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A cardinal rule in divorce, experts in family dynamics say, is that parents never denigrate one another to their children. Yet, as any divorce lawyer knows, pitting child against parent is a tactic all too common between warring spouses who, in their vehemence, lose sight of their children’s emotional welfare. Courts, however, are increasingly mindful of the psychological harm it can inflict — and, in some cases, have taken extreme measures against parents who actively foster their children’s hatred for their divorcing spouse. For West Hartford, Conn., Realtor Abbe Yeston, her vocal and repeated disdain for ex-husband Neil Yeston, a prominent Hartford, Conn., doctor, has at least temporarily cost her custody of their two sons. The mother’s “incessant and completely unjustified vilification” of the father placed their younger son “in a condition of intense psychological turmoil,” so much so that Judge F. Herbert Gruendel said he had no choice but to vacate her joint custody order and award Neil Yeston sole custody of both children. STERN WORDS Gruendel, chief administrative judge of the state’s family courts, and Judge Linda Pearce Prestley warned Abbe Yeston — in restraining orders over the past year, some typed in all capital letters for emphasis — that she faced losing custody unless she curbed her endless and destructive criticism of her ex-husband. In a powerfully worded June 24 ruling, Gruendel said Abbe Yeston defiantly violated those orders within days — sometimes within hours — and frightened her younger son into thinking that the father was working to leave her penniless and “alienate or separate the children from her.” “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Gruendel wrote, noting the mother’s generous settlement terms and the father’s “fervent desire” that his sons maintain a meaningful and complete relationship with their mother. In ordering the sons’ cold-turkey break from Abbe Yeston, conditioned on her progress from counseling with an expert trained in parental alienation issues, Gruendel got an angry reaction from the older child. In all capitals, the judge emphasized that the purpose of his orders was neither to punish the boys, who have done nothing wrong, nor to punish the mother, who has. “The purpose is to require Mrs. Yeston to recognize the terrible effects her conduct has had on both of her sons and to involve her in a therapeutic setting which will help her to control her overt behavior,” Gruendel wrote. MORE THAN A THEORY The case highlights a problem — parental alienation — that family court judges appear to be finding stronger and more detailed measures to combat. According to veteran Hartford family lawyer Gerald Roisman, who represents Neil Yeston, the change has been coming for 20 years, as courts moved away from almost automatically granting custody to the mother and visitation to the father toward more equal, “gender-neutral” co-parenting orders. Roisman, who has been practicing for more than 40 years, recalls handling custody cases in which the court’s remedies completely ignored the issue of a parent turning a child against the other parent with alienating disparagement. He praised Greundel’s strenuous effort to address the problem, which included a $2,500 sanction of legal fees imposed for Abbe Yeston’s contempt of his orders. The mother, now apparently representing herself after having four lawyers in this case, did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. Family lawyer Richard G. Kent, of New Canaan, Conn.’s Marvin, Ferro, Barndollar & Kent, said interest in finding new legal tools to combat such behavior has steadily increased in recent years, with some states recognizing a tort action for parental alienation. The term “parental alienation syndrome” was coined in the 1980s by a New Jersey psychiatrist, the late Richard A. Gardner, who testified as an expert witness in both tort cases and custody matters nationwide, said Kent. Although Gardner’s writings have been castigated as lacking peer review and not meeting standards of scientific reliability, Kent said, “for a lot of people, he’s the guru.” Connecticut judges have not needed new tort law or a scientifically approved “syndrome” to recognize the damage that can be done in such cases. In 1997, New Haven Superior Court Judge Lynda B. Munro, in Bowles v. Bowles, considered the issue of parental alienation syndrome. Theoreticians, she wrote, contend that a child “does not become so completely alienated from a parent unless the other parent has intentionally or unintentionally derogated the non-custodial parent to cause the alienation.” Munro decided to make her decisions based on her own findings, “without regard to that theory.” In Bowles, Debby, the ex-wife of suspended lawyer William Bowles, lost sole custody of her younger son, due to her stormy relationship with an abusive boyfriend and for making negative remarks about her ex-husband. Munro did not find it in the older child’s best interest to live with his mother. “His parenting needs are not well met by Ms. Bowles,” she wrote. But because the 16-year-old had “achieved such a high level of alienation from his father,” it would be unrealistic to expect a reconciliation, Munro noted. ‘MR. JERKBALL’ In 1999, New Haven Superior Court Judge Sidney Axelrod also changed custody from mother to father. Like Gruendel, Axelrod warned it was coming. Initially, after a rancorous 12-day dissolution and custody trial, in which both Regina and Kenneth Lane represented themselves pro se, Axelrod reluctantly granted custody to the mother. A subsequent custody trial lasted 24 days with 2,740 pages of exhibits. The first issue Axelrod addressed in a long opinion was the alienation of the children’s affections for the father by the mother. She encouraged them to call him “Mr. Ken,” not “dad.” When asked about this by the children’s guardian ad litem, Regina Lane replied, “What should they call him, Mr. Jerkball?” The visitation exchanges at the McDonalds restaurant in Milford were troubling. The judge found the children were encouraged to run away from their father, or throw stones, spit on or hit him, which they did. Axelrod, the police and the Department of Children and Families found no basis for the mother’s charges of physical or sexual abuse by the father, nor that photos of the children taking a bath were pornographic. Axelrod catalogued 30 instances in which the mother interfered with visitation. He found no basis at all for the mother telling the children that the father’s sister, their aunt, poisoned the children’s’ food. The judge also refused to allow into evidence videos the mother took at the McDonald’s restaurant, and formally found the aunt had never called Mrs. Lane “a f — – ing bitch, drunk, stupid and ignorant.” Regina Lane’s questioning of witnesses throughout the trial, Axelrod wrote, could “best be described as a false attempt at wholesale character assassination.” Conversely, he found the father was “dedicated to the children and in control of himself.” Kenneth Lane was awarded custody of all three children, with the mother given unsupervised weekend visitation. She was ordered not to videotape the visitation exchanges.

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