A ruling by a Canadian family law judge brings renewed focus to the hotly debated issue of parental alienation, a term coined as a syndrome by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner, MD, that describes behaviors by one parent that can lead a child to express hatred and resistance toward the other parent.

In January, Ontario Superior Court Justice Faye McWatt awarded sole custody of three children, ages 9, 11 and 14, to their father, citing evidence that the mother had waged a "consistent and overwhelming campaign" to alienate the girls from their father. The judge also said the mother's ongoing violation of court-mandated visitation and phone calls from the father led to her decision.

The judge also ordered that the children attend a four-day "Family Workshop for Alienated Children" based on a program developed by psychologists Randy Rand, EdD, and Richard Warshak, PhD, at the mother's expense.

Parental alienation remains a controversial conclusion among mental health professionals because little evidence of a diagnosable syndrome exists, and the disorder has not been defined as a psychiatric condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In addition, it is important for everyone involved in such cases to be certain there is a thorough and appropriate evaluation of the family with investigation of the history and the behavior of both parents, says Nancy Williams Olesen, PhD, a San Rafael, Calif., psychologist who has worked with divorcing families for more than 20 years.

"Sometimes there are indications of domestic violence or child abuse that are missed, and we have found that it is not uncommon for there to be both abuse or poor parenting of some kind by one parent and alienating behavior by the other parent, who may be trying to protect the children but is also doing other more pernicious things as well," Olesen says. "Careful investigation is essential, with attention to all aspects of the family, both parents and the children's adjustment, before any extreme action is ordered."

—A. Novotney