International Comparison of Family Court Professionals’ Perceptions of Parental Alienation and Child Sexual Abuse Allegations

Abstract

In contested child custody cases, controversy exists as to family court professionals’ attitudes regarding parental alienation (PA). Prior research shows that U.S. family court professionals are more likely to believe a case involves PA when a mother claims the father is abusing their child than when a father makes the same allegation. Critics of PA believe that statutorily recognizing PA could encourage professionals to further discredit reports of maltreatment, particularly reports by mothers, as alienation. Comparing family court professionals’ views in Brazil (where PA is statutorily recognized) and the United States (where PA is not statutorily recognized) permits study of the possible relations between formal recognition of PA and case recommendations. Brazilian and U.S. family court professionals (N = 365) read three scenarios varying in the inclusion or exclusion of allegations of parental hostility or allegations of child maltreatment. For each scenario, the alienating parent’s gender was experimentally varied between subjects. Participants rated the likelihood of each case involving PA and the appropriateness of three potential case recommendations. Analyses revealed significant differences between Brazilian and U.S. professionals: In the scenarios involving allegations of parental hostility and sexual abuse, Brazilian (relative to U.S. professionals) rated parents as more alienating but endorsed referring cases of maltreatment to child protective services at a lower rate. Participants also differed in their case recommendations depending on the gender of the alienating parent. Implications for laws, family court professionals’ evaluations, and children’s rights to protection in family court matters are discussed.

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Acknowledgments

We thank James Bow, Kathleen Faller, Jennifer Hardesty, Daniel G. Saunders, and Megan Haselschwerdt for their assistance in recruiting participants.

Funding

This research received funding from the Office of University Outreach and International Programs of the University of California, Davis, and the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP, Grant No. 2013/50500-0).

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Correspondence to Deborah Goldfarb.

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The research was approved by the two universities’ Institutional Review Boards.

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Goldfarb, D., Priolo-Filho, S., Sampana, J. et al. International Comparison of Family Court Professionals’ Perceptions of Parental Alienation and Child Sexual Abuse Allegations. Int. Journal on Child Malt. 2, 323–341 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42448-019-00033-6

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Keywords

  • Sexual abuse
  • Custody
  • Parental alienation
  • Family court