There is nothing new about the alienation of a child’s affections from a parent. Children have been alienated, brainwashed, estranged, kidnapped and manipulated by family members for all of recorded history. The earliest reported case of a child’s alienation from his parent began at the turn of the nineteenth century when Leonard Thomas De Manneville literally “snatched his nursing daughter from the breast of his wife. . .” (Wright, 2002). De Manneville was a French emigrant and his wife, Margaret Crompton, a women of means and property. Just after their daughter was born, their marriage soured. Faced with English law at the time making divorce nearly impossible, Mrs. De Manneville complained of abuse and went to live with her mother. Prior to leaving, she made explicit provision for the father to have access to his child. Unhappy with this arrangement Leonard seized the child and threatened to leave England, never to be seen again. Margaret filed an application with the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the infant.
She was summarily dismissed by Lord Ellenbourough “… on the ground that that Court did not by its constitution possess any of the delegated authority that exists in the King as Parens Patriae” (King v. De Manneville, 1804). She filed again in the Court of Chancery and the alienating father claimed she had no right to file at all due to the English law of coverture. Under coverture, husbands and wives could not sue one another because they were seen by the law as one entity (Abramowicz, 1999; Wright, 1999). At this time in England, mothers were not deemed to be the persons first in line to care for their own children. Under the 1660 Abolition of Tenures Act, fathers could name guardians other than the children’s mothers and the law would enforce that designation (Raithby, 1819). Margaret lost again and Lord Eldon of the Chancery Court held that on the basis of coverture she lacked standing to bring a suit at all. Leonard had succeeded in alienating the little girl from her mother and her mother’s family.
Another early case of the alienation of children from their parent found the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley losing his bid to have his children returned to him from their maternal grandparents (Shelley v. Westbrook, 1817). It seems Shelley met and married Harriet Westbrook when he was 19 and she 16. Shelley was the heir of a landed family and Harriet the daughter of a wealthy shop owner. They separated three years later when their daughter was three and Harriet was pregnant with their son. Shelley had fallen in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin while Harriet, along with the children, went to live with Harriet’s father. Harriet and her father then shut Shelley out of his children’s lives. When Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816, the family suppressed information about the suicide. When Shelley found out, he immediately married Mary and the two petitioned the court for a return of his children from the wealthy Westbrooks. In this case, the alienating grandparents counter-petitioned the Chancery Court and began a calculated campaign of character assassination. They claimed in part that Shelley was a published atheist, an advocate of sexual freedom (Volokh, 2006) and therefore “immoral”. In 1817, Lord Eldon explained that the father should form the “opinions and habits” of his children. Eldon expressed outrage over Shelley’s conduct “which he represents to himself and others, not as conduct to be considered as immoral, but to be recommended and observed in practice, and as worthy of approbation” (Doolittle, 2007). The alienation Harriet Westbrook began survived her suicide. Shelley never saw his children again.
In 1818 Lord Eldon of the Chancery Court presided over another alienation case (Stone, 1993). In the notorious Westmeath case, the parents were George Nugent, Earl of Westmeath, and Emily Cecil, daughter of the Marquess of Salisbury. They married in 1812 and their daughter, Rosa, was born in 1814. They separated in 1818 amidst allegations that George physically assaulted Emily and committed adultery. In a moment of largess, George entered into a contract with Emily that she would be the custodial parent of Rosa and their son who had just been born. In fact, George entered into two separate agreements with Emily that she would be the physical custodian of both children. While the ink was still drying on the agreements, George became convinced Emily was poisoning the children and particularly Rosa against him, so he refused to return the children to Emily after a visitation. Emily sought a writ of habeas corpus, but Lord Eldon of the Chancery Court cited to coverture, refused to recognize the written agreements and awarded custody to George (Earl of Westmeath v. Countess of Westmeath, 1826).
To improve upon his successful campaign to alienate the children from their mother, George then sent the children to Ireland where the boy died months later. In their grief, Emily and the Marquess of Salisbury prevailed upon this alienating father to allow little Rosa to return to England. She was permitted to return with her mother but when he returned to London, George accused Emily of having an affair with the Duke of Wellington and kept Rosa from her again. When Emily and her family asked the Court of Common Pleas for help, Justice Dallas followed ancient practice by declaring: “the father is in point of law entitled to the custody of the child” (Wright, 2002). Again working to perfect his alienation scheme, George isolated Rosa from her mother by moving her to the country home of his friend, the Duke of Buckingham; where George instructed everyone in the household to prevent Emily from ever seeing or communicating with the child. In the midst of this successful alienation campaign, Emily forced her way into Rosa’s new home, but Rosa about age 11, refused to kiss her mother or even shake her hand. Emily later wrote that Rosa told her: “Papa and the Duke of Buckingham have pointed out what sort of woman you were. I never wish to see your face again” (Stone, 1993).
