The "Childmyths" blog is a spin-off of Jean Mercer's book "Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings". The blog focuses on parsing mistaken beliefs that can influence people's decisions about childrearing-- for example, beliefs about day care, about punishment, about child psychotherapies, and about adoption.
Most people know that in legal systems that derive from the British common law, an accused person is held to be innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the accuser and the prosecutor—the accused person should not have to prove that he or she is innocent of wrongdoing, and of course in many cases it would be impossible to prove that something does not exist or did not happen.
It’s less well known that the idea of the burden of proof also applies in scientific investigation. The assumption is always that an effect (like the outcome of a psychological treatment, for instance) does not exist, and anyone who claims that it does must provide strong evidence that it does. The burden of proof that “something happened” is on the people who claim that it did. Others do not have the job of proving that there is no effect of a treatment or other event, and once again, as with the legal system, it can be impossible to show that there is no effect.
Unfortunately, rather than accepting and working on the burden of proof that their treatments are safe and effective, proponents of alternative psychotherapies all too often rely on “proof by assertion”. They repeatedly state that their diagnoses are correct and meaningful, or that their treatment methods are effective, and rely on this repetition to convince not only people in general, but courts in particular. Proof by assertion does not yield evidence that a diagnosis is correct or that a treatment has good outcomes, but as the advertising industry knows, it can be hard to resist repeated claims, especially for anyone who has good reason to want to believe them. If those claims are obfuscated by reference to apparently scientific terms or methods, so much the more likely that they will be convincing.
Proponents of parental alienation (PA) concepts and methods have made rather a specialty of proof by assertion combined with obfuscation. Consider the diagnostic methods that are used, first of all. These range from “scales” created by Craig Childress for the rating of normal parent and child behavior to the use of various more or less standardized tests (some of these, like the MMPI, are quite standardized; others, like the Bricklin, much less so). Tests for any behavioral or emotional disorder must be reliable (that is, give about the same results every time), but they must also be valid. A valid test is one that tests what it is claimed to test, and there must be evidence that a test does this before it is used for decision-making. The whole point of a psychological test is that it should be able to determine quickly information that would otherwise be time-consuming and difficult to obtain. But unless such a test’s result is highly correlated with the information obtained in the more difficult way, the test cannot be considered valid.
To show that any test for PA is valid, it would be necessary to demonstrate that the test gave the same results as would be obtained by interviews and observations of a family in which a child was rejecting contact with a parent. By definition, PA is present when a child rejects contact with one parent, that rejected parent has not behaved abusively, AND the preferred parent has worked to create alienation by manipulating and exploiting the child’s thoughts and feelings. Thus, anyone who claims that a psychological test or set of tests validly diagnose PA would have the burden of proof of showing that the tests are highly correlated with information that includes the three factors just mentioned—including observational evidence that the preferred parent’s actions have created rejection that would not have occurred otherwise. It is certainly true that there could be cases in which all three of those factors are present, but we cannot assume that psychological tests are valid measures of PA until someone systematically demonstrates that this is the case. An adequate test of PA must be able to discriminate between child rejection of a parent with and without the intervention of the preferred parent, but none of the tests in use have been shown to do that. In reality, the tests used to claim PA are “validated” against the opinion of one or more PA proponents rather than against empirical evidence—in other words, not validated at all.
PA treatments (including Family Bridges, etc.) have been claimed to be effective by their advocates, but as was the case with diagnosis, no one has accepted the burden of proof and done the work needed to demonstrate this. (Once again, this is the job of those claiming the effectiveness of a treatment; it is not the job of others to show that it is not effective.) Given the nature of the family situations and treatments, it is probably too much to ask that PA treatment advocates do randomized controlled studies, but it would be quite possible to do controlled clinical trials in which outcomes for children receiving PA treatment are compared to outcomes for children of similar characteristics who receive no treatment or some conventional form of psychotherapy. The burden of proof is not carried unless there is a well-defined, transparent standard of comparison presented. Published research on PA treatments so far has compared children’s attitudes and behavior before treatment to their own attitudes and behavior ; this is not adequate because there is rapid developmental change in adolescence and because even low-conflict families go through many changes following divorce, with or without psychological treatment.
When attorneys and family court judges meet arguments about PA diagnoses and treatments, they need to think about the right questions to ask and to realize that the burden of proof on these topics is on those making the claims, not on those who deny the claims.
with permission of the publisher to the Child and Adolescent Bipolar
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Mercer, J. (2002). The difficulties of double blinding (letter). Science, 297, 2208.
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Mercer, J. (2003). Media Watch: Radio and television programs approve of Coercive Restraint Therapies. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2(2).
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Mercer, J. (2006). IEPs and Reactive Attachment Disorder: Recognizing and addressing misinformation. Scope (Newsletter of the Washington State Association of School Psychologists), 28(3), 2-6.
Mercer, J., Misbach, A., Pennington, R., & Rosa, L. (2006). Letter to the editor (age regression definition). Child Maltreatment, 11, 378.
Mercer, J. (2007). Behaving yourself: Moral development in the secular family. In D..McGowan (Ed.), Parenting beyond belief (pp. 104-112). New York: Amacom Books.
Mercer, J., & Pignotti, M. (2007). Letter to the editor (neurofeedback research critique). International Journal of Behavioral and Consultation Therapy, 3 (2), 324-325
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Mercer, J. (2007). Systematic child maltreatment: Connections with unconventional parent and professional education. Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice Advocate (Division 37 of APA), 30 (2), pp.5-6.
