Every year in the U.S., an estimated 58,000 children are placed in the custody of or have unsupervised contact with an abusive parent, according to the <a href="http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/">Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.</a>

Every year in the U.S., an estimated 58,000 children are placed in the custody of or have unsupervised contact with an abusive parent, according to the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.

A study of thousands of cases involving abuse, domestic violence and alienation found that when mothers allege child abuse by fathers and the fathers claim “parental alienation,” the mothers lose custody at staggering rates.

What’s behind this phenomenon and how does it play out locally? What role does gender play in these cases? And what can be done to make sure children aren’t ending up in the hands of an abusive parent?

The National Child Abuse Hotline is available 24/7 with resources to aid in every child abuse situation. All calls are confidential. Call 1-800-422-4453 for help.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Dominique Maria Bonessi Maryland Reporter, WAMU; @dbonessi
  • Joan Meier Professor, George Washington University Law School
  • Jennifer Reesman Pediatric Neuropsychologist
  • Nicholas Bala Law Professor, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario; Family Law Expert


  • 12:15:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In child custody cases involving allegations of abuse or domestic violence there's a common misconception that mothers will be favored over fathers, but a new study has found essentially the opposite to be true. It is the mothers who are more likely to lose custody even when fathers have been accused of abuse. So what exactly is this phenomenon and what can be done to make sure children are not ending up in the hands of an abusive parent? Joining me in studio is Joan Meier. She is a professor at the George Washington University Law School. Joan Meier, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:15:35

    JOAN MEIERThank you for having me.

  • 12:15:36

    NNAMDIYou led a first of its kind study looking at thousands of cases involving abuse, domestic violence and alienation. Tell us about some of your key findings.

  • 12:15:45

    MEIERWell, we were looking at how courts are actually deciding cases when either parent alleges abuse by the other parent. And we looked at all kinds of abuse not just partner violence, domestic violence, but also child physical and child sexual abuse, which makes this study unique. There's no other study that's actually been analyzing that empirically. And then we wanted to look specifically at claims of parental alienation, which has been a problem across the country. In cases where mothers allege abuse there has been a sense anecdotally and experientially and certainly in my own practice that if the father defends with the claim that she's just alienating the children that that tends to have more power than we think it should have. And it tends to negate the consideration of abuse.

  • 12:16:28

    MEIERSo we wanted to gather data, numbers, because experientially we had a clear picture, but no one really believes anecdotes. People understandably believe numbers. So we gathered data from all over the country from electronically filed opinions. We ended up analyzing several thousand opinions that came up through our search. And what we found very generally was that courts generally disbelieve mothers' claims of abuse even domestic violence, but especially child abuse at very high rates. So they were believed less than half the time when it came to domestic violence, and more like a third of the time when it came to child abuse, but when the father crossclaimed that she was using these claims as a form of alienation of the children that increased the disbelief almost doubling it.

  • 12:17:16

    MEIERAnd we also found that when mothers' claims of abuse are not believed that they lose custody at very great rates, and again, when fathers defended with an alienation claim that pretty much doubled. So in general mothers lost custody about a quarter of the time when there wasn't an alienation crossclaim. And these are all cases where they were alleging abuse, they still lost custody about a quarter of the time, but when fathers crossclaimed alienation mothers lost custody about half the time. Now, that's looking at all the cases where mothers just alleged abuse. I can break it down a little bit more if you want me to about what happened when she was believed or not believed.

  • 12:17:51

    NNAMDIWondering if you can backup for a minute, and define the term parental alienation for listeners who may not be familiar with it.

  • 12:17:58

    MEIERSure. The problem with the term is that there is no single definition. But the generally understood usage of it is the idea that when one parent is claiming that a child doesn't want to be with the other parent or that the other parent isn't safe, it is being done not because that's true. But as a way of alienating the child from the other parent and keeping the other parent out of the child's life. Typically it was invented to be used against mothers, who were claiming child sexual abuse. But its use has been vastly expanded to mothers who claim any kind of abuse. And it is also certainly used against fathers now too. There are a number of women, who now report and allege that the father is alienating the children against them.

  • 12:18:42

    NNAMDIYou said it was invented to be used against mothers claiming child abuse. What's the basis for that allegation?

