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“Academic Freedom” or “Freedom from Standards”?

An essay by Rinaldo Del Gallo, III, Esq.

Saturday, December 17, 2005
We all love freedom in academia and in the press.  But academic freedom and freedom of the press do not suggest complete freedom from standards. You are free to believe the world is flat or deny the Holocaust, but you do not expect these comments to make their way to PBS or the Albany Times Union.  You also do not expect them to be made by a Professor of Law at one of the nation’s leading law schools—George Washington University.  You expect law school professors to be truthful, own up to mistakes and misrepresentations of fact, and expect deans of law schools to enforce these standards. (Click here for a statement by the American Association of University Professors that states this about Academic Freedom: “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint. . .”)

  On October 20th, PBS ran a show called “Breaking the Silence: Children Stories” produced by Tatge/Lasseur Production.  It is expected to air again on a number of occasions.  The innumerable ridiculous statements are impossible to discuss at length in one column, including off-the-wall exaggerations about the success of fathers in court and percentage of fathers who are actually violent.  But one particular statement was about a phenomenon known as “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” often abbreviated “PAS.”   As anyone with any commonsense knows, when parents are separated, one parent often attempts to alienate the child from the other parent by making disparaging statements about them, true or not.  Commonsense also suggest, and psychologists nearly universally confirm, such conduct is extraordinarily detrimental to children, who wants to believe they have both “a good dad” and a “good mom.”   Sometimes these criticisms of the parent are internalized as criticisms of themselves, for children see their parents as extensions of themselves.  Family courts often order parents not to make disparaging remarks about the other parent in the child’s presence.  Sadly, these orders are often ignored and children are hurt.  Even when the attempt to alienate has been unsuccessful, children are traumatized that one parent is belittling the other parent and are scared by the exposure to conflict.  The child often feels that the one parent is conditioning her love and/or approval on the child’s acceptance of the derogatory statements about the other parent, pressuring the child to reject the other parent. The child himself is often brainwashed into making derogatory statements about the other parent.  Children are highly susceptible to suggestion, and parents can exploit this to get children to believe things that are not true or are exaggerated about the other parent. Even when the child does not actually reject the other parent, the damage is often immeasurable.  

The attempt to alienate the child from the other parent is often called, “parental alienation,” a phenomenon that only a fool would deny, unless you are producing a documentary for PBS. As Dr. Darnall, a psychologist who is an expert in parental alienation defines it, “parental alienation” is “any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent.”  In short, parental alienation is the effort to get the child into thinking the other parent is a bum or otherwise want to stay away from the other parent.   

Much has been riding on the qualifier “syndrome.” A “syndrome” is defined as a set of signs, features or symptoms that characterize a specific disease or condition. By definition, “parental alienation syndrome” is the collective signs, features or symptoms that indicate that a child has been the victim of alienation efforts by the other parent. To deny that “parental alienation syndrome” exists, is to deny that parental alienation exist, for to deny the existence of the syndrome is to deny the existence of the constituent symptoms that make it up.

The term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” was coined by the now deceased Dr. Richard Gardner, who defined it as, “a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of a parent-denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated." Definitions of “Parental Alienation Syndrome” differ, and Dr. Gardner tweaked it himself in his lifetime.  As suggested by Dr. Darnall in my interview with him, if “parental alienation” is the attempt to alienate by the parent, “parental alienation syndrome” may be thought of as the actual result the child experiences as a result of that alienation effort. Dr. Darnall offers a different definition of “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” as explained on his website ParentalAlienation.com: “Dr. Gardner's definition states that the criticism of the other parent must be unjustified and/or exaggerated. I do not believe this is necessary. One parent can alienate the children against the other simply by harping on faults that are real and provable.”  

