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Attorneys Vic Hill and Brad MacDonald

It Remains Unclear Whether Georgia Will Embrace Expert Testimony On PAS

Some divorces are contentious and some are not. If a marriage that is about to end has produced children, matters pertaining to child custody can sometimes turn combative. Under Georgia law, when custody is at issue, a judge is supposed to take into account the best interests of the child. Child custody battles in Georgia — as in other states — often require input from expert witnesses such as child psychologists and other professionals. Such testimony is aimed at influencing the judge’s decision as to what constitutes the child’s best interests.

In some custody cases, a party attempts to have an expert witness testify regarding parental alienation syndrome.

The concept of PAS originated in the 1980s. PAS is broadly defined as being any behavior by one parent alienating a child from the other parent. According to Psychology Today, PAS essentially involves the programming of a child by one parent. The goal of the programming is to denigrate the other parent, thereby undermining the child’s relationship with that parent. PAS is often in the news. Earlier this year, an article appeared in the Huffington Post where the author, in reviewing the BBC movie “Philomena,” noted that his relationship with his children was negatively affected due to PAS. He observed that, nationally, many fathers and mothers suffer from the absence of their child when the other parent has successfully turned that child against them.

Recently, a new scholarly study published in the Michigan Law Review examined the scientific basis for PAS and looked at its admissibility in court proceedings. Author Alison Nichols concludes that PAS remains controversial in that many in the field of psychiatry have rejected PAS as not being solidly grounded in science. One person quoted by Nichols refers to PAS as “junk science.” Ms. Nichols believes that PAS is not based on good data nor upon solid empirical research. She cautions that, since expert testimony in court cases is supposed to be grounded in scientific theory generally accepted by professionals in a certain field, PAS testimony should never be admitted into evidence since it is not “generally accepted in the field of psychiatry.”

Georgia Law

Last year, the Court of Appeals of Georgia rendered a decision in Mauldin v. Mauldin. In Mauldin, which involved child custody, there was extensive testimony on PAS. On appeal, the mother of the child in question argued that the trial court had made a mistake in permitting expert testimony on PAS. She argued that PAS was a scientifically invalid theory not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. The Court of Appeals found that the mother had not questioned the admissibility of PAS testimony during the trial. In fact, she had stipulated as to the admissibility of the PAS evidence. As a result, she could not question the validity of PAS on appeal.

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how the Court of Appeals would have ruled if the mother had been able to raise the admissibility of PAS testimony on appeal. It therefore remains an open question whether or not our appellate courts will ultimately uphold the admissibility of PAS testimony.

Seeking Custody

If you anticipate being involved in a divorce where child custody issues could turn contentious, you need to contact an attorney experienced in handling family law matters as soon as possible. If you believe that your spouse may be attempting to turn your child against you and jeopardize your relationship with that child, an attorney can advise you on strategies to help you preserve the relationship you have with that child.