Parental alienation is a growing concern for many divorced parents in Northwest Arkansas.  In fact, so great is the concern over this issue that courts in Arkansas have begun to take steps to proactively address its affects as early as possible.  In custody disputes, family courts in Arkansas always try to award parental custody in accordance with the best interests on the children[1].  Whenever possible, the courts prefer to award joint custody, which is intended to ensure that both parents share equal time with the children.  But despite the best intentions of the court, relationships between the parents and their children may become fractured.  Sometimes, one of the parents may even feel that they have become estranged from their child.

Parental alienation occurs most commonly after a custody dispute between the parents, and is often the result of manipulation or coercion of the child by one parent against the other[2].  Arkansas courts have stated that one of the responsibilities of the custodial parent was to foster a strong and healthy relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent[3].  Yet, the manipulating parent may be motivated to alienate the child from the other parent out of fear or jealousy, to exert power over the child, to gain revenge, or due to their own mental instability. 

The manipulation can be subtle and isolated, or more obvious and consistent. Common examples of alienation by a parent include making disparaging comments to the child about the other parent, not encouraging the child to call or visit the other parent, telling the child that the other parent was the cause for the divorce, refusing to allow the child to visit the other parent, or fabricating allegations of abuse by the other parent[4].  The actions of one parent may be motivated by a vindictiveness towards the other parent, although that is not always the case.  However, the actions must be more than petty, trivial incidents[5].

While counselors and the courts are increasingly recognizing the signs of parental alienation, its long-term effects on the children are still uncertain.  However, it is well established that parental alienation has a devastating affect on the children’s development and well-being[6].  Children dealing with parental alienation may show signs of unwarranted fear, disrespect, or hostility towards a parent. 

Courts in Northwest Arkansas have progressively cited parental alienation as a basis for a change in custody[7].  For example, in one recent case the court ruled that the mother had engaged in a pattern of alienation by obstructing the father’s visitations and by failing to keep the father informed of the child’s serious medical needs[8].  In this case, the court found the mother’s actions so egregious that she was even given a suspended jail sentence.  The court noted that its ruling was not intended as a punishment for the mother, but instead was in fulfilling its obligation to the best interest of the child’s well-being.

Another Arkansas court made a change in custody when it found that a mother had deliberately alienated the children from their father[9].  In that case, the mother hadrepeatedly tried to prevent the father from enjoying his visitation privileges.  Moreover, the court was particularly troubled by false accusations of sexual abuse that the mother had made against the father.  In light of all of the circumstances, the court ruled that it was now in the best interests of the children to live with their father instead of their mother.

The bottom line is that Arkansas courts are determined to place the best interest of the child above any other secondary issue.  To that end, courts have been more willing to acknowledge signs of parental alienation as a sufficient basis to change custody.  Whether the alienation is unintentional or deliberate, courts are concerned about the long-term effects on the relationships between both of the parents and the children.

[1] A.C.A. § 9-13-101

[2] Child's preference—Parental alienation.  Child Custody Prac. & Proc. § 4:18

[3] Evans v. McKinney, 2014 Ark. App. 440, at 3 (2014)

[4] 127 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 237 (Originally published in 2012)

[5] Byrd v. Vanderpool, 104 Ark. App. 239, at 243 (2009)

[6] 127 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 237 (Originally published in 2012)

[7] Carver v. May, 81 Ark. App. 292, at 298 (2003)

[8] Sharp v. Keeler, 99 Ark. App. 42 (2007)

[9] Carver v. May, 81 Ark. App. 292 (2003)