Malicious Parent Syndrome in Court: Understanding and Defending

Malicious Parent Syndrome in Court: Understanding and Defending

Malicious Parent Syndrome refers to situations in which a divorced or divorcing parent deliberately aims to harm the other parent. In some extreme cases, the offending parent may even mistreat their children to tarnish the reputation of the other parent.

In Texas, we rarely (if ever) hear the terms malicious mother syndrome, malicious father syndrome or malicious parent syndrome in court. However, parental alienation is an issue frequently raised during child custody cases and custody modifications in Texas family courts. Is there a difference between malicious parent syndrome and parental alienation? And what impact could a parent’s malicious or alienating behavior have on the outcome of a child custody case?

As a child custody lawyer for nearly two decades, I can tell you with 100% confidence that people do strange things in the midst of a child custody case. Many parties find it difficult to deal with divorce and custody issues from an emotional perspective, which is totally natural.

However, that emotional pressure can lead some parents to take extreme measures (sometimes out of character) to make the other parent’s life miserable, which may include depriving the other parent of access to their children. In some cases, those actions may even be described as malicious, which brings us to the topic at hand: malicious parent syndrome.

What is malicious parent syndrome?

Self-described as a “consultant, professor, scientist, therapist,” Dr. Ira Turkat introduced the term “malicious mother syndrome” in a paper he published in the Journal of Family Violence in 1995. In his paper entitled Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome, Dr. Turkat provides a definition of the syndrome. (The terms malicious father syndrome and malicious parent syndrome came later.)

If you’re wondering if Turkat provided any specific signs of malicious mother syndrome, consider his 1995 definition, which is based on the following criteria (written verbatim):

  1. “Mother who unjustifiably punishes her divorcing or divorced husband by attempting to alienate children from the father, involving others in malicious actions against the father, or engaging in excessive litigation;
  2. “Mother who specifically attempts to deny her children regular visitation with and access to the father;
  3. “Pervasive pattern of malicious acts against the husband that include lying to the children and others and violating the law; and
  4. “Disorder that is not specifically due to another mental disorder, although a separate mental disorder may coexist.”

Now, I don’t know what case or instance inspired Turkat to focus solely on mothers, but I can tell you from experience that fathers have the same propensity for maliciousness that mothers do. Turkat and his colleagues who study malicious mother syndrome psychology eventually realized this as well. In fact, the renowned psychologist published numerous gender neutral papers on malicious parent syndrome (1999), parental alienation (2002) and related topics in more recent years.

What’s the difference between parental alienation and malicious parent syndrome in court?

As I noted in the introduction to this article, we frequently see cases involving parental alienation in Texas, but you’d be hard pressed to find attorneys in Texas referring to those disputes as malicious parent syndrome court cases. You’d also be hard pressed to find any malicious father syndrome or malicious mother syndrome case law in Texas.

Is there case law regarding parental alienation in Texas? Yes, however, more often than not those cases conclude with rulings finding there isn’t enough evidence to prove parental alienation exists. In other words, it tends to be difficult to prove parental alienation in court.

The way Texas family courts define parental alienation tends to be very similar to how Turkat defined malicious mother syndrome back in 1995. The first three criteria Turkat described—which some layman refer to as malicious mother syndrome signs or malicious mother syndrome symptoms—can also be used to describe different acts involving parental alienation in a Texas child custody case. (The fourth criterion is more likely to be discussed in the works of psychological scholars like Dr. Ira Turkat.)

What impact does parental alienation have on child custody cases in Texas?

Family court judges take parental alienation very seriously. In fact, if a party proves by way of clear and convincing evidence that parental alienation has occurred, the party responsible for the parental alienation could risk losing their custody and visitation rights. If the case is extreme enough, a judge may even award the other parent sole custody in Texas, among other remedies.

When malicious parent syndrome or parental alienation is shown by clear and convincing evidence, you may see the courts start by giving the offending parent a slap on the wrist, then restrict or deny access if the behavior persists. Texas courts may also order the parties to engage in co-parenting counseling or high-conflict counseling. Oftentimes, judges will also order both parties to go to parenting seminars that educate participants on how to A) recognize the problem, B) diagnose the problem and C) curb the behavior.

Keep in mind, clear and convincing evidence is critical in proving cases of parental alienation. Without it, you end up with hearsay and a he said-she said case that can’t be substantiated and is likely to go nowhere.

Some people also ask, “Can you sue for malicious parent syndrome or parental alienation?” If you can prove parental alienation, you can potentially use it as grounds to modify your current custody order.

It’s important to reiterate that courts in Texas will consider cases involving parental alienation, using those terms specifically. Malicious parent syndrome is not something you will hear discussed in Texas family courts. A Texas family law attorney can explain how to approach your specific case if evidence of parental alienation exists. It is very unlikely that a parent in the Texas family courts would ever get a finding of malicious parent syndrome. Rather, they may gain primary conservatorship or more possession based on evidence of parental alienation—though that evidence would be used as a factor and not as a means to an end.

We discussed the potential outcomes of parental alienation in Texas at length in this earlier post. Check it out to learn more or contact our office if you have questions about a case involving parental alienation in the Dallas / Fort Worth area.

What should I do if parental alienation is suspected?

Whether a parent believes malicious parent syndrome or parental alienation is occurring, our law firm highly recommends the parties engage in third party counseling at a very early stage, along with consulting a child custody lawyer experienced with parental alienation cases. When possible, counseling may help curb the behavior so things don’t escalate.

In addition, we generally recommend that parties vocalize concerns about the other parent’s behavior in a very fact driven way—whether it be by phone, text or email. Instead of calling the other parent a deadbeat or alcoholic or drug addict, it’s usually best to state the facts regarding what the child is saying and how the child is behaving.

At this point, it’s also best to refrain from stating any conclusions and to make a point to try to get the other party’s take instead. Parents guilty of malicious behavior or parental alienation typically respond in one of two ways. Either they won’t respond at all, or they will respond but in a way that is as malicious as the behavior they have been exhibiting.

Parents who are NOT trying to alienate or act maliciously tend to want to find out why their child is upset, making concerning statements, resistant to spending time with both parents or otherwise acting out. Those parents also tend to be more open to counseling and getting to the root of any issues the child is going through. They want to work with the other parent to seek a resolution.

Unfortunately, some parents don’t have the good fortune to share kids with someone who wants to work things out. They are either getting no response or getting an ear full via text messages, voicemails, emails or other messages about their concerns.

Here’s the deal. What malicious and alienating parents often don’t realize is that records of their hostile messages—or their refusal to communicate—could be the evidence the other parent needs to help prove parental alienation or malicious parent syndrome in court.

Contact a family law attorney if you need guidance about malicious parent syndrome or parental alienation

Sharing custody can be very challenging, especially if the other parent is intentionally trying to make you miserable or undermining your relationship with your child. If you live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and have questions about child custody in Texas, we can help address concerns you might have regarding parental alienation and other custody issues.

To schedule a confidential case review with a child custody lawyer at our firm, contact us. You can reach the Sisemore Law Firm by phone at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.

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