Divorce and custody lawsuits bring out the worst in parents. These stressful times can cause parents to do unthinkable things to make the other parent look better than the other in the court's eyes. This is known as the malicious parent syndrome, which is not a mental disorder but rather is used to describe the type of behavior by parents undergoing a family lawsuit.
In malicious parent syndrome, one parent attempts to punish the other parent and can even go too far to harm or deprive their children of the other parent by placing the other parent in a bad light. This syndrome is most known as "malicious mother syndrome" but can be committed by both mothers and fathers, also generally termed "malicious parent syndrome." Malicious parent syndrome can also be termed as parental alienation as they are very similar and sometimes used interchangeably.
Malicious Parent Syndrome Factors
A parent acts intentionally towards another parent in malicious parent syndrome, which can be defined by employing four main criteria:
- The parent will alienate the child from the other parent, leaving the other parent to resort to court intervention
- The parent will deny visitation and communication with the other parent
- The parent lies to the children about it and might even violate laws
- The parent has no other mental disorder to explain their actions
Beginning with the first criterion, one parent may withhold the children to punish the other parent. Most parents may fear the other party will engage in this behavior and refuse to risk the other parent failing to return their children to them. As a result, they will withhold their children and engage in the same behavior they attempt to avoid. Often this will lead to court intervention when an order already in place has been violated or when a parent wants to move to have some orders regarding conservatorship in place. This cause of action is known as a "Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship" (aka a SAPCR).
Next, a parent engaging in malicious parent syndrome may deny the other parent visitation and communication with their children. Disallowing parental visitation may come from many underlying reasons. For example, some parents will withhold visitation contingent on the other parent paying child support. However, without a court order ordering another parent to pay child support, there is no requirement that a parent does so.
Even if such an order required a parent to pay child support, the primary parent could not withhold possession and access to the other parent. Vice versa, if a parent is required to pay child support but is being refused residency and entry of a child, it does not justify a failure to pay child support. The Texas Family Code Section 105.006 requires every parenting order to include that language. Therefore, withholding a child from the other parent should be avoided because it can have legal consequences, which will be explained later.
Further, denying communication and visitation can lead a parent to begin lying to their children when questioned about their other parent's absence in their lives. This manipulation may be apt to sway their children's preference about who they will want to remain with and can have some weight on the Judge's discretion if a child is over 12 years old. It can also be an attempt to make that parent appear in a light most favorable to the Judge.
Lastly, as explained above, malicious parent syndrome has not been officially established as a mental disorder; instead, it describes a pattern of behaviors a parent may result in during a family law proceeding. If there are no underlying disorders to explain a parent's behavior, it most often will be labeled as malicious parent syndrome.
Legal Consequences of Malicious Parental Syndrome
There are some legal effects malicious parent syndrome can have on your family law case. Actions constituting alienation will be considered by a Judge when deciding what parent will obtain conservatorship of the children. In some instances, actions resulting in malicious parenting syndrome can lead to a tort. A tort is another type of civil liability that the parent can be sued on if they engage in a wrongful act or infringe on any rights of the other parent.
Consequences Regarding Your Children
The effects of malicious parenting can also take a toll emotionally on the parent-child relationship creating distrust between the parent and child. It can make even more of a strain on the relationship between the parents, and even worse, can lead one parent to detach themselves from their child to spare further conflict. This type of behavior is manipulative and can have long-lasting effects on a child's relationship with their parent.
How Can I Protect Myself?
There are ways that a parent can protect themselves from this type of alienation. For example, if there are orders already in place, the parent can file enforcement against the other parent to force the parent to abide by the court order. This suit will most times seek damages for attorney's fees and any out-of-pocket expenses incurred because of the alienating behavior of the other parent. This ensures that the parent causing the malicious parenting will incur the damages rather than the innocent parent.
Another form of preventing parental alienation is to begin to get experts involved in the case as soon as possible. Some examples of experts you may want to be involved in are maybe psychologists. These psychologists are trained in spotting and dealing with alienation. There are also amicus attorneys that can be used to represent the child. An amicus is an attorney representing the children only, not the parents, and is court-appointed to make recommendations about what will be in the child's best interest. Meetings occur only between the child and the amicus so that parents will have no outside influence on a child and their feelings.
In sum, if you believe you are experiencing malicious parent syndrome, it is essential to act as soon as possible. If you are not experiencing it, it is best to avoid it altogether. Although a family law proceeding can take its toll on the mental health of the parties, it is essential always to remember that if children are involved, their best interests are consistently above the interests of the parties.
If you believe you have been experiencing this first hand, please call our office to set up a FREE 30-minute consultation to speak with an expert. Our experts will give excellent legal advice on what route you should be taking in these instances.