Ruling debunks custody diagnosis
By Tony Koch
7 April 2008
Child custody determinations in scores of
Family Court decisions could be challenged following a ruling
debunking parental alienation syndrome, a controversial
diagnosis of the effects on a child when one parent denigrates
The Psychologists Board of Queensland last month disciplined
prominent Brisbane clinical psychologist William Wrigley, saying
he had acted unprofessionally in giving evidence about parental
alienation syndrome to the court.
An investigation found that Dr Wrigley's evidence three years
ago, which had led to a mother losing custody of her two
children, constituted "professional conduct that demonstrates
incompetence or a lack of adequate knowledge, skill, judgment or
The Australian understands that Dr Wrigley has identified the
syndrome as a factor in other cases to the Family Court. So have
psychologists and psychiatrists throughout Australia.
The syndrome was diagnosed in 1985 by US clinical psychiatrist
Richard Gardner, an advocate of a father's right to custody,
even in cases where he had been accused of abuse. He argued that
some parents who criticise other parents or step-parents in
front of children were guilty of psychological abuse. Dr
Gardner's theories remain highly controversial among
psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists, who claim they are
simplistic or erroneous.
The complaint was lodged by the Brisbane mother who lost custody
of her two children in 2005 when Family Court judge Neil Buckley
determined, acknowledging the evidence of Dr Wrigley, that she
had affected the children with the syndrome.
Justice Buckley said Dr Wrigley's reports provided a
"comprehensive and balanced assessment" of all relevant issues.
"It has to be said that in terms of objectivity,
professionalism, fairness and balance, his reports are in stark
contrast to those provided by (other professionals)," he
The board advised Dr Wrigley on March 3 of its unanimous
decision that he had "acted in a way that constituted
unsatisfactory conduct" for "referring to an unrecognised
syndrome in his reports".
"It was inappropriate for the registrant (Dr Wrigley) to either
diagnose the children or state there was a likelihood the
children could develop parental alienation syndrome, as it is
not a recognised syndrome," it said.
"To diagnose a patient as suffering from or demonstrating a
potential to develop an unrecognised syndrome is contrary to the
code of ethics."
However, the board advised that details of the disciplinary
action not be recorded on the public register because it was
"not within the public interest".
The board told The Australian it was precluded by law from
commenting on the disciplinary action taken against Dr Wrigley.
Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant last year posted on the
family law court website a "fact sheet" about the syndrome,
which said the malady was used in evidence, but warned that it
was not accepted as "a psychiatric disease".
Chief Justice Bryant's notice cited several cases "where PAS has
been rejected or not accepted as a concept".
The cited cases, with names excluded, included the controversial
matter for which Dr Wrigley was disciplined by the psychologists