During “Breaking the Silence,” Professor Meier, in charge of the domestic violence legal clinic at my alma mater, George Washington University Law School, states that PAS has been dismissed by “every credible expert that has looked at [Dr. Gardner’s] work.”  There is one problem; the statement just is not true.  In 1997, The American Journal of Forensic Psychology ran a two-part series entitled, “The Spectrum of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” by Deirdre Conway Rand, Phd.. In an article entitled “Legal Recognition of the Parental Alienation Syndrome,” published in The American Journal of Family Therapy, Nancy Palmer advocates that guardian ad litems monitor PAS.  A website devoted to Richard Gardner himself, rgardner.com, lists 99 studies published in peer-reviewed journals where the primary focus is on parental alienation (so much that it is usually in the name of the article), with another 46 articles that focus significantly on PAS. One can suppose that Professor Meier believes that all these studies are not written by “credible experts” in order to extricate her from the misrepresentation, but this is an argument that just proves too much and is silly. She just wasn’t shooting straight. Professor Meier also states “Parental Alienation Syndrome has been thoroughly debunked by the American Psychological Association."  This statement is also not true.  According to Rhea K. Farberman, Executive Director of Public and Member Communications of the American Psychological Association, Professor Meier’s claim that PAS has been thoroughly debunked is "incorrect" and "inaccurate."  Farberman says that the APA "does not have an official position on Parental Alienation Syndrome--pro or con." She adds:  "The Connecticut Public Television [those that produced the show] press release is incorrect.   I have notified both Connecticut Public Television and their PR firm of the inaccuracy in their press release." In my interview with Professor Meier, she explained that the APA was bullied into making the statement by fathers’ rights groups.   To Professor Meier’s credit, the APA did state that “An APA 1996 Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family noted the lack of data to support so-called ‘parental alienation syndrome’, and raised concern about the term’s use.”  But the statement ended, “However, we have no official position on the purported  syndrome.”  (Click here for APA press release.) However you want to slice it, this hardly constitutes “thoroughly discredited.”  “No official position” means “no official position,” not “thoroughly debunked.”  This is an extremely important distinction.  Organizations often have individuals in it with particular views, but that hardly means they speak for the entire organization.   

In fact, as Professor Meier’s should know, when she speaks in public, she is to be clear she does not speak for George Washington University Law School. (Click here for a link the GW Faculty Handbook in PDF format.)  It is one of the major caveats to academic freedom. She, more than anyone, knew that the task force did not speak for the APA, and yet she knowingly made a misrepresentation that the APA had an official position.  Nor will she retract her statement now that everything has come to light.  When I spoke to Ms. Farberman herself, she explained that a task force is just an ad hoc sub committee, and does not speak for the whole association, who in fact actually vote on such matters through a representative body known as “The Council of Representatives.”  The APA has simply never “discredited PAS” and Professor Meier knows it.  

After my interview with Professor Meier, fully aware that the APA has stated it has “no official position,” she insists that the APA has it wrong, and somehow, in someway, the “authoritative” position of the APA is in finding that there is no such thing as PAS.   How can you argue with the sophistical logic that the spokesperson for the APA does not in fact speak on behalf of the APA when she says that a task force’s opinions do not represent the views of the entire organization?  Farberman would not comment on any discussions with Meier, and advised me that I would have to ask her for her permission. Farberman did indicate, however, that the documentary’s producers did not contact the APA to verify Professor Meier’s claim.  (Click here for Professor Meier’s version of “This is my story and I am sticking with it.”)(Click here for the APA handbook, which discusses the role of the Council of Representatives, which speak for the APA by adopting official positions.)
In her public statement, which she has verified to me as being hers in an e-mail, Professor Meier dismisses the “no official position” comment because, she claims, the APA Council of Representatives takes no position on diagnosis. She states:

APA does not adopt ‘official positions’ on matters such as this. Leading members of the APA have noted that the APA Board and Council never take an ‘official position’ on a diagnosis. PAS is considered a diagnosis and therefore would never be the subject of an official vote of that sort. The APA's statement that it takes no ‘official position’ on PAS means nothing more than that it takes no official position on any diagnosis.”

While this is dubious reasoning (and there is no indication for her actual source of this assertion that the council or representatives does not vote on diagnosis), this still cannot transmogrify a statement by the spokesperson that the APA has no official position into one of “thoroughly debunking.”  The simple syllogistic truth is that if PAS is a diagnosis, and the APA Council of Representatives takes not positions on diagnosis as Meier’s claims, ergo, the APA Council of Representatives has no position on PAS.  One does not take a small number of the APA’s members and hold it out as the position of the organization when the organizations own rules state otherwise. 

All Professor Meier’s has done is take the statement that the APA has no official position on PAS (of dubious accuracy as explained below) and proffer that as the reason why she can say “the APA has thoroughly debunked” PAS.  Explaining why the APA has no position on PAS is not an explanation as to why one has wrongfully made the misrepresentation that the APA has an official position.  Meier’s stated the APA (not just some of its members) has discredited the theory, when nothing could be further from the truth. In the end, Meier’s statement is wrong, the APA has not discredited PAS, and one has a sense of a professor that is being more cute than candid in explaining herself.  

