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Most scams, such as sub-prime mortgages and email scams, victimize adults. But custody scams victimize children. When government fails to protect children it throws open the doors to private contractors—lawyers and clinicians—who enrich themselves at the expense of children. (More about this child and the mother who tried to protect her appears below.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Discredited 'Parental Alienation Syndrome'

This op-ed by Anne Grant originally appeared in the Providence Journal on Tuesday, June 27, 2006.

TUCKED INTO a Rhode Island alleged-murder story in the May 9 Journal is a disquieting detail: The alleged killer's two children, ages 7 and 9, were in the apartment during the alleged fight to the death. The divorced father had left his children with a sitter to go out drinking; in the middle of the night he brought home the man who would die in his West Warwick kitchen.

The court computer spits out an 18-page rap sheet on Raymond C. Potter, charged with first-degree murder in the death of James Martin. It dates back to his first arrest, for domestic assault, seven years ago. The Journal reports that he also stands "accused of violating probation from a 2004 felony domestic-assault case, in which he was given a four-year suspended sentence."

So how did such a father get the children? It goes back 45 years, to an astounding proposition.

In an all-night final session on June 2, 1961, Rhode Island's sleep-deprived General Assembly unanimously approved dozens of laws, including one that set up Family Court. Gov. John Notte immediately named a chief judge and four associate justices. Pumped with patronage, the court ballooned. Today, its 13 judges and 8 magistrates impose sweeping decisions, with judicial immunity. Rhode Island is the only state that gives judges lifetime tenure without review.

Many of the lawmakers who established Family Court were lawyers -- directing a river of revenue to their profession. Did anyone really believe that adversarial litigation could help troubled families? This combative protocol has produced irresolvable wars of attrition, benefiting no one but profiteers. Lawyers, intent on causing collateral damage, bring in mental-health "experts" and send volleys whizzing back and forth.

In 1975, Rhode Island legislators approved "irreconcilable differences" as a ground for divorce. This eliminated any mention of "distasteful details of personal conduct." Though state law requires domestic violence to be considered when awarding child custody, the court routinely presumes no fault and awards joint custody. Even when there is a record of domestic violence, judges issue bizarre orders requiring the abuser and the abused to agree on important decisions in their children's lives.

Abusers with money or other forms of influence, skilled at terrorizing their families, easily gain the upper hand. Their children, suffering nightmares and stomach ailments, refuse to visit them. The abusive parent charges the protective parent with "brainwashing" the children, and wins sole custody.

The so-called Parental Alienation Syndrome, touted by many in the Rhode Island Family Court, has been discredited by the American Psychological Association and, recently, by both the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Children's Legal Rights Journal. For more than a decade, I have witnessed the devastating effects of this strategy in Rhode Island courtrooms and families.

Abusers often pride themselves on a no-nonsense parenting style that may appeal to judges. They typically show little concern for their children. Some pursue the children to torment their ex-partner or to avoid paying child support. Some force the children to deliver intelligence on the ex-partner, for protracted litigation against the protective parent. Threatened by a brutal, angry, demanding parent, the children frequently suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and worse.

A North Providence nine-year-old, diagnosed with PTSD, feared that his father would kidnap him and kill his mother, so he refused to attend school after his father returned from military duty in Iraq. On April 11, 2005, while the mother's lawyer was away on court assignment, the father's lawyer brought an emergency motion with a court-ordered guardian; the obliging judge ordered the father to enter the mother's home and "pick up" his truant son.

Mayhem ensued when the father appeared with two police officers. He literally picked up his screaming son and took him out over his shoulder, past the boy's weeping mother, grandmother, and therapist. The damage of this shock-and-awe approach is not easily undone.

Today, the boy must refer to his stepmother as "Bonus Mom," and he sees his real mother one hour a week, under intense court supervision.

In another case, last month, after a lengthy series touting the Family Court program that helps recovering addicts keep their babies, The Journal held an online interview with the chief judge. Outside, a teenager stood in pouring rain and handed out fliers with a photo of herself as a baby in her mother's arms.

Her father, a Johnston policeman charged twice by the Department of Human Services with failure to pay child support, had accused his former wife of drug addiction. Repeated tests proved him wrong, but the chief judge inexplicably gave him the baby.

"All my life," read the teen's flier, "my father told me and everyone else that I had a druggie for a mother. Three years ago I figured out he was lying. I finally left my father's violence and returned to my mother."

Since then her father has not let her talk to her half-sisters. Tormented with rage, she has sought help from psychotherapy.

The problem is not limited to Rhode Island or the United States.

In England, a group called Fathers4Justice asserted that "judges are denying fathers access to their children on little more than the say-so of vindictive ex-wives." Those fathers lost credibility this year after their plot to kidnap the prime minister's child became public. The Guardian noted ("Sins of the Fathers," May 8): "The little-known but astonishing truth about the family justice system is that it routinely grants contact orders to men who have been violent towards their partner and children. In the past decade, family courts [in England] have ordered 11 children to have contact with fathers who subsequently murdered them."

A year ago, the Rhode Island Senate established a commission to study Child Safety in Custody and Visitation. It never met.

Legislators seem too busy to care who, if anyone, is watching the children.

About the mother and child pictured at the top

On February 21, 1992, Rhode Island Family Court's Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah gave this two-year-old to the sole custody and possession of her father despite his history of domestic violence and failure to pay child support. The father, a police officer, brought false charges against his ex-wife, first saying she was a drug addict. (Twenty-two random tests proved she was not.) Then he had her arrested for bank fraud, then for filing a false report, then for sexual abuse, then for kidnapping. None of his charges stuck.

The child remained with her father and stepmother until 2003, when, at 14, she finally realized that her mother had not been a drug addict. The teenager persuaded Judge Stephen Capineri to let her return to her mother. There she began working on the painful issues of lifelong coercion and deception--a tangled knot of guilt and rage. Most painful has been her father’s continuing refusal to let her visit two dearly loved half-sisters, whom she has not seen since 2003.

She is one of countless children in Rhode Island subjected to severe emotional and physical trauma by Family Court when it helps abusive parents to maintain control over their families after divorce. When she turned 18 in 2007, she gave the Parenting Project permission to publish her picture on behalf of all children who have been held hostage by Rhode Island custody scams.

We are using this blog to provide links to stories that will help concerned people, including government officials, become aware of this form of child abuse and legal abuse. We must work together to improve the courts' ability to recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in victims of domestic abuse who are trying to protect their children.

PLEASE NOTE: If you are looking for the story of the removal of "Molly and Sara," please visit

About the Author and the Cause

Parenting Project is a volunteer community service begun in 1996 at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, RI, to focus on the needs of children at risk in Family Court custody cases. Our goal is to make Rhode Island's child protective system more effective, transparent, and accountable.

The Parenting Project coordinator, Anne Grant, a retired minister and former executive director of Rhode Island's largest shelter for battered women and their children, researches and writes about official actions that endanger children and the parents who try to protect them. She wrote a chapter on Rhode Island in Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues, ed. Mo Therese Hannah, PhD, and Barry Goldstein, JD (Civic Research Institute, 2010).

Comments and corrections on anything written here may be sent in an email with no attachments to

Find out more about the crisis in custody courts here: provides forensic resources to end violence against women

about domestic violence in hague custody cases:

more about domestic violence in law enforcement: