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Current Issues in Family Law
False Allegations of Abuse During Divorce: The Role of Alienating Beliefs
November 23, 2021
Alan D. Blotcky, PhD
How can mental health experts help identify false allegations and alienation during divorce proceedings?
As a clinical and forensic psychologist, I have been involved in hundreds of cases of divorce and child custody. The topic of false allegations of abuse is a complicated and thorny one that deserves much attention. In particular, there needs to be a focus on the alienating beliefs that often underly and compel false allegations.
False allegations of abuse are an all-too-common phenomenon during divorce and child custody proceedings. One parent fabricates a false allegation against the other parent to gain leverage in court and to undermine the parent-child relationship going forward. The frequency of false allegations in custody cases is not fully understood, with estimates ranging from 2% to 35% of all cases involving children.1 Whatever the percentage, attorneys, judges, and mental health experts all know firsthand that it is a vexing problem in court cases. And nothing can disrupt, sidetrack, or impede a case more than an allegation of abuse that eventually proves to be false.
Parents never admit to their conniving and harmful behavior during a legal action. As such, proving an allegation is false can be extremely challenging. Why? Because a false allegation is hatched in the mind of the offending parent, who then enlists the help of their child to unwittingly carry out the plot. The intent is to harm the other parent, but to do so as if the offending parent is the real victim. Parents know that an allegation of abuse has the potential to help them win their case, which is their ultimate goal. Unfortunately, being honest and fair is not always a virtue in a contentious child custody case.
Detecting a false allegation is critical because judges can be swayed by the accusation, even if it is not substantiated by the evidence. More often than not, custody decisions go in favor of the accusing parent.2 So, uncovering and exposing a false allegation is vital in making sure the offending parent is not rewarded for his or her destructive behavior.
Discovery of Alienating Beliefs
The surest way to prove a false allegation of abuse is to uncover the alienating belief system of the offending parent. Alienating beliefs often underlie a parent’s decision to fabricate a false allegation against the other parent. With careful interviewing and psychological testing, these beliefs can be brought to the surface. A mental health professional is best suited to address this clinical problem. It takes patience and a probing attitude by the clinician to elicit alienating beliefs that are being hidden from view by the offending parent. Sentence Completion Series is one psychological instrument that will elicit thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions, and motivations. In interviewing, hypothetical questions, a focus on nonverbal cues, and exploration of apparent discrepancies can be productive.
Here are 7 common alienating beliefs that occur in false allegations:
1. “I am afraid our child will love you more than me and will want to live with you.”
2. “I want my child all to myself.”
3. “If you don’t want me, you don’t get our child, either.”
4. “I want to exact revenge on you, and what better way than to deprive you of your child?”
5. “I don’t want my child to be anything like you.”
6. “I’ve been the real parent in this family, not you.”
7. “I don’t want my child to love their new stepparent because I might be pushed out.”
The Many Implications
There are important implications to consider in cases of false allegations of abuse. First, the desire to alienate the child from the other parent is at the core of most false allegations of abuse. And, when a parent makes multiple false allegations during a legal proceeding, you can bet that alienating beliefs are in play. Yet, it is important to note that not all false allegations are due to alienating motives. Sometimes, for example, a parent may over-interpret a comment or report from a child, thereby jumping to an erroneous conclusion. Rather than clarifying the benign situation, the parent makes what proves to be a false allegation. Other examples exist where alienation is not a major component in a false allegation.3
Second, a child needs to love both parents without impediment or interruption. Being caught in a loyalty fight is damaging, as a child’s long-term adjustment is dependent upon having a close relationship with both parents. Anything short of that is unacceptable. A false allegation of abuse can go a long way to disrupt a child’s relationship with the accused parent. Loving that parent may become strained or even impossible going forward. Thus, a false allegation against a parent can have a tragically negative impact on the child.4
Third, offending parents tend to view their children as possessions to be controlled and manipulated. They see them as extensions of themselves. That is not parental love, but rather, narcissistic self-absorption. It is the offending parent’s hostile needs and motivations that are the real problem in these cases, not the rejected, victimized parent. Offending parents lodge false allegations against the other parent to meet their own needs, not their child’s. Teaching a child to be a victim under false pretenses can set the stage for a lifetime of victimhood for the child.