Under the APA’s Bylaws, Article IV, Section 5, the Council of Representatives may vote on any matter—If they wanted to vote on the validity of PAS, they could have, at least their own rules seem to state. Professor Meier waxes on about a task force that simply does not speak for the APA—the Council of Representatives does.  Web links from the APA also indicate that the Representative Council has indeed voted on diagnosis in the past. Click here for an APA web page where the Council of Representatives did in fact rule on a diagnosis: “Whereas the COUNCIL OF REPRESENTATIVES already has urged APA members not to use the proposed DSM-III-R DIAGNOSES of Periluteal Phase Disorder, Self-Defeating Personality Disorder, and Sadistic Personality Disorder because they lack adequate scientific basis and are potentially dangerous to women”)

True, the APA does not list PAS in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but that hardly means that psychologists come to the absurd conclusion that children are not alienated from one parent by the other, or that they do not show symptoms of this. (Click here for a book critical of the DSM) (Click here for another book critical of the DSM). Obviously, there are any number of traumas that may exist that are real but not characterized specifically in the DSM, which once listed homosexuality as a disease in one of its earlier incarnations. (Nor does listing in the DSM end all debate. For instance, click here on an APA book asking whether PreMenstrual Dysphoric Disorder is real, entitled “Is PMDD real?” Even though PDSM is listed in the DSM, there is debate whether it actually exist.)  

One may feel anxiety and depression from going broke and homeless and there may no specific label in the DSM for anxiety specifically related to homelessness or economic deprivation, but nobody to be taken seriously would doubt the phenomenon exists. As Dr. Darnall pointed out in my interview, the APA has even produced a book called Divorce Wars: Interventions With Families in Conflict, by Elizabeth Ellis.  According to Dr. Darnall, Ellis took Gardner's criteria and put it in the format as if it were in the DSM. Perhaps it could be argued, using Professor Meier’s sophistical logic, that since the APA published the book, it has endorsed PAS and has spoken “authoritatively.” There is even a seminar offered by the APA that discusses PAS.  Is this too, using Meier’s logic, “an authoritative” statement. (Click here for an APA seminar that includes explaining how to identify Parental Alienation Syndrome.)

Dr. Darnall argues that there is too much an obsession with PAS’s failure to be listed in the DSM, and labels it “a distraction.” He admits that while it not officially listed in the DSM, and that there might be a slight difference between PAS and parental alienation, “the issue is the not the title, it is the pattern of behavior, and how that is destructive to children.”  In an effort to backtrack, PBS tried to first claim that the documentary was not really denying that parental alienation existed—just PAS. The co-producers of the documentary, at their website, stated: "We do not make the assertion that the phenomenon of alienation does not exist, simply that PAS seems to be wrongly used as scientific proof to justify taking children away from a protective parent." (Click here for comments by the producers of “Breaking the Silence) An interview I had with media relations staff Charlie Rose (just a namesake of the PBS talk show host) from a PBS affiliate, WGBY in Springfield, Massachusetts, went along with this mantra while speaking to me at a protest of the show just outside their studios, held by the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition and the Fatherhood Coalition.

But the show really did not discredit PAS while maintaining that parental alienation was real (if, in theory, this could be done at all).  The strong suggestion was that children are not really alienated against one parent by the other, and when children go to court and make a claim against the non-custodial parent, they should nearly always be believed. Explaining a child’s lack of affection for the non-custodial parent as being caused by alienating efforts of the custodial parent was presented as a shyster theory hoisted by psychologist and lawyers upon gullible judges. An ombudsman for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, Ken Bode, agrees with my take that the comments on the PBS website were backpedaling. Bode said in his press release, “In this case it appears that [the producers] plainly got it wrong. In a statement released to their website, the producers now say something quite different [about parental alienation] than they did in the film.” (Click here for Bode’s biography)  

Under the premise that there is no such thing as a false allegation, Professor Meier states, “To win custody of the kids over and against the mothers will is the ultimate victory  . . .short of killing the kids.”  Not exactly a sanguine view of fathers who are legitimately concerned about alienation and the child’s welfare.  In fact, the APA spokesperson, Rhea K. Farberman, could not identify the difference between “parental alienation” and “parental alienation syndrome,” and the documentary certainly did not try to distinguish between these very related and nearly interchangeable concepts.  The clear gist was that the alienation claims are almost always bogus and the monster stories about the fathers were to almost always be believed.  It is but a replay of an old effort by some unenlightened domestic violence advocates to erase the gray reality that sometimes women and children tell the truth, and sometimes they do not.  The notion that children cannot be brainwashed or lie was the direct cause of the witch-hunts; it is a dangerous proposition that can lead to injustice and tragedy when taken seriously.  

