William G. Austin, Ph.D. ACCS dba

Austin Child Custody Services dba

By Appointment, 720 Kipling St., Ste. 200, Lakewood, CO 80215
(970).846.1157 NC license #929
William G. Austin, Ph.D., Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
Evergreen, CO 80437
Email: wgaustinphd2@yahoo.com
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Gatekeeping and Alienation

Parental Gatekeeping and Child Alienation

Dr. Austin offers trial consultation services and instructional expert testimony on the research and literature on parental gatekeeping and allegations of alienating behaviors by a parent (ABP). He has presented workshops and professional publications on the role parental gatekeeping in child custody disputes and evaluations. Gatekeeping is particularly relevant to relocation disputes where the issue is how well the moving parent can support and help sustain the other parent’s relationship with the child.

Child custody or parental responsibility disputes always concern issues of parental gatekeeping or the extent and pattern of each parent’s access to and involvement with the child. Child custody evaluations always need to address gatekeeping issues between the parents. Child custody trials are “gatekeeping disputes.” When allegations are made that one parent is trying to alienate the child from the other parent it involves negative gatekeeping behaviors. The parent who is feeling shut-out is alleging that the other parent is engaging in gate-closing behaviors to hinder involvement with the child.

A gatekeeping analysis is relevant to cases involving allegations of alienation. Research shows children of divorce show the best long-term adjustment when they enjoy quality relationships with both parents. When a parent is trying to minimize the other parent’s involvement with the child without justification, then he or she is engaging in restrictive gatekeeping and this will be harmful to the child. When a parent is supportive of the other parent’s relationship with child and engages in gate-opening behaviors to help with access and involvement, then this represents facilitative gatekeeping. When a parent engages in restrictive gatekeeping and there are sound reasons to limit the other parent’s involvement, such as when there is a history of intimate partner violence, substance abuse or alcohol abuse, or harsh parenting, then the parent is engaging in protective gatekeeping. The gate-closing behaviors are justified. When the facts show that restrictive gatekeeping, or gate-closing behaviors, are not justified then the restrictive parent may be engaging in alienating behaviors, either intentional or unintentional.

Gatekeeping Defined and Research

Parental gatekeeping encompasses attitudes and behaviors by either parent that affect the quality of the other-parent-child relationship and/or level of involvement with the child in either a positive or negative way. Parental gatekeeping is a  concept based on solid scientific research on gatekeeping behaviors and attitudes, and co-parenting both with intact and divorced families. It concerns issues of mutual support between parents and quality of the co-parenting relationship. Gatekeeping behaviors between parents can be positive or negative.

It is important to distinguish between gatekeeping attitudes and behaviors. Almost all divorcing parents who are having a parenting/custody dispute hold negative gatekeeping attitudes concerning the other parent. Many of these parents have difficulty in recognizing the continuing importance and value of the other parent for the child’s development. Such parents need to learn to compartmentalize their negative attitudes from their gatekeeping behaviors so both parents can be substantially involved with the child. Research shows that even with restrictive gatekeeping attitudes by mothers that if the father stays involved, then young children show good adjustment (Pruett et al., 2003).

Research shows that about 1 in 5 mothers engage in restrictive gatekeeping in intact families. Restrictive gatekeeping is more common after separation and divorce. Both parents often engage in restrictive gatekeeping after separation. Mothers may want to limit the father’s involvement out of concern about the father’s parenting competence. She may view herself as the “primary parent” who needs to safeguard the children’s development. Fathers may be on a “learning curve” after separation about parenting skills and managing the details of the child’s life on a daily basis and without “supervision” by the mother. Some mothers may not be supportive and try to restrict the father’s access out of anger, hurt, and vindictiveness. Some fathers are not supportive of the mother’s role and relationship with the children for similar reasons in the midst of post-divorce conflict.

Research shows that mother’s attitudes about fathers’ competence and involvement greatly influences the extent of fathers’ involvement. Mothers are likely to be more supportive when there is low conflict and the father is responsible about paying child support.