Fourth, vindictiveness is a malignant emotion that causes great pain, sorrow, and unhappiness in any relationship. Being consumed with vindictiveness is profoundly unhealthy. It has nothing to do with love and care for the child. Vindictiveness is common in false allegations of abuse. What is portrayed as protectiveness of the child is actually hostility and destructiveness toward the other parent, with little genuine concern for the child’s best interest.
Fifth, false allegations of abuse must be stopped as soon as possible for the child’s wellbeing. If they are not stopped, the offending parent’s pernicious behavior will gain steam and impact over time. False allegations cannot be condoned in any way. Several courses of action are reasonable: limited parenting time, supervised visits, change of custody, court-ordered therapy, and others. Turning a blind eye to a false allegation of abuse is not an option.
Finally, judges and attorneys need to be educated about the seriousness and deleterious consequences of false allegations of abuse. Mental health experts can help inform, explain, and guide during the legal proceeding or at trial. False allegations and alienation are highly disruptive to the wellbeing and mental health of the child.
It should be reassuring to know that alienating beliefs can be uncovered and exposed. That is the key to unlocking the “proof” of a false allegation. Without exposure, a child custody case can be hijacked by a false allegation, and the child’s wellbeing may be lost in the confusion. After all, a child’s future can be at stake.
This is the first installment in Dr Blotcky’s new column, “Forensic Practice.” Feedback and suggestions for future articles can be sent to PTEditor@mmhgroup.com.
Dr Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. His specialty is false allegations of abuse and parental alienation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. King DN, Drost M. Recantation and false allegations of child abuse. The National Children’s Advocacy Center. 2005;1-45.
2. Meier JS, Dickson S, O’Sullivan C, et al. Child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations. GW Law Scholarly Commons. 2019;1-30.
3. Bernet W. False statements and the differential diagnosis of abuse allegations. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1993;32(5):903-910.
4. Brooks SK, Greenberg N. Psychological impact of being wrongfully accused of criminal offences: a systematic literature review. Med Sci Law. 2021;61(1):44-54.
Are You Really Ready for Divorce? The 8 Questions You Need to Ask
by Bruce Derman, Wendy Gregson
Supporting Effective Agreement
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Your marriage is in question and you're facing a real dilemma. You may be the one who is deciding should you stay or should you go.
"I feel like I need to get a divorce and end this so called marriage. Yet how can I be sure? Some days I feel more confident of my decision than others. A part of me still loves him or at least I care for him. I don't think I am in love with him, but what if I make a mistake. A lot of people will be affected by what I decide. Maybe I should not rush ahead with this. That's amusing since I have been thinking about it for three years. This whole thing wouldn't even be an issue and I could forget about this divorce, if he would just change his behavior."
Or you may be the one who has just heard that your spouse wants a divorce.
"Divorce? Where did that come from? Two weeks ago we were talking about a vacation in the mountains. I had no idea our marriage was this awful? I am shocked and devastated. I have got to find a way to put a stop to this. Maybe this is all a dream and when I wake up things will be back to normal."
Most books and articles on divorce are written based on the assumption that once a couple says they want a divorce that they are ready for divorce. It is our experience as therapists and divorce coaches, who have helped many people through this process that this is in fact not the case. Usually when couples begin the divorce process, either one but more often than not, both, are not really ready for the divorce.
Divorce professionals such as therapists, mediators and attorneys often believe that statements such as, "I've had it with him." or "My feelings have died for her," are indicators that the marriage is over. Attorney's often equate being hired for their services as an indicator that the couple is ready to divorce. This is not so.
Most couples who begin a divorce are unprepared and are often not even on the same page when they begin. It is this lack of preparedness and readiness for a divorce that either causes marriages to end prematurely or divorces to deteriorate into competitive contests. The decision to obtain a divorce is one of the most crucial decisions a person can make with consequences that last for years or a lifetime. A decision this important requires much greater attention than it is usually given by both couples and professionals. It is a process in and of itself. Once a couple is prepared and ready, they will sooner be able to begin their divorce by both being on the same page and this will eliminate most of the emotional and financial struggles that cause divorces to become adversarial and ruthless.