  • 12:18:48

    MEIERSo it was originally invented as a -- it was called parental alienation syndrome. And it was invented by a doctor named Richard Gardner, who had a kind of a part-time appointment at Columbia and did a lot of forensic testimony. And he claimed that when mothers come to court in custody battles and allege child sexual abuse that they're doing that not because it's true, but because they want to alienate the father from the child's lives.

  • 12:19:16

    MEIERParental alienation syndrome on the one hand caught on in the courts, and on the other hand fairly rapidly got discredited by a lot of professionals and professional organizations. But none the less, while most professionals have stopped calling it a syndrome, although not all, the same concept is being rolled into the term parental alienation, and it's certainly used in courts pretty much the same way.

  • 12:19:43

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Jennifer Reesman. She's a Pediatric Neuropsychologist. Jennifer Reesman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:19:50

    JENNIFER REESMANPleasure to be here.

  • 12:19:51

    NNAMDITo what extent could these findings discourage someone from making an allegation of abuse?

  • 12:19:57

    REESMANSo these findings are incredibly important. So myself as a pediatric neuropsychologist, I'm a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse and neglect. That's something that is really beaten into our heads as healthcare professionals that we need to report suspected abuse and neglect. And it is extremely concerning to hear that particularly for parents who are concerned about their child experiencing abuse or neglect that there is an actual negative consequence that they're experiencing to reporting that suspect of abuse or neglect. Truly as healthcare providers our priority needs to be on child safety. And so these findings are incredibly concerning that they may dissuade people from reporting suspected abuse.

  • 12:20:39

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Dominique Maria Bonessi. She's a reporter here in the WAMU news room. Hi, Dominique.

  • 12:20:45


  • 12:20:45

    NNAMDIYou've been reporting on how these issue have played out locally in family court. What have you heard in some of your conversations with families particularly mothers, who have lost custody of their children?

  • 12:20:56

    BONESSIYeah. So after the story that I did came out in August, I received a lot of emails, tweets, comments from different people on how people identified with the case that by -- the person in my story, Jane, went through. And they had a lot to say about particularly parental alienation. I had many mothers in the region reach out to me and tell me about their experiences. And I want to share with you a few things that these cases all seem to have in common based on their stories. So there's the allegation of child sexual abuse or domestic violence. And typically if the father has committed some sort of abuse or alleged to have committed some sort of abuse it seems like it's a hereditary thing where his father abused him as a child. That seemed like a common thread.

  • 12:21:37

    BONESSIWomen claiming or threatening -- women claimed that during these custody battles they've experienced threatening or intimidating behavior from their spouse. And then when these women leave these situations oftentimes they don't know what to do. There's no sort of guidance. There's no, you know, handbook on what to do. And like Jane in my story she left for a different state and tried reporting it there, but didn't realize that every state has different laws on what family courts will allow and won't allow. Now there's also another issue where no one is investigating or looking at allegations of abuse prior to deciding custody. And that's a big point here.

  • 12:22:19

    BONESSIAnd then again, custody battles that cost, you know, tens of thousands of dollars basically they last very long. And it basically goes to whoever has the most money and whoever can outlast will basically get the kids, which is determining the kids' future based off of, you know, can I last in court? And then this ultimately you can tell obviously of what I'm saying is it's breaking apart families. You know, these are very very very contentious and I hate to even use the word contentious, because as one expert attorney told me, he said, calling it a contentious child custody battle is like calling this a terrible wallet exchange. You know, it's not just, someone stole my wallet. Oh, my gosh. It's, you know, this is, Someone has robbed me and, you know, has committed these, you know -- has potentially committed a crime and they're getting away with it.

  • 12:23:15

    NNAMDIWhy are these cases involving accusations of abuse not first investigated and the investigations completed before the child custody case goes forward? It's my understanding that there was an attempt both in Congress and in some jurisdictions to change that.

  • 12:23:35

    BONESSIRight. So law enforcement is the one that's supposed to be investigating. I mean, you go to a child advocacy center, if you go to a family help center, you know, they can say, would you like to report this to the police so they can conduct a thorough investigation? But the problem is when that investigation sometimes is between the mother, the father and the child, who may or may not be of age to actually speak up for themselves if they're, you know, anywhere between one to five years old they not be able to say, yeah, Mom did this. Dad did this. Many times it goes to he said she said and investigations go sort of unfound.

