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Order in the Lunchroom: Parental Alienation

On June 24, 2015, Michigan Judge Lisa Gorcyca ordered three children -- ages 9, 10 and 15 -- to a juvenile facility, known as Children's Village, for "failing to maintain a 'healthy relationship' with their father.
07/24/2015 04:38pm ET | Updated July 24, 2016
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On June 24, 2015, Michigan Judge Lisa Gorcyca ordered three children -- ages 9, 10 and 15 -- to a juvenile facility, known as Children's Village, for "failing to maintain a 'healthy relationship' with their father. On July 10, she reversed her decision and has allowed the three children to attend a Jewish Summer Camp program, and as of July 22 are being permitted to stay there until August 13. The judge held the kids in contempt of court after they refused to have lunch with or talk to their dad in the Oakland County Family Court cafeteria." It seems the children had some negative feelings towards their father; however, the source of those feelings is causing quite a debate. The mother's attorney refused to comment, but a representative for the father stated that the children's refusal to spend time with him was based on the mother's actions. Specifically, she was described as someone who "continually alienates the children" from their father. So, who to believe? Is mom doing everything she can to encourage a relationship with dad and the children have refused? Or is she turning the children against a loving father for her own personal gain?

Either way, it seems this mother's behavior is not unusual. Dr. William G. Austin, a psychologist with an emphasis on child custody services, states: "Almost all divorcing parents who are having a parenting/custody dispute hold negative gatekeeping attitudes concerning the other parent. Many of these parents have difficulty in recognizing the continuing importance and value of the other parent for the child's development. Such parents need to learn to compartmentalize their negative attitudes from their gatekeeping behaviors so both parents can be substantially involved with the child."

Thus, whether a parent is doing so intentionally or unintentionally, the people ultimately harmed by alienating or "gatekeeping" behaviors are the children. In the case with Judge Gorcyca, she chose to take an almost unheard of position and physically separated the children from both parents in an effort to undo the damage done to the children's relationship with their father. At the June 24 hearing, the judge told the children "You have been brainwashed. You are brainwashed. This is not normal behavior." (page 21 of the court transcript) In a typical case, if a child is not visiting with the other parent pursuant to an agreement or order, and there is no just cause for such behavior, the parent who is perceived to be in violation is held in contempt. It is shocking to hear a judge hold children in contempt. And, as it is so rare, if not completely unprecedented, the legality of Judge Gorcyca's decision was called into question, even gaining international attention.

The Judge reversed her decision after the children's Father and the minor children's Guardian ad litem filed a motion to have the children released. The Guardian recommended that it was in the minor children's best interest to be released from the detention facility and sent to a summer camp. The children's Guardian blasted the Mother for alienating the children from their Father. No one is certain what will happen to the children or where they will go when they finish camp but undoubtedly there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

The parties have been in litigation for five years and given the recent events, the litigation will continue. Reportedly, Father's attorney plans to file a Motion seeking sole physical and legal custody of the minor children. However, given the children's state of mind and beliefs, putting the children with their father may do more harm than good. There is a lot of damage that needs to be undone and professionals will need to work with the children and their father to re-build a relationship. The alleged "brainwashing" needs to be reversed and that will undoubtedly take time.

As many are asking themselves: How? How do you undo the years of damage? How do you teach the children to love the parent they have learned to hate? Dr. Richard A. Warshak is the leading expert in this area and has written books and articles on the topic of Alienation, to include "Divorce Poison". Dr. Warshak also runs a "Family Bridges Program". This intensive program is designed for families (such as this one) where parents work with a team of professionals with the hopes of successfully reuniting the children with the alienated parent. Should the judge educate herself with the literature on this subject, she may order that the Mother bear the heavy cost of having Father and the children participate in such a program.

But in the meantime, is what she did going to help? Will it cause more harm to the children than good? Only time will tell. If it becomes clear that her decision has in some way helped the children, when the parents themselves couldn't do so, courtrooms around the country may see judges taking a similar stance in an effort to fight against parental alienation.

Co-written with Nadia A. Margherio, Principal and Attorney, Sodoma Law, P.C.