Mercer, J. ( 2007).Media Watch: Wikipedia and "open source" mental health information. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 5(1), 88-92.
Mercer, J. (2007) Destructive trends in alternative infant mental health approaches. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5(2), 44-58.
Mercer, J., & Pignotti, M. (2007). Shortcuts cause errors in Systematic Research Syntheses: Rethinking evaluation of mental health interventions. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5 (2), 59-77.
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Mercer, J. (2009). Child custody evaluations, attachment theory, and an attachment measure: The science remains limited. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 7(1), 37-54.
Mercer, J. (2010). Themes and variations in development: Can nanny-bots act like human caregivers? Interaction Studies, 11(2), 233-237.
Mercer, J. (2011). Attachment theory and its vicissitudes: Toward an updated theory. Theory and Psychology, 21, 25-45.
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Mercer, J. (2011). Some aspects of CAM mental health interventions: Regression, recapitulation, and “secret sympathies”. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 8, 36-55.
Mercer, J. (2011). Book review: Rachel Stryker’s (2010) The road to Evergreen. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 8, 69-74.
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Mercer, J. (2013). Attachment in children and adolescents. (Childhood Studies section). H. Montgomery (Ed.), Oxford Bibliographies Online. www.oxfordbibliographies.com.
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Mercer, J. (2013). Holding therapy: A harmful alternative mental health..
“It is a common but dangerous error to attribute all moral to mental obliquities”—an important statement made in 1842 by Thomas Hood, the poet and social thinker (“Song of the Shirt”, etc.). Hood said this in the course of rebuking Charles Dickens for taking a too lenient view of behavior associated with emotional disturbance, but curiously enough his comment can be part of a discussion of alternative psychotherapies (APs).
APs, as I have suggested the term, are psychological treatments that are neither based on systematic empirical evidence of effectiveness and safety, nor derived from conventional psychological theories current today. They are potentially harmful, sometimes seriously and directly so, sometimes in an indirect way because they use time and family resources and interfere with evidence-based treatment.
In addition to the commonalities just mentioned, some APs make a point of claiming that the emotional disorders they claim to treat are caused by or accompanied by cognitive problems of various kinds, which also need treatment because of the behavioral and other problems they can cause.
As the AP Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) suggests in its name, emotional and behavioral disturbance is attributed by advocates of this view to repression of memory of traumatic events. This interference with cognition cannot be consciously overcome because it involves an emotional defense mechanism that saves the victim from the anxiety associated with a frightening memory. RMT proponents add to this claim of disturbed cognitive functioning the belief that the repressed memory operates “beneath the surface” to bring about unwanted behavior and unwanted emotional experiences that interfere with the person’s normal life. If the victim can be helped to remember a traumatic event, it is reasoned, the effects of the previously repressed memory will disappear. Unfortunately for this viewpoint, the evidence is that traumatic memories are not repressed and may be experienced vividly or be consciously avoided by the victim of the events. Other explanations than this cognitive one need to be found for behavioral and emotional problems following trauma—especially because RMT may well induce false memories of events that did not occur at all or did not occur in the form now remembered. However, RMT is a good example of the use of mental to explain moral obliquities.
The AP Attachment Therapy (AT) similarly assumes a cognitive factor in a claimed emotional disturbance. This disturbance, sometimes referred to by AT proponents as Attachment Disorder (not listed in any of the DSM volumes) and sometimes as Reactive Attachment Disorder (listed for years in DSM, but with changing definitions, all different from those used by AT proponents). A cognitive problem often named by AT proponents as an aspect of attachment disorder is difficulty with cause-and-effect thinking. AT advocates have gone so far as saying that children whom they have diagnosed with attachment disorders cannot in fact connect causes with outcomes and that this is why they continue to show unwanted behavior even though severely punished for it. However, the idea that any human being of more than minimal intelligence, one who is able to learn some degree of language, cannot associate causes and effects is nonsensical. With a technique developed years ago by Caroline Rovee-Collier, where a baby’s kicking causes a mobile to turn, it can be shown that 2-month-olds learn the connection and kick when they see the mobile, in 7 to 9 minutes; 6-month-olds learn in only 1 to 3 minutes. A genuine failure to make all cause and effect connections would make most activities of daily living impossible—how, for example, to learn that you make the toothpaste come out by squeezing the tube? Some cause and effect associations are much more complicated and difficult to figure out (why does holding down the power button dissipate static electricity and let my laptop turn on?), but not knowing what causes a specific outcome is different from not knowing that effects have causes. It would appear that the AT claim about cause-and-effect thinking is in actual fact an attempt to describe situations where children are not easily disciplined through punishment or threats of punishment, and to do so using important-sounding terms that ordinarily refer to cognitive abilities. These situations are more likely to have to do with caregivers’ capacity to structure instruction, rewards, and punishments effectively than to result from children’s cognitive incapacity; if a child really could not associate cause and effect, this would be very obvious in all his or her behavior.
A third AT whose advocates use ideas about cognition to try to explain or support their views is represented by the various Parental Alienation (PA) treatments. PA proponents claim that children and adolescents whose parents are in high-conflict divorces may be “alienated” by the actions of a preferred parent and thus reject contact with the other parent. The rejecting attitude is said to be clearly PA when the child or adolescent (most commonly a young teenager) shows certain cognitive characteristics as well as avoiding a parent. The child is said to have “black and white thinking”, with a highly polarized view of the parents, one being considered “all good” and the other “all bad”. PA advocates also suggest that such children display “borrowed scenarios” in which they insist that all their beliefs and conclusions are their own, but in fact (according to the advocates) their stories and explanations actually belong to the preferred parent, who has “brainwashed” the child. These cognitive characteristics are argued to be created by the alienating actions of the preferred parent. Unfortunately for claims of the validity of these views, PA proponents have done nothing whatever to test whether children who avoid a parent are in fact different on these matters than other children matched for age and for family stress of some other type than divorce. Before it can be argued that one parent’s actions caused a difference, it’s necessary to show that there actually is a difference.
