Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations, United States, 2005-2014 (ICPSR 37331)

Version Date: Mar 30, 2021 View help for published

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Joan Meier, George Washington University

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  • V3 [2021-03-30]
  • V2 [2020-08-27] unpublished
  • V1 [2020-04-28] unpublished
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A troubling aspect of justice system response to intimate partner violence is custody courts' failure to protect children when mothers allege the father is abusive. Family courts' errors in assessing adult and child abuse, and punitive responses to abuse allegations, have been widely documented. A significant contributor to these errors is the pseudo-scientific theory of parental alienation (PA). Originally termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS), the theory suggests that when mothers allege that a child is not safe with the father, they are doing so illegitimately, to alienate the child from the father. PA labeling often results in dismissal of women's and children's reports of abuse, and sometimes trumps even expert child abuse evaluations. PAS was explicitly based on negative stereotypes of mothers and has been widely discredited. However, the term parental alienation is still widely used in ways that are virtually identical to PAS. However, because PA is nominally gender neutral (and not called a scientific syndrome), it continues to have substantial credibility in court.

The first goal of the study was to ascertain whether empirical evidence indicated that parental alienation is also gender-biased in practice and outcome. Drawing from courts' own reports of facts, findings, and outcomes, such research could inform advocates and the courts regarding the validity or invalidity of relying on PA to strip mothers of their children and potentially subject children to ongoing abuse. Second, inspired by some tentative findings, the study sought to explore outcomes in custody/abuse litigation by gender and by differing types of abuse. The study relied solely on electronically available published opinions in child custody cases; to date, the researchers have identified 240 cases involving alienation and alienation plus abuse. The researchers sought to expand the database to include non-alienation abuse cases as a comparison, and to address additional questions about custody/abuse adjudications.

Meier, Joan. Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations, United States, 2005-2014. Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2021-03-30.

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United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice (2014-MU-CX-0859)


Access to these data is restricted. Users interested in obtaining these data must complete a Restricted Data Use Agreement, specify the reason for the request, and obtain IRB approval or notice of exemption for their research.

Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research

2005 -- 2014
  1. Court cases from which the data were compiled are public record.


The purpose of this study was to bring neutral empirical data to bear on this controversy: Whether and to what extent it is true that courts are disbelieving abuse claims and removing custody from parents claiming abuse, whether and to what extent gender impacts these findings, and how cross-claims of parental alienation affect courts' treatment of mothers' and fathers' abuse claims.

Specifically, the study sought to produce data on (i) the rates at which courts credit (believe) different types of abuse allegations raised by either parent against the other; (ii) the rates at which parents win/lose the case, or win/lose custody when alleging any type of abuse against the other parent; (iii) the impact of alienation claims/defenses on (i) and (ii) above; and (iv) the impact of gender on (i), (ii), and (iii) above: that is, do rates of crediting of abuse, wins, or custody losses vary when it is a father alleging a mother's abuse, as compared to a mother alleging a father's abuse?

Overall, the study sought to produce empirical evidence to determine whether or not the contentions of survivors and the abuse professionals who work with them were supported by the data, and if not, to identify any specific areas - by state or topic - where there still may be troubling or concerning findings.

Previous smaller studies have examined outcomes within particular jurisdictions. The current study was designed to provide a national overview to assess whether the problems identified in prior localized research were systemic and pervasive. Because there are thousands of custody courts across the country, the only way to gather national data on family court outcomes was to examine judicial opinions posted online. Fortunately, by 2015, most appellate court opinions were available online, and, as the researchers learned, so were a surprising number of trial court opinions. The search for published opinions covered the 10-year period from January 1, 2005 through December 31, 2014.

To develop the search and collect the opinions, the research team reviewed states' differing laws and language to ensure the search did not miss relevant cases. Different search engines and databases were explored and compared, and different search strings were tested. Ultimately, a search string of over 10 lines of search terms was constructed and applied; the Lexis search netted over 15,000 potentially relevant cases. From these, two coders triaged out cases that did not pertain to private custody litigation (e.g., cases brought by state agencies), cases involving same-sex parents, state-initiated cases, etc. Ultimately the complete dataset consisted of 4,338 cases.

Although the dataset was broad, including cases addressing visitation, joint custody, relocations and other matters, the researchers decided the best way to manage the complexity of the dataset would be to start by limiting the focus to three core outcomes: crediting of abuse, custody outcomes, and wins (i.e., which parent won the case, regardless of the requests involved). The researchers also wanted to start by analyzing only the cleanest, most paradigmatic cases involving abuse and alienation claims (i.e., where one parent accuses the other of abuse or alienation). The researchers therefore excluded from the first set of analyses cases with "third party" victims (e.g., a new or old partner), "mutual abuse" cases, "non-specific" abuse claims, and "AKA" claims (i.e., cases in which a court made alienation-like findings, without use of the term "alienation:). This reduced, cleaner "analytic dataset" consisted of 2,351 cases.

After completing the analyses of the analytic dataset, the researchers then constructed an expanded dataset consisting of all cases containing abuse (intrafamilial and extrafamilial) claims, the "all abuse" dataset, which consisted of 2,794 cases. While this dataset rolled in cases where a parent is accused of abusing an outside individual (i.e., not in the family at issue in the litigation), it continued to exclude all cases in which both parents accused the other of abuse ("mutual abuse").

Important caveat: since the "data" consisted of judicial opinions, which sometimes failed to specify all allegations by each party, it is likely that some of the 3,669 "non-alienation" cases included alienation claims which were not deemed significant enough for the court to mention; the same was likely true with regard to abuse in the 357 opinions the researchers coded as "non-abuse" (or "pure alienation"). It is likely that if a court did not mention it in the opinion, the factor played little role in the outcome.

Coders analyzed each opinion and coded 45 items (most with multiple sub-options), such as which parent started out with physical possession of the children, whether either parent alleged alienation or abuse, whether the court credited the abuse or alienation claims, and what the court ordered. They also coded for the presence and opinions of custody evaluators or Guardian Ad Litems, for evidence of corroboration of abuse claims, and many other items. Definitions of coded items are all contained in the Coding Manual. See the User Guide - Appendix B in the supporting documentation.

The study relied solely on electronically available published opinions in child custody cases (n = 4,338).

The study included 15 years of published cases involving alienation, abuse, and custody, while coding parties' claims and defenses, outcomes, and other key factors by gender and parental status.


Ultimately, 4,338 cases were triaged and winnowed from 15,998 cases identified by the search terms. Cases were only included if they were between opposite-gender mother and father and involved a final custody or visitation decision. Cases were excluded if they were brought by the state or a non-parent, were between a same-gender couple, concerned enforcement of a foreign court decision, or did not contain sufficient information to reliably code the party alleging abuse or alienation or case outcomes.


The original dataset consists of individual-level data reported by court decisions made available by public records. Variables include which parent started out with physical possession of the children, whether either parent alleged alienation or abuse, whether the court credited the abuse or alienation claims, and what the court ordered.

Not applicable.




2021-03-30 The study was updated to include a P.I. codebook.

2020-08-27 The study title was updated to reflect the time frame to which the data correspond.

2020-04-28 ICPSR data undergo a confidentiality review and are altered when necessary to limit the risk of disclosure. ICPSR also routinely creates ready-to-go data files along with setups in the major statistical software formats as well as standard codebooks to accompany the data. In addition to these procedures, ICPSR performed the following processing steps for this data collection:

  • Checked for undocumented or out-of-range codes.

Not applicable.



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