Parental alienation laws: options to hold a parent accountable for parental alienation

If you’re concerned about parental alienation, read on to see what it is – and what the penalties are.

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What's Inside

Key takeaways

  • While parental alienation occurs throughout the United States, no state laws governing parental alienation currently exist. 
  • Depending on your jurisdiction, parental alienation may constitute child abuse. This may lead to criminal penalties for the offending party. 
  • If your child’s other parent is engaging in parental alienation, you may have both civil and criminal avenues to hold them accountable.

There’s no question that parental alienation can have a significant impact on all parties involved, from the parents to the children to extended family members. If your child’s other parent is employing alienating tactics to drive a wedge between you and your child, know that you have rights and options to hold them accountable for their action.

In this article, we discuss whether and to what extent there are parental alienation laws throughout the country. We also examine the potential consequences of parental alienation and the various civil and criminal remedies that may be available to you to hold another parent accountable for parental alienation.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is a term used to describe a situation in which one parent engages in behaviors that seek to turn their child against the other parent. Examples of tactics commonly associated with parental alienation include: 

  • Speaking negatively about the other parent in the presence of the child
  • Making false accusations of abuse or neglect against the other parent
  • Restricting the child’s communication with their other parent
  • Undermining the other parent’s authority by disregarding their rules and decisions or encouraging the child to defy their instructions
  • Partaking in emotional manipulation, such as using guilt, fear or bribery to influence the child’s feelings and behaviors toward the other parent

Pro tip: A parent who engages in alienating tactics will often do so in the presence of the child while the other parent isn’t around. One of the best ways to discover the signs of parental alienation is through careful observation and monitoring of any changes in your child’s emotions and behavior after spending time with their other parent. 

Is parental alienation illegal?

No civil or criminal state statutes explicitly mention parental alienation. With no specific laws outlawing it, parental alienation isn’t illegal—at least not in those words. 

Parents who commit parental alienation may still violate the law where the alienating conduct falls under the umbrella of other illegal behaviors. For example, one parent’s alienating conduct may interfere with the other parent’s right to raise their child.

Is parental alienation a crime?

Parental alienation isn’t specifically a crime in any state. However, severe parental alienation may justify criminal charges such as child abuse. 

Can a parent lose custody for parental alienation?

One parent can lose custody based on their alienating behaviors. All states use the “best interests of the child” standard as the guiding principle in child custody-related matters. 

States generally consider it in the child’s best interests to have a relationship with both their parents. The alienating parent typically isn’t acting in the child’s best interests by committing parental alienation, which may justify modifying custody.

State parental alienation laws

Although parental alienation isn’t illegal anywhere in the U.S., many states have statutes that address certain behaviors commonly associated with parental alienation. Below are some examples. 

CaliforniaA child who “is suffering serious emotional damage, or is at substantial risk of suffering serious emotional damage, evidenced by severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or untoward aggressive behavior toward self or others, as a result of the conduct of the parent or guardian,” is within the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts. W.I.C. §300 subd. (c).
Michigan“A person is guilty of child abuse in the first degree if the person knowingly or intentionally causes serious physical harm or serious mental harm to a child. Child abuse in the first degree is a felony punishable by imprisonment for life or any term of years.” MCL § 750.136(b)(2).
Minnesota“A parent, legal guardian or caretaker who endangers the child’s person or health by. . . intentionally or recklessly causing or permitting a child to be placed in a situation likely to substantially harm the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health. . . is guilty of child endangerment. . . .” Minn. Stat. § 609.378, Subdivision 1 (a)(2)(b)(1).

Pro tip: You can find every state’s civil and criminal statutes for free online. Many states publish their laws on state legislature websites, while others rely on legal compilation websites. Each state organizes its laws differently. Some offer a more intuitive statutory structure than others, so you may have to spend some time clicking through different chapters. Laws related to child abuse may appear in chapters addressing criminal law (sometimes called the penal code), family law or juvenile justice. 

Options to hold a parent accountable for parental alienation

Regardless of whether and to what extent your jurisdiction has any statutes specifically referencing parental alienation, several options may be available to hold a parent accountable. Below is a breakdown of some civil and criminal options.

Civil remedies

Available civil remedies may include:

  • Court orders to enforce: A targeted parent may seek an order from the court to enforce certain custody or visitation rights. These orders might include prohibiting the other parent from making negative comments in front of the child or mandating uninterrupted visitation. 
  • Therapy or counseling: A court may order participation in therapy or counseling sessions to address any underlying conflicts and promote healthier co-parenting dynamics. The therapy might include sessions for the child, one or both parents, or group sessions with a combination of the relevant parties.
  • Modification of existing custody arrangements: If the parental alienation persists despite enforcement action and court intervention, the targeted parent may petition the court for a modification of the existing custody arrangement. This might involve seeking primary custody or supervised visitation between the child and other parent. 

Criminal remedies

In addition to civil actions, the following criminal remedies may also be available:

  • Contempt of court: If the alienating parent repeatedly violates court orders related to custody, the court may hold them in contempt. Being held in contempt of court may result in fines, community service or even jail time. 
  • Restraining orders: Where the alienating behavior involves threats or acts of violence posing a risk of harm, the targeted parent may be able to seek a restraining order against the alienating parent to protect themselves and their child. 
  • Criminal charges: Although parental alienation isn’t typically considered a criminal offense, certain behaviors, such as making false allegations of abuse, may lead to the filing of criminal charges. 

Pro tip: Civil and criminal remedies concerning parental alienation may vary from state to state. Check the laws of your jurisdiction to understand better what options and remedies are available to you to hold an alienating parent accountable for their behavior and actions. 

How an attorney may help

Due to the lack of legislation surrounding parental alienation, defining and proving it may sometimes be challenging. However, having experienced legal counsel may be valuable as you move forward. 

An attorney can:

  • Help you identify the statutes in your jurisdiction that may apply to your case
  • Work with you to compile evidence to support your claims of parental alienation
  • Advocate on your behalf to help you fight to prove your case and hold your child’s other parent accountable for their actions

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

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