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California Family Courts Helping Pedophiles, Batterers Get Child Custody 

Wednesday, Mar 2 2011
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Yet many questioned the scientific basis of his work. Gardner's research consisted for the most part on his personal observations as a clinician, rather than systematic, peer-reviewed studies. PAS has never been accepted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatrist's bible of known conditions. The syndrome has also been denounced by professional groups including the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, which view it as a ploy for obscuring a court's inquiries into allegations of child abuse.

"Alienation is being used in almost every case where a child is taken from a safe parent and placed with a dangerous parent," says Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Mill Valley–based Center for Judicial Excellence, a family-court reform group. "It's a legal tactic."

Gardner's ideas are also controversial in light of provocative statements he made criticizing society's condemnation of pedophiles, and seeking to portray adult-child sexual contact as normal. "Pedophilia has been considered the norm by the vast majority of individuals in the history of the world," he wrote in the 1992 book True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse. In the same book, he suggested wives of pedophiles masturbate in order to increase their own sex appeal, reasoning that "increased sexuality may lessen the need for her husband to return to their daughter for sexual gratification."

Few defend Gardner's more outlandish stances, but his theory of parental alienation has persisted, in part because he trained psychologists and family court officials in California and other states prior to his suicide. (Gardner punctuated an unusual career in an unusual way, stabbing himself to death with a steak knife in 2003.)

Amy Baker, a New York–based psychologist who does extensive work in the family courts and is one of the most prominent adherents nationally of Gardner's theories, says isolated instances of the misuse of PAS by abusive parents have given it a bad name. "I think there's a very simplistic idea that just because people make false allegations of parental alienation, parental alienation doesn't happen," she says.

Yet such assurances are scant comfort to those who have seen the term "parental alienation" turned against them as a weapon by child molesters. San Diego resident Joyce Murphy is one parent who has reason to regret the shadow Gardner and PAS still cast over the family court system.

In 2003, Murphy, a research biologist at UC San Diego, was fighting for custody of her 6-year-old daughter with her ex-husband, Henry "Bud" Parson. Murphy, who had been disturbed in the final years of her marriage by what she says was her husband's obsession with child pornography, suspected, based on her daughter's odd behavior after returning from unsupervised visits with her father, that abuse might be taking place.

The judges and court-appointed therapists who reviewed Murphy's case, however, sided with her husband. Murphy says she was accused of committing parental alienation. After the San Diego Family Court refused to heed her warnings about Parson, she fled the state with her daughter. "I reached the point where I broke," she says. "I could not see a way to keep my daughter safe."

Arrested in Florida, she was extradited to California, where she pleaded no contest to felony kidnapping and was placed on probation. Her daughter was taken from her and placed in Parson's full custody.

Six years later, it was Parson's turn to go to jail. In 2008, he was arrested on charges including child molestation, sex with a child, and creating child pornography. While Murphy and Parson's daughter was not among the victims listed in the criminal complaint against him, some of her friends were, including two girls under the age of 14 and one under the age of 18. As part of a plea deal, he admitted the molestation charges and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Murphy says she suspected that her ex was victimizing other young girls. After her past experiences with the family courts, however, she chose to stay silent, fearing that further accusations would lead to retribution from the court. (In the years prior to Parson's arrest, she had regained limited visitation rights.)

"It was obvious to me, but I couldn't say anything at this point," says Murphy, who today has full custody of her daughter. "Nobody would believe me, and anytime I objected to anything they would accuse me of 'alienating.'"

One of the judges who presided over Murphy's case was DeAnn Salcido. In 2010, Salcido resigned from the San Diego bench and was censured by the California Commission on Judicial Performance for, among other things, hamming it up in the courtroom in an effort to secure a deal for a court-based reality television show. She claims the misconduct complaints against her were retaliation for her criticisms of other court officials.

The dispute over Salcido's screen aspirations is less interesting than what she has to say, in retrospect, about the approach she took to the Murphy case. From the moment she arrived in family court as a new judge, she says, she was advised by veterans of the system to disbelieve accusations of child or spousal abuse arising in divorces. "I was basically told to be suspect of anyone claiming abuse," she says. "I had senior judges telling me, 'Be suspect. The dad probably has a new girlfriend, and the mom's upset.'" The concept of parental alienation, she says, arose in private discussions "all the time" among court officials who espoused it.

Salcido says, "In the end, it did turn out that Joyce was right. She was right to be crying, and hysterical, because no one would believe her. I signed a court order handing a kid over to someone who turned out to be a pedophile."

Salcido's observations on the culture of family court point to the common thread running through the stories of Anderson, Rivers, and Murphy: a reluctance on the part of court officials to upset what they deem an appropriate balance of child custody among parents. Particularly in the cases of Anderson and Murphy, the mothers' accusations, if true, would almost certainly have led to a denial of visitation rights for the father.

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Peter Jamison

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