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Casualties of a Custody War

The courtroom as battleground

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. Nathan's death has attracted national attention from children's rights groups and legal experts, and has raised the question of how courts should treat children who are caught between warring parents. The dispute between his father and mother intensified after Scott remarried in 1993. That's where today's story begins.

On the night of Oct. 23, 1993, Karen Scott's North Huntingdon neighbors rushed to their windows and porches after hearing blood-curdling screams coming from Scott's driveway.

While accounts differ on exactly what happened, all sides agree that some kind of physical altercation occurred at the home that night, injuring both Scott, who needed stitches for cuts in her cheek and mouth, and her ex-husband, Louis Grieco, who suffered a fractured finger and some scratches and bruises around his neck.

Four years after their divorce, the simmering Grieco-Scott feud had erupted in violence. Grieco, a retired Navy pilot, had been saying in court petitions that Scott was preventing him from seeing his children; Scott contended that Grieco had become increasingly hostile to her and to the three boys, Nathan, then 11; Justin, 9; and Patrick, 7, ever since she had informed him in 1992 she was going to remarry.

Whoever was right, the events of that evening would have lasting, traumatic effects on the three children.

Grieco was arrested on assault charges and jailed for two weeks. The incident prompted an investigation by the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, counseling sessions for the boys, and a protective order barring Grieco from contacting them.

More than a year afterward, in November 1994, he was found not guilty in a jury trial. The prosecutor, Alan Pawanda, said that because no witnesses had seen who had started the fight, there was plenty of reasonable doubt facing the jury, and "juries are kind of hesitant about convicting when there isn't overwhelming evidence. They think this kind of thing is a private matter."

Unpleasant visits

Shortly after the acquittal, Louis Grieco filed for renewed visits with his sons.

The family court judge in the case, John Blahovec, took a cautious tack.

He ruled that supervised visits could take place "in a therapeutic setting." He chose the Comprehensive Counseling Center, a branch of Westmoreland Hospital, which receives the bulk of the court's therapy assignments.

The visits were not successful. Nearly half a dozen times between November 1994 and February 1995, Grieco came from Illinois to see the boys, and each time they refused, citing their fear and anger because of the assault. Social workers who were present noted that Karen Scott urged them to go see their father.

In December 1995, a new judge took over the case. It was former District Attorney John J. Driscoll, who had won election to Common Pleas Court that fall.

Trained as a prosecutor, Driscoll took a decidedly harder line when the boys continued to defy court orders to visit their father. In January 1996, he ordered that sheriff's deputies escort the children to the center -- or Karen Scott would face the possibility of six months in jail.

On Jan. 16, 1996, the boys were dragged, kicking and screaming, into a sheriff's van at their home and taken to the counseling center.

The same day, Scott's attorney, Sandra Davis, asked the court to appoint a "guardian ad litem" for the children -- a lawyer who would represent the interests of the children. The court appointed Richard Baumgartner of Latrobe.

Shortly afterward, Scott said, Nathan had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in the child psychiatric unit at Monsour Medical Center. His diagnosis: anxiety, depression and oppositional disorder, which encompasses hostility, disobedience and difficulty controlling impulses.

Enter Richard Gardner

Not long after Nathan's hospitalization, in February 1996, the stakes rose dramatically in the battle between his parents.

Louis Grieco filed for full custody, saying the children were suffering from something called Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS.

PAS is a theory espoused by Dr. Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Columbia University.

Gardner believes that 90 percent of the allegations of abuse against children in custody cases are false, whether they involve physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

When children claim abuse in a custody battle, Gardner said, it's usually because they are suffering the effects of PAS, a mental disorder mostly afflicting "vindictive mothers" who have brainwashed their children into making allegations against the fathers.

Gardner provides no scientific data to support his theories about PAS, and most of his articles on the subject have not appeared in peer-reviewed medical journals, which require analysis by fellow professionals before publication. Instead, he publishes his own books, audio tapes and videotapes.

PAS also isn't listed as a "syndrome" in the American Psychiatric Association's manual of such disorders.

Still, Gardner, who declined to be interviewed for this report, has become a favorite witness for some divorce lawyers -- usually those representing fathers -- who believe that his scientific language and his forceful personality are a potent weapon in the courtroom.

Most therapists agree that children often become alienated from one parent or another in contentious divorces. But Gardner's "syndrome" goes too far, they say, particularly because it erroneously places all blame on one parent, usually the mother.

Determining the causes of a child's alienation isn't easy, and the Grieco case was no exception.

