California residents may recall media reports in July 2015 about a Michigan judge sending three children to a juvenile detention facility after finding them in contempt of court for refusing to join their father for lunch. The children concerned were at the center of a contentious child custody battle, and the judge in the case made her decision after becoming convinced that they had been poisoned against their father. Widespread coverage of the case prompted the judge to reconsider her custodial sentence, and she elected to order a controversial new form of therapy instead.

A psychologist coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” in the 1980s to describe a condition affecting children who are emotionally coerced to turn against one of their parents during a child custody dispute. Parental alienation therapy is an intensive process lasting several days that takes place at a retreat or other isolated venue. Psychologists compare the therapy to the deprogramming administered to those who have been brainwashed by a cult.

Opponents of the therapy point out that the children who undergo it have often been emotionally weakened by their parents’ bitter divorces. They also claim that separating vulnerable children from the parent that they spend the majority of their time with could do more harm than good. Other critics question the costs of parental alienation therapy, which can run as high as $30,000.

Child custody disputes sometimes become contentious when the animosity the parents involved feel toward each other becomes more important to them than the welfare of their children. Experienced family law attorneys may be familiar with this type of situation, and they could seek to reduce tensions by encouraging parents to pause and consider the long shadows that their actions will likely cast.