By: Ronelle Grier
Parental alienation made international headlines in June 2015, when Oakland County Circuit Judge Lisa Gorcyca sent three Jewish children to a juvenile detention facility for refusing to spend time with their father. The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission found Gorcyca guilty of judicial misconduct because of her actions and behavior in the courtroom that day.
Last week, Michigan Supreme Court justices heard her case. Their decision on the commission’s recommended 30-day suspension is pending. Gorcyca and her attorneys claim her behavior came from accumulated frustration after presiding over a five-year contentious child custody case she deemed a classic case of parental alienation.
Attorneys for the mother, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni, claimed the children’s father, Omer Tsimhoni, was abusive, while his legal team maintained the mother had waged a deliberate, long-running campaign to poison the children against their father. While a shared custody agreement was reached following hundreds of legal proceedings and a court-ordered reunification program, the lasting effects of the fighting and alleged alienation on the children remain to be seen.
While this case was more high-profile than most, there are many other acrimonious situations where one parent is pitted against the other, a behavior pattern that causes significant and long-term harm to the entire family system, especially the children.
Parental alienation is defined as a dynamic wherein one parent attempts to damage the child’s (or children’s) relationship with the other parent. This can include bad-mouthing the other parent to the children, accusing the other parent of various wrongdoings or sabotaging or withholding parenting time.
“It [parental alienation] is an unfortunate result of insecurities in adults who care more about themselves than they do for their child,” said Richard Victor, a seasoned family law attorney who is of counsel to the Hertz Schram law firm in Bloomfield Hills. “They believe if their child is aligned with them against the other parent, they will have ‘won’ the emotional battle, which oftentimes is involved in divorce cases. They are looking for their child to ‘love them more’. It is one of the worst things a parent can do to a child, especially a child of divorce.”
When children are used as pawns by parents, it is a losing battle for all, with kids suffering the most significant losses.
“Because a child comes from both parents, when a child is taught one parent is ‘bad’ or evil, there is no doubt this will decrease the self-esteem of the child,” Victor said. “They grow up doubting whom to trust and not knowing whom to believe.”
Six years after his divorce, Robert A. (an alias) has a strong relationship with his now 10-year-old son, but it was a long, difficult struggle that included being arrested when his ex-wife falsely accused him of domestic violence. The charges were eventually dropped, yet, in the meantime, his former wife moved their son back to their hometown. By the time Robert could join them, his son had endured six months of “brainwashing” by his ex-wife and was reluctant to see him.
“I have been told by professionals, ‘off the record, your ex is crazy,’ but that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Robert said. “I asked them to go on the record, but they won’t. The stronger party is the weaker one in court, and the stronger party is the one who makes more money. I pay 90 to 95 percent of my son’s expenses, and I get 30 percent of his time after six years of struggle. There’s something wrong here. The system doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Local marriage and family therapist Dr. Dahlia Berkovitz says parents who engage in alienating behavior often have attachment issues that are triggered by the divorce. The alienating parent most likely also has a personality disorder such as narcissism and/or borderline personality disorder.
“The alienating parent connects in an inappropriate way, talking to the children about things that are none of their business,” Berkovitz said. “Children don’t have the same capacity to process things as adults do.”
The scientific name for this behavior pattern is attachment-based parental alienation, a term used by Dr. Craig Childress, a California-based psychologist and leading expert in the treatment of children who are victims of this dynamic. Childress calls it “a form of pathogenic parenting, which is a clinical term for parenting behavior so aberrant and distorted that it creates psychopathology in a child.”
According to Childress, parental alienation indicates a role reversal of a normal, healthy parent-child relationship. Instead of serving as a “regulatory other,” which involves providing stability and meeting the child’s emotional and psychological needs, the alienating parent (pathogen) uses the child (or children) to meet their own needs, violating boundaries and damaging the child’s development to a significant degree.
“It needs to be fixed; too many children are suffering,” Berkovitz said.
Childress and other experts who advocate for improved diagnosis and treatment of these children are optimistic about a new bill before the Florida legislature this month that amends the mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse to include “child psychological abuse,” including parental alienation.
The bill also requires licensed psychologists to partake in continuing education in the area of psychological child abuse “including, but not limited to, abuse through the use of manipulation or parental alienation.”