Legal Context of Gatekeeping

Gatekeeping is a process that is found in a common best interest of the child statutory factor in many states that addresses how well each parent can support the other parent-child relationship. At the time of divorce when the parents are in dispute over a parenting plan and parenting time schedule both parents can appear to be not supportive of the other, or to be restrictive gatekeepers. A custody evaluator and the court need to determine if the negative gatekeeping is divorce related and likely to be a problem in the short run, or if it is likely to be enduring and a chronic problem. About 80% of parents learn to move on with their lives and control their conflict after a couple of years. When gatekeeping persists it engenders conflict and the parents may end up in court in a dispute to enforce or modify the parenting plan. Restrictive gatekeeping creates conflict and causes relitigation.

Gatekeeping Continuum

Numerous writers have proposed a gatekeeping continuum to describe the range of gatekeeping behaviors that vary from very positive to very negative gatekeeping (Allen & Hawkins, 1999; Austin, 2005a; 2005b; 2012; Pruett et al., 2007; Trinder, 2008; Austin, Pruett et al., 2012). On one end of the continuum is very facilitative gatekeeping where the parent  is proactive in supporting the other parent’s role and involvement with the child. It represents constructive, cooperative co-parenting. On the negative end of the continuum is very restrictive gatekeeping where the parent is not supportive of the other’s involvement; does not recognize the value of the other parent for the child’s development; and is actively hindering involvement. Extreme examples of restrictive gatekeeping would be child abduction/kidknapping and extreme alienating behaviors by a parent (ABP).

Examples of Gatekeeping Behaviors

Restrictive gatekeeping behaviors between divorced parents include the following:

·         Making telephone or Skype contact difficult

·         Refusing to communicate with the other parent about the child

·         Derogating the other parent in front of the child

·         Negative nonverbal communication directed at the other parent in front of the child

·         Not being flexible on needed adjustments to the parenting time schedule

·         Withholding information about the child such about school, events, activities

·         Scheduling activities for the child on the other parent’s time without communicating

·         Being intrusive and disrupting the other parent’s time with the children

·         Trying to micromanage the child’s life during the other parent’s time

Why is Gatekeeping Important?

Gatekeeping is important because of the substantial research that shows that children benefit from having both parents substantially involved in their lives unless there is a risk of harm to the child. This research supports the common legislative or social policy declaration found in most state statute that encourages the frequent and continuing involvement of both parents following separation and divorce. Most children of divorce will show a fairly normal development if they have one nurturing, competent parent providing consistent care, but divorce places children at risk for adjustment problems. The risk is reduced most when there are two competent, committed, and loving parents involved. When a loving, competent parent is not allowed to have meaningful time with the child, then it is assumed that this will be harmful to the child. A debate within the profession concerns what amount and pattern of parenting time is sufficient for the nonresidential parent and child to enjoy a meaningful relationship. It has been recommended by authorities that every other weekend is not sufficient to really foster a quality relationship (Kelly & Lamb, 2000).

A proposed “gatekeeping effect” is that children are at less risk of adjustment problems when there is facilitative gatekeeping or at least cooperative co-parenting. Restrictive gatekeeping creates more risk assuming the parent who is being hindered is competent and has substantial psychosocial resources to offer the child. The concept of Social Capital has been proposed as an explanation for the gatekeeping effect. Social capital refers to the psychosocial resources the child receives from the important relationships in his or her life. Parents, siblings, extended family, friends, coaches, etc. provide social capital (Austin, 2008; 2012; Austin et al., 2012).

Protective Gatekeeping

When the reasons for a parent’s restrictive gatekeeping behaviors are to protect the child from potential detriment and the facts demonstrate there are sound reasons for the behaviors to limit then it is a situation of Justified Protective Gatekeeping. When the facts do not support the restricting parent’s attitudes and behaviors, then it can be viewed as alienating behaviors by the parent that is creating its own risk of harm to the child.

