Two months ago, a Toronto judge stripped a mother of custody of her three daughters after a decade-long campaign to keep the kids from their father. She was ordered to pick up the tab for a U.S. program aimed at helping the girls, ages 9 to 14, reconnect with their dad.
This week, an 18-year-old from Mississauga asked to be awarded custody of his two younger brothers caught up in a decade of family "warfare." He also asked that parental alienation experts, such as psychologists Randy Rand and Richard Warshak, be forbidden from further contact with the boys. He called programs, such as their controversial Family Workshop for Alienated Children, "voodoo science."
But there's so much concern about the snail's pace of the overloaded family court system and the lack of treatment facilities in Canada that Ludmer has been working with a group of professionals on plans for Toronto's first Family Reunification Clinic. They hope to have the facility open within a year, offering treatment based on the work of Rand and Warshak.
"The most important part (of undoing alienation) is the after care," says Ludmer, who's handled more than 50 parental alienation cases in the last four years. "We don't want to be bundling kids on a plane and sending them off to the United States. This will make it easier and less disruptive to get the whole family the help they need."
The planned centre is sure to set off a storm of controversy among those who consider Warshak and Rand's work cult-like "deprogramming" and question whether Parental Alienation Syndrome isn't just an excuse for bad, or even abusive, parents.
"I think the therapy often does way more harm than any so-called parental alienation could do. It demoralizes kids, it makes them feel like they're not being listened to and involved. It demeans them," says Joyanna Silberg of the U.S.-based Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, a group of health professionals.
"One of the reasons this is so controversial is because it's become an industry – a money-making industry – where purveyors of these so-called therapies and evaluation procedures are using things that the scientific community doesn't automatically accept, but know that judges are accepting in court to affect children's lives in an extreme way."
Veteran family court judge Harvey Brownstone sums up the growing debate best: "The jury is still out on the whole issue of parental alienation. When a child adamantly refuses to see a parent, it is not easy to know why. It could be they're bored, or that they don't like the parent's new partner. The situation is usually layered and complex."
If there is a growing certainty about one thing, it's that these cases need to be dealt with quickly.
"Time is the enemy of the alienated parent," says Baker, whose book Breaking the Ties that Bind, chronicles the difficult lives of 40 adults who were alienated as children. Since the books, she's met hundreds of others, including one who went as far as plastic surgery to wipe out the shame of looking like his father. "These cases should be fast-tracked because alienating parents exploit the ability for the courts to delay things to their benefit. The more time they have with the kid, the more time that kid is going to resist reconciliation."
Veteran family law lawyer Jeffery Wilson – who was involved in Ontario's first court case around alienation in 1981 and is representing the Mississauga teen fighting for his brothers – believes it's time for more drastic measures. It's been estimated that some 60 per cent of litigants in "high-conflict" divorces suffer from personality disorders that can turn a discussion of "Who gets the kids for Christmas?" into a months-long power struggle marked by what Ludmer calls "bad messaging and bad-mouthing."
Wilson is calling for a government-funded "High-Conflict Response Team" that could step in before these cases hit the courts. They would have the power to sort out complex disputes, impose binding judgments and get the kids – and their parents – counselling and treatment.
Family Solutions is a North York-based team of well-respected psychologists and social workers who started meeting five years ago to compare notes on difficult cases. Now they offer everything from mediation to intensive counselling in high-conflict divorces. They've seen a significant growth in parental alienation and have had some success with clients who've worked with Rand and Warshak.
"There's a lot of work we still need to do," acknowledges Linda Chodos, a social worker with Family Solutions. "We don't yet have a lot of evidence-based research that shows what kind of intervention works best."
Rand and Warshak are based in California and Texas respectively and, in the first phase of their workshop, meet the children and the alienated parent for "educational" sessions that can include simple outings where they start to get reacquainted. (Rand apparently travelled to meet the siblings of the 18-year-old in a Montreal hotel room, but their mother, who claims to have been alienated by the father, gave up a day later when they refused to participate in the four-day session.)
"It's to give the child a break – a chance to catch his or her breath and to give them just a few days not to be torn between the two parents," says Ted Horowitz, a veteran social worker with Family Solutions.
The alienator is brought in as part of the second part of the program, all of which is aimed at making them aware of the damage they are doing and the need to form a new partnership around parenting.
"There is no deprogramming and never has been," says Jacqueline Vanbetlehem, a mental health therapist with Family Solutions. "You have to really look at the circumstances of the family before you even recommend such a program. Sometimes the court intervention is a relief to these children because they don't have to choose (between parents) anymore."
Warshak told the Ontario Bar Association's annual meeting last month that 17 out of 21 children who have completed the "expensive" program have forged good relationships with the other parent that continue more than two years later. The results are currently undergoing peer review.
"One of the misperceptions around this is that it's meant to shift allegiances from one parent to the other," says Horowitz. "The idea is to balance the family – to pull them together. Both parents need to be part of the treatment, and the children need to see their parents working together."