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Casualties of a Custody War

Maverick expert exerts wide influence on custody cases

In February, Nathan Grieco, 16, of North Huntingdon was found dead in his bedroom, a belt around his neck. His death came after years of custody disputes between his mother, Karen Scott, and his father, Louis Grieco. The tragedy has raised the question of how courts should treat children who are caught between warring parents. It also has attracted attention because of the involvement of a nationally known, controversial psychiatrist.

When Louis Grieco decided in early 1996 to petition the Westmoreland County Court for full custody of his three sons, he turned for help to one of the most prominent -- and polarizing -- expert witnesses in American child-custody litigation.

Dr. Richard Gardner, a 67-year-old Columbia University psychiatrist, is highly influential in a very private corner of American jurisprudence -- family court, where the most vicious, intractable custody cases are fought behind closed doors, under court seal, only occasionally spilling out into the public domain.

These are the cases experts describe as "failed divorces," where disputes drag on long after the marriage legally ends. Sometimes the disputes are over money, sometimes over control. Sometimes the cases involve a child who hates a parent and won't go on visits, and sometimes, although less frequently than most people believe, the cases involve allegations of sexual abuse.

No sexual abuse accusations were ever made in the Grieco-Scott custody battle, but when the three Grieco boys, Nathan, Justin and Patrick, refused to go on visits with their father, Louis Grieco asked Gardner to step in.

For lawyers representing parents -- mostly fathers -- who are accused of abuse in custody disputes, Gardner is a powerful witness. His resume is impressive. A clinical professor of child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, his early work on the impact of divorce on children has been described as "classic" and "creative."

Since the mid-1980s, however, his ideas about how to treat children in custody disputes have come under increasing criticism by mental health professionals for being scientifically unproven and biased against women.

Gardner also has come under fire for testifying in cases about people he hasn't interviewed, although that doesn't violate any ethical code. Forensic psychiatrists, unlike psychologists, are permitted under American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law guidelines to render opinions about an individual if, "after earnest effort," their attempts to have a personal, face-to-face interview are unsuccessful.

Most of the criticism of Gardner has been directed at a theory he calls "parental alienation syndrome."

He contends that in many divisive custody cases, a parent, usually the mother, vindictively brainwashes a child into making false abuse allegations against the other parent, although he also claims that the syndrome exists only when "the parental programming is combined with the child's own scenarios of disparagement of the vilified parent."

"Although the mothers in these situations may have a variety of motivations for programming their children against their fathers, the most common one relates to the old saying: 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,"' says Gardner in a 1987 book, "The Parental Alienation Syndrome and The Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Sex Abuse."

And in a report filed in the Grieco case, Gardner noted that "PAS mothers have a way of finding therapists, almost invariably women, who reflexively join them in their campaign of denigration of the father ... (and) in some cases even join the mother's paranoid delusional system."

In some cases in which "fanatic" mothers want to limit or cut off visits to the father, he wrote, "I believe that the most important element in these children's therapy is immediate transfer by the court to the home of the so-called hated parent."

Gardner's parental alienation syndrome has been cited increasingly in contested divorces. In Texas, where juries hear civil custody cases, a mother's rights to her children were terminated in 1993 after a jury, citing the syndrome, concluded she had coached her children into making claims of sexual abuse against the father. And in North Carolina, a 14-year-old girl was jailed for three days for refusing to visit her father. The judge in the case relied partly on a psychologist who said the girl was suffering from the syndrome.

Gardner's claims aren't based on standard research methods and haven't been verified in other scientific studies, several other experts have said.

Instead, he bases his theories on nearly 40 years of personal experience as a psychiatrist.

As a result, his articles on parental alienation syndrome rarely appear in mainstream medical publications, which require that such findings be reviewed by a panel of the author's colleagues. Instead, Gardner publishes his own books, videotapes and audiotapes, under the company name Creative Therapeutics.

He declined to be interviewed for this article.

"Most researchers in the field of mental health don't know who he is," said Pamela Ludolph, a psychologist and child abuse expert at the University of Michigan, "because we don't ever see his work in peer-reviewed journals. Most of his theories wouldn't ever get past a peer-review panel."

Still, there are plenty of mental health professionals who believe Gardner is onto something.