Grandparents also are affected by parental alienation. Sydney (an alias) has not seen his grandchildren in at least five years. He and his wife were excluded from their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and their former daughter-in-law threw away the birthday cards and gifts they faithfully sent each year. Their estrangement is part of a larger schism that began when his son filed for divorce.
“She ripped the kids from him and from us,” Sydney said. “She doesn’t realize the kids are being punished.”
Since the divorce, Sydney says, she has done all she could to turn the children against their father and grandparents.
“He does all he can to see them, and it’s not easy,” Sydney said. “He’s their father; he wants a connection. It’s really tragic.”
Victor believes much post-divorce litigation can be avoided by a detailed and specific divorce judgment that provides for situations and expenses that fall outside the range of child support.
“The best way to avoid future problems is to have clear, concise, unambiguous language everyone understands, which protects both parents and the children.”
Bloomfield Hills-based family law attorney Sheila Siegel encourages parents to put aside their own needs and focus on what is best for the children.
“You couldn’t save your marriage, but you want to try and save your divorce,” she said. She encourages parents to work together, even if the terms are not exactly to their liking. “Adults are resilient, but children aren’t, especially in their formative years. They internalize things; they’re harmed by bad-mouthing the other parent.”
Berkovitz warns that equitable divorce judgments and long-term planning are not effective when dealing with truly pathogenic parenting. In those instances, the parent will find reasons to create and perpetuate conflict with the ex-spouse.
“The alienating parent is believed to have narcissistic/borderline personality disorder, which complicates the situation in terms of how they view the world, and many times they truly believe their children do not need the other parent in their lives,” she said.
“They [the alienating parent] believe they are doing the right thing, so money is not the primary issue that, once resolved, will resolve the larger problem.”
Education And Advocacy
“Children do not ask to be born, and they do not ask their parents to divorce. People going through a divorce are at their worst, not because they are bad people, but because it’s such a difficult process,” said Berkovitz, adding that divorce can be more complicated than losing a spouse through death. Parents may be caught up in their own issues, causing them to be emotionally unavailable for their kids.
Though parental alienation is a clear instance of emotional abuse, she says, the court system is usually reluctant to get involved. Even when a family seeks professional help, many psychologists do not understand this dynamic.
“It’s not a custody issue but a child abuse issue,” she says, explaining that the process can be subtle and gradual, making it harder to detect and treat. “We need to educate professionals and advocate within the legal system. Parents need to realize they could lose their children if they engage in parental alienation.”
She believes the way to address parental alienation is through the children because the alienating parent is usually incapable of being reasonable.
“You need to have everyone on board — the court, attorneys, therapists and Child Protective Services — to understand the dynamics and address it through the kids,” Berkovitz said. “The kids need help recognizing they need to be true to themselves in terms of loving their other parent. They should not have to choose, and they need to understand that.”
Dads and Moms of Michigan is a local organization that provides education, support and advocacy for parents experiencing parental alienation. In addition to ongoing support groups, webinars and a resource library, the organization sponsors in-house and off-site supervised parenting time programs so parents and children can enjoy time together while complying with court-ordered requirements.
President/Executive Director John Langlois, who has been a co-parent in an amicable divorce and also the victim of alienation attempts by his ex-wife, believes ex-spouses can work together if both parties are willing.
Ryan Thomas, who experienced parental alienation as a child, describes the dynamic as “abuse with a smile and a hug.” Today, Thomas, who has reunited with his father as an adult, is a nationally recognized author and speaker devoted to sharing his story to prevent others from going through the same suffering
He describes how the brainwashing affected him into adulthood, saying he was “programmed” to believe bad things would happen when his father showed up in his life.
He calls it a “no-win situation” where the “constant barrage of insults” his mother and her extended family hurled against his father caused him years of anguish and stress.
A mother whose ex-husband attempted to poison her son and daughter against her experienced that anguish from
Yet she continued to show up at school events and dance recitals, even when her children ignored her presence.
“I wanted them to know I wasn’t going to give up … that I love them and that will never change,” she said. While her persistence resulted in healing some of the rifts, things are still not ideal, especially with her daughter. “I feel bad for all of us.”