Parental Alienation Leads to Child-Custody Change in Jonesborough, Tennessee: McClain v. McClain

Facts: Mother and Father are the divorced parents of two children aged 16 and 17.

Father lives in Tennessee with the children and was the primary residential parent. Mother lives in Texas. She received 85 days of parenting time.

In 2015, Mother filed an emergency motion to modify the parenting plan and change custody. Mother attached copies of text messages sent between Father and the oldest child during Mother’s parenting time. Among other things, Father told the children Mother “doesn’t mind to cause pain for others,” is “mentally ill,” “nobody likes her,” and that the children “have a right to be ugly to” her.

The trial court appointed a forensic psychologist to examine the parties and the children. The psychologist ultimately concluded that the children were alienated from Mother,  and the alienation was supported by the actions and statements of Father. The psychologist explained:

Alienation and estrangement, as psychological terms of art that may describe some of these family dynamics, are not interchangeable or synonymous concepts.

The difference between estrangement and alienation resides in the presence versus absence of a reasonable objective basis for a child’s severe and persistent rejection and denigration of a parent. Rejection and denigration of a parent with a reasonable objective basis is estrangement; rejection and denigration without such a basis is parental alienation.

The psychologist testified to the harmful effects of parental alienation:

The most straightforward way to understand the harm from parental alienation is against the backdrop of the normal developmental support that parents provide in a healthy family. In a healthy parent-child relationship, parents provide by example and by instruction assistance in children’s emotional development and their development of the capacity to relate to others in development of a moral sensibility, in the development of capacity for empathy, to appreciate another person’s state of mind and emotional experience.

Parental alienation at one level or another undermines each of those developmental pathways so that when a child is alienated and that alienation is supported by the other parent, the parent who is supporting the alienation, whether this is their intent or not, is effectively supporting the child in cruel, unempathic behavior towards another human being; they are supporting the child in attitudes and behaviors towards interpersonal conflict that emphasize rejection, separation, and polarization, rather than resolution.

Often, in dealing with the professed basis for the alienation, the child is being supported in oversimplified, polarized, black-and-white thinking, which undermines critical-thinking skills and so forth so that ultimately parental alienation is a risk to normal personality development because of those kinds of effects. To the extent that we have research on long-term outcomes of people who report having experienced parental alienation, there is certainly a basis for concern that these kinds of adverse effects can persist long-term and can have adverse effects on adult capacity for intimate relationships and on adult capacity for emotional self-regulation.

After four days of trial, the trial court found this to be a “case of severe parental alienation” in which Father had actively supported the children’s alienation from Mother without reasonable cause.

The trial court ruled it was in the children’s best interest that custody be changed, and the trial court designated Mother as the primary residential parent with sole decision-making authority. The trial court also ordered Father to pay for Mother and children to attend a program designed to provide a therapeutic remedy for parental alienation. Father was also prohibited from having any contact with the children for at least 90 days so they could complete the therapeutic program.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

One of the statutory factors Tennessee courts consider in determining the child’s best interests is the willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both of the child’s parents. When people speak of parental alienation, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a)(2) is the relevant statutory factor.

After reviewing the record, the Court determined “the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that the Children had been severely alienated against Mother with that alienation supported by Father.” After noting that the parents and children had attempted counseling for several years while Father’s alienating behavior continued, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to change custody.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

K.O.’s Comment: This opinion is 67 pages long. Sixty. Seven. Pages.

What I did this weekend

McClain v. McClain (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, September 21, 2017).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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