Just days after Lord Eldon sustained the Earl of Westmeath’s alienation campaign, the court took up the case of Sarah and George Ball in 1827. In this matter, Sarah had obtained a divorce from George on the grounds of adultery and George countered that Sarah “had endeavoured (orig.) to alienate the affections of the child from him” (Ball v. Ball, 1827). One witness testified by affidavit:
“that he was aware of the disputes between them; that she was of an extremely violent temper: and then he went on rather prophetically to declare, that she would exert every means to alienate the affections of the child from her father if she were under her care; that he had witnessed the conduct of the defendant to his daughter, which was very proper and affectionate; that the daughter was extremely fond of her father, who, deponent was convinced, would do everything in his power to make her happy”.
Lorandos (1996) chronicled the development of children’s rights in American law and described two early cases alleging the alienation of affections. In the 1844 case of In re Barry, a father whose daughter was given to the care of her maternal grandparents following her mother’s untimely death, tried to get his in-laws to return the girl. When they refused, the girl’s father attempted to use a writ of habeas corpus and the courts to compel the grandparents to return his daughter. His plea was lost on jurisdictional grounds and he never saw his daughter again. In the 1890 case of In re Burrus a father used the courts to try to obtain the custody of his daughter from his former in-laws after the little girl’s mother died of disease. In Burrus, the grandfather released the girl when served with a writ of habeas corpus by a district court but then retook the girl by force. When the district court imprisoned the grandfather for contempt, he made out a writ of habeas corpus to the United States Supreme Court. In ordering the grandfathers release, the United States Supreme Court held that the district court lacked the jurisdiction to make out its writ. The alienated father lost again.
In 2010 researchers Richard K. Stephens and Linda Gunsberg demonstrated with archival newspaper reports, numerous historic cases of parental alienation (Stephens & Gunsberg, 2010). These researchers pointed out how newspapers denoted “parental alienation” in a 1904 case where the mother alleged the father had alienated the child against her claiming he had: (1) “inoculated him with hatred” (New York Times); (2) “prejudiced him against her” (New York Tribune), and (3) “poisoned her child’s mind against her” (New York Tribune). Stephens & Gunsberg illustrated two more notorious newspaper reported cases from more than one hundred years ago with headlines like: “Wife has turned his children against him” (1912) and “Divorced man thinks child is influenced against him” (1914). Rand (2013) called upon the work of Isaacson (2007) to illustrate that even the smartest person alive can be victimized by alienation.
Albert Einstein met Maleva Maric when she was the only woman in Einstein’s section at the Polytechnic in Zurich. They married and Maric bore Einstein two sons during their 10 years of marriage. During their separation and contentious divorce in 1914, Einstein wrote to his friend Heinrich Zangger, a professor of physiology at University of Zurich, that Maric was “poisoning” the children against him and that, “My fine boy had been alienated from me … by my wife, who has a vengeful disposition” (Isaacson, 2007; Rand, 2013). To sidestep the alienation, Einstein agreed that Maric would have primary physical custody of the children and Einstein would give her all the money he anticipated receiving when he won the Nobel Prize. After the cash settlement, it was reported that the alienation was forestalled enough to allow Einstein to again have a relationship with his two sons.
With an October 23rd, 1923 Evansville, Indiana newspaper story, Stephens and Gunsberg (2010) describe a lawsuit in which the mother of a child (Ethel Montgomery Crum) was awarded a $25,000 settlement on the grounds of “alienation of affections” because the child had been repeatedly prevented from seeing her. With a November 19th, 1926 San Antonio, Texas headline “Mother Sobs as Court Hears Fight for S A Tot”, Stephens and Gunsberg describe a child custody hearing where a husband testified that previous to his divorce, his wife had spitefully threatened to poison his daughter Terry’s mind against him. She had told her husband: “I am going to teach Terry to hate every drop of blood in your body.” A tragic story from the Oakland California – Oakland Tribune on February 19, 1927 describes the outcome of the Sparks case (Stephens & Gunsberg, 2010).
The story explains that after his divorce, Mr. Sparks reportedly taught his little daughter to condemn his estranged wife with the words: “You are not my mamma.” The report goes on to explain that Mrs. Sparks found the experience unbearable, drank poison and died from it. A 1935 Metro Goldwyn Mayer motion picture O’ Shaughnessy’s Boy staring Wallace Berry and Jackie Cooper, grew out of a children’s book, which described an alienation campaign. The book and motion picture told the story of a father’s ultimately successful struggle to overcome the poisoning of his son’s mind against him by the maternal aunt who had custody of the boy and who had taught him to hate his own father. Stephens and Gunsberg (2010) used an August 13th, 1941 Chicago newspaper photo story to illustrate another alienation example. A caption to one photo reads:
“Attempting to hide from his mother as she pleaded for his custody, Robert Ware, 5, is shown taking refuge under a table in the chambers of Chicago Superior judge Oscar P. Nelson. The judge awarded custody of the boy to the mother Eula Ware of Dalton, Ga. and accused the divorced husband of poisoning the child’s mind against his mother.”