  • 12:24:15

    MEIERCould I add?

  • 12:24:16

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Joan Meier.

  • 12:24:17

    MEIERYeah. I just want to say a couple of things. One is that some of these cases are reported to child welfare or police. And as Dominique just said they can be stymied because there's a -- for criminal investigations you have to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. And if you have a little kid that could be very difficult against an abuser whose denying what they did. So a lot cases falter in that way not because they're not true, but because they cannot meet the criminal standard, which should not affect what happens in family court, which is about protection not about liberty. But also there are plenty of cases -- so there are cases that get investigated before or during.

  • 12:24:53

    MEIERAnd one of the things that we've seen -- and this is anecdotal although I have a little data. We haven't analyzed it yet. Child welfare agencies have kind of drunk the parental alienation Kool-Aid also. And so if the father comes in and says, oh she's just doing this to win custody. It's all false. It's alienation. A lot of the times the agencies listen to that also, which is really really tragic, because it means that their mission of protecting children is being distorted.

  • 12:25:17

    NNAMDIAre those agencies in a position to investigate and they simply choose not to, because they're simply following what the father said?

  • 12:25:23

    MEIERWell, investigation sounds good, but what does it mean? It means you talk to the five year old. You know, and if there's not witnesses and there's no physical proof, which often in sexual abuse there's no physical proof there's really nothing magical that agencies can do beyond talking to people and saucing out what they think is true. And it comes down to what do you believe and who do you believe.

  • 12:25:44

    NNAMDII will get to our callers and our tweeters and emailers, but first a little more. We heard from one mother who reached out to Dominique after her story published. Here is an exert from my conversation with that mother who 20 years ago alleged her daughter had been abused and was met with a claim of parental alienation from her former husband. I asked her how the custody ordeal had affected her life.

  • 12:26:07

    UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERThe way that it impacts my life is my ex-husband has never been held accountable for the acts that both of my daughters said that he committed. The other aspect that I know that I'm not the only one that goes through this, but a lot of mothers, who do go through this what ends up happening is that child who's given solely to that father opts not to have any contact with that mother. So that is a part that I live with as well.

  • 12:26:37

    NNAMDIIn other words you are now parentally alienated from your daughter.

  • 12:26:42


  • 12:26:44

    NNAMDIGiven the fact that she's now a lot older has she ever offered any explanation for why she doesn't want to have contact with you?

  • 12:26:54

    SPEAKERShe has not. She's not and it's not an issue that I push with her, because what I remind myself of is I knew her up until the age of five. And that which I knew was for me beautiful and it was wonderful. She was this kid, who fought against the things that were happening to her, which is why she was hurt so very often, because she spoke out against it. And I end reading something when she was eight how she made a point of saying, I will not believe anybody other than my mother. She fought the good fight, but when they took -- when she no longer was able to just be able to tap into me just for two hours I believe that's the reason why she folded.

  • 12:27:42

    NNAMDIIt's been almost 20 years since this custody battle occurred. Why is it important for you to share your story with our listeners now?

  • 12:27:52

    SPEAKERTwo reasons. One I have an obligation to my children. I have an obligation as their mother to ensure that justice does prevail on their behalf. The second reason for me is a really obvious one and that is that the family court system is broken. And it is broken in that it facilitates the sexual and physical abuse of children by putting them second and putting the needs of that parent whose the alleged abuser first.

  • 12:28:26

    SPEAKERWhat I'm wanting to do is to get it to be seen for what it is. It is a human rights violation. It is a human rights violation when you choose not to protect a child. It is a human rights violation when you choose not to allow a parent to have a fair trial. It is a human rights violation when you just deny a parent a trial, because you can have a trial and it can be fair. And you can have a trial and it's just totally unfair. So for me this is about justice for my children.

