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Group Pushes For Controversial Changes To PA Custody Law

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) -- A coalition of advocates is trying to get lawmakers to act on what they're calling a "horrific parental alienation crisis."

The term "parental alienation" generally refers to a situation in which a custody agreement largely separates a parent from their child, and can strain their relationship. Specifically, proponents of the term say it involves one parent using their access to a child to turn the child's allegiance away from the other parent.

The efforts of the group, known as the National Parents Organization, have inspired fierce opposition from domestic violence organizations. There is also a general lack of consensus on whether parental alienation is a legitimate syndrome in children.

It is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Pennsylvania's chapter of the NPO--which until a few years ago was known as Families and Fathers--is pushing for two bills.

One would update the commonwealth's custody law to let a court order make-up custody time if one parent violates their agreement.

The other would make 50/50 custody agreements the default in contested cases.

In order to fight that default under the proposal, the couple would essentially go through a criminal trial.

The defendant in the case would be "presumed innocent," state NPO Chair Stephen Meehan said. "The burden lies on the prosecutor."

He noted, the bill "would make it much more difficult to have a full custody order," and argues that arrangement is, in most cases, much better for the child.

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Susan Higginbotham said she is concerned about the impact of that measure in particular, especially when it comes to instances of spousal abuse.

"It's trying to level a playing field that may not be level, and so it's sort of artificial," she said. "Our concern in general about these kinds of things, is it would set a new precedent around how to look at custody cases in a way that would probably be disadvantageous for a parent who is the victim of domestic violence."

Plus, she added, there's little consensus that the effort is based on sound evidence.

The concept of parental alienation, she said, "has been met with opposition from psychological and social workers, family and juvenile court, bar associations, child advocacy."

The two measures in question haven't gotten much political traction--though they saw renewed attention late last year following a committee hearing on parental alienation.