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Parental Alienation: How Parents Use Their Children As Weapons

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This next story is about what can happen when one parent in a family is so angry at the other that they deploy the kids as weapons. It's a phenomenon known as parental alienation. It is common, more common than many realize during divorce. Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes about it for The Atlantic in an article titled "Can Children Be Persuaded To Love A Parent They Hate?" Hey there, Barb.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You interviewed a lot of people for this story, I know, but you chose to tell it mainly through one family. Let's start there. Introduce us.

HAGERTY: There is Meredith, the mom, Benjamin, the son, and Olivia, the daughter. And they live outside of Toronto. And in the summer of 2008, the parents were getting a divorce. The father moved north of Toronto about 300 miles. And over the summer, Benjamin and Olivia, who were then 9 and 7 respectively, stayed with him for the summer.

And they play during the day, but at night, what would happen is he would sit them down, and he would talk to them about their mother - how she suffered from depression. She was addicted to prescription drugs. She really didn't care about them. How she had even befriended a serial killer and knew where one of the bodies was buried. And he just piled this stuff on. And then at night, he would play info videos till 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning about things like narcissism or depression or bipolar disorder or parental alienation. And he'd say, see, this is what your mom does. This is what your mom is like.

KELLY: It's so chilling to listen to. And it continued. Even as the children were back at their mother's, at Meredith's house, the dad would call every night and continue to...

HAGERTY: That's right.

KELLY: ...Wage what you quote a family court judge who says - who concluded that the dad was waging, he called it, "an all-out campaign to alienate them from their mother."

HAGERTY: That's right. That's right. He would call every day at 6 p.m. And they would have to drop - the kids would drop everything they were doing - dinner, homework, even their own birthday parties - to talk to their dad. And he would talk to them for one to two hours a night. He wouldn't let them off the phone. He'd talk about how terrible their mother was. He'd talk about the legal case, how he was being bankrupted.

And whenever they defended their mother, he would say, oh, so that's how you feel. Well, this conversation is over. And what he did, which is very typical, is he really forced them to choose between the mom and the dad. So they could really only be on one side, and he forced them to choose him. And this went on for six years until, you know, things got really, really, really bad.

KELLY: For the record, were you able, in your reporting, to verify whether any of the things that the dad was saying about the mom were true? Was there any basis in fact to any of this?

HAGERTY: Yes. So we had a dilemma here because this was a little bit - kind of a case of domestic - potential domestic violence. He had threatened - the father had threatened to hurt anyone, kill anyone who took his kids away. And so we did not talk. I did not talk to the dad. But I read trial transcripts. I read his affidavits. I read transcripts of the phone calls that the kids had with him. I talked to therapists. I talked to the kids. And I talked to the mom. And I talked to the mom's partner.

So I really did everything I could without jeopardizing their safety to confirm what happened. And then, of course, the judge ruled that he should have no more contact with the children, at least for 90 days. And so that was kind of a confirmation that this alienation was bad, and it had taken place.

KELLY: It sounds awful. It also sounds extreme. How widespread is this phenomenon?

HAGERTY: You know, that's such a good question, and it was one I had because I didn't want to do a story about something that wasn't common or relatively common. So when I began the reporting, I felt like I wandered onto this undiscovered island of despair. It was like there were all these desperately unhappy parents. There's a whole world out there - conferences about parental alienation, Facebook pages on parental alienation with thousands of members. There was one grandmother I talked to in North Carolina who sets up a call one Sunday night each month with a researcher or psychologist or whatever about parental alienation.

And the night I listened, there were more than a thousand people on the call around the world. I interviewed 50 people. I focused on 12 who - where a judge actually transferred custody from the favored parent to the targeted parent. And I came to the conclusion that it's an underground epidemic. You don't hear about it because no one talks about it. I mean, what parent wants to say to their friends, yeah, I have no relationship with my kids? My kids loathe me. So no one talks about it. But I do think it's this underground epidemic.

KELLY: I mean, we should note that this is controversial. Not everyone buys into this theory that there is a phenomenon that we should be calling parental - parent alienation.

HAGERTY: That's absolutely right. What the critics say is, look, yeah, parents behave badly, of course. But what this is, this, quote, "parental alienation," is just a cover for abuse. It's as if - and they usually say it's the father - a father who is abusive and wants access to their kids, says, hey, wait a minute. I'm the victim here. You know, she's alienating me from the kids. You know, she's poisoning the relationship. I'm really the - I'm the good guy here. And that, in fact, does happen. And we've seen cases of that. I think it's - I think it's also true that there is a lot of alienation going on that - you see it in court records, and you hear it anecdotally. But it is true that it's controversial.

And let me tell you what's really controversial. That is the treatment. So what people who subscribe to parental alienation say is, the best treatment is to take the child away from the favored parent and put them, you know - transfer them over to the unfavored parent, to the targeted parent. Well, what critics say is, what if you're wrong - right? What if that father is not alienated and is not the victim of bad-mouthing? What if that father is actually abusive? The worst thing you can do is hand that child back over to the father. So it's really, really tricky. And you got to get it right. And at this point, it feels a little haphazard about how you diagnose it.

KELLY: One fascinating and horrifying takeaway from all this, for me, reading your article, Barb, was how much in the end this actually isn't about the kids. It is - it's two parents who often are divorcing, and one just decides, I'm going to destroy the other, and I'm going to use the kids to do it.

HAGERTY: Yes. And you see evidence of that in Ben and Olivia and Meredith's story. Ben and Olivia are living at home while they go to college. And they're both doing OK, although Ben is really kind of damaged by all of this. But if their father had wanted to continue contact with them, all he had to do was take a couple of parenting classes. But he chose not to. He chose to walk away. And this is so very typical. I heard it over and over again - that when the alienating parent loses a custody battle, when he - he or she loses the battle, they do. They walk away. Because it really isn't about the kids. It's really about punishing the ex-spouse.

KELLY: That is Barbara Bradley Hagerty, former NPR correspondent, now a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Her article is "Can Children Be Persuaded To Love A Parent They Hate?" Barb, thank you.

HAGERTY: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.