Gatekeeping and Relocation Disputes

Relocation disputes always are about the potential negative effect of moving on the child’s relationship with the nonmoving parent. Gatekeeping thus often is the central issue in relocation dispute. Judges want the moving parent to demonstrate that she or he can support the other parent’s continuing involvement. In a long distance parenting arrangement the residential/custodial parent is in a vital gatekeeping role where she or he can easily undermine the parent-child relationship. The gatekeeper parent also has the power to promote this relationship. The relocation risk assessment model (Austin, 2008) for relocation disputes has gatekeeping or the ability to support the other parent-child relationship as one of the risk factors. It is probably the key factor for the child to have a “successful relocation” where the child has a satisfactory adjustment to the transition to a new community and maintains a quality relationship with the distant parent. The gatekeeper parent is in a strategic position to manage the risk of relocation harm to the child.

Alienating Behaviors by a Parent (ABP)

Alienation refers to attitudes and behaviors by a parent following divorce that have the effect of negatively affecting the parent’s relationship and/or access to the child. It usually involves intentional acts designed to undermine the other parent’s relationship with the child and to limit access and involvement. When the alienating behaviors have their intended effect the child may start to resist or refuse to have contact with the other parent and become an alienated child.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was proposed in the 1980’s Dr. Richard Gardner to describe ABP. PAS created much controversy and has been disavowed by most authorities in the fields of divorce research and child custody. The problem was reformulated in 2001 and the concepts of child alienation, estrangement, alignment, alienating parent, and rejected were substituted (Kelly & Johnson, 2001). The behaviors of both parents and the child were proposed as contributing the child alienation. Rejected parents naturally react very negatively when the child resists spending time and conflict usually ensues.

The Alienated Child

ABPs can cause a child to view the other parent negatively and to begin to resist or refuse spending time with the other parent. When this occurs there is an alienated child. The alienated child usually develops an alignment with the alienating parent and has become estranged from the other parent who is being rejected. In the majority of families when a parent engages in ABPs the child will continue to want to spend time with the other parent and not become alienated despite the inappropriate behaviors by a parent.

When ABPs are justified because of issues or questionable behaviors or circumstances in the other parent’s residence, then it is a case of justified protective gatekeeping. When ABPs are not justified in light of the facts and circumstances, then it is a case of restrictive gatekeeping.

Is it Alienation or Protective Gatekeeping?

Child custody evaluators are often called upon to differentiate for the court whether there is alienation going on or whether there is justified protective gatekeeping. Frequently, in the midst of parent conflict over parenting issues a parent will allege there is “parental alienation” occurring. This occurs when there are legitimate differences of opinion about what the time sharing arrangement should be. This usually is not a situation of restrictive gatekeeping or alienation. It is very common in relocation disputes that the nonmoving parent will assert the proposed move represents “parental alienation” and that the moving parent wants to shut other parent out of the child’s life, or “marginalize” the nonresidential parent. All states recognize it is a legitimate for parents to want to move to better the quality of their lives in terms of employment, remarriage, or returning to a home community for support from extended family. Relocation should not be equated with restrictive gatekeeping or alienation. However, when facts demonstrate there has been restrictive gatekeeping or that the main reason for moving is to frustrate the other parent’s involvement with the child, then judges will deny relocation.

When there has been intimate partner violence between the parents and there are justified concerns about continuing violence, control, intrusiveness, harassment, or emotional abuse, then it cannot be expected that the parent will be friendly towards the other parent. There may need to be a safety plan in place as part of the parenting plan. In such cases there may be concerns about harsh parenting of child abuse by the parent who abused his or her partner. Such situations would also represent justified protective gatekeeping and not alienation, or unjustified protective gatekeeping.

