Parental alienation: How Florida kids get caught up in custody battles

Parental alienation is both a process, and a result, of turning a child against one of their parents. I

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There are kinds of statistics on divorce in the United States. While most figures show the U.S. divorce rate in a decline, Florida ranks among the top ten states for divorce.

Divorce is one of the most stressful things people go through, not to mention the toll it can take on children caught in the middle of a high-conflict divorce. And despite claims that the court system favors mothers over fathers when determining child custody, the reality is that Florida law treats mothers and fathers equally.

"Most of the time it’s not that men get the short end of the stick, it’s that the breadwinner in the relationship, they get the short end of the stick," said Alan Rosenthal, the lawyer behind divorcesformen.com. "Over the years, though, we’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth in regard to men and women working in the workforce. I don’t think there are too many families out there that can survive on a one-income family. It just doesn’t work anymore."

Look: Divorce rates by state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"Both parents are to be treated equally, both parents come to the court on an equal, level playing field," Rosenthal added.

"If one parent doesn’t have some type of a disability or a drug habit or something about them that makes them an impermissible or a bad parent, they shouldn’t be obstructed my anyone be it the court, be it another parent, to be engaged with their children."

Video: Parental alienation: Attorney Alan Rosenthal talks of child custody

But that's not always what happens

Dr. Mark Roseman, a certified family mediator who specializes in high-conflict divorce, says 30 percent of divorcing parents are "highly conflicted" and in many instances, he sees what is known as parental alienation taking place.

Parental alienation is both a process and a result, of turning a child against one of their parents. It’s known as a form of child abuse and can be harmful to the targeted parent as well.

"The effect on children has been outrageous and it is abusive," said Roseman, who is CEO and founder of the Toby Center for Family Transitions, which serves separating families across South Florida. "You’re corrupting the child, you’re damaging the child and, in fact, you’re destroying the relationship that’s going to have a huge impact, which it does, on children."

Video: Dr. Mark Roseman on alienation

Tell us: Are you or do you know someone who is a victim of parental alienation? We want to hear your story

Lawmakers try to address child custody battles

“When you don’t start with something concrete like 50/50 [child custody] to go on and then adjust based on circumstance you’re really opening up a Pandora’s box,” said Danica Joan, who is founder and executive director of Kids Need Both, Inc., an organization that tries to help families navigate high conflict divorce.

A victim of parental alienation herself, Joan started the organization in 2001 and now offers co-parenting classes and other resources to families in transition.

"We’re not going to assume that, just because it’s mom, she’s better at taking care of the children because it might be dad," she said.

Florida lawmakers have tried repeatedly to address the issue of child custody in high-conflict divorce situations. In 2016, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have forced judges to start with equal time-sharing between parents.

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"That’s something that we’ve really struggled with over the last few years,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican representing Pinellas County. "There’s just a lot of concern about what’s the right way to do it.

"I think it’s one of these overriding questions that the legislature is still struggling with today."

Brandes supported the bill vetoed by Scott last year. This year, he introduced a bill that establishing parenting plans for children born out of wedlock which ended up passing. It goes into effect in January 2018.

Watch: Parental alienation: Sen. Brandes talks of child custody

Meanwhile, Florida and other states all over the country are struggling to deal with the issue of parental alienation and children continue to be innocent victims of the problem.

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