How to Sue for Parental Alienation in the State of Ohio

By Beverly Bird

Updated December 24, 2019

Angry middle school girl sits on library windowsill

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Unfortunately, not all parents are able to jointly raise their children after a breakup and get along splendidly throughout the entire process. Relationships can sometimes deteriorate to a grievous extent, and it’s often the children who suffer most. All states, including Ohio, have laws in place to protect children from the effects of parental warfare, particularly from parental alienation.

Technically, Ohio law defines parental alienation as interference with custody, visitation or parental rights through a variety of means, and it provides recourse for alienated parents.

The Definition of Parental Alienation

Alienation involves one parent attempting to turn the children against the other. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean taking intentional actions, although it often does. One parent might talk negatively about the other within earshot of the young ones, or their actions might be more overt, like repeatedly pulling the plug on scheduled visitation times or telling the child again and again that the other parent is a bad person or committed a crime, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Ohio Code Section 3109.04(F)(1) instructs courts to determine “whether either parent has engaged in conduct that continuously and willfully interferes with the other parent’s custody or visitation,” and the interpretation of interference can be broad. It can encompass actions that negatively affect the relationship between a child and the other parent, effectively attempting to “brainwash” the child into harboring bad feelings about that parent.

The term parental alienation derives from parental alienation syndrome, or “PAS,” a condition first recognized by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in the 1980s. Ohio law doesn’t technically recognize PAS as a psychological condition, but it does have statutes and procedures in place that allow an alienated parent to take legal action against the perpetrating parent.

Involving the Court

“Suing” someone means leveling charges against them in a court of law and asking the court to order the offending party to pay for their actions. In the usual context, plaintiffs – the parties filing lawsuits – seek monetary compensation. In the case of parental alienation, they typically want the court to somehow make the situation right again.

An Ohio parent can file a Motion of Contempt of Court to allege alienation, indicating that the other parent is violating a court-ordered parenting plan. The Supreme Court of Ohio makes all the necessary forms available on its website in both PDF and Word format if parents want to attempt to handle the legal action on their own. However, this type of lawsuit can be a complicated challenge, so parents might want to engage the assistance and advice of a lawyer who specializes in parental alienation syndrome.

Filing the Correct Paperwork

With or without an attorney, a parent must file several documents with the court to initiate a parental alienation lawsuit:

  • The Motion for Contempt and Affidavit officially asks the court to get involved and hold the other parent in contempt of violating the terms of a custody or parenting agreement or a divorce decree. The Affidavit section requires the filing parent to explain the facts of the case and detail the actions that the other parent has allegedly taken.
  • A proposed Order to Show Cause, a Request for Service and a Notice and Instructions to the court clerk must be filed along with the motion itself, asking for a court date and requesting that the clerk issue a summons to the other parent to appear in court and defend his or her actions.

This might not sound very complicated on the surface, but it’s just the beginning. The offended parent should also provide substantiating proof of what the other parent has done and be able to establish that they did so _without justificatio_n. Ideally, collecting this evidence won’t be a last-minute project but rather an ongoing preparation for filing the motion, such as keeping a calendar of all events that have occurred and pinpointing witnesses who observed the negative behavior.

How Will the Court Decide?

When the motion proceeds to court, the judge will determine whether the accused parent is genuinely in contempt of the parenting order or the decree of divorce that includes parenting and visitation terms. It’s not uncommon for a judge to appoint an expert, typically a psychologist, to assess the situation and make a report to the court as to whether parental alienation has indeed taken place, and, if so, how egregious and severe it’s been.

Withholding parenting time because a noncustodial parent hasn’t been paying child support is not considered legal justification for parental alienation, nor is it a legal excuse that the alienating actions were taken on the advice of the offending parent’s attorney. Other excuses that won’t hold up in the eyes of the court include repeated “illnesses” or transportation issues that interfered with the dates of scheduled visitation or parenting time.

Possible Results and Remedies

The court’s goal is almost always to reunite the alienated parent and child, not necessarily to impose punitive penalties for actions that the alienating parent has been proven to have taken. Although jail time and fines are possible, too, these measures are somewhat rare. A common remedy is to award the wronged parent additional parenting time or visitation. If the court determines that the offending parent’s actions were misguided rather than intentionally alienating, the parent might be required to undergo counseling or attend parenting classes.

In extreme cases, a judge might change primary custody, awarding it to the wronged parent, particularly if that parent can demonstrate a willingness to try to work with the other and encourage a healthy relationship between the child and that parent, too. But the best interests of the child are always the primary standard, and judges can be reluctant to force children to go through the trauma of changing homes unless there’s no other reasonable solution, particularly if the relationship between the wronged parent and the children has become unstable due to the alienation.

Ohio courts can order punitive damages or monetary sanctions, and the alienating parent will most likely be ordered to pay the court costs and attorney fees of the wronged parent if the wronged parent’s case is upheld.

Some Examples of Parental Alienation in Ohio Law

In one Ohio case, Zigmont v. Toto, an appellate court ordered that the accused parent should retain parental control while both parents and their children underwent counseling with the same therapist.

A trial court later reached the exact opposite conclusion in the case of Fetty v. Fetty-Omaits, changing custody and awarding it to the alienating parent. This was largely because the offending parent had remarried, however, and the judge found that the addition of the new spouse to the children’s home had instigated the alienating behavior. The remarriage was considered a change of circumstances.

Ohio courts also changed primary custody in at least two other cases: Allen v. Murphy and Doerman v. Doerman. In the first case, the offending parent had taken steps to convince her children that their father had abused them. The mother in the second case continued to try to obstruct visitation after being ordered not to do so.