“My son and I have both been victims of the parental alienation syndrome, where my son was indoctrinated and turned against me from years of brainwashing, subtle and not-so-subtle discussions with his mother,” says Ken during an interview. “I’ve lost him. On October 10, 2007, she took him away from me.”
The successful surgeon says his 14-year-old son began displaying hostile behavior. “My son had photographs of me, and models of me, that he was doing horrible things to, like stabbing or dropping and saying, â€˜I’m hurting my daddy,'” Ken continues. “It’s hurtful to me. It’s painful to me, but for him, it’s like a death. Now he has killed me, and his mother has killed me. They’ve taken me out of his life.”
Ken is joined onstage by Mel Feit, executive director of the National Center for Men, and an advocate for men’s rights.
Dr. Phil turns to the grieving father. “You think there is an actual purpose and mission on the part of the child’s mother to brainwash him against you?” he asks Ken.
“Yes, absolutely. My son and I were very, very close at one time, and I had been very close with him up until October. We had some small issues, but he loved me, and I loved him, and then she took him from me,” Ken says. “She got him engaged in a campaign of denigration, a campaign of hatred against me where in my house, he would love me, but when he was around his mother, he would say hateful things. He went to court and lied in court. He said I didn’t feed him; I would only give him water. He said that I would hit him. He said I wouldn’t let him have his friends over â€¦ When he was in his mother’s custody and mother’s company, she would have him write letter to a lawyer saying I abused him, and I was mean to him.”
“Your position is that’s an absolute lie?” Dr. Phil asks.
“My only crime was to love him, and kiss him and want the best for him,” Ken replies.
Dr. Phil mentions that the show contacted the attorney for Ken’s ex-wife but has not received a response. “She’s not here. I wish she were, but she’s not, and I’m sure if she was, she would tell a very different story,” Dr. Phil says.
He addresses Mel Feit. “It’s not unusual for a child to be closer to one parent than another. It’s not unusual for a child to feel vulnerability on one parent’s side or another, and really grab onto them and hold onto them,” he says.
“I think what we’re talking about is much more severe,” Mel replies. “I think it must be horrific to see your own child express this passionate hatred of you and to know you did nothing to warrant it. Your child won’t talk to you. He won’t look at you. He won’t spend a single moment alone with you, and nothing that you say or do makes a difference. It has to be the most helpless feeling in all the world.”
“How do you decide that this is the mother who’s doing the poisoning instead of it just being a 14-year-old who has become a teenager, and thinks he’s now the man of the house, and just on his own decides to resent you and what you represent?” Dr. Phil asks Ken.
“It didn’t start at 14. It started at 5, and 6 and 7. She started a campaign years ago to get him not to be with me,” Ken says. “She was an evil genius. She was very smart. She’s a brilliant woman, and she just wouldn’t let me be with him.”
Dr. Phil offers a definition of parental alienation syndrome. “Where someone has gone on a mission, a purpose, to alienate a child from, usually, an ex or someone who’s involved in divorce. You think that’s what’s going on here?” he asks Ken.
“It’s more than that. There is alienation in all divorces, to a degree,” he replies. “When they engage the child to be part of this alienation, that’s what makes it parental alienation syndrome.”
“What’s happening here, and what’s so serious, in my mind, is a child is made to feel that expressing love, or feeling love, for one parent amounts to a betrayal of the other parent,” Mel adds. “I think that’s a disgusting thing to do to a child. I think it’s child abuse. Psychologists tell me that left untreated, that can lead to long-term serious psychological harm.”
“Clearly, it’s serious if a child is estranged from either one of his parents, whether it’s the father or the mother,” Dr. Phil says.
Dr. Phil lists the five biggest mistakes that divorcing parents make. Number one is sabotaging your child’s relationship with the other parent. “A parent is running their agenda and taking their distaste, their hatred, their rage, their bitterness for their ex, and they’re using their child in that, so the child winds up in the middle of it all,” he says.
“We’re talking about something where there’s a campaign of denigration, and a child is made to feel guilty if he even starts to reconcile with the other parent,” Mel interjects. “There is a solution, and there is only one solution: You’ve got to remove the child permanently, absolutely, from the home of the alienating parent, because if you don’t, the influence of that parent will be too severe. If the child starts to reconnect with the other parent, the alienation will step up, and the child will be made to feel more guilty. It’s a prescription for disaster.”