The experts disagree

Carol Patterson, a psychologist and investigator with the county Children's Bureau, told the court she didn't believe that Scott had negatively influenced the children. Dr. Dale Fruman, a psychiatrist with the Comprehensive Counseling Center at Westmoreland Hospital, felt otherwise.

Citing the center's difficulty in arranging visits between the father and his children, Fruman said Scott had done "everything she could not to promote a positive relationship with the father over the course of many years, to undermine it, to devaluate it, demote it, interfere with it."

Still, both Patterson and Fruman agreed that visits should not be forced.

Gardner had a very different view.

In a 61-page report to the court, he stated that while his conclusions had to be considered "hypothetical," the Grieco case was, in his opinion, a "classical example of PAS."

Even though Scott's attorney rejected his request to interview Scott or the boys, Gardner concluded that Scott was "sadistic" in failing to allow Grieco to visit his children on two occasions; and that the children were "sadistic" in how they treated their father, and had "indeed been injured psychologically and mentally by their programming mother."

Scott's "obstructionism," he said, "was massive."

While Gardner did not recommend transferring custody of the boys to Grieco at that point, he did recommend something he called "threat therapy."

"These children need coercion" to see their father, he said. If they are forced to visit him, they "then will most likely relax with their father."

And the penalty for not complying, he said, should be court-enforced sanctions against the mother.

The judge's ruling

With the experts' contradictory opinions in front of him, it was time for Driscoll to make a decision.

In February 1997, the judge ordered the boys and their mother to appear in his courtroom. He then read them his order.

Mother would retain custody, but the children had to visit their father. And under his order, Scott would not only be responsible for delivering the boys for visits with their father; she would ensure that they were in "a positive frame of mind, ready and willing to go with" Grieco; she would ensure that they were "at all times respectful of father and of his lawful commands."

If she failed to fulfill these and other responsibilities listed in Driscoll's order, she would be held on contempt-of-court charges, "and if she is determined to be in contempt, she will be sentenced to a period of incarceration."

There have been some cases nationally of judges sending adolescents to jail for refusing to visit a parent. Last summer, a 14-year-old girl in North Carolina was locked up for three days for refusing to visit her father in Los Angeles (the psychologists in her case also cited Parental Alienation Syndrome).

But this kind of sanction, "threat therapy," is almost unknown, according to experts in family law and custody cases.

"There certainly is a whole intensity that accompanies these cases," said Jeff Atkinson, a family law expert at DePaul University. "Sometimes judges will get exasperated and enter blustery orders or comments to try to make the children have a good relationship with their parents."

And sometimes, in rare cases, a parent will be jailed if there is strong evidence that he or she has been maliciously blocking a relationship with the other parent.

"If the jailing results in changing conduct, if it results in a better relationship with the alienated parent, it's quite possibly justified. The problem is, it doesn't usually work," Atkinson said.

Richard Baumgartner, the children's legal representative in the Grieco case, favored the judge's ruling.

He said Pennsylvania law required that noncustodial parents such as Grieco be allowed visits unless they posed a risk of grave harm to the children.

"When you have a mother who has custody, and has been found by the courts to have alienated her children, and you have a father who isn't a perfect parent seeking visitation, what's the court to do?" Baumgartner asked.

But is such an order in the best interest of the children?

No, said Dr. Janet Johnston, a California researcher noted for her work on high-conflict divorces. While it's understandable for alienated parents to become frustrated and angry when a child refuses to see them, Johnston said, "there is a tendency (by courts) to become arbitrary, punitive and coercive with the child," and courts "may be tempted to impose changes of custody and access arrangements on children that they are not well equipped to handle."

She and other mental health professionals believe that long-term therapy for the child, as well as counseling and support for both parents, is the best way to help children who fear one of the parents.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Max Baer, who presides over the county's family and juvenile courts, declined to talk about the specifics of the Grieco case, but said he didn't believe alienated children were a result of brainwashing by one parent.

"It's a complex matrix of factors, including the fact that many children want to please the parent with whom they live," Baer said. "And to the extent you live with Mom and Mom hates Dad, to some extent the kid will mirror that."

So are forced visits the answer?

Baer said the answer depended partly on the age and development of the child.

"As a judge, if I'm presented with a healthy 12-year-old with good grades, I have him go see Dad. But a 16-year-old is different. I would not force a 16-year-old to go. A 14-year-old, well, he's on the cusp. I would be careful. I probably would not force it."

Driscoll, who also declined to comment on the specifics of the case, would say only that his court order was not based on Gardner's recommendations alone.

