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 eyes of the court. This is what 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 to far measures to harm or deprive their children from 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 which is why it is 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 type of behavior and refuse to risk the other parent failing to return their children to them. As a result, they themselves will withhold their children and engage in the very same behavior they are attempting 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 what 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 must do so.
Even if there is such an order in place requiring a parent to pay child support the primary parent cannot withhold possession and access to the other parent. Vice versa if a parent is required to pay child support but is being refused possession and access of a child, it does not justify a failure to pay child support. As a matter of fact, the Texas Family Code Section 105.006 requires every parenting order to include that language. Therefore, withholding a child from the other parent should altogether be avoided, because it can have some 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 parents’ absence in their lives. This manipulation may be an attempt 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 rather it just describes a pattern of behaviors a parent may result to during a family law proceeding. If there are no underlying disorders to explain the behavior of a parent, 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 taken into consideration 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 a distrust between the parent and child. It can create 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 currently in place, the parent has the option to file an 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 is to ensure 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 involved may be 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 that represents the children only not the parents and is court appointed to make recommendations about what will be in the best interest of the child. Meetings occur only between the child and the amicus so 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 important 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 important to always remember that if children are involved their best interests are always 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 great legal advice on what route you should be taking in these instances.