By: Felipe Mavromatis, Esquire

Nothing stirs up more emotion in a parent than a custody battle. Frequently in contested divorce and paternity cases, a parent may seek to gain the upper hand in the case by seeking to turn the child against the other parent. Younger children may not understand what is going on during a divorce and older children can become resentful. Whether intentional or not, when a parent actively seeks to damage the relationship a child has with the other parent this is generally referred to as parental alienation.

Common Parental Alienation Behavior

While relationships with children are unique to every parent, there are certain patterns of behavior commonly found in parental alienation cases. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you may be a victim of parental alienation if:

  • The other parent is actively blocking your access or contact with your child because seeing or being with you is “unsettling” to the child and the child needs time to “adjust”;
  • Unfounded physical and/or sexual abuse allegations are being made against you; in Florida, corporal punishment (“spanking”) is not automatically considered child abuse;
  • The other parent is making derogatory or defamatory statements about you in front of your child;
  • The other parent blames you for their personal misfortunes or unhappiness in front of your child;
  • The other parent uses your child as a messenger or a spy to get detailed information about your personal life;
  • You receive incorrect information from the other parent about your child’s activities to prevent you from participating and engaging with your child in those activities;
  • The other parent may tell your child to call him or when when the child is with you if the child is scared or frightened and promises to pick up the child if they want to “go home”;
  • The other parent emphasizes to your child every negative thing ever done by you, often embellishing the truth to make it seem worse; or
  • The other parent has made your child feel guilty about interacting with you.

Combating Parental Alienation

The hardest part of a custody battle is when your child turns against you. However, the surest way to combat parental alienation is to never give up on your child and continue to actively be engaged in your child’s life and activities. In Florida, the standard used by the courts in determining a time-sharing schedule is to do what is in the “best interest of the child.” Therefore, a significant factor the court will look at is which parent will foster a positive relationship with the other parent. If you are in a custody dispute, you should be taking these affirmative steps to combat parental alienation and in preparing for court:

  • Be a good parent and take the initiative in learning about your child’s school and health related matters. Don’t rely on the other parent to volunteer information to you. Call the providers directly.
  • Keep meticulous records and a journal of interactions with the other parent and with your child’s providers. Keep receipts on things you purchase for your child. Write down specific examples and days when you believe you are being alienated.
  • Communicate frequently and regularly with the other parent, even if that communication is not reciprocated back. Don’t let their lack of communication back to you deter you from your continued contact. Remember, keep records. A lack of communication on your end will only worsen the alienating behavior.
  • Keep your communications with the other parent polite and civil. No name calling.
  • Do not alienate the other parent. Doing so will only deepen the divide in your relationship with your child as your child will grow to resent you.
  • Avoid directing your anger at your child.
  • Seek legal recourse. If the other parent denies you access to your child or makes it difficult for you to contact them, do not stop trying to be present in your child’s life.

Modification of Child Custody or Child Time Sharing Agreements

It is all too common in post-divorce cases, for parental alienation to continue or worsen. Changing an existing Parenting Plan or time-sharing arrangement due to parental alienation is difficult, but not impossible. The parent seeking a modification of custody or visitation rights has the burden to prove facts warranting a modification and demonstrating that the change is in the child’s best interest. As stated in Florida Statute § 61.13(2)(c) and (3), modification requires a showing of a “substantial, material, and unanticipated change of circumstances.”

The seminal case on modification and parental alienation is Wade v. Hirschman, 903 So.2d 928 (Fla. Sup. 2005). In that case, the Florida Supreme Court found that (a) there was evidence of parental alienation as the Mother made a concerted effort to push the child away from the Father; (b) the Mother failed to comply with the agreed upon time sharing schedule; (c) the Mother regularly made unilateral changes and major life decisions for the child without consulting the Father; (d) and that her actions relative to visitation supported a substantial change in circumstances that warranted modification of the custody order. The trial court’s application of the enumerated factors set forth in § 61.13(3)(a) through (j) were then applied to determine that the prior arrangement was no longer in the best interests of the child and the Father was eventually awarded custody of the child.

There is a high hurdle that must be overcome when seeking to modify an existing time-sharing arrangement due to parental alienation. If you are involved in a custody, visitation, or time-sharing dispute, we are here for you.