Let’s consider briefly what kind of thinking we would expect of young adolescents. Note, to begin with, that every one of us has a maximum level of cognitive skill which we can display under ideal conditions, with plenty of time, no fatigue or other discomfort, and with information that is familiar to us. As soon as we are tired, under pressure, frightened, or having to deal with unfamiliar material, we no longer operate at that highest possible cognitive level. These constraints all apply to children and adolescents as well as to adults’ experiences.
At their best level of cognitive performance, many (but by no means all) young teenagers can use what Piaget called formal operational thought. They can consider how several factors affect an outcome and can deal with comparisons like differences in proportions. For an academic example, they could consider weighing things with a balance and how the scale is affected not just by the weight of an object but by the object’s position on the arm of the balance. Because they can consider ratios and proportions (for which they have to think about two factors simultaneously), they can also deal with probabilities and with the ways we can use them to predict what might happen in a given situation. They can use the “form” or structure of a problem to find comparisons or analogies that could guide their problem-solving. Under ideal circumstances, then, they would not do polarized, “black and white” thinking, but would be able to deal with multiple facts.
But is this what we would always expect to happen with, say, a 14-year-old, even if he or she could do these cognitive tasks under ideal conditions? No, it is not, and this is particularly true when the teenager is caught in a high-conflict divorce. Cognitive performance will not be at its best level when the adolescent is anxious in general, worried about unwanted outcomes, possibly frightened of one (or even both) parents, and deprived by the situation of ordinary freedom, friendship, activity, and fun. These factors alone would reduce the level of cognitive performance and make it less likely that the teenager could consider proportions, multiple causes and effects, or mixed characteristics of human beings. Add to this the fact that divorce and the new family situation are complex and unfamiliar to adolescents (even adults are not likely to feel they understand what is happening when they go through such transitions). The upshot is that there are plenty of reasons why kids in the midst of divorce might think in immature, all-or-nothing terms with or without any “brainwashing” from the preferred parent. It would not be surprising if this were to occur for young adolescents in any kind of severe family transition, divorce or otherwise—and to make their case, PA proponents need to show that children of high-conflict divorce show more polarization than do other children in other fraught circumstances. (They have not done so.)
AS long as proponents of APs push the idea of cognitive problems, it behooves the rest of us to give a good deal of thought to cognitive development and the circumstances that influence cognitive performance.
Looking at the website of the Institute for Attachment and Child Development (IACD), and especially at their resource library, you can see an interesting fact at https://www.instituteforattachment.org/resource-library/. It is correctly stated that Forrest Lien and two IACD colleagues have published an article in Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, a peer-reviewed journal.
Curiously, though, this article was not sent out for peer review. How did this come about? The details of the answer are probably of serious interest mostly to pathologically literate people like authors, editors, and publishers. Nevertheless, an explanation ought to be provided—because without it it will be much too easy for Lien and IACD to claim this publication as evidence that an important social work journal’s editors support IACD methods.
Here’s what happened. A couple of years ago, I published in CASWJ an article entitled "Conventional and Unconventional Perspectives on Attachment and Attachment Problems: Comparisons and Implications, 2006-2016”. In that article, I discussed the 2006 report of a joint task force of the American Professional Society on Abuse of Children and Division 37 of the American Psychological Association. The task force report had advised strongly against unconventional beliefs about childhood attachment issues, like those still espoused by IACD, and against a variety of practices based on those beliefs. In my article, I reviewed the evidence that these beliefs and methods were still very much a part of the childhood mental health scene in the United States, and that although holding therapy itself is less often or less obviously used, other related practices continue. These practices emphasize the idea that attachment disorders are characterized by antisocial, unmanageable, disruptive behavior problems, which is not correct. They also stress the role of authority and intrusive as well as strict adult behavior as a cure for antisocial behavior and attitudes (and therefore, according to this fallacious reasoning, for any past difficulties with attachment). I noted in the article the ongoing involvement of Lien and IACD with these positions, which are not only fruitless but potentially harmful to children and families.
One of the editors of CASWJ kindly decided to make my review a “target article”—that is, to publish it with invitations for discussion extended to a number of potential authors with interests in this topic. As I had referred in the article to IACD’s website material and the organizations positions on issues claimed to be associated with attachment, the editor invited Lien to provide a critique on my article, and Lien responded with the piece recently published in CASWJ. As this was an invited article, it was not sent out for peer- review (that’s right—not every article in a peer-reviewed journal gets peer-reviewed). Instead of the critique that was invited, however, Lien and his co-authors provided some general comments about attachment and some vague positive comments about the IACD program, what might legitimately be called a “puff piece” for their program. Although Lien has spoken of himself as a researcher, there was no actual research described, and a number of aspects of the program, such as the use of neurofeedback and of a commonly-used diagnostic checklist to identify Reactive Attachment Disorder, are without research support of any kind.