"It's been a very hot topic. I get lots of questions about it," said Arnold Sheinvold, a Mechanicsburg, Pa., psychologist who frequently testifies in custody cases and who has lectured on parental alienation at continuing legal education seminars for lawyers.

"Your husband is withholding the mortgage payment. What's the only thing you can withhold? The kids. That's where the kids become a power chip. Mom is in a weaker negotiating position. ... And if you look at the power dynamics of divorce, there are very few chips left except allegations of abuse of children."

Not only is Gardner's parental alienation syndrome hugely popular among certain divorce attorneys, his own testimony is avidly sought. In the high-priced, crowded and contentious field of expert witnesses, Gardner is a phenomenon unto himself. He estimates he has testified in person in at least 300 cases in 24 states, charging hundreds of dollars an hour in fees.

It is money well spent, some lawyers say.

"I think Gardner's science is spurious; nonetheless, it is useful," said Christopher Emley, a San Francisco lawyer and president of the California Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of harm in defense attorneys saying (the mother) is a parent alienator and she fits the items on the (Gardner) profile (of symptoms)."

When women make false abuse allegations, Emley says, Gardner's theory helps, because "in my experience, the judge needs to be nudged hard to see the impure motivations and ulterior motives that are behind these abuse charges."

Others, though, say Gardner's prejudice against women undermines his theory.

His "gender bias infects the syndrome and makes it a powerful tool to undermine credibility of women who allege child sexual abuse," said John E.B. Myers, a legal expert on child abuse at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif.

For a time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gardner was one of the most widely quoted experts on television and in print whenever a sex abuse scandal made headlines. When several prominent child molestation cases against day care workers collapsed in the 1980s, Gardner's opinion was eagerly sought by journalists. During the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow custody battle in the early 1990s, Gardner was quoted in Newsweek, People and on NBC's "Prime Time Live."

His thesis: The country was in the grip of a wave of mass sexual-abuse hysteria, fueled by vindictive women falsely accusing fathers or child-care workers of abuse.

And while his media presence seems to have faded somewhat in recent years, after news reports began raising questions about his theories, Gardner has remained busy, traveling the country and testifying in cases involving custody disputes, child molestation, and even murder.

In 1988, Gardner appeared in Maryland on behalf of Marc Friedlander, who was accused of shooting his wife during a drop-off of their children for visitation. Citing parental alienation syndrome, Gardner testified that Friedlander's wife Zitta had so frustrated and enraged him after 27 months of blocking visits with their children that he became "acutely psychotic and murdered his wife."

Friedlander should be found guilty of temporary insanity, Gardner said. A jury disagreed, and found him guilty of first degree murder.

Not all judges are impressed by Gardner.

While Judge John Driscoll of Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court relied partly on Gardner's theories in his ruling on the Grieco case, other judges have reacted unfavorably.

Jacqueline Silberman, who presides over New York state's matrimonial division, stated in a 1991 case that "for the record, I have never heard a worse hired gun in my life than Dr. Gardner," and then wondered "what he is doing at Columbia University."

Gardner, in a later court appearance, countered by calling Silberman "crazy."

Sol Gothard, an appellate court judge for Louisiana's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, complains that too many judges don't bother to look into Gardner's record, relying on his resume instead.

"Too many judges making critical decisions relative to child custody do not have the slightest idea of how Dr. Richard Gardner has been thoroughly discredited by the professionals in this area, the social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists," Gothard said.

Michael McCurley, this year's president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, has used Gardner as a witness several times, but believes "that his credibility has waned over the years." Still, he credits him for taking on a politically unpopular cause, particularly on the matter of child sex abuse allegations.

 
    Gardner's controversial stance on incest

Many divorce lawyers and even some therapists who hire Dr. Richard Gardner, or rely on his ''parental alienation syndrome,'' are unaware of his most controversial writings -- on how to deal with incest in families.

 
 

"There was a basic movement in this country that children never lie, and he was taking the position that allegations of sex abuse can be implanted in a child's mind, and no one wanted to hear that," McCurley said.

In five years, he said, the debate over Richard Gardner and other controversial experts may well be moot, because McCurley believes judges and juries are starting to get tired of dueling witnesses hired by the opposing parties.

What's important in any case are the facts, he said.

"If something has occurred, you don't have to put a special label on the truth," he said. "Don't strap a syndrome on it ... a fancy label does not the truth make."

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