The Disputed Reality of Parental Alienation Syndrome

A citation of questionable scientific standards by the Supreme Court of India has caused this present post.


In a contentious child custody dispute in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, three teenage boys begged a Family Court Judge not to force them to continue visits to their father because, they said, he was physically abusive towards them. Rather than believe the boys, the Judge relied on the testimony of an expert witness retained by the father, a Columbia University Professor of clinical psychiatry, Richard A. Gardner. Gardner insisted the boys were brainwashed by their mother and recommended something he called ‘threat therapy’. Essentially, the Grieco boys were told they should be respectful and obedient on visits to their father and, if they were not, their mother would go to jail. Shortly afterwards, 16-year-old Nathan Grieco, the eldest of the brothers, hanged himself in his bedroom, leaving behind a diary in which he wrote that life had become an ‘endless torment’. This ‘threat therapy’ was part of a much broader theory of Gardner’s, known in Family Courts across the United States as Parental Alienation Syndrome (‘PAS’). The syndrome is a state in which a child alienates himself from one of his parents as a result of a smear campaign conducted against him/her by the other parent, by inventing false stories and brainwashing the child. The theory holds that any mother who accuses her spouse of abusing the children is lying more or less by definition. The concept of ‘parental alienation’ has entered case law and swayed thousands of disputes. Yet it has no scientific basis whatsoever. The stream of books that Gardner produced on the subject from the late 1980s were all self-published, without the usual peer review process. His method for determining the reliability of sex abuse allegations was denounced by one noted domestic violence expert, Jon Conte of the University of Washington, as “probably the most unscientific piece of garbage I’ve seen in the field in all my time.” “This is junk science”, Paul Fink, past President of the American Psychiatric Association (‘APA’), once said, “Dr. Gardner should be a rather pathetic footnote or an example of poor scientific standards.

All generally recognized psychiatric syndromes are compiled in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (‘DSM’). Inclusion in the DSM occurs after scientific testing has proven the existence of the syndrome and the reliability and replicability of its diagnostic criteria. PAS has not yet been included in the DSM. Other conditions have taken years before being included. Gille de La Tourette first described his syndrome in 1885. It was not until 1980, 95 years later, that Tourette Syndrome entered the DSM.


My Lord, What is Scientific Knowledge?

Neither Bacon, Popper nor Kunh, it is generally believed, gave a prefect description of what science is and how it works, but the US Supreme Court in Daubert, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) identified four non-definitive factors that were thought to be illustrative of characteristics of scientific knowledge: testability or falsifiability, peer review, a known or potential error rate and general acceptance within the scientific community.”

Hon’ble Justice K.S.P. Radhakrishnan, Dharam Deo v. State of U.P., (2014) 5 SCC 509.


Recently, the SC in Vivek Singh v. Romani Singh, [Civil Appeal No. 3962 of 2016] footnoted:

The Parental Alienation Syndrome was originally described by Dr. Richard Gardner in “Recent Developments in Child Custody Litigation”, The Academy Forum Vol. 29 No. 2: The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 1985.

A Court that has been insisting on ‘science’ in adjudication, relied on a theory that is elaborately disputed, and in a rare application of the concept, considered the father-appellant to be the alienating parent:

The intensity of negative feeling of the appellant towards the respondent would have obvious effect on the psyche of Saesha, who has remained in the company of her father, to the exclusion of her mother. The possibility of appellant’s effort to get the child to give up her own positive perceptions of the other parent, i.e., the mother and change her to agree with the appellant’s view point cannot be ruled out thereby diminishing the affection of Saesha towards her mother. Obviously, the appellant father, during all this period, would not have said anything about the positive traits of the respondent.”


By July 19, 2005, twenty years after Gardner first described it, PAS was referenced in sixty-four precedent-bearing cases. Only two of these decisions, both originating in Criminal Courts in New York State, set precedent on the issue of PAS’s evidentiary admissibility; both held PAS inadmissible. PAS’s twenty-year run in American courts is an embarrassing chapter in the history of evidentiary law.

PAS remains merely an ipse dixit.

Dr. Richard Gardner died a gory, bloody and violent death – from his own hand, at age 72. Gardner took an overdose of prescription medication while stabbing himself several times in the neck and chest. He plunged a butcher knife deep into his heart.