  • 12:28:59

    NNAMDIWe should mention that there was never any investigation into the abuse alleged by this mother. The father in question was never charged or convicted of any wrongdoing. But the mother did lose full custody of her daughter. I'd like to go to the phones to hear the stories from a few people who are calling up to tell us their stories. We are asking that you please refrain from using any full names or identifying details. We have a legal responsibility to protect the privacy of those involved in these cases particularly the children. That said I will start with Charles in Silver Spring, Maryland. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:29:33

    CHARLESYes, thank you, Kojo, for taking the call and actually addressing this very important issue. I suffered -- I'm the opposite of your previous caller you interviewed. I had my children taken away from me by an emergency order by an individual, who had a close personal relationship with the family court judge. Then it was a battle of who has the most amount of money. The grandfather of my children cut a $20,000 check for one of the top 10 D.C. lawyers. I'm fairly smart. Three sets of degrees. I read up about parental alienation. I found both the D.C. Court System and the top 20 D.C. lawyers completely unfamiliar with the concept, and unwilling to advance my case. Even though my ex denied a court ordered visitations, the family court refused to address it or even see that as parental alienation.

  • 12:30:30

    CHARLESI finally only got sole legal and sole physical custody of my kids when my ex had a meltdown in front of a judge when she refused an order related to custody. So this is a real issue. Parental alienation is a real issue. Being accused of sexual assault is a real issue. They never investigated me, but I had to be hauled into court for nine months straight and then have the case continued with this allegation of sexual abuse.

  • 12:30:59

    NNAMDIWe don't have a great deal of time. But you seem to be saying that in spite of all of this or maybe as a result of it, you ultimately got custody of your child.

  • 12:31:07

    CHARLESYeah, it was a battle of who had the most money. I hung it out. She finally lost custody. And you know what? To this day, my kids are fine.

  • 12:31:17

    NNAMDIIn the case of the individual that Dominique and I interviewed, money was a huge issue in that case, also. And she just -- after spending more than $20,000, I think.

  • 12:31:28

    BONESSIYes. And most cases I've seen are well above $20,000. I mean, Jane's case was, I think, around $70,000.

  • 12:31:34

    NNAMDIHere now is Rebeca, in Reston. Rebeca, your turn.

  • 12:31:38

    REBECCAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. This really touches in my life very personally. I am a mom that lost custody of my son four years ago. My ex-husband was, at times, physically, but mostly emotionally abusive. And he, again, just like your previous caller, you know, sort of stuck it out in court, had the most money. My allegations were not taken seriously. And so, in my eyes, I became the victim twice over. But not only am I a victim...

  • 12:32:10

    NNAMDIDid he accuse you -- were you accused of practicing parental alienation?

  • 12:32:15

    REBECCANo, I'm accused -- he's the one now that's alienating me from my child. So, now -- the courts didn't take my allegation seriously, and now the child has severe behavioral and learning disabilities, and is in his third elementary school.

  • 12:32:35

    NNAMDIAnd you alleged emotional abuse?

  • 12:32:37

    REBECCAAbsolutely, and it's being overlooked. And, quite often, these children are, you know, diagnosed with ADHD, which my son has been, and it's misdiagnosed. He actually suffers from extremely high anxiety. And I believe it's from, you know, the emotional abuse and the parental alienation. And we've been in, you know, the court system for many years, and just cannot get any relief.

  • 12:32:58

    NNAMDISo, now that your ex has custody, are you able to visit with your child at all?

  • 12:33:04

    REBECCAYes. We do have a visitation agreement. It is extremely one-sided. We had, just a year ago, had something, an agreement that was signed. And then because I appealed and I went to a higher court, something was signed and then it was just -- I just really feel let down by the court system. It's just been heartbreaking to watch, you know, my son go through that. And there has been, really, no relief. We don't have anything new in the system, and it can take up to eight months to get a court date.

  • 12:33:35

    NNAMDIRebecca, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I'd like to turn now to Paul Griffin, legal director for Child Justice, a legal aid society dedicated to protecting victims of child abuse and domestic violence. And Paul Griffin is calling from Baltimore. You're on the air, Paul. Go ahead, please. And what you have just heard and what you may have heard earlier is a reflection of the experiences that you have had in courtrooms.

  • 12:33:59

    PAUL GRIFFINYes. It comports absolutely with our experience. You know, anecdotally, I can tell you we've been involved in hundreds of cases around the country, but a few folks actually trying cases in Maryland. And if a parent makes an allegation or expresses concern based on what she's observed of the child, particularly sexual abuse, it's almost a guarantee that the other side is going to claim alienation, at some point. I mean, you could just wait for it to happen and check the box when it does.