As is customary for authors of target articles, I was allowed the “last word” of rebuttal in the form of response to the various comments on the article. The abstract of my response is presently available on the CASWJ website. I noted in that publication that I stand by my original statement that beliefs and practices decried by the APSAC/APA task force in 2006 are still very much in existence. Lien and his colleagues had the opportunity to show that this was not true with respect to IACD, but they made no effort actually to do so, so I can only conclude that they are in agreement with me here. The context of their CASWJ paper indicates that if they thought otherwise, they would have seized on their chance to deny the unconventional beliefs and practices I attributed to IACD.
Alternative psychotherapies (APs) are psychological treatments that are unconventional, are without any systematic empirical evidence about their safety and effectiveness, and in many cases are implausible in terms of psychological theory or established facts about child development. Some APs for children are directly harmful, and in the absence of evidence of their effectiveness we can consider all these treatments to be at least indirectly harmful-- for example, to use up families’ resources that would be better spent in other ways.
One possible harm done by APs for children is the infliction of discomfort either physical or emotional, sometimes with real pain and sometimes with the infliction of serious fear. Holding Therapy/Attachment Therapy, sometimes targeting adopted children and aiming at child obedience, gratitude, and the appearance of love for adopted parents, clearly involves both physical and mental discomfort caused by therapists. Nancy Thomas parenting (NTP), although it is not presented as a therapy by its advocates, is intended to bring about attitude and behavior changes like those that are goals of psychotherapy, and it too includes unpleasant, painful, and frightening experiences like being required to sit without moving for periods of time and having food limited in quantity and variety. Conversion therapy, a form of AP argued by its proponents to change same-sex orientation to heterosexuality, sometimes shares characteristics of holding therapy, and according to those who have experienced it, involves intense and disturbing efforts to change the nature of the treated person, in part through threats of eternal damnation.
Treatments for “parental alienation”, like Family Bridges and High Roads, are APs, as they lack empirical evidence of safety and effectiveness and are implausible as well as being unconventional. Like the other APs just mentioned, they depend on threats and fear to bring about certain changes in behavior. Children and adolescents given these treatments have reported not only distressing experiences during treatment, but also terror and discomfort when taken from their homes or schools or even from a courtroom by youth transport service workers who sometimes use handcuffs to restrain their charges.
How do proponents of APs justify the discomfort and fear experienced by children and adolescents receiving treatment—especially given that these methods are without evidence of effectiveness? An argument given by practitioners of Holding Therapy for many years has been that the treatment was analogous to chemotherapy for a child with cancer. Of course chemotherapy is painful, frightening, and distressing, but without it your child will die. The parallel suggested by these practitioners is that Holding Therapy is painful, frightening, and distressing, but without it your child will… perhaps not die, but become a serial killer (if male) or a prostitute (if female; these fates are apparently considered comparable), or will kill you, or will go to prison for some or all of the above. This, of course, is thorough abuse of an analogy, because although many children with untreated cancer do die, and although chemotherapy has been demonstrated to prevent many of those possible deaths, the same does not hold for Holding Therapy for treatment of childhood mental illness, antisocial behavior, or dissatisfaction of adoptive parents. First, although many serial killers have been shown to have had disturbed childhoods, it has not been shown that that childhood behavioral disturbances in general are of necessity followed by serial killing in later life. Second, it has certainly not been shown that children who receive Holding Therapy or other APs become less likely to have serious problems later—in fact, one might well predict that such children become even more likely to have emotional disturbances because of the resemblance of some AP techniques to other adverse childhood experiences.
Discussion of “parental alienation” treatments is beginning to focus on the distress and discomfort experienced by children and adolescents who undergo them. Advocates of these treatments argue that the untreated outcomes would be so bad that the discomfort is completely worth the benefits achieved. They claim, on the basis of very little evidence, that mental illness will result if a child is alienated from a parent and has no contact with that person. They argue also, without evidence, that children and adolescents who avoid one parent already have cognitive problems and disordered critical thinking.
I have yet to see practitioners of “parental alienation” treatments bring up the very faulty chemotherapy analogy as advocates of other APs have done, but no doubt someone will bring it up soon.
PA advocates generally claim that when children of a divorced family are reluctant to have contact with one of the parents, their behavior is evidence that the preferred parent has “brainwashed” them to dislike the nonpreferred parent, that this treatment has caused or will cause mental illness in the children, that the preferred parent is thus guilty of child abuse, and that a complete custody change plus special PA treatment should be ordered. In a number of cases, judges have accepted this argument—often when no expert had testified about the serious problems of the PA concept and the lack of evidence for safety and effectiveness of the proposed treatments.
In the case about which Judge Dollinger opined, the experts testifying that PA was present and custody change was required were three well-known PA advocates, Amy Baker, Linda Gottlieb, and Robert Evans. As commonly occurs in these cases, they had not interviewed the three daughters of the divorced family, but based their arguments largely on their discussions with the father, who was claiming PA and asking that the girls be ordered to live with him and his girlfriend (the girls’ former nanny).
Judge Dollinger described various actions of the parents as foolish, intemperate, immature, boorish, and charged with a “win at all costs” spirit. However, he did not find these behaviors, or the attitudes of the girls, unusual among divorcing families. In addition, he did not find any evidence that the girls had been influenced to avoid their father, that they have actually avoided their father or that their father’s authority has been lessened. He noted that according to the father, the girls “ are often sullen when they come to his home, and that they do not immediately warm up to him when they arrive for visitation; although they eventually overcome their cooler .disposition and then warmly embrace him after time with him. Like many teenagers, they are not always in accord with the father's direction. He claims that the once close relationship between the nanny and the daughters has been altered since she became his girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, [Judge Dollinger continued] in the father's testimony he never suggests that the change might have something to do with his own conduct and the change of the nanny's role (from nanny to his girlfriend).” In addition, the judge noted, the ”characterization that the children's undisputed consistent access to their father was nonetheless evidence of being "somewhat alienated" strongly suggests that this expert had no actual proof that the children are alienated from their father”. Consequently, Judge Dollinger did not order a custody change, PA treatment for the girls, or financial obligations of mother to father.
