A Public Broadcasting System program on domestic violence has set off a mail war around the nation between men’s rights groups and supporters of the domestic-violence show.

The program, Breaking the Silence/Children’s Stories, is a follow-up to the acclaimed Breaking the Silence/Journeys of Hope (2001). The new program seeks to analyze the long-term effects of domestic violence on children and specifically challenges “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS). It was underwritten by the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation.

The concept of PAS is generally attributed to Richard Gardner, the head of Creative Therapeutics and author of Parental Alienation Syndrome. It is defined as when “a child has been alienated from one parent—usually the father—when the other parent makes charges of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.”

While Gardner’s Web site says that there has been “increasing appreciation of the PAS,” actually there has been decreasing appreciation of the syndrome, if it is one. The American Psychological Association says it is not, and many scholars say it is another political invention, like ABC (an unproven link between abortion and breast cancer).

After the PBS program began airing, an Internet campaign was mounted against it, and the network was hit with a flood of complaining letters. In Reno, Nevadans for Equal Parenting posted a link labeled “PBS DECLARES WAR ON FATHERS!!” The link led to an article on the Web page of a group called the Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents’ Rights.

The article says, “Despite the film’s claims, research shows that parental alienation is a common facet of divorce or separation. For example, a longitudinal study published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 ‘high conflict’ divorce cases over a 12-year period and found that elements of PAS were present in the vast majority of them.”

Soon a counteroffensive was underway around the nation. In Reno, domestic-violence-program advocates circulated an e-mail plea asking people to write to PBS to support the program: “Right now, PBS stations across the country are only hearing NEGATIVE feedback from fathers rights groups—they have sent over 1,000 complaint e-mails to PBS stations across the country. However, there is strong support nationally for this PBS film, and PBS stations need to hear from those supporters.”

Samples of online attacks on the program:

Blogwonks: “The real intent of the film was made clear when Attorney Richard Ducote stated that ‘All experts have disavowed Dr. Richard Gardner’s work on PAS.’ … That was one of many blatant lies as many psychologists and psychiatrists do recognize PAS as a legitimate disorder, and the American Psychological Association had included it in their ‘Guidelines for child Custody Evaluations’ manual several years ago and is considering the inclusion of PAS in their list of mental aberrations.”

Online critic Mark Rosenthal: “The film’s central thesis, that Parental Alienation Syndrome is ‘junk science’ that has been discredited by the American Psychological Association, is itself misleading. Although it’s true that Temple University psychiatry professor Paul Fink called PAS ‘junk science’ in a July 1, 2003, Newsday interview, he explained, ‘There are lots of people who alienate their partners during a divorce. But it is not a syndrome, a disease or a disorder.’ So the claim that PAS is ‘junk science’ doesn’t mean it never happens; it just means it’s not a recognized mental illness. Without Fink’s full explanation, most people would assume that calling PAS ‘junk science’ means the phenomenon doesn’t happen. Dispelling that misimpression would undermine the filmmakers’ point, so the fact that they don’t provide the full explanation is worth noting.” (The full quote from Fink: “This is junk science. He [Gardner] invented a concept and talked as if it were proven science. It’s not.”)

However, neither Blogwonks nor Rosenthal include one of the American Psychological Association’s conclusions: “Research indicates that high levels of continued conflict between separated and divorced parents hinders children’s normal development. Some practitioners now believe that it may be better for children’s development to restrict the father’s access to them and avoid continued danger to both mothers and the children.”

University of Nevada women’s studies lecturer Rebecca Thomas says, “This was the first documentary I’ve seen that told stories similar to what I watched unfold during my time working in family court. It is shameful how many judges and masters allow pseudo-psychological evidence into their courtrooms and into their decisions. Parental Alienation … is a perfect example of junk science being used in decisions that in the end do more harm to children and families than good.”

There is little question that there are doubts about PAS among scholars. Recently, the educational publishing firm Haworth Press canceled publication of a book about the concept.

The controversy has not stopped Reno’s PBS outlet from airing the program. Breaking the Silence/ Children’s Stories aired at 10 p.m. on Oct. 20 on KNPB in Reno. The station’s Web page described the program this way: “A report on domestic violence against children focuses on how courts handle some cases. Interviewees include New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who founded the Safe-at-Home Foundation.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...