  • 12:34:31

    PAUL GRIFFINAnd these are difficult cases, particularly when you've got child sexual abuse, there's seldom ever any evidence of it. It's very difficult to prove, and I think courts often find it easier to believe, unfortunately -- I'll use mothers and fathers, because it's usually mothers who the protective parent in these cases, and it's usually the father who's the abuser or alleged abuser. But I think courts find it easier to believe that the mom is coaching a child to lie, or that she's making all this up than it is to believe that a father would be sexually abusing his child.

  • 12:35:03

    PAUL GRIFFINAnd then when you throw into the fact to be very little physical evidence and judges do not seem to be educated on this topic, the alienation claim is going to take hold, and the mom's going to be on defense, trying to not just keep her child from an abuser, but to keep custody and contact with the child.

  • 12:35:20

    NNAMDILet me bring our other panelists in on this, starting with you, Joan Meier. What's the reasoning, here? Why are courts more likely to recognize parental alienation than they are to recognize abuse?

  • 12:35:31

    MEIERThat's a really great question, Kojo, and I think Paul started to answer it. I mean, I think part of it is kind of the natural human inclination to shy away from something horrific and grotesque, which, I think, we all feel sexual abuse of children is. And it's just really uncomfortable to sit with the reality and to believe that a father's doing that. And if you compound that with having multiple cases maybe sitting on a docket where you're hearing that in a lot of cases, I think it is human nature to want to not believe it. And parental alienation gives you a nice, quasi-scientific vehicle for saying, ah, it's not true, thank God.

  • 12:36:07

    MEIERSo, some of it is human nature. Some of it is a real, longstanding social denial of child sexual abuse. I mean, this dates back more than a century, but Judith Herman at Harvard did beautiful writing about how society denies the reality of intra-familial abuse, especially sexual abuse. And you could link it back to Freud, who invented a very complicated theory for denying it. So, there's a very deep resistance to believing it.

  • 12:36:36

    MEIERAnd I guess a third layer to this, I think, is that the courts and society feel a strong need to see more fathering in families. And they want to reward fathers who come to court and fight for custody and access to their kids. And they want to believe that's sincere and true. And they prefer to demonize the mother who says, no he's not safe and he's lying, than to demonize a father who's in there fighting for custody.

  • 12:37:02

    NNAMDIJennifer, I'd like to hear from you, as well, because you've also witnessed many of these cases unfold. But I'd like to add, just to complicate your life a little more, this Tweet we got from Tim: from the father's side of this there's a serious problem of false accusations made by women, because they seem to think it will help them in court. This adds to the father's claim of alienation while also damaging the claims of other women with real issues to report. The dilemma being, how does Tim make a distinction between knowing that there are false accusations by women and knowing that there are other women with real issues to report?

  • 12:37:37

    REESMANSo, Tim, I would like to say Joan's research directly says that there's nothing to be gained by false reports. And, as a psychologist, that's something we see all the time. I can't tell you how many times any report of abuse -- to someone who's a mandated reporter, you can see it in people's eyes when children are sharing information, when parents are sharing information with me. It is done really under duress. Nobody wants to have to tell someone else these deep, dark fears that their child is being harmed. And when they do, it's because they're seriously concerned for their safety.

  • 12:38:14

    REESMANSo, I think we have to start from a point of understanding that reports of abuse are something that need to be taken seriously, and that there is a huge risk to children, particularly to those that are most vulnerable. What we haven't talked about yet -- we've mentioned that children who are very young -- investigations can be extremely challenging for a system to do, particularly also for children with disabilities. And those are the two groups of children that are at highest risk of abuse, at baseline.

  • 12:38:43

    REESMANSo, we need to recognize that these are some of our most vulnerable that require careful attention to ensuring that we're doing investigations before making decisions that affect their safety. And, certainly, false allegations will not be tolerated and will be found out in a thorough investigation.

  • 12:39:00

    NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from Taylor Strong, who says: we said child abuse but in some cases we're speaking of documented rape. Why is it so difficult to convince a court that a child is being abused?

  • 12:39:11

    REESMANI think because we don't ever want to think and imagine that these horrible things happen to children, as a whole. Right? When children tell us that horrible things have happened to them, we naturally don't want this to be the case. We want the idea of children growing up with loving, supportive parents and families and being able to thrive. And that should be the case. That should be what all children are experiencing.