The reason many people do not even think about getting ready for a divorce is because they operate under the assumption that the sooner you can get out of a stressful situation the better. So there is a natural tendency for people who are in difficult marriages to want to get the divorce over with as quickly as possible in order to move on with their lives. Family and friends often encourage this as well. They hurt for the family and so also prescribe to the myth that the quicker the divorce is over, the sooner everything will return to normal. But unfortunately in most cases just the opposite happens. Couples who make rushed decisions to leave the marriage have had no time to evaluate their feelings, thoughts or options. As a result they are unprepared for the roller coaster of emotions, the complicated legal system and the many life changing decisions that they need to make. Quite often they make agreements which they cannot sustain, and instead of the situation getting better, they often find that they have just traded one set of problems for another. So it is no wonder that they often get tangled up in lengthy court cases and the very thing they hoped for, a quick divorce, often takes years.
This article outlines what couples need to do in order to face the numerous dilemmas that are inherent in divorce. A dilemma implies that you are torn between two choices, each of which have undesirable fearful elements. If people have not resolved their dilemmas before the divorce, they go through the process trying to manage their fear in different ways by hiding their doubt, responsibility; vulnerability, or dependency.
Whether a couple is starting the divorce process or even just contemplating a divorce, they need to first identify with the following divorce dilemmas.
The Three Divorce Dilemmas
Couples who are facing the possibility of a divorce face one of three dilemmas:
1. I want the divorce, but I am not sure if it is the right decision. Since going through a divorce impacts the lives of your children, as well as your lifestyle, economics, and marital investment, the pressure to make the "perfectly correct" decision is enormous. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. The best case scenario is to make a decision that is not emotionally based, nor driven by your ego.
2. I do not want the divorce, my spouse does. Being in this reactive place will leave you feeling out of control and a helpless victim. You will experience intense emotional devastation, as your life will be changing before your eyes without you having any say in the outcome. In addressing this dilemma you need to ask yourself if you are clinging to staying on familiar, safe ground and to a marriage based on illusions. It is not easy to acknowledge and confront the problems in a marriage, when you are feeling so hurt by your partner.
3. I only want this divorce because my marriage is not working. If this is your dilemma, then you will want to avoid responsibility at all costs by seeing your partner to blame for the demise of the marriage. There will be tremendous preoccupation and anger about how your partner caused you to make this decision. The amount of noise generated from this blaming will be in direct proportion to your unwillingness to risk expressing any of your own fears and sadness. If this doesn't occur, the divorce proceedings to follow will be riddled with tension and conflict, and a continuation of the blaming.
The common element in all three dilemmas is fear. In the first group there is a fear of making a mistake and being incorrect, the second will hide from it by denying that there are any problems or admitting their attachment to the familiar and the third group will fear any accountability and softness. The result in all three circumstances will be dragging, combative, and back and forth divorces.
For divorce to be a collaborative and respectful process, the couple must be prepared and ready to separate their lives on all levels; legally, practically and emotionally. To do this each person must face their divorce dilemma by answering the following 8 questions.
The 8 Questions
1. Do you still have feelings for your partner?
Many people who say they want a divorce still have strong feelings for their partner, but due to an ongoing power struggle in the relationship there is a lack of intimacy and closeness. If this is you, it is best that you work on your relationship prior to deciding to divorce otherwise your feelings of loss will overwhelm you and you may find yourself worse off after the divorce than you are now.
Celine had been married for seven years to a man she loved, who she considered to be a real sweet, gentle guy. However, she was very unhappy about their financial arrangement. She was the responsible one who paid all the expenses, while he seemed to be forever getting them further into debt. She was very stressed and miserable and saw divorce as her only way out of the financial strain she was under. But because of her feelings for him she was not able to support such a decision or even set a clear boundary, for fear of losing the relationship. With the help of her therapist, Celine recognized that she either needed to either set a clear boundary and be willing to lose the relationship, or else accept that all her hassling was a waste of time.
2. Were you ever really married?
To be really married a couple must have created a relationship that included an "us" or a "we." Many people who are considering a divorce have never had a marriage that was anything more than two individuals meeting their own needs. They may have raised children and shared a home but they participated in those activities from a competitive rather than unified position. They would ask -- "Do I want to do this or that", rather than ask "Is this good for us?" If you have not developed a genuine "we" in your relationship this would be the time to either commit to learning how to do that or to admit that you have never really had a marriage.