Advocates of PA appear to have overgeneralized from a rare although genuine family problem to common, even healthy, reactions of parents and children to changes in family structure. They have assumed that negative views of a former spouse, expressed for good legal or therapeutic reasons and not in the presence of children, should be accepted as evidence that the children are being manipulated by the preferred parent. Notably, they claim that PA is present even in cases where children do not resist or refuse visitation with a parent, and appear to base this claim largely on ordinary adolescent behaviors or preferences which would not be seen as “symptoms” in any intact family.
It will be a step in the right direction if other judges follow Judge Dollinger’s lead in demanding real evidence for claims of PA rather than accepting the unsubstantiated statements of PA advocates.
Craig Childress has kindly written my blog post for me today. I give his letter to me, below—it may differ from the original in bold-face parts and in paragraphing and does not bear the signature on the original. In this letter, Childress appears to be referencing my testimony in the Sahar vs Sahar custody case for which I described the judge’s decision and remarks about Childress’s testimony a few days ago.
C. A. CHILDRESS, Psy.D. LICENSED CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, PSY 18857 219 N. INDIAN HILL BLVD., STE. 201 • CLAREMONT, CA 91711 • (909) 821-5398 3/5/19
To: Dr. Jean Mercer
Re: Possible Ethics Violations
I am providing you with this letter pursuant to my professional responsibilities under Standard 1.04 of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct of the American Psychological Association.
,1.04 Informal Resolution of Ethical Violations When psychologists believe that there may have been an ethical violation by another psychologist, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual, if an informal resolution appears appropriate and the intervention does not violate any confidentiality rights that may be involved. Additionally, I am also concerned that this attempt at informal resolution of these professional concerns may be inadequate to provide patient protection, which may then activate my obligations under Standard 1.05 of the APA ethics.
1.05 Reporting Ethical Violations If an apparent ethical violation has substantially harmed or is likely to substantially harm a person or organization and is not appropriate for informal resolution under Standard 1.04, Informal Resolution of Ethical Violations, or is not resolved properly in that fashion, psychologists take further action appropriate to the situation. Such action might include referral to state or national committees on professional ethics, to state licensing boards, or to the appropriate institutional authorities. Pursuant to my obligations to the involved client, I am currently preparing a written review of your testimony in a matter in California for the involved client.
Of concern are: 1. Possible Violation of California State Law: In California, the term “psychologist” is a legally protected term and only licensed psychologists may use the term “psychologist” in referring to their professional standing. You are not licensed in the state of California or any state, and your background and training would not qualify you for licensure. To hold yourself out in your testimony to the court as a “psychologist,” either directly or by implication to the court, or as “an expert in the field of psychology” would likely be in violation of California state law. California Business and Professions Code BPC § 2902 (c) A person represents himself or herself to be a psychologist when the person holds himself or herself out to the public by any title or description of services incorporating the words “psychology,” “psychological,” “psychologist,” “psychology consultation,” “psychology consultant,” “psychometry,” “psychometrics” or “psychometrist,” “psychotherapy,” “psychotherapist,” “psychoanalysis, or 2 “psychoanalyst,” or when the person holds himself or herself out to be trained, experienced, or an expert in the field of psychology. California Business and Professions Code BPC § 2903 (a) No person may engage in the practice of psychology, or represent himself or herself to be a psychologist, without a license granted under this chapter, except as otherwise provided in this chapter. The practice of psychology is defined as rendering or offering to render to individuals, groups, organizations, or the public any psychological service involving the application of psychological principles, methods, and procedures of understanding, predicting, and influencing behavior, such as the principles pertaining to learning, perception, motivation, emotions, and interpersonal relationships; and the methods and procedures of interviewing, counseling, psychotherapy, behavior modification, and hypnosis; and of constructing, administering, and interpreting tests of mental abilities, aptitudes, interests, attitudes, personality characteristics, emotions, and motivations. Note that BPC § 2902(c) explicitly identifies “the person holds himself or herself out to be trained, experienced, or expert in the field of psychology” (emphasis added) as being prohibited without a license under BPC § 2903(a). Of concern is that representing yourself to the court as a “psychologist” and rendering testimony as a supposed “expert in the field of psychology” was a fraudulent misrepresentation of your qualifications to the court and was in violation of California state law.
2. Possible Violation of Standard 2.01a of the APA Ethics Code: An additional area of prominent professional concern is the apparent violation of Standard 2.01a of the APA ethics code.
2.01 Boundaries of Competence (a) Psychologists provide services, teach, and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience. You have no background education, training, nor experience in the domains of clinical psychology, nor in the assessment, diagnosis, or treatment of pathology. Rendering an opinion on issues of clinical psychology and the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of pathology is beyond your boundary of competence based on your “education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience.” Of prominent concern is that much of your testimony about the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of pathology in clinical psychology is factually incorrect, revealing stunning ignorance regarding the practice of clinical psychology (practice beyond the boundary of competence).
3. Possible Violation of Standard 3.04 of the APA Ethics Code To the extent that your possibly fraudulent and ignorant testimony, in violation of California laws and Standards of practice in professional psychology swayed the court to 3 disregard a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis made by a licensed clinical psychologist (licensed in the state of California) your testimony likely caused significant harm to the client family in violation of Standard 3.04 of the APA ethics code.
