Family law encompasses many issues including marital agreements, adoption and paternity, but the practice is probably better known for areas of divorce, support and custody.
When a married couple decides to divorce, a great number of emotional issues inevitably end up rising to the surface. At times, these cases can take on lives of their own, turning into costly court battles that end up becoming more about hurt feelings than the actual legal concerns at hand.
One issue Robert Wallack says has been coming up more and more in his cases is one he’s been trying to raise awareness on: the disturbing trend of parental alienation.
“It is something we are seeing so much of,” explains the former Manhattan assistant district attorney, who’s been practicing matrimonial and family law in New York for more than seven years. “We’re seeing parental alienation in the vast majority of high-conflict divorces...where one parent tries to poison the children against the other parent, and it has become a real hot button issue. I think it’s always gone on in divorces, but people are starting to identify it more.”
According to Wallack, “the underpinnings of parental alienation are there in most of the divorce cases on the books, and it’s not always where you have the parent saying your father is horrible or he is evil . . . it’s more subtle in most cases.”
“. . . one parent tries to poison the children against the other parent . . . it has become a real hot button issue.” –Robert Wallack
Wallack, an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University Law School and a legal consultant to ABC’s “General Hospital”, says he recently handled a divorce where allegations of parental alienation became the trial’s focal point.
“In some cases, it is very subtle and understated and doesn’t take hold,” Wallack explains, “and in other cases, the parental alienation is blatant, and the terrible thing about it is, oftentimes, it results in the children totally breaking off contact with the non-custodial parent and then not having a relationship with one parent and that parent’s family. There are allegations of it in more than 50 percent of the divorce cases, and studies have shown that alienation of some sort takes place in something like 90 percent of divorces.”
Wallack’s case involved a modern Orthodox Jewish family. He represented the father in the proceedings, and was able to secure a “big result” that ended up being overturned on appeal.
“It was sort of groundbreaking but what it did was it raised this issue of parental alienation,” Wallack, who was part of the team that represented model Christie Brinkley in her divorce from architect Peter Cook, says. “The father, around the time he and the wife broke up, stopped practicing the religion, so the mother used the father’s decision to not practice anymore as a wedge to drive in between his relationship with the kids.”
According to Wallack, his client’s relationship with his children quickly deteriorated and they stated they wanted nothing to do with him. The mother exploited his client’s religious deflection to push the children away from him and his new way of life.
“She refused to let the father have contact with the kids and worked on them for a while, and when she finally professed to allow the kids to see the father, at that, point the kids didn’t want anything to do with the father,” posits Wallack. “It was argued during trial the kids didn’t want anything to do with my client because he left the religion. But he left the religion a year before he left the marriage.”
During the 35-day trial, Wallack was able to prove that “what the child was saying was not something of his own free will, and was in fact the result of years of programming,” he says. “It wasn’t until my client told the wife he was leaving that the kids then stopped visiting and the wife had a problem with them seeing him. The court found that the way the mother was talking with the kids and dealing with them, she really turned the children against the father.”
At the end of the trial, the court removed the eldest child, who at this point was 17 years old, from the mother’s custody and placed the child with Wallack’s client.
“If you recognize parental alienation early, you can combat it,” Wallack advises. “The only way to do that is going to court and insisting that the judge enter really strong orders to prevent it from happening and to prevent it from taking hold. When left to their own devices, the alienating parent will just continue to do what they’re doing, and there are disastrous effects for the children. We also find that the relationship with the targeted parent or the alienated parent doesn’t really repair itself with time.”