Dr Richard A. Gardner

Child psychiatrist who developed the theory of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Saturday 31 May 2003 00:00 BST

Richard Alan Gardner, psychiatrist: born New York 28 April 1931; MD 1956; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Tenafly, New Jersey 25 May 2003.

In a contentious child custody dispute in the suburbs of Pittsburgh a few years ago, three teenage boys begged a family court judge not to force them to continue visits to their father because, they said, he was physically abusive towards them. Rather than believe the boys, the judge relied on the testimony of an expert witness retained by the father, a Columbia University professor of clinical psychiatry, Richard A. Gardner.

Gardner insisted the boys were lying as a result of brainwashing by their mother and recommended something he called "threat therapy". Essentially, the Grieco boys were told they should be respectful and obedient on visits to their father and, if they were not, their mother would go to jail. Shortly afterwards, 16-year-old Nathan Grieco, the eldest of the brothers, hanged himself in his bedroom, leaving behind a diary in which he wrote that life had become an "endless torment". Both Gardner and the court were unrepentant even after the suicide, and it was only after an exposé in the local newspaper that custody arrangements for the two surviving boys were changed.

This "threat therapy" was part of a much broader theory of Gardner's known in family courts across the United States as "Parental Alienation Syndrome". The theory - one of the most insidious pieces of junk science to be given credence by US courts in recent years - holds that any mother who accuses her spouse of abusing the children is lying more or less by definition. She tells these lies to "alienate" the children from their father, a shocking abrogation of parental responsibility for which she deserves to lose all custody rights in favour of the alleged abuser.

This is not only tawdry logic, guaranteed from the outset to protect the interests of divorcing fathers, by far Gardner's most enthusiastic constituency, but it has also destroyed the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, of American families over the past 15 years. In state after state, courts deferred to Gardner's academic credentials and put children in the custody of their alleged abuser, even in cases where police records, medical records and testimony by teachers and social workers supported the mother's accusations.

By now, the concept of "parental alienation" has entered case law and swayed thousands of disputes in which Gardner himself played no part. Yet it has no scientific basis whatsoever. It is not recognised by the American Psychiatric Association or any other professional body. The stream of books that Gardner produced on the subject from the late 1980s were all self-published, without the usual peer review process. His method for determining the reliability of sex abuse allegations was denounced by one noted domestic violence expert, Jon Conte of the University of Washington, as "probably the most unscientific piece of garbage I've seen in the field in all my time".

Nobody with experience of high-conflict divorce cases would deny that mothers, in some cases, make false allegations against their spouses. But Gardner went much further. He believed that 90 per cent of mothers were liars who "programmed" their children to repeat their lies, and never mind the corroborating evidence. He theorised that mothers alleging abuse were expressing, in disguised form, their own sexual inclinations towards their children.

And he suggested there was nothing much wrong with paedophilia, incestuous or not. "One of the steps that society must take to deal with the present hysteria is to 'come off it' and take a more realistic attitude toward paedophilic behaviour," he wrote in Sex Abuse Hysteria - Salem Witch Trials Revisited (1991). Paedophilia, he added, "is a widespread and accepted practice among literally billions of people". Asked once by an interviewer what a mother was supposed to do if her child complained of sexual abuse by the father, Gardner replied: "What would she say? Don't you say that about your father. If you do, I'll beat you."

It beggars belief that such a figure would be taken seriously by family court judges but, in an adversarial system where fathers often have more money to spend on divorce cases, Gardner's theories have proved remarkably persuasive. The journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry wrote in 1996 that a book of Gardner's, Protocols for the Sex-Abuse Evaluation, was "a recipe for finding allegations of sexual abuse false, under the guise of clinical and scientific objectivity. One suspects it will be a bestseller among defence attorneys." And so it has proved.

Gardner's work has created a generation of mothers and children scarred psychologically and, in many cases, physically by the court rulings he has influenced. In one of his earliest cases, a Maryland physicist he labelled a "parental alienator", unfit to retain custody of her children, was subsequently shot dead by her ex-husband. Still Gardner did not change his view that the wife was the true villain; her lies, he insisted, had made the husband temporarily psychotic.

Richard Gardner's background was surprisingly conventional. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1931, he studied medicine and psychiatry at various prestigious New York universities, and served a stint as a US army psychiatrist in Germany. Appointed to the Division of Child Psychiatry at Columbia in 1963, where he became Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in 1983, he was respected for many years as an expert on childhood experience of divorce.

After he developed his Parental Alienation Syndrome in the 1980s, however, he and Columbia slowly distanced themselves from each other and he spent most of his time in private practice in New Jersey. Along the way, he also turned into an authentic American monster.

Andrew Gumbel

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