  • 12:39:36

    REESMANBut when it's not, and you see then this complicated custody conflict over top of it, and we're asking a court to make sense of all of it, we've unfortunately shifted in our priorities where we're not appropriately prioritizing child safety, which is, I think, the point that this research so points out, that we need to start from a point of prioritizing safety.

  • 12:39:58

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on, quote-unquote, "parental alienation" and how it affects cases of child custody. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:40:25

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about child custody battles in family court and the notion of parental alienation with Joan Meier. She's a professor at the George Washington University Law School who conducted an extensive study on this issue. Dominique Maria Bonessi is a reporter in the WAMU newsroom who's been reporting on this. Jennifer Reesman is a pediatric neuropsychologist. And we'll soon be talking with Nicholas Bala, a law professor at Queens University in Kingston.

  • 12:40:51

    NNAMDIBut, before, I was going to ask you, Joan, about cases where children were placed in the case of an abusive parent and ended up being badly hurt or even killed. But I think this call we're getting from Seattle, Washington might speak to that. The caller identifies herself as Hara, or Hera, McCloud. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:10

    HARAHi. Yes, I would first like to commend Joan Meier for her unprecedented (word?) in her space, and I'm really hopeful that she continues to shed light on these issues through her data-driven reporting. In brief, my son was two weeks old when I left an abusive ex. I fought to restrict access from him through visitation, like supervised visitation. And my evidence included testimony from a police officer who told the court that my son's father was the sole suspect in two ongoing murder investigations, as well as multiple founded domestic violence charges.

  • 12:41:45

    HARAAnd because I would not stop telling the courts that my son was in danger, I was accused of alienating his father. And seven years ago yesterday, my son was suffocated by his father. So, what I'm really curious about is, for those who support the false science of parental alienation, I would like to see the data. Because we see the data from Joan Meier's research. I'm not seeing data on the other side. And it only further contributes to the fact that it's fake.

  • 12:42:17

    NNAMDISo, when you say you would like to see data from the other side, you want to see data from the other side that justifies that many of the allegations of abuse being made by women are false?

  • 12:42:27

    HARAYeah. I wants to see data that justifies the use of parental alienation in courts, because when it comes down to it, I think that what it does is it's a term that's thrown out there so that you can devaluate the concerns of parents. Because at the end of the day when I came into court and I said that my son was in danger, I had evidence. And it would be insane to think that I would be -- that I should be supporting an unsupervised relationship between my son and a suspected serial killer.

  • 12:43:01

    HARASo, it's very confusing, because it's one of those things where women come into court, and if we're honest and we talk about the extreme danger that we believe our children are in, we're then accused of alienating. And you see that in Joan's research. It's, like, you know, you almost worry that if you tell the truth, you're going to be harmed for it, because I was actually told that by my attorneys. They said, be careful. Don't ask for a protective order, because the judge is just going to think you're making it up. I mean, that's insanity.

  • 12:43:32

    NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for sharing your story with us. Dominique, Maryland is one of the first states attempting to use empirical data to change family law when it comes to these custody cases. What are they trying to do?

  • 12:43:43

    BONESSIRight. So, State Senator Susan Lee, a Democrat from Montgomery County, received a lot of concerns from constituents about child custody in the courts and incidents of domestic violence in the home. And she did a bit of research and has gathered a bunch of lawmakers and experts like Joan and others who can really speak to this issue. And this commission is creating recommendations for the state to then create legislation to change family laws.

  • 12:44:10

    BONESSIAnd then there's also other parts around the country that are working on this, as well, not just Maryland. We've seen last year the state legislator in Louisiana approve a new amendment to a law that said, if any sexual abuse was found through clear and convincing evidence, there is a no-contact order. So, if sexual abuse by one parent was found in clear and convincing evidence to a very high bar, there would be a no-contact order. So, that's a really big change to laws.

  • 12:44:41

    BONESSIAnd then they also saw, this year, the Pennsylvania legislature is looking at a measure to better protect children from families -- sorry, children from parents with documented histories of abusive behavior. And then, last year, at the federal level, we did see some lawmakers attempting to get passed in the House of Representative, what they did unanimously pass that would resolve allegations of abuse or domestic violence prior to determining custody. And that's the big thing, to resolve the abuse or the violence prior to determining custody. And, yeah, so I think Joan also was talking about, with me earlier, that these are things that they should already be doing. But it takes law to actually do that.

