The Australian

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 other.

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 care".

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 said.

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 board.