In an ironic climax, a 16-year old Fatima Loeliger tells about how her father tried to alienate her against her mother.  (She was given a fake name in the documentary.) According to Fatima, the father stated that the mother was on drugs, ran off back to Africa, and was a whore.  Fatima claims that these were all lies, and that she was depressed that her father would try to do such a despicable thing in an effort to divide the bond between mother and child.  If her statements about her father’s remarks were true, this would have been PAS, certainly PAS as defined by Dr. Darnall.   It’s enough to leave you banging your head on your desk. It turns out the child’s mother, Sadia Loeliger, actually had a long history of child abuse and was not the victim the film claimed she was, detailed information which is available at GlennSacks.com.  

Breaking the Silence
was a disaster waiting to happen.  It was underwritten by a $500,000 grant from the Mary Kay Ash Foundation, a subsidiary of Mary Kay Cosmetics, not exactly a recipe for objective journalism. (Click here to read about their grant.)  Cathy Hogan, PBS’s senior director for program project management and underwriting policy says, "We have absolute confidence that none of the funders in fact exercised any editorial control.”  It is impossible to believe that this did not happen in Breaking the Silence.  Fathers’ rights groups were not contacted and apparently neither was the APA.  Not a single father of the alleged victims was interviewed. (Click here for claim by film’s producers that the Mary Kay grant did not affect their journalism.) (Click here for the claim by the Mary Kay Ash Foundation that the film’s producers had complete independence.)  

A similar pattern occurred when PBS accepted funding by local Las Vegas entities when doing an American Experience show on Los Vegas. (To learn more on this, click on the article “Las Vegas: Did PBS Load the Dice?”) Recently, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was brought into bring political balance to the politically left-leaning PBS, was dismissed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  With his departure, shows that were meant to balance to PBS like The Journal Editorial Report, featuring the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, were taken off the air.  (Click here for the Wall Street Journal’s opinion on removing Tomlinson and the Journal Editorial Report.)  

Apparently, making efforts to provide political balance in itself was “political interference.”  Under this culture, it is not surprising the producers of “Breaking the Silence” did not feel any need to include statements of fathers, psychologist who recognize PAS, or interviews with fathers’ rights groups.  The left tells the truth.  When the right or the moderate middle seeks their say, they are “introducing politics.”  According to a story in the Boston Globe (discussed below), the producers said they didn’t want to interview fathers because “women’s stories are often dismissed because it is ‘he-said, she said,’” and they did not want to reproduce that dynamic.  Reporting all sides can be pesky business. 

Finally, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler stated in a December 2nd release, “A Little About Me, A Lot About ‘Breaking the Silence,’” “My assessment, as a viewer and as a journalist, is that this was a flawed presentation by PBS. [I]t seemed to me that PBS and CPTV were their own worst enemy and diminished the impact and usefulness of the examination of a real issue by what did, indeed, come across as a one-sided, advocacy program.” (Click her for Getler’s biography) Ken Bode, the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting said in his scathing November 29th review, “My conclusion after viewing and reviewing the program and checking various web sites cited by critics is that there is no hint of balance in Breaking the Silence.”  As for the $500,000 grant by the Mary Kay Ash Foundation, Bode said, “PBS may find it has been the launching pad for a very partisan effort to drive public policy and law."  The documentary has been the source of criticism by Cathy Young of the Boston Globe and Roger Catlin of the Hartford Courant.

I both e-mailed and called Professor Meier and had a long conversation with her about PAS and the APA’s position.  I asked her once if she was going to recant her statement about the APA “thoroughly debunking” and she said no.  When I followed through with another phone call, she said, “I have no comment,” apologized and hung up on me.  I also contacted Dean Fred Lawrence of GW Law regarding the gross factual misrepresentations, who replied by e-mail, “While I understand your concerns, I conclude that this is indeed one of those situations in which the values of academic freedom carry the day.”  Ahh, sweet “academic freedom.” The world where not only are you entitled to your own opinions, but your own facts, with accountability to none.   

Reviewing the program in the Albany, NY, Times Union newspaper, Bob Port in an op-ed entitled “Custody Fight” writes that producers of Breaking the Silence “deserves a Nobel Prize for honesty.”  Perhaps he should think again.

Rinaldo Del Gallo, III, Esq.

The author is a practicing family law attorney, an alumnus of George Washington University Law School, and spokesperson of the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition.

79 Nancy Avenue
Pittsfield, MA 01201

IMPORTANT NOTICE: THE BERKSHIRE FATHERHOOD COALITION is a group that is now separated and distinct from THE FATHERHOOD COALITION. The Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition is an organization dedicated to promoting the Father/Child relationship and promoting gender equality in family law.