3.04 Avoiding Harm (a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.
Pursuant to Standard 1.04 of the APA ethics code, I am making you aware of my concerns regarding unprofessional conduct that violates both California state law and Standards of practice in professional psychology. Pursuant to Standard 1.05 of the APA ethics code, I will be providing the client with a report reviewing your testimony regarding its factual errors and my concerns regarding possible violations of California state law, BPC § 2902(c); BPC § 2903(a), and Standards 2.01a and 3.04 of the APA ethics code.
I did not, of course, violate any of the standards of the ethics code, as can be clearly seen in the official transcript of my testimony. I made special efforts to state that I am not a clinical psychologist or qualified to testify about aspects of a particular case, but am an academic psychologist (yes, there are such people) who has spent years studying alternative therapies with the potential for harm to children and adolescents. I commented on the incongruence of Childress’s approach to visitation resistance or refusal with attachment theory as it has developed from the time of John Bowlby. (Incidentally, Childress might like to mull over the fact that Bowlby initially claimed that children formed attachments only to one caregiver, and that one was normally the mother.) I discussed the opinions of current leading attachment researchers and theorists about the lack of predictable connections between early attachment patterns and later personality or mental health status, including a recent article that denied associations between disorganized attachment and adult characteristics. I also described research methods used in establishing diagnostic methods and evaluating the effectiveness and safety of any treatment method, and pointed out that Childress’s claims were not based on research evidence. Childress himself has said that in doing a Psy.D. degree he traded training in research for clinical training, so perhaps he is not aware of the issues about which I testified.
My goal in testifying in this and similar cases was to prevent the harm to children and adolescents that may result from the use of untested diagnostic and therapeutic methods.
In a recent decision in a California custody case (Sahar vs Sahar, Yolo County), Judge Daniel Maguire rejected the opinions of Craig Childress, an advocate of the parental alienation (PA) treatment High Roads. Childress had been hired by the father in this case to make recommendations about treatment of two teenagers who were resisting or refusing visitation with their father following the parents’ divorce.
Childress argued that the mother in the case was manipulating the children’s attitudes and causing them to be alienated from their father. Childress had no direct evidence that this was the case, nor had he evaluated the mother, but he opined that the mother was acting to alienate the children because she was suffering from a personality disorder caused by her childhood disorganized attachment status. An independent evaluator did not find that the mother had a personality disorder, and personality disorders are not thought to result from childhood attachment status by well-known attachment researchers. (N.B. I also testified as an expert in this case, commenting on Childress’s purported attachment explanation and the lack of evidence for his various claims.)
Childress proposed that the court reverse past custody decisions and place the resistant teenagers entirely in their father’s custody. He also recommended an untested form of treatment called High Roads, practiced by his colleague, the life coach Dorcy Pruter. When cross-examined by the minors’ counsel, Childress declined to answer some questions on the grounds that his professional license would be affected.
Judge Maguire’s decision in this case was that the teenagers should remain in their mother’s physical custody, but should have three meals a month with their father, each child having one meal alone with the father. They are not prohibited from talking about past circumstances but advised to do this in a constructive way rather than “relitigating” matters. This is seen as a step toward better relationships and a minimum rather than a maximum contact time. The mother is asked to encourage this but not required to force the children physically to attend meals with their father.
Judge Maguire commented on Childress’s testimony. The minors’ counsel had challenged Childress’s appearance on Kelly/Frye grounds, as Childress’s views are not generally accepted in the professional community. However, Judge Maguire stated that under California law Childress was giving an opinion, not employing a “new technique or method” or “novel method of proof”.. The decision should not then be taken to mean that the judge believed that Childress’s views were in fact shared by the professional community (my comment, not part of the decision—JM) or were found persuasive by the court.
Judge Maguire noted that Childress’s diagnosis was presented ipse dixit, as proof by assertion and without evidence. In addition, the judge stated that the proposed treatment appeared “drastic and potentially damaging”. In a footnote, Judge Maguire stated that “The court makes no finding as to whether or not Dr. Childress violated the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, the court does not rely on his testimony”.
This decision should be noted by other courts, by parents of whom parental alienation has been alleged, and by the lawyers representing those parents,
The idea of a family hierarchy, a form of organization in which members have different amounts of power and authority to make decisions, is far from unreasonable. Groups do tend to work more efficiently when there is clear leadership, even though they may be more creative and effective in other ways when every member has equal say. And, of course, families characteristically are made up of people of a variety of ages and levels of competence, so there are generally a small number of members who have more ability and more authority to make decisions for the group.
However, families are also different from other organizations in that members who have little competence may also have more important needs than those who are more competent, so good decisions are often made in the interest of the weakest members rather than just according to the wishes of the strongest. In some ways, the youngest and most vulnerable members of a family have more “power” than the older ones, as the older ones recognize the importance of protecting and nurturing the young. An additional difference between family hierarchies and other groups’ hierarchical organizations is that the family organization is dynamic—it changes as individuals develop and their needs and abilities change. A parent who exercised much power in the family may lose that status with age, and a younger person entering adulthood can and often does attain greater authority in the family group. (Those changes can be even more obvious in times of rapid technological change, where younger people may have mastered skills that older people do not have, or may be less when families have money or political power that is managed by elders and sometimes passes to younger adults only at the death of the older.)