  • 12:45:29

    NNAMDII'd like to bring into the conversation Nicholas Bala. He is a law professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, an expert on family law who researches issues related to parental alienation. Nicholas Bala, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:45:42

    NICHOLAS BALAThank you for having me. It's an interesting, important discussion.

  • 12:45:46

    NNAMDII'm wondering, what questions did Joan Meier's study raise for you?

  • 12:45:50

    BALAWell, I think Joan is to be congratulated for having done a very important and original study. On the other hand, like a lot of research, it has -- or like all social science research, it has methodological limitations. And I understand that there will be a response from some American researchers going into it in more detail, but just a couple of observations.

  • 12:46:16

    BALAOne is -- and I think some of your callers have pointed this out -- in many of the more serious cases where there's stronger evidence, they don't get to family court or they don't get into reported judgment. If there's -- and, you know, your caller from Seattle, by the way, that's a horrific case, so I don't want to say it always comes out. But if a woman or a man phones the police that I'm a victim of domestic abuse, and they come and they charge that person and they're convicted in criminal court, there's not likely to be a family trial.

  • 12:46:49

    BALAAnd, of course, there are many, many cases that are resolved in the criminal courts. Many are resolved through the child protection process. Neither of those processes is perfect and there are people that get through. There are also victims who don't contact the police or Child Protection for various reasons. Clearly more needs to be done to improve those two processes.

  • 12:47:10

    BALABut the sample that Joan looked at, I think, largely excludes cases where there's really strong evidence. So, she's dealing with a set of cases where there is almost always significant conflict about what, in fact, happened. And I think, as a number of people pointed out, in some of these cases it's very difficult to know. We do have research that indicates, for understandable reasons, there's a relatively high rate of -- I say relatively high rate of unfounded allegations of child sexual abuse in the context of parental separation.

  • 12:47:51

    BALAThat doesn't mean that all allegations are false or most of them are false, but it does mean it was pointed out, you know, if you have a very young child and no physical evidence -- and, of course, in some cases, there's lots of physical evidence. There's DNA evidence, there's injuries, a pediatrician's been involved.

  • 12:48:07

    BALABut in other cases it may be the child comes home from a visit with dad, a young girl, three-year-old girl. She has a red vagina. Mom may have had very bad experiences with dad. Dad may well have raped mom. And mom says to the child, well, what happened? Did dad touch down there, and they get into a discussion. And dad may well have touched the daughter, changing her diaper or cleaning her, whatever. And it becomes distorted and misunderstood. So, trying to figure out what actually happened in some of these cases...

  • 12:48:37

    NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left, but you said in the Washington Post story, you called family courts an adversarial justice system. Can you briefly elaborate on that?

  • 12:48:47

    BALASo, I think, you know, the points that are being made about resources are absolutely critical. The party with more resources in the family court process, which is often the man, is going to be in a better position to litigate, to get expert evidence. And so the lack of the inequality of resources that Joan and others have pointed out, I think, is extremely important and something to be addressed, the resource to hire lawyers, the resource to hire experts.

  • 12:49:15

    BALAThe lack of resource is a critical thing. I think it was mentioned, judicial education. You know, you have a judiciary in the United States that's largely elected and may change from election to election. I think more education and screening of judges is absolutely critically important.

  • 12:49:30

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to interrupt, because you mentioned judges, and I'm running out of time very quickly. Andrew Tweets to us: judges too often are neither educated nor qualified to deal with family issues. In the absence of experts who can fairly assess the needs and interests of children, one parent becomes a villain. Too often, money and the lawyer's need to win the case determines outcomes. Joan Meier, I'd like you to comment on that, and also to respond to some of the things that Nicholas Bala said.

  • 12:49:54

    MEIERIf I may, I'm going to start with what Nick said because he said it in the Post, and I didn't get to respond there, (laugh) I think that's a nice theory, but there's absolutely no basis for the assumption that the study has only complicated unclear cases. We actually have cases in the study where there were criminal convictions. That's part of what we logged as corroboration. In fact, we logged that as crediting. So, some of the cases where we give judges credit for believing abuse were actually cases where there had been a criminal conviction. They're all in the study.

