This case involves a “best interests” hearing that stems from a motion of the father to modify the custody arrangement giving him sole legal and physical custody of his children. It had been previously established that the mother had alienated the children from their father, and as a result, the children do not wish to have a relationship with their father.
Parent alienation occurs when one parent purposefully manipulates the child into having negative feelings toward the other parent. As a result, the child develops sad, confused, and angry feelings toward the other parent, and does not want to spend time with that parent. In Matter of Eddie S. v. Sylvia S., the father argued that the mother manipulated the children to have negative feelings toward the father. Her motivation in doing this was to satisfy her mother—the maternal grandmother of the children, on whom the mother was financially dependent. Parental alienation is frowned upon by the court. When parental alienation is proven, the Family Court often takes steps to rectify the situation by making a change in the custody arrangement. However, because parental alienation is complex, a change in custody that allows the alienated parent to spend more time with the child is not always possible and is not always in the best interests of the child.
In this case the court found that it would not be in the best interests of the children to award the father sole legal and physical custody of the children even though parent alienation was found. The court listed multiple reasons for its conclusion. First, it noted that while the mother had taken actions to alienate the children from the father, the father failed to take affirmative steps early on that would have likely neutralized the mothers efforts to alienate the children. For example, even though he had joint custody, he made little effort to enforce his parenting rights and be a part of their lives. In fact, he was unaware that the children were being homeschooled. Even when the mother took actions to interfere with visitation, the father refused to seek a contempt action against her or do anything else to asset his rights as he did not want to get her in trouble.
In addition, the father has not taken steps to prepare the children to live with him, such as a plan of action to reverse the impact of alienation. The court concluded that while it is clear that the father desperately wants to have a relationship with his children, it is also clear that the children would suffer emotional trauma if they are removed from their mother’s care outweighs the long term effects of the children remaining in the care of their mother and not having contact with their father.
The court also took into consideration the wishes of the children who were 16 and 13. They both stated that they wanted to remain with their mother and that they did not want contact with their father. The court acknowledged that their stated wishes of not wanted to have contact with their father is derived from the actions of their mother. However, because of the totality of the situation, the relationship of the children with their grandmother, the father’s passive attitude toward attempting to reverse the impact of the alienation, the court concluded that it would be in the best interests of the children to remain with their mother.
This case demonstrates how it is important for parents to assert their rights in custody cases before it is too late. Here the court acknowledged that the mother intentionally alienated the children against their father and that the children were living in a “cult-like” environment. Regardless, they determined that because the father had basically allowed this to go on for so long, it was too late to remove them from their mother without causing them serious emotional trauma.