Kathleen Parker

Proclamations generally have the same riveting power as supermarket ribbon-cuttings, but a recent one in Maine is being celebrated as a small victory for children and noncustodial parents wounded by divorce.

The proclamation, signed by Gov. John E. Baldacci, recognized April 25 as "Parental Alienation Awareness Day."

If you don't know what "parental alienation" is, you probably haven't had the pleasure of a divorce with children. Veterans of those wars know without a governor's seal exactly what it means - agony for a noncustodial parent and emotional problems for children alienated from one parent.

Baldacci's proclamation is noteworthy in the age of divorce because it officially recognizes Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as a psychological condition that can have lasting consequences for children torn between battling parents in high-conflict divorces.

Given the operative words "high-conflict," one can imagine that not everyone is applauding. Although PAS would seem to affirm common sense, it is a deeply divisive and controversial idea embraced by fathers' groups and often abhorred by mothers in divorce cases.

Fathers who feel disenfranchised when courts award custody of their children to the mother during divorce have used PAS successfully to pressure judges to allow greater access to their children. One can hardly blame men for trying to be fathers.

But critics claim that abusive fathers sometimes use PAS to force access where none should be granted. Mothers claim in such cases that they're trying to protect their children, not alienate them.

This latter argument became the centerpiece last fall of a controversial PBS documentary about abused women and children, "Breaking the Silence," that fathers' groups attacked as unbalanced and unfair.

No fathers were interviewed, and the cases reviewed tended to be extreme and sensational.

Several women interviewed, for instance, said that they lost custody of their children to abusive fathers (confirmed by the children themselves) when fathers used PAS to "prove" that the women were systematically teaching their children to hate their fathers.

Glenn Sacks, a radio show host and columnist, called the film a "direct assault on fatherhood," and organized a protest on his Web site. Others - many of whom I know and respect as fellow toilers in trying to advance fatherhood - joined in.

Sacks' campaign had an effect, and PBS ombudsman Michael Getler wrote a lengthy response agreeing that the show was unbalanced.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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