  • 12:50:24

    MEIERSecondly, criminal convictions take forever, so the idea that you might somehow clean everything up when it's a strong case and not need a family court case makes no sense. People are in there fighting right now about the safety of the child. They can't wait for a criminal conviction to be completed. And, as we discussed earlier, it's very difficult to reach a criminal burden of proof with a lot of these young children's cases.

  • 12:50:45

    MEIERBut, finally, Child Welfare does not resolve family court cases. In fact, I know of cases where Child Welfare substantiated abuse by the father. And then the family court had an extended contested custody case and decided not to follow that.

  • 12:50:59

    NNAMDINevertheless, one of the things that Nicholas Bala pointed out, and I don't know what the data basis of this is, but he pointed out to a large number of false accusations. Does your...

  • 12:51:09

    MEIER(overlapping) Yeah, that surprises me, too, because it's Nick's earliest research that refutes that. Some of the early studies he was on, one of them found that two-thirds to three-quarters of the time, child sexual abuse allegations, even in the context of separation and divorce, are considered valid. So, the idea that there's a large number of false claims, I know of no empirical support for that.

  • 12:51:29

    NNAMDIDo you, Nick?

  • 12:51:30

    BALAMany of these allegations are true, but our research found, and not just our research, a number of studies have shown -- and we use the word false, it's not -- I'm not saying that people are deliberately lying, although that happens a little bit. I think much more often, there's a high level of mistrust, miscommunication, misunderstanding. Things that may have been accepted in a marriage, for example, like showering with opposite gender child may all of a sudden be considered abusive.

  • 12:51:54

    BALASo, I think they're particularly difficult cases to investigate. And I think, you know, the investigators, the judges, the experts have a very difficult role. And there's not going to be a sort of magic bullet, here. But I do want to come back and say that I think, you know, Joan's work is very important, but I think alienation also exists. It's an important concept. I think you had a number of callers who talked about being alienated, both men and women. And, you know, this is going to have to be a discussion that's going to go on...

  • 12:52:24

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Almost out of time. Jennifer, family court cases and the type of custody battles we've been talking about are, of course, standoffs between parents, but the children are very much in the middle of it, as well. Tell us about the emotional and psychological toll that these cases can take on kids. We only have a little less than two minutes left.

  • 12:52:41

    REESMANOf course. And also I just want to point out that when we think about kids and their relationship with their parents, when we use the term alienation or when we think about the quality of a relationship between a parent and their children, we don't tend to think about that when we have married parents. And we know that there are kids out there that have absolutely horrific and crummy relationships with their married parents. So, let me just put that right out there in response to Nick's comments about we know that alienation exists. We also know that it exists in intact married parents or separated parents, and that we can have parents disparage each other.

  • 12:53:18

    REESMANHowever, my biggest concern as a health care provider and as a psychologist is that we need to start from this point of valuing the safety of children. And we know that when children report concerns of abuse, that very often, it deserves investigation. And we, as a system, really need to make sure that we're prioritizing the safety of children and their families.

  • 12:53:38

    NNAMDIIn the 30 seconds or so we have left, Joan, you have said that your research provides parallels to the Me Too movement. What do you mean by that?

  • 12:53:46

    MEIERWhen people ask me how is this going on, the best explanation I've been able to come up with is, because Me Too has not yet permeated the courts. We used to not believe women who reported sexual abuse on the job. Now we're starting to take it seriously. We still don't believe women and children who report sexual abuse at home. Someday, I hope we will start taking that seriously.

  • 12:54:07

    NNAMDIJoan Meier is a professor at the George Washington University Law School. Jennifer Reesman is a pediatric neuropsychologist. Nicholas Bala is a law professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. And Dominique Maria Bonessi is a reporter in the WAMU newsroom. Thank you all for joining us. This segment about parental alienation was produced by Julie Depenbrock, and our update on the water contamination at St. Elizabeth Hospital was produced by Maura Currie.

  • 12:54:34

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, the Marine Corps Marathon will shut down the streets of D.C. this Sunday. We'll have a preview of all the new things you can expect to see. Plus, in this week's installment of our Virginia Vote series, we'll take a look at the money being spent in this election. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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