Some divorced parents in California may be victims of parental alienation syndrome, or they may have been accused of parental alienation when they were actually reporting legitimate child abuse. Parental alienation is a controversial concept in both legal and medical circles.

The basic idea behind it is that one parent badmouths the other so much that the child’s feelings toward that other parent change. The child might even come to believe that the other parent is abusive and may be persuaded to testify to this in court.

Medically, there is not enough evidence to suggest that an actual disorder known as parental alienation syndrome exists. From a legal standpoint, critics say that too often, the phenomenon is used to excuse real abuse. One pilot study that looked at 240 cases found that 80 percent of mothers lost custody after alleging that the father was abusive. The law professor who conducted the study says that she believes the mothers were being punished because they reported abuse.

One man who works to advocate for abused children says he was returned to an abusive father after his mother was accused of parental alienation syndrome and finally ran away from home. Experts say that different judges may sometimes draw very different conclusions from the same evidence.

For divorced parents, negotiating child custody may be difficult at best and devastating in circumstances where one parent may be abusive. One problem is that there is often little objective evidence to demonstrate that the abuse is taking place. If physical abuse is happening and there have been no police or medical reports, once injuries heal, there may be no sign that they ever happened. On the other hand, parents do sometimes face false allegations of abuse, and those in such a circumstance may want to consult an attorney.