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What is the Incidence and Prevalence of Parental Alienation?
Children live in many family configurations. Some live with a parent or parents who have never been married. Others live with grandparents or guardians when their biological parents are not functional caregivers in their lives. Still others live in family units that have broken through divorce of the parental figures. We do not have census data about the construction, deconstruction, and remaking of these family units. Further, the 50 States primarily handle our system of family law in the USA. Our State court systems are not uniform in their recordation of divorces with and without children and certainly not aware of the possible serial nature of family configurations in children’s lives. This poses a serious difficulty for any calculation of the incidence of parental alienation. With respect to the prevalence of PA, the same constraints apply.
One of the largest studies into the incidence and prevalence of parental alienation was conducted by Clawar and Rivlin (1991) over a 12 year period. They found out that in 86% of the 1000 cases they studied there was some element of parental programming and brainwashing in an effort to implant false and negative ideas about the other parent, with the intention of turning the child against that other parent. Their published findings break down as follows:
Percentage of Parents Who Program/Brainwash
- 23% more than once a day
- 22% about once per day
- 12 % more than once per week
- 8% once per week
- 21% occasionally
- 14% no detection of programming-and-brainwashing
(Source: Children Held Hostage, 1991, adapted from page 180/Table 17).
This incidence level of frequent alienating behaviors (once or more than once per day; 45%) was also found by Johnston and Campbell in their 1988 study where they reported alienation occurring approximately 40% of the time. Several important studies soon followed all of which indicate that parental alienation is acknowledged as prevalent in approximately 25% of custody disputes (Bernet, 2008). Bernet (2008) outlines this history in his article Parental Alienation Disorder and DSM-V as follows:
- Janet Johnston (1993) reported that 7% of the children in one study and 27% of the children in a second study had “strong alignment” with one parent and rejection of the other parent.
- In a 1997 presentation to the American College of Forensic Psychology, Larry Nicholas reported on a survey of 21 custody evaluators. The majority of Nicholas’ respondents reported that in about one-third (33%) of their custody evaluation cases, one parent was engaging in clear alienating behavior.
- Sandra Berns (2001) reported on a study of divorce judgments from 1995 to 2000 in Brisbane, Australia, where PA was found to be present in 29% of reviewed cases.
Bernet (2008) goes on to report that 10% of children (7.4 million) in the United States live with divorced parents and 10% of these (740,000) are involved in custody or visitation disputes of which 25% (185,000) develop parental alienation.
Gardner conducted a qualitative follow-up of 99 children from 52 families he had previously diagnosed with PAS. Reporting the results in his 2001 text on therapeutic interventions for this population, he concluded: The court chose to either restrict the children’s access to the alienator or change custody with 22 of the children. His follow-up work found a significant reduction or even elimination of PAS symptomatology in all 22 of these cases. In the 77 cases where the court chose not to reduce access or transfer custody, there was an increase in PAS symptomatology in 70 cases (90.9%).
Studying false allegations of sexual abuse and alienation, Kopetski (1991) reported a fifth (20%) of her sample engaged in alienation. At that time, she noted that alienating mothers outnumbered alienating fathers by a ratio of 2:1. Kopetski’s findings regarding the higher proportion of alienating mothers were similar to those of other researchers (Burrill, 2006; Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Gardner, 1992, 2001b; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Kopetski’s work on alienation began in the 1970s and was fully developed by the time she learned of Richard Gardner’s work. In 1991, Kopetski presented her work on PAS at the Fifteenth Annual Child Custody Conference in Keystone, Colorado (Kopetski, 1991). She recognized Gardner’s contribution in the introduction and described her astonishment upon learning of his work in 1987. While unaware of Gardner’s work, she simultaneously arrived at observations and conclusions that were remarkably similar.
Hetherington and Kelly (2002) discussed findings from the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage. Since the early 1970s and “the Hetherington and Clingempeel Study of Divorce and Remarriage,” E. Mavis Hetherington studied divorced parents and their children. One of Hetherington’s comments was: “As obviously destructive as conflict is to all involved in this dilemma, it was surprising to discover that six years after divorce, 20 to 25 percent of our couples were engaged in just such conflictual behavior; former spouses would make nasty comments about each other, seek to undermine each other’s relationship with the child, and fight openly in front of the child. Aside from being damaging, constant put-downs of the other parent may backfire, producing resentment and a spirited defense of the criticized parent by the child. … Conflictual coparenting distresses children and undermines their well-being, and it makes parents unhappy, too. They feel guilty about fighting in front of the children, but their preoccupation with their anger and lingering resentment makes it difficult for them to begin focusing on a new, more fulfilling life and on the pain they are causing their children.”
In 2003, Johnston reported on an “alignment” study. She defined alignment as the “child’s behavioral and verbal preference for one parent with varying degrees of overt or covert negativity towards the other parent.” She found that 15% of children from a community sample of divorcing families and 21% in contested custody cases experienced either “some” or “much” alignment with one parent or the other. Bernet’s group (2008) calculated Johnston’s percentages using the raw data Johnston described and found that 18% of the children in the community sample and 27% in the contested custody cases experienced some degree of alignment.
In 2005, Johnston, Walters, & Olesen (Johnston et al., 2005a, b) reported rates of PA of about one-fifth (20%) of high-conflict populations. Two years later, Amy Baker (2007b) reported research wherein she surveyed 106 mental health professionals who conducted custody evaluations. The respondents reported that PAS occurred in as many as 55% of their cases. An average rate over all respondents, whether skilled or unskilled in the differential diagnosis of PAS, was 11.2% (SD = 13). Baker found that the evaluators who identified PAS more frequently were:
- more familiar with the concept of PAS,
- were more likely to assess for PAS,
- were more likely to believe that one parent can turn a child against the other parent, and
- were more confident in their evaluations.
Bow, Gould, and Flens (2009) reported on their survey of 448 mental health and legal professionals who were experienced with PA. They said, “When respondents were asked [in] what percentage of child custody cases was PA an issue, the mean reported was 26%”. Bala, Hunt, and McCarney reported in 2010 that between 1989 and 2008, alienation was found by the court in 106 out of 175 cases raising the issue (61 %). The mother was the alienating parent in 72 cases (68%), and the father was the alienating parent in 33 cases (31%). It seems that in this study, the alienating parent had sole custody of the children in 89 cases (84%), and joint custody in 14 cases (13%).
A recent collaborative study between the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection and New York University (Baker, 2010) revealed that about 28% of adults in a community sample (i.e., not selected because of a precondition related to divorce or custody) reported that when they were children, one parent tried to turn them against the other. This data is striking in that a significant portion of the sample was probably raised in an intact family. Not surprisingly, the proportion that reported they had been exposed to parental alienation was higher in the subsample of individuals who had been raised by a stepparent, at 44%.