Implications for Parenting Plans and Co-Parenting Education

A gatekeeping analysis can be helpful to the court in creating an appropriate parenting plan, or to determine if an existing plan needs to be modified, including a change in the custodial/residential parent. The court wants parents to cooperate and constructively co-parent even if they do not like each other very much. How the court allocates  parenting time and decision making may depend on whether a parent is seen as a restrictive gatekeeper. It is important for a custody evaluator to inform the court about the degree of restrictiveness with specific behavioral descriptions and not just attach a label of “restrictive gatekeeper” on a parent. Parents who are restrictive may vary in the areas of behavior where they are hindering or not promoting the other parent-child relationship. For example the hindering may occur with telephone contact or not sharing school information. Custody evaluators can be helpful by making recommendations for intervention and behavior change tailored to the specific gatekeeping behaviors that need to be addressed.

Gatekeeping also has the potential to be the pivotal idea that guides co-parenting educational interventions and programs (Pruett & Pruett, 2009).

Gatekeeping References

Allen, S. M., & Hawkins, A. J. (1999). Maternal gatekeeping: Mother’s beliefs and behavior that inhibit greater father involvement in family work. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61, 199-212.

Austin, W. G. (2005a, February). Considering the Process of Support for the Other Parent and Gatekeeping in Parenting Evaluations. Colorado IDC News: The Newsletter of the State of Colorado Interdisciplinary Committee, 7(1), 10-13.

Austin, W. G. (2005b). The child and family investigator’s evaluation for the relocation case. In R. M. Smith (Ed.), The role of the child and family investigator and the child’s legal representative in Colorado (pp. C9-1 – C9-28). Denver: Colorado Bar Association.

Austin, W. G. (2008). Relocation, research, and forensic evaluation: Part II: Research support for the relocation risk assessment model. Family Court Review, 46(2), 347-365.

Austin, W. G. (2011). Parental gatekeeping in custody disputes. American Journal of Family Law, 25(4), 148-153.

Austin, W. G. (2012).  Relocation, research, and child custody disputes. In K. Kuehnle &  L. Drozd (Eds.), Parenting plan evaluations: Applied research for the family court (540-559).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Austin, W. G., Pruett, M. K., Kirkpatrick, H. D., Flens, J. R., & Gould, J. W. (2012). Parental gatekeeping and child custody/child access evaluations: Part I: Conceptual framework, research, and application, manuscript submitted for publication.

Ganong, L., Coleman, M., & McCalle, G. Gatekeeping after separation and divorce. In L. Drozd & K. Kuehnle (Eds.), Parenting plan evaluations: Applied research for the family court (pp. ). Oxford University Press.

Kelly, J. B., & Lamb, M. E. (2000). Using child development research to make appropriate custody and access decisions for young children. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 38, 297-311.

Pruett, K. D., & Pruett, M. K. (2009). Partnership parenting: How men and women parent differently – Why if helps your kids and your marriage. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Pruett, M. K., Arthur, L. A., & Ebling, R. (2007). The hand that rocks the cradle: Maternal gatekeeping after divorce. Pace Law Review, 27(4), 709-739.

Pruett, M. K., Williams, T. Y., Insabella, G., & Little, T. D. (2003). Family and legal indicators of child adjustment to divorce among families with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 17, 169-180.

Trinder, L. (2008). Maternal gate closing and gate opening in postdivorce families. Journal of Family Issues, 29(10), 1298-1324.

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Gatekeeping Forensic Model - Social Capital & Application to Relocation Disputes In PDF format

Parental Gatekeeping in Custody Disputes In PDF format

Relocation & Gatekeeping, 2012 In PDF format

Gatekeeping in Parenting Evaluations, 2012 In PDF format

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Gatekeeping Part 1 FCR 2013 in PDF format

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Home · Attorney Services · Relocation & Child Custody Evaluation · Domestic Violence · Parental Gatekeeping and Alienation · Evaluation Services

Forensic Methodology · Curriculum Vitae · Work Product Review Service · Service Agreements · Fees for Services · Peer Consultation Services

Equity Theory and Parental Gatekeeping · Recent Workshop Presentations and Reading Lists Colleague Case Consultation - Custody Evaluation