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Parental Alienation--Child Abuse?

         Perhaps ironically, tabloids and magazines have been talking and speculating about the private life of Gossip Girl actress Kelly Rutherford and her lengthy custody battle. To make a long story short, the actress divorced her husband, who was then deported. Unfortunately for Rutherford, the court appointed her ex-husband to be the parent to determine the children’s residence, effectively forcing the children out of the country. See Bonnie Fuller, Kelly Rutherford’s Custody Battle Mistake—Top Attorney Speaks, HollywoodLife.com, Sept. 18, 2012, available at http://hollywoodlife.com/2012/09/18/kelly-rutherford-custody-battle-kids-lost-why-lose-children/. Through recent court battles, Rutherford has tried to become the parent with the right to determine her children’s residence to bring her US citizen children back to the US. See Michele Corriston, How Kelly Rutherford is Handling her Custody Setback, People, June 3, 2015, available at http://www.people.com/article/kelly-rutherford-custody-battle-kids-ex-husband-daniel-giersch.

            It’s been speculated that Rutherford attempted to alienate her children from their father, and that is why the court made their father the children’s residential parent. See Fuller.

Parental alienation may occur in a divorce when one parent “undermine[s] and interfere[s] with the child’s relationship” with the other parent. Edward Kruk, Ph. D., The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children, Psychology Today, April 25, 2013, available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201304/the-impact-parental-alienation-children. It can involve saying negative things about the targeted parent to the child, forbidding the child from discussing or keeping pictures of the targeted parent, or trying to keep the child from seeing or contacting the targeted parent. Id.

            Such alienating behaviors undermine Texas’s public policy to “encourage parents to share in the rights and duties of raising their child after the parents have separated and dissolved their marriage” and to “assure that children will have frequent and continuing contact with parents.” Tex. Fam. Code § 153.001(a). As such, a trial court may consider attempts at alienation when determining what is in the children’s best interest. For example, In re S.E.K., 294 S.W.3d 926 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2009), concerned a mother who was alienating her child from the child’s father. When the father filed suit to enforce his visitation rights and modify custody, he was made the child’s sole managing conservator, and the mother was only permitted supervised visitation with the child. The mother’s prior attempts to alienate her child from the child’s father showed that she was not acting in the child’s best interest, and therefore “allowing Mother unsupervised access to [the child] would not be in the child’s best interest and would cause serious immediate concern about the child’s welfare.” Also in Whitworth v. Whitworth, 222 S.W.3d 616 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2007), the child’s mother was jailed for contempt for her “continuous parental alienation against father through repeated visitation/access denials,” and the child was placed with the paternal grandmother.

            “Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents.” See Kruk. Indeed, Kruk believes a parent’s attempt to sabotage their child’s relationship with the other parent is a form of abuse that could leave the child with low self-esteem, trust issues, or depression. Id. While Texas courts may not have explicitly recognized it as a form of abuse itself, they do tend to recognize parental alienation as a sign that the alienated parent is not acting in the child’s best interest.

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