These comments about family hierarchy refer to the actual observable (and ever-changing) organization of families and of the relationships among family members. But there is more to family hierarchy than just the ways families work: family hierarchy is a concept that overlaps considerably with ideological positions. For some families, and especially for their senior members, hierarchy and power differentials within the family represent right ways of life. Such power differentials are not expected to change as family members develop, as the structure rather than the function of the hierarchical organization is cherished. Alterations in the hierarchy may symbolize religious issues, as obedience to parents may be equated with obedience to God; a disobedient child may be seen as moving toward eternal damnation, and parents who allow their children to disobey may themselves be seen as failing in their religious duty. Beyond specific religious belief, too, the family hierarchy may represent the authoritarian organization of the community so valued by certain political groups, and power attained by younger members of a family may appear to be a frightening reminder of chaotic revolutionary movements.
Whatever the reasons for the ideological commitment to an unchangeable family hierarchy, those committed to this kind of hierarchy may use it as an essential touchstone for evaluation of families and individuals. For example, the German “family therapist” Bert Hellinger has claimed that in cases where an older family member has sexually molested a younger one, the younger person should apologize to the abuser for his or her own role in the breaking of the hierarchy through criticism or complaints about an older family member. (Hellinger is known for his work with Jirina Prekopova, a Czech psychologist who had proposed that autistic children can be helped only if their mothers are submissive to the fathers, thereby establishing a strong hierarchy.) In the United States and Britain, practitioners of holding therapy have claimed that children’s emotional attachment depends on their experience of powerlessness with respect to adults. Children in that form of treatment are to call adults names connoting authority like “Mom Sally” or “Dad Brian”. Proponents of parental alienation (PA) have made similar arguments. Richard Warshak, for example, considers it inappropriate for children to address their parents by first names, a breaking of the hierarchy that he feels is best maintained by using names that indicate special importance, power, and status such as Mom or Dad. According to sworn testimony, the PA proponent Craig Childress scolded children for their rejection of their father, which was related to his violence against their mother, and stated that they should not break the hierarchy by criticizing the father’s actions.
Certainly there are families for whom long-term maintenance of a hierarchy of authority is a basic goal, whether because of religious or of broader political beliefs, or as part of a “therapeutic” approach. As long as no one gets hurt, there is no reason why they should not manage their lives in this way, although they may find that adolescents are forced to break with a family whose support they still need, rather than forego and foreclose their own development. For most families, however, the effort to maintain an unchanging family hierarchy is a waste of time as well as potentially damaging to relationships. In the ordinary course of events, parents who have given up their own sleep or dinner in order to fulfill the needs of infants will come to say that older children can wait a bit or manage their own needs while the parents sleep or eat. Parents who sympathized with the anger or frustration of the tantruming toddler begin to feel justified in demanding some peace and quiet. And parents, who decided what music lessons or sports participation a third-grader should have, come to realize that the interests and abilities of a teenager ought to shape decisions about schooling and career preparation.
That families have hierarchies of power and authority is clear, and is important to their effective functioning. But the idea that the structure rather than the function of hierarchy must be preserved is a mistake. People change, so family hierarchies change, and attempting to keep relationships the same forever is a mistake, however understandable may be the wish of some family members that time stand still.
In the 1990s, the United States and other countries saw much excitement about the idea of recovered memories (RM) and associated psychological treatments. The basic idea of RM was that memories of traumatic childhood experiences can become unavailable to conscious experience in one of several ways, but can continue through unconscious influence to make the victim unhappy or unable to function normally. RM therapists said they could help people recover their lost memories of traumatic events, after which they would feel better, and if possible confront those responsible for their trauma. Following RM treatments, some individuals believed they could identify people who had harmed them; the people were often their parents, the harms were often sexual in nature, and the identification was often followed by confrontation and estrangement from the parents who denied that any such things had happened. In some case, victims reported their recovered memories to the police, and arrests sometimes followed. In some cases the arrested parents offered confessions and were convicted, saying they had no memory of the events but they were now convinced that they must have done these things. Courts accepted these arguments and the principle that when experiences were too traumatic, people could not remember them, and that the absence of memory for many years was proof that a recovered memory was valid evidence of something that had happened. Over time and with systematic research, however, it became evident that “recovering” a memory with the help of a therapist was not evidence that the memory was correct, because the experience of memory is easily constructed under the right circumstances and may well not reflect a person’s actual history. Claims of RM are still present today, but courts demand much more evidence of past wrongdoing than sometimes was required during the RM heyday.
In the later ‘90s, and after the beginning of the present century, similar excitement began to occur about the idea of parental alienation (PA) and the treatments purporting to treat it. The basic idea of PA is that following divorce, some children resist or refuse contact with one of their parents and have a strong preference for the other parent. When this situation occurs in the absence of any “good reason” named by the child, or of substantiated physical or sexual abuse by the nonpreferred parent, proponents of this idea say that PA is present and has been caused by actions (also called PA) of the preferred parent, who has somehow manipulated or exploited the child in order to cause rejection of the nonpreferred parent. Family courts have sometimes accepted this argument and in spite of the denials of child and preferred parent have followed the recommendations for a custody reversal and orders against contact of the child with the preferred parent, as well as PA treatments for the child and PA-themed counseling for the preferred parent. A group of lawyers and mental health professionals continues to argue for the PA position, although opposition to that position is increasing in professional circles.
Are there parallels between these two psychological concepts and their influence in the courts? I believe a number can be presented.