Using a June 16th, 1950 newspaper photo story, Stephens and Gunsberg (2010) illustrate two generations of parental alienation with another mother and daughter victimized by a repeat alienator. In the case of Ethel Martin and her ten-year-old daughter Arlene Starr Schneider, the maternal grandmother was determined by the court to have alienated Arlene from Ethel during a period when Arlene was living with the maternal grandmother. In her testimony, Ethel revealed that when she was a child, she too had been alienated from her father by the same alienator. In an August 29th, 1952 newspaper photo story we learn of another grandmother alienator in the case of hysterical 9-year-old Marlene Matchan who screamed at her mother “Go away!” during a court proceeding while the alienating grandmother just looked on in the courtroom. The judge admonished the grandmother for “brutally poisoning the mind” of little Marlene against her mother. With a February 8th, 1974 copy of the American Bar Association’s nationally syndicated column, Family Lawyer, Stephens and Gunsberg (2010) illustrate parental alienation described by the ABA as “poisoning the child’s mind.” The cover illustration depicts a mother pedagogically holding up a picture of “Dad” to a young child.
Before alienation of a child’s affections from one parent by another were understood by the courts in America, two early cases stand out. In the mid 1980’s case of Schutz v. Schutz, Judge Richard Yale Feder noted Laurel Schutz’s “…assiduous and unfortunately largely successful efforts both to secrete physically the parties’ two daughters from their father and to poison their hearts and minds against him” (Schutz v. Schutz, 1988). Judge Feder went on to explain that with ample evidence he found:
“…..having observed the demeanor of the witnesses, having listened to the nuances of the testimony, having examined the exhibits and the pleadings, the Court has no doubt – not a reasonable one, not even an unreasonable one, or even a scintilla, shadow or peradventure of doubt – that the cause of the blind, brainwashed, bigoted belligerence of the children toward the Father grew from the soil nurtured, watered and tilled by the Mother. The Court is thoroughly convinced that the Mother breached every duty she owed as the custodial parent to the non-custodial parent of instilling love, respect and feeling in the children for their Father. Worse, she slowly dripped poison into the minds of these children, maybe even beyond the power of the Court to find the antidote. But the Court will try.”
In Fulton County New York, near Shaker Mountain in the late 1980’s, Family Court Judge David F. Jung sat through lengthy hearings in Karen B. v. Clyde M. (1991). In this case the 4-year-old girl allegedly told her mother she had been abused by her father. The mother took the child to numerous health and social work professionals, many of whom testified in court that they found no evidence of abuse. When the first complaint was dismissed by the Dept. of Social Services due to no evidence, the mother waited 5 months and then began the process all over again. Among other witnesses, the evaluator and the child’s law guardian testified that they believed the mother programmed her daughter to accuse the father of abuse so she could gain custody. Judge Jung concluded:
“In the opinion of this Court, any parent that would denigrate the other by casting the false aspersion of child sex abuse and involving the child as an instrument to achieve his/her selfish purpose is not fit to continue in the role of parent. Like Medea, she is ready to sacrifice her child to accomplish her selfish goal.”
There are thousands of published cases where courts sanction parents for alienating the affections of their children from the other parent. Physicist Christian Dum surveyed alienation cases from around the globe (Dum, 2013), noting that courts all over the world found it to be a universal phenomenon. Lorandos (2013) surveyed published cases from Canada and the United States from 1985 through 2012 and examined 2,746 cases in which parental alienation was discussed. In this research design, cases were removed from the sort if they did not contain at least one of the following two criteria: (1) An independent evaluating expert testified on the subject of parental alienation, whether or not the expert found alienation or, (2) The court found on any basis that there was parental alienation whether or not there was expert testimony. In the sort, the parties, their children, their therapists, their children’s therapists, their attorneys, guardians ad litem, child advocates, mediators, parenting coordinators, custody conciliators, law enforcement officers or CPS personnel were not considered “experts”. No testimony on parental alienation by any of these persons qualified a case for inclusion. Further, if the court did no more than speculate concerning alienation, or if the court’s action was to appoint an expert to examine the extent to which there may be alienation, the case was not included for further review. After this sorting process, 482 cases were reviewed again in depth. Each case was scrutinized for description of background facts, clarity of the findings of fact, reliance on statutory and case precedent and availability of the case in the public domain. The annotated cases were divided into target parent mother and target parent father groupings. From this sort, thirty cases from the United States and thirty cases from Canada, equally divided among target parent mother and target parent father, were selected and described in detail.
The alienation of a child from one parent due to the influence of the other parent or some other source, has been a potential part of family life, since families began. The notion that parental alienation is a recent phenomenon, or even more absurdly, that it does not exist, is clearly contradicted by the historical record.