“Aren’t you doing then exactly what you’re saying is being done now?” Dr. Phil asks. He points to Ken’s situation as an example. “You say she’s alienating the child from you. So the child is now just with one parent. You’re saying take that parent away, put this one in. You’re back in the same place.”
“We’re talking about extreme cases and severe cases. The goal is not to see that the child has one parent. The goal is to see that the child has two parents. Removal is temporary, it doesn’t last forever, but healing has to take place,” Mel responds.
“That’s not what you said. You said taken away, â€˜absolutely and forever,'” Dr. Phil reminds Mel.
“Not forever, but absolutely so there’s no contact, there’s no cell phone contact. That has to be a temporary step until the child can heal,” Mel says.
“It’s not natural for a child not to love both parents,” Ken says.
Dr. Phil brings family law attorney Liz Cates into the discussion. “You don’t believe in this. You think it’s all just a made-up phenomenon?” he asks her.
“We need to differentiate between parental alienation syndrome, which is supposedly a medical diagnosis that was coined by Dr. Gardner back in 1985, and the kind of alienation or estrangement which we’ve all seen between family members at times, between friends and between other people that happens for many, many different reasons,” she replies.
“Are we playing semantics here?” Dr. Phil asks. “We’ve both dealt ” you in the attorney’s office, me in the therapy office ” with parents who get involved in power struggles, fights, and they use those kids like weapons to beat the hell out of their ex-spouse.”
“That happens, and it’s common,” she agrees.
Mel says that gender politics are often at play in a divorce. “Usually the mom is the one who winds up with custody. The dad has to get a lawyer. He has to go to court. He has to fight for access. He has to fight for custody,” he chimes in. “She has control, which is why, at least for now, most of the alienators are women; most of the victims are men and children, and that’s why you have a woman’s rights lawyer saying it doesn’t exist, and a you have a guy from a men’s group saying it does.”
“And you have a parent who’s telling you that mine wasn’t out of divorce. My case started before divorce,” Ken says, explaining that he’s been married for 11 years.
“You say, â€˜[My wife] is an evil genius.’ At what point did you decide that you had married â€˜an evil genius’?” Dr. Phil asks Ken.
“When I picked her, I thought she’d be a wonderful mother, and she turned out to be a nightmare,” Ken answers. “We have shared legal custody.”
“And she won’t comply with the guidelines?” Dr. Phil asks.
“We just agreed that he would reside with her and come to see me whenever he wants to see me, and he won’t talk to me,” Ken laments. “As long as he’s in her control, she will not allow him to see me.”
“I don’t think the courts take this seriously,” Mel says. “I think they figure, â€˜Well, why force a child to do something he adamantly refuses to do?’ They don’t understand the long-term psychological harm that can be done.”
“These syndromes come into court, and they confuse the court. Experts come in, and they make up things,” Liz says. “The father can hire experts who come into court and make up psychobabble.”
“My frustration as a father’s advocate is that if a woman walks into court and alleges that a man is guilty of child abuse, a restraining order is issued like that,” Mel says, snapping his fingers.
“No, it isn’t anymore,” Liz says.
“You’re saying this is a false debate. What is the real essence of the debate then?” Dr. Phil asks Mel.
“My position is that both parental alienation and child abuse exist. The goal should be to recognize both and to teach mental health professionals how to tell the difference between the two,” Mel replies. He turns to Liz. “I don’t think it helps for you to deny the existence of something which so obviously exists.”
“Judges and courts deal in evidence. Mental health professionals ” not the kind like Dr. Phil. Not the kind who are therapists, but the kind who sell themselves to lawyers as experts ” can be hired to come into court by a lawyer â€¦ to say what that lawyer wants them to say,” Liz says.
Dr. Phil says the number two mistake divorcing parents make is using their children as pawns. “You’re not suggesting that that doesn’t happen, right?” he asks Liz.
“Why would they do that, Dr. Phil?” she replies.
“Because they are hugely pissed,” Dr. Phil says. “They don’t like this person anymore, and they see the child’s affiliation with the other parent as being at their expense.”
“If a child professes this enduring hatred of a father, and there’s no evidence whatsoever to substantiate that he’s been an abusive dad, then parental alienation should be assumed,” Mel says. “I think to deny the existence of parental alienation is as ridiculous as denying the existence of child abuse.”