Lost Children: Parental Alienation - How parental brainwashing can destroy the once-close relationships of kids and their divorced dads

Jeff Opperman, a 49-year-old corporate-communications officer in Seymour, Connecticut, got the first gut-churning clue of how ruinous his divorce was going to be to his relationship with his younger son the night it became clear he and his wife, Anne, had to part.

They'd been married for 17 years, but it hadn't been going well. "We were fighting and drifting apart," says Opperman, "and the more we fought, the more we drifted apart, and the more we drifted apart, the more we fought." They decided to hold off telling Alec, just 11, until he'd finished camp that summer. But the marriage was so rocky that Jeff and Anne arrived in separate cars to take him home, leaving it to Alec to choose which car to ride home in. He picked his mother's -- a fateful choice,
as things turned out. "God knows what she said to him in that car for an hour and a half," Opperman says.

The next night, when he and Anne "got into it" in their bedroom,

she burst out the door and raced down to Alec's room, where she yelled, Opperman recalls, "the most horrid, disgraceful things, calling me a liar, a cheat, a son of a bitch, just everything." Tears streamed down Alec's reddened face, but he didn't try to defend his dad. Instead, to Opperman's astonishment, he started to chime in, feebly parroting some of his mother's charges, even though he'd always been close to his father.

When Opperman tried to give the boy a reassuring hug, Anne abruptly stepped between them and, claiming that Jeff was going to hurt the boy, threatened to call the police if he came any closer. Opperman backed off, not wanting to risk a bigger scene in front of his son. "Alec cried his eyes out," Opperman recalls. "Just cried and cried."
That was 6 years ago, but it established the dynamic by which Jeff became the designated ogre parent and Alec became Anne's exclusive possession. Jeff acknowledges that he hadn't been a perfect husband. "When a marriage breaks down, both parties are at fault, and ours was no different," he says. But regardless of who was responsible for the divorce, Jeff feels his ex should have protected Alec from the negative aspects of the relationship. Instead, he claims, she burdened their son with her pain and sense of betrayal -- and Alec responded by aligning himself fully with his mother and emotionally cutting off his dad.

Although Opperman was granted joint custody and lives just 10 minutes away, he has since seen his son only for the briefest intervals -- despite repeatedly taking his ex to court over custody violations. "The court adopts this tough-talking John Wayne attitude," Opperman recounts. "'You will take the child to counseling. You will allow the child to maintain relations with the father. You will, you will, you will.' But my ex doesn't do any of it -- and nothing happens." Despite all Opperman's efforts, the court has been both reluctant to force Alec to spend time with a father he wants nothing to do with and unwilling to compel Alec's mother by threat of jail time.

All this leaves Opperman out in the cold. His Christmas and birthday presents to Alec go unacknowledged. When Opperman calls, Alec will occasionally pick up, but when he hears that it's his father on the line, he won't speak. All Jeff hears is Alec's breath in the receiver before he sets the phone down. Last summer, Opperman came to the house to pick up his older son, Alec's brother. There were lights on in Alec's bedroom, and Opperman could see the back of Alec's head as he stared at a computer screen. Jeff honked the horn, hoping to get Alec's attention. "I was sure he could hear me," Jeff recalls. "But
Alec never even turned his head."

Opperman's desperation is hardly unique. About 40 percent of children living with their mothers don't see their fathers so much as once a year. Even allowing for fathers who are at war, in prison, or otherwise unavailable, statistics like that force the question: Are there really that many men out there who simply don't care about their kids and vice versa? Or is something more sinister at work?

For the rest of this important story, see the June 2006 issue of
Best Life Magazine, on newsstands now, or click here.