Even as a therapist who works in the area of divorce, I had a very difficult time admitting that my own marriage of fourteen years was in fact in name only, regardless of the years that we lived under the label of husband and wife. Our pattern was to threaten to break up every few months, and we had a daily ritual of fighting, and agreements that rarely lasted more than a week. I used to joke to my wife that she needed to keep her bags packed just in case she needed to leave quickly. This pattern remained despite the numerous counseling offices we attended. It was not until I was able to acknowledge to myself that I was neither single nor married, that I was in fact nowhere, did any real change occur. We started the real divorce process two months later.
3. Are you truly ready for divorce or are you just threatening?
Divorce is often threatened, especially in heated marital arguments for the following reasons;
4. Is this a sincere decision based on self awareness or is it an emotionally reactive decision?
To be ready to divorce your partner means being able to make a clear, unemotional decision that you can support over time. Divorce means being able to let go of all strong emotional attachments to the other person, the loving ones as well as the hostile and hurtful ones. Emotionally charged decisions do not last and if acted on do not resolve the underlying problem. People who divorce out of anger stay angry even after the divorce is over.
A woman came to see me as her divorce coach after she had been divorced for five years because she was still struggling with the effects of her divorce. Her problem was that she was still feeling rage toward her ex husband and found her self hating him on a weekly basis. I said to her, "It sounds like you are still married." She insisted that this was incorrect due to the hatred she had for him. I responded that the hate she was experiencing essentially reflected a great passion toward him despite her hateful label, which I doubted any current man could match. I stated that only someone who is married could have such a passion. From that moment on she began to emotionally detach from her ex husband and work towards, with the help of the coaching, a real divorce.
A statement that would indicate that you are making a sincere, rather than an emotionally reactive decision is, "I acknowledge that you are a person in your own right with your own personality, hopes and dreams, I can respect you for that, but I no longer want to be married to you."
To be ready for divorce is to have a lower emotional attachment to the person you are separating from, other wise, the divorce process itself will be roller coaster of intense feelings, including anger, distrust and hurt.
5. What is your intent in wanting a divorce?
Any agenda, other than ending the marriage, is an indication that you are not ready to divorce. If you are hoping that through the divorce the other person will change and start treating you better, realize how much they have lost or pay for how much they have hurt you, you are getting a divorce for the wrong reason. Divorce has no power to right wrongs nor change people's hearts and minds. Divorce can only do one thing, end a marriage, and in so doing free each person to make new attachments to new people.
6. Have you resolved your internal conflict over the divorce?
Everyone who goes through a divorce is conflicted. People can feel guilty at the same time as they are sure that they want to end the relationship. Or they can feel betrayed and at the same time recognize that their life will be better once they are out of the relationship. Recognizing the conflict and owning that different parts of you will be struggling with the impact of divorce, at different times, is part of the process of getting ready for divorce.
Rick was having the hardest time deciding what to do about his marriage. For the longest time he claimed that he was confused, conflicted, and torn. He couldn't seem to feel at peace being in the marriage or in leaving. His wife was verbally beating him up over his indecisiveness, often calling him a wimp. As his therapist, I asked to speak to the part of him who wanted out and I told him I didn't want to hear from any other part. He started to speak quite clearly about feeling no passion for his wife, but within a minute he began to hedge this voice with statements like "She is a good mother or she is dependable." Each time he would attempt to dilute in this way, I would have to say that I only wanted to hear from the voice that wants "out." As the wanting "out" voice became more and more expressive, he began to visibly sweat. I asked "What is happening?" Finally, he said, "I am feeling guilty." Where is that coming from?," I asked He said, "I made a promise that I would never follow the path of my father who left my mother." With this opposing voice sorted out and clarified, he was no longer confused. He was able to see that this old promise to himself was in conflict with his present desire to end his marriage. As he continued to work through those two opposing parts of himself he was finally able to make a decision that he felt at peace with and three months later he began the divorce proceedings.
7. Can you handle the unpleasant consequences of divorce?
Divorce brings change and grief because it is the loss of the "happy family" dream. Hurts , disappointments, loneliness, failure, rejection, inadequacy can all take hold of the psyche when we are in this extremely vulnerable passage. To be ready for the ups and downs of divorce it is necessary to have a support system of family and friends who will be there to help you emotionally and practically when needed.
