortunate, but it does not mean that it is not a legitimate phenomenon. I was brainwashed by my ex, and I am not ashamed to say it. I think the what makes one susceptible to it is not being stupid, immature, unintelligent, etc., but being unaware of how that kind of manipulation works. Why would children be immune?

  8. I think the essential problem here is a confusion over the term and concept of “parental alienation” and a conflation of two different, completely opposite scenarios. These are:

    1.
    False accusations of parental alienation made by an abusive parent against the other parent, who seeks to protect the child from abuse

    2.
    Justified allegations of parental alienation made by a parent rejected by their child/ren, because the other parent has turned the children against them in order to punish their former spouse for leaving the relationship.

    I think those who deny the existence of parental alienation and criticise Dr Warshak’s work confuse the first with the second, which is the main issue his book *Divorce Poison* deals with. I understand these are sometimes desperate parents – and their advocates – who are victims of abuse and trying to protect their children.

    Due to false claims of parental alienation made by the abuser, they are doubly victimised, and if a court actually decides in the abuser’s favour, this is infinitely exacerbated. It is unfortunate that many abusers manage to continue to deny and hide what they have done. They are also very adept at winning over others – including custody evaluators, judges, children’s legal advocates, family members and friends – to their point of view, and at manipulating any given situation to their advantage.

    If they were not so manipulative, their victims would never have fallen for them in the first place. What a terrible situation to be in for such a parent who is falsely accused of parental alienation. They deserve our support.

    The point, however, is that Dr Warshak addresses this in *Divorce Poison*. He writes a whole section about justified alienation in the context of domestic violence, which should not be confused with unjustified parental alienation. He highlights the importance of listening to children and taking them seriously when they report abuse. I would advise his critics to get a copy of the 2010 edition from the public library and read pages 45-46, and pages 56-58 (and then the rest).

  9. The other pertinent issue that adds fuel to the debate is the notion that parental alienation is usually perpetrated by vindictive women who seek to cut fathers out of their children’s lives.

    I am frustrated with this idea. That may or may not have been true once upon a time, when custody was more commonly awarded to mothers. I would have a couple of questions about those claims. We have to also acknowledge, though, that earlier research of parental alienation was also a product of its time. That does not make what was observed, and the observations of current experts, invalid. It may show limitations or apply to particular circumstances, for example. However, I am not an expert in that area, I have not seen what these claims are based on, and how much merit that may have. In any case, it does not appear to be the case nowadays. Quite frankly, though, I see that as an academic debate, which may merit more research and debate based on facts, but the outcome of that – whatever it would be – should have no bearing on the individual cases that present themselves in the courtroom. Evaluations should not be biased from the outset because of gender, one way or the other.

    In my case, this scenario is certainly the other way round, and of the half a dozen cases that I personally know or know of, women outweigh men as the victims of parental alienation. The men that I know, it should be said, have done nothing to deserve this treatment either, and yet they have to live with the stigma of people thinking “Where there is smoke, there is fire”.

    As I said in a previous post, more than some other experts in the field, Dr Warshak consistently acknowledges that parental alienation affects men and women equally. Throughout *Divorce Poison*, he gives examples of women and men being either rejected or favoured. For me, it was very important to have my reality as a woman, mother, target of parental alienation, and survivor of domestic abuse, acknowledged: the emotional abuse has never stopped, and our daughters are now both the means and the subject of it. *Divorce Poison*, however, has empowered me to address it, when I got no help from the courts.

  10. The denial of the existence of parental alienation is unhelpful, to say the least, to me as a mother and survivor of abuse and others in my situation, who have been alienated from their children by an abusive and/or manipulative former spouse. Those who call themselves “mother’s advocates” and say parental alienation does not exist – even with the very best of intentions – most definitely do not advocate or speak for me.

    Courts here (I do not live in the US) seem to routinely award custody to parents who were abusive to their spouse (but not directly to their children, and where there does not appear to be immediate danger to the children) when they have alienated the children to the point where they refuse to see the other parent at all, and when these children are either pre-teens or teenagers. These older children and adolescents are deemed to be too intelligent to be alienated and too old to have their stated wishes disregarded, whether those are in their best interests or not. This also seems to happen to younger children who have been so successfully alienated that courts consider it too stressful for them to enforce contact with the rejected parent – a good or good-enough parent who has done absolutely nothing to deserve such treatment.

    The problem for victims of domestic violence where I live is that parental alienation is either not acknowledged as being present in adolescents, or, even when it is acknowledged, not understood in terms of how it works and how it should best be remedied. From my experience and the comments and recommendations that were made to me, it seems that courts here are simply not educated enough and equipped enough to deal with the problem. Denial of parental alienation is certainly counterproductive if we want to make some progress in educating about what it is and how it works.

  11. From my experience as a woman who has gone through it, it is very important to acknowledge that

    - Parental alienation exists

    - It constitutes emotional abuse of children and the former partner

    - Both women and men can be rejected/targeted parents

    - Both women and men can be favoured/alienating parents

    - Unjustified Parental Alienation is very much an issue in the context of domestic violence.

    Not all parents who unjustifiably alienate their children from the other parent after separation have been abusive during the relationship, as Monika highlights, and she makes a good point.

    However, as I said in another comment, research shows that those who have been abusive are LIKELY to alienate their children from the other parent after separation. It appears those cases are part of the previous domestic violence. Therefore, those who call themselves women’s advocates would be well advised to pay attention to, raise awareness of, and educate about this fact. It seems to me that anti-violence and post-separation programmes would greatly benefit from a component that includes education on the issue of parental alienation, how to identify, avoid and remedy it.

    I think a lot of energy is wasted by good people with good intentions essentially attacking their own camp over misunderstandings. I would also suggest that denying the existence of parental alienation is very much in the interest of abusers who actually alienate their children from the other parent (and these may often be mothers). While this red-herring debate is going on, they are off the hook. Since this blog is about advocacy for women, I can well imagine what my ex might have done had he come across a feminist source discrediting the concept of parental alienation (syndrome or otherwise) and the work of Dr Warshak and others. My ex is already unfairly arguing that our children’s rejection of me is my own fault; he would have had a field day rubbing in the fact that feminist bloggers say so, too, and he might even have shown it to our daughters to alienate them further.

    This cannot be intended and in the interest of feminism and women’s advocacy. And, of course, not all feminists and women’s advocates are opposed to the concept of parental alienation per se. I think it is really important that we are very clear about what exactly we are criticising and on what basis, and that we all work together to tackle this insidious issue. We are on the same page. Let’s direct our combined attention to where it matters:

    - Protecting children and adults from abuse – and that includes emotional abuse.

    - The identification of false claims of parental alienation, especially when made by an abusive spouse seeking to obscure their behaviour.

    - The identification, prevention, and remedy of real, unjustified parental alienation, which is the source of immense heartbreak and victimisation of women, men, and most especially, children.

    We must be careful not to confuse and conflate these different scenarios where parental alienation is alleged, and then we can more productively address these problems together.

  12. sheila fisher says:

    looking for help please anyone. I am a mother of 2 little girls their father disappeared with them. 4 years later the judge gave him custody because he had them for so long my visitation is limited to once a week for 2 hours in public setting.Im looking for help i want them back i want more then 2 hours a week

    more info if needed. thank you hope to hear from someone that can help

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