1. Both RM and PA are possible but not common. There are many reasons why a person may not remember or think about an event for years at a time, including conscious attempts to suppress thoughts about a disturbing experience. New experiences may call the “forgotten” event to mind in a pressing way; these might include having children of the age the victim was at the time of a trauma, or suggestions made by a RM therapist, or renewed contact with someone who was for years not available. It is also distinctly possible that PA can and no doubt does happen—that a parent works on a child’s attitudes and beliefs in order to shape the child’s attitude toward the other parent. (At a low level, such efforts occur in intact, low-conflict families too, as parents and children form shifting alliances that emphasize virtues and faults of each family member.)
2. RM and PA behaviors and thoughts have possible causes in addition to those stressed by RM and PA proponents. Memories in general are constructed from available information, rather than existing somewhere intact like a non-digital photograph. Memories of all kinds, traumatic and otherwise, are “photoshopped” in the process of recall. Frequent recall and rehearsal of some memories changes them, omitting some features, emphasizing others, and adding or subtracting details that “must have” or “couldn’t have” happened. As for the traumatic aspect of RM, it appears that people do not forget or lose traumatic memories more easily than ordinary memories, and we would expect that because the vividness of an experience strengthens its memory. The idea of repression of memories and consequent emotional distress is not well supported. Sudden RM can thus be caused by factors other than real past experiences of trauma. Similarly, PA, or children’s rejection of a nonpreferred parent, may result from past abuse or domestic violence that has not been substantiated but nevertheless existed, from poor parenting skills on the part of the nonpreferred parent, from conflicts with parents’ new romantic partners or with stepsiblings, with developmental events like puberty, or simply with the child’s wish for a stable home and control of scheduled activities and friend or romantic relationships. Children rejecting a parent may also be responding to the parent’s own rejection or criticism or demands for time together that do not jibe with the child’s increasing need for autonomy and peer contacts.
3. PA and RM treatments are without an adequate evidence basis. Any treatment that claims to be safe and effective must be supported by research that involves some sort of comparison of the treatment outcomes with the outcomes of receiving no treatment or receiving other known treatments. In order to carry out such studies, the treatment must be standardized (manualized) in such a way that practitioners can follow known standards and perform the treatment in known ways. In addition, research needs to investigate any adverse events that occur during or after the treatment, even if those events do not seem to be caused by the treatment in any obvious way. No evidence of this kind has been presented for RM treatments. Some published reports claim to support PA treatments, but they do not involve treatment comparisons, nor have they explored adverse effects. PA treatments are not manualized in forms available to independent researchers, and one, Family Bridges, is trademarked, suggesting an identification of the treatment methods as “trade secrets”.
4. PA and RM treatments are potentially harmful. RM accusations in the past resulted in criminal charges and in some cases imprisonment. The exclusive RM emphasis made it unlikely that persons with emotional disturbances would receive appropriate treatment from practitioners who attributed mental illness to traumatic experiencesalone. According to some who received RM treatment, the treatment experience alone was distressing and interfered with normal functioning, as well as causing troubled family relationships for many years, Similar problems exist with respect to PA treatments, not excluding the possibility of imprisonment with which the preferred parent is sometimes threatened. In addition to the effects of the specific treatments themselves, PA treatment is potentially harmful because of the use of youth transport service workers to move children to treatment facilities, sometimes using handcuffs for restraint.
5. RM and PA advocacy is driven by moral panic and is persuasive to courts for this reason. The RM concept became strong at about the time that other treatments like holding therapy took hold among some parents and mental health professionals, and at about the same time that claims of “Satanic ritual abuse” became common. These attitudes may be connected with a sense of moral panic elated to the belief that adult mistreatment causes mental illness in children and results in ongoing evil, dangerous behavior by the children. In order to protect ourselves from dangerous children, we must stop adult mistreatment, or punish it if it happened too long ago. For a relatively small number of charismatic Christians, this type of moral panic seems to have been associated with the idea that mental illness is caused by demonic possession, which in turn results from sin, either by the disordered person, or by sins of his or her ancestors—especially sexual sins. Though less obviously associated with religious or quasi-religious beliefs, PA ideas are also connected with moral panic. From its early popularization by Richard Gardner, the PA concept has been accused of pandering to men’s wishes and fighting against equal voices for women, but this concern is blurred by the fact that fathers are sometimes the preferred parents and are alleged to have created PA by nonpreferred mothers. Although this is far from clear, it may be that the real concern in PA comes out of an authoritarian emphasis on family hierarchy and the threats to traditional family structures of having children exercise choices and express criticism of parents. In a world in which women are moving toward equality with men and a weakened hierarchy, both men and women with authoritarian values may be panicked by the idea that control over children could be diminished. These powerful motivating beliefs can help lawyers and clients argue persuasively in courts despite a lack of evidence for their claims.
RM beliefs and treatments are considerably less powerful than they once were and have less influence in courts. How did this change come about, and can similar methods be used to fight the influence of PA? There seem to have been several factors at work in the diminution of RM influence. One was simply the spread of more factual information, so people were exposed to reports countering “news” about Satanic rituals and the recovery of traumatic memories. Another was the effort made by psychologists and others to examine systematically the nature of memories , yielding much information about how memories are created and recalled. In addition, help for and coordination of these efforts was provided by organizations like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. These may be the sorts of work we need to combat the increasing influence of PA ideas: serious efforts to spread the facts and counter PA claims, more systematic research exploring the various reasons why children of divorce may avoid one parent and whether it is important for their development that they have relationships with both parents, and the involvement of organizations like the American Psychological Association and American Professional Society on Abuse of Children to oppose the several hybrid parent-professional groups that advocate extensively for PA views.