In this case, the Supreme Court considered whether a parent’s actions amounted to parental alienation such that a custody modification was warranted.
It has been well-established that generally it is in the best interests of the children for them to have positive relationships with both parents. Ideally, despite their romantic relationship ending, parents will work toward fostering a good co-parenting relationship and support each other in efforts to maintain good relationships with the children. This does not always happen.
Parental alienation occurs when one parent intentionally manipulates the child into having negative feelings toward the other parent. This is often accomplished by saying negative things to the child about the other parent or manipulating circumstances so the other parent looks bad in the child’s eyes. For example, the noncustodial parent may need to reschedule time with the child. Instead of simply working with the noncustodial parent to reschedule and supporting him or her in that effort, the manipulating custodial parent refuses to reschedule and tells the child that the noncustodial parent does not make visitation a priority. If the custodial parent continues to speak negatively about the noncustodial parent, the child may start to harbor negative feels toward the noncustodial parent and as a result refuse to see the noncustodial parent.
Courts loathe parent alienation and will take swift action to address it. If the court concludes that a parent has been working to alienate the child, then it may decide that it is in the best interests of the child to make a child custody modification.
In J.F. v. D.F., the parents divorced. The father was awarded physical custody of the three children and the mother was awarded liberal visitation. The relationship between the parents remained acrimonious, resulting in them having to appear in court frequently.
With respect to parenting, the mother petitioned the court for a custody modification, claiming that the father inhibited the development of the children by not allowing them to be involved in after school activities. She wanted increased visitation. In response, the father alleged that the mother interfered with his time with the children by scheduling activities during his time with them. The father then filed for sole custody, alleging parental alienation.
The court held a special type of hearing called a “Lincoln hearing” during which the three children, girls ages 7, 13, and 15, were interviewed without the parents being present. This allows children to feel more comfortable expressing parental preferences and reporting any difficulties.
After reviewing all of the evidence, including the testimony from the Lincoln hearing, the court made several “temporary” findings including:
· That the mother had badmouthed the father to professionals
· That the mother over-scheduled the children, limiting the father’s contact
· That the mother implied to the older daughter that the father was dangerous
· That the mother made it seem as if the father was unloving
· That the mother advocated for a change in residency for the children
· That the mother was inappropriately confiding in the children
· That the mother withheld medical information about the children from the father
· That the mother undermined the father’s authority
As a result of these findings, the court concluded that there was indeed parental alienation and as a result there was a sufficient change in circumstances to warrant a temporary modification of the original custody agreement. The court ordered that the parents would alternate weeks of physical custody and gave each parents authority to make decisions in certain areas. For example, the father was given authority to make decisions related to education and activities, while the mother was given authority to make decisions related medical, dental, and religion.
The issue came before the court again, but this time before a different judge as the original judge died. The court reviewed the evidence on the issue of parental alienation. First the court explained the concept of parental alienation, finding the standard to be that the favored parent must have directed the conduct without any legitimate reason; that the intention of the favored parent must have been to damage the other parent’s reputation in the eyes of the children; that the favored parent’s actions were the cause of the diminished interest of the children in spending time with the other parent; and that the result of the favored parent’s actions was that the children refused to spend time with the other parent.
Upon reviewing the evidence including the testimony of the children in the Lincoln hearing and expert witness testimony, the Supreme Court of Monroe County found that the actions of the mother did not arise to the level of parental alienation such that the custody order should be modified. The court directed the reinstatement of the original custody order.