"I did not arrive at (the decision) quickly," Driscoll said. "It was based on all the testimony and the history of the case. I ultimately concluded that it was appropriate to enter such a strong order, which would compel the mother to produce the children for dad's visits."

No sign of improvement

In the year in which "threat therapy" was in effect, no signs emerged to show that it was promoting a healthy relationship between the boys and their father.

Scott contends that the dozen or so visits that took place were "horrible" for the boys, especially Nathan, whose school guidance counselor phoned her after the visits began and said Nathan seemed unusually depressed.

Initially, at least, county officials seemed inclined to blame Scott for any problems. After one weekend visit, the boys were "unusually negative," said Dennis Donahue, director of the court-ordered therapy program for the boys. That behavior, he said, could be "directly attributed to the mother, who is not fulfilling her obligation to bring the boys in a positive frame of mind regarding visits."

Two months later, Donahue wrote to the court again. This time, however, he chastised Grieco over "hitting incidents" that had occurred during a two-week vacation with the boys during the summer of 1997, and told him that he should enroll in a parenting program to learn about appropriate discipline.

Grieco enrolled in the program, but did not go to all the sessions. The "threat therapy" remained in place.

Early this year, a new judge replaced Driscoll, who was transferred to criminal court. Karen Scott's attorney asked that the "threat therapy" order be rescinded, but at the end of January, Judge Rita Hathaway denied her request.

That same month, Nathan wrote a series of essays in his creative writing class at Norwin High School.

In one, he bitterly described how a girl had rejected him. He moved on to "the other torture in my life" -- his parents' divorce, in which his father is "still harassing us through court case after court case."

His essay concluded: "Thus ends this chapter in my life of endless torment."

Two weeks after he wrote those words, Nathan was dead. His mother found him in his room with a belt around his neck.

The coroner's office declined to rule it either a suicide or an accident. "There just wasn't enough evidence either way," Deputy Coroner "Skip" Rusiewicz said.

Shortly afterward, Scott's attorney made a request on behalf of the two surviving boys: a break from visits with their father. She presented Nathan's essays to the court as evidence of his state of mind when he died.

Hathaway rejected that request.

A week after Nathan's funeral, Patrick and Justin were ordered to meet with their father again, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Greensburg, with Bishop Jeffrey Farr, a church elder, serving as a mediator.

But Scott did want to talk. And on March 16, she decided to go public with her story.

She appeared at a hearing in Harrisburg on custody reform before the state House Judiciary Committee, brought there by a children's rights activist who had learned of her plight.

After describing Nathan's death, she went on to say that Justin and Patrick, who were not present, were "very angry over their lack of rights. This has been ... three years and 99 motions filed by my ex-husband. All forms of visitation were unsuccessful."

While legislators listened in what appeared to be stunned silence, Scott urged them to "give children choices" in custody disputes.

Nathan, she added, had been "feeling no worth because no one listened to him. Right before Nathan died, I found him refusing to look in the mirror at himself. He just felt so useless.

"I implore you to look at the face of my dead son, Nathan, which, by the way, means 'gift from God.' Read his obituary and please understand that the world is not a better place without him."

The friction continues

Last week, Louis Grieco asked the court to jail his ex-wife on contempt charges for violating the "threat therapy" order, after a visit with his two surviving sons in late April ended badly when he argued with Justin. He also complained that Justin had refused to speak with him on the telephone.

As she awaits yet another court ruling, Karen Scott has put her house up for sale.

The family wants out, she said. Reminders of Nathan are too sharp. For weeks after his death, Justin, 14, and Patrick, 12, refused to sleep in their second-floor rooms, opting instead for the first-floor family room.

Sitting in their mother's kitchen recently, they talked about their travails. Karen Scott had left the room, saying she wanted the boys to feel free to speak.

If this was a family in grief, it wasn't immediately obvious. By turns flip and somber, the boys deflected probing questions with a skill obviously honed from countless meetings with judges, therapists and lawyers.

"It's not going to stop until we're 18," said Justin, shrugging his shoulders.

They talked about Louis Grieco, but there was little emotion. They described a man who took them to the movies and the mall and the golf course; who didn't take kindly to backtalk; who "would get in your face with a legal document" if they resisted seeing him.

And what if the courts were to decide that they should live with their father?

"I'm hitting the road. I'm gone," said Justin, leaning back in his chair, his face a blank.

"Me, too," piped up Patrick.

"Yeah," his older brother shot back, with a slight smile. "I'll put you in my pocket."

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