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Study finds mothers often at disadvantage in child custody cases

Divorced parents in Texas may assume that if they go to court and say their child is being abused by the other parent, that parent will lose custody. However, according to research by a professor at George Washington University Law School, even fathers who are abusive may get custody of their children.

The 2,000 cases the professor studied involved abuse and parental alienation. Parental alienation syndrome is a controversial concept advocated by a psychiatrist in the 1980s. It alleges that one parent will sometimes pressure a child to feel ambivalence or even hatred toward the other parent and that this may be accompanied by accusations of abuse. When mothers are accused of parental alienation, they are two times more likely to lose custody of their children than fathers who face accusation. In the study, no claims of abuse by the mother were credited if the court agreed that she was engaging in parental alienation. Just one in 51 mothers who claimed sexual abuse was happening had that abuse substantiated if the father also claimed parental alienation.

Critics of the system argue that if it exists at all, parental alienation syndrome is far rarer than courts assume. Maryland is the first state to move toward a model that uses empirical research, such as this study, to help in its child custody decisions.

In Texas, where custody and visitation are referred to as "possession" and "access," parents who are concerned about abuse may want to consult an attorney about how to proceed. Judges attempt to make decisions that are in the best interests of the child, and this usually includes the belief that unless the child is in danger, having contact with both parents is ideal. Testimony from other individuals, police reports and medical records may all be helpful as evidence.

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