One of the hardest consequences of divorce is needing to face another person's pain, be it your children's, your family or friends because divorce affects so many people's lives. If you are the one choosing they divorce you will have to hold on to your decision and the ending of your marriage in the face of all these people and circumstances. If you are the one who does not want the divorce, but your spouse wants to proceed, you will still need to get ready to accept the following consequences of a failed marriage. To know if you are ready, ask yourself if you are prepared for the following changes;
8. Are you willing to take control of your life in a responsible and mature way?
Whether you are the one who wants the divorce or the one who is having to respond to your spouse wanting the divorce both situations have one thing in common, the marriage is ending. How people respond to this fact determines the type of divorce and future they will have. They can come from a position of bitterness, revenge or helplessness or they can negotiate for their future from a position of strength, understanding and respect.. The attitude you choose will determine the type of divorce you have. Your options are as follows: You can make Agreements that:
Protect your rights onlyorRespect your spouse's rights too
Are only good for youorAre good for everyone
Give your spouse lessorGive your spouse what is rightfully theirs
Do not inconvenience youorWork well for everyone
Need frequent court hearings to enforceorNeed no court hearings to enforceIt is our experience that people who prepare themselves by first addressing all 8 questions are more likely to have a collaborative divorce. By starting the process in this way they are much better able to make lasting agreements with each other, resolve their difficulties and develop parenting plans that both supports the children and respects each other's rights.
Bruce Derman Ph.D. and Wendy Gregson LMFT have extensive experience in helping couples obtain a Better Divorce through preparation, collaboration, and effective negotiation.
Bruce Derman biography and additional articles: http://www.mediate.com/people/personprofile.cfm?auid=922
Wendy Gregson biography and additional articles: http://www.mediate.com/people/personprofile.cfm?auid=923
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OPINION Best interests of child should rule in custody arrangements
Kathleen C. King
Published January 13, 2022
In a Jan. 9 op-ed, Teresa Harlow recently suggested that Ohio law encourages unfair custody arrangements because the starting place is not a 50-50 division between the parents ("Ohio law encourages lopsided, unfair custody arrangements"). The fairness, however, should belong primarily to the child.
Children remain in the formative years of development and did not decide to be born, belong to this family, or to get a divorce. Ohio law focuses on the best interests of the child. This is where the focus should be.
Both parents usually love their children equally, but parents may have different ways of showing that love. Some are better at earning money so that the child has the advantage of living well enough. Others are stronger with interacting more directly with the child.
I was a magistrate in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court for nearly 29 years. The Ohio Judicial College and the Cincinnati Bar Association provided seminars involving the developmental stages of children and other visitation issues. Many years ago, the court formed a committee to develop a starting place for parenting time depending on the age of the child. The schedule was only a starting place because parents have different work schedules and capabilities, and all children are not the same.
Babies need a very definite primary caretaker. Shuffling them back and forth on an equal basis puts them at risk for separation anxiety and insecurities long into adulthood. Would a 50-50 parenting division work for a child who is disorganized and suffers from ADHD? My experience from the bench says "generally not."
Such children being transferred from one household to another often lose track of clothing, school work and extracurricular activities. A teacher might notice that the child has his homework completed every other week or that the child will wear the same clothing three days in a row every other week. If one of the parents works ungodly hours in order to provide food and shelter or material advantages, that hard-working individual may have to hand the child over to neighbors, babysitters, or grandparents until after the children are in bed. Sometimes they might leave the child unattended.
It is best if the parents can agree on a parenting schedule without court involvement. Conflict resolution specialists like Ms. Harlow can offer the community a tremendous service by helping parents figure out a reasonable parenting time schedule. They may agree that a shared parenting plan works. In the event the parents can't agree, it becomes the court's job to handle the situation.
The Ohio law appropriately requires that both parents be viewed equally before the court as it relates to parental rights and responsibilities. Neither gender is to have an advantage. Ohio statutes also rightly demands the court focus on the child's best interests.
In determining the best interests of the children, the court must consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to:
I may quarrel with a few of the nuances in Ohio's statutes regarding custody. Basically, though, Ohio has it right. The best interests of the child should rule.
Kathleen C. King was a magistrate in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court for approximately 29 years and is now of counsel with The Farrish Law Firm.