Have you heard of parental alienation syndrome (PAS)? It’s a term that’s been around for decades, based on a theory proposed by a child psychologist who wrote about what he found to be a “shocking number” of child custody battles that involved a mother alleging that the father was abusive.

The psychologist claimed that abuse simply couldn’t be that common. Most of the time, he theorized, it had to be mentally ill mothers or women intent on vengeance against their husbands fabricating the allegations and using them as leverage in court.

PAS was born, and it’s been accepted as an all-too-real and far-too-common occurrence by the courts ever since — even though the whole idea has been soundly criticized and largely discredited by experts. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has stated, for example, that PAS allegations divert attention away from abusive parents and onto the victimized spouse. Even way back in 2009, one expert said, “PAS is essentially composed of unsubstantiated claims. There’s no science behind it.”

Unfortunately, the notion that PAS is common hasn’t died away — and judges are using it to make decisions about custody that may be incredibly biased against women.  In a recently published study, researchers examined more than 4,000 custody cases between 2005 and 2014 where abuse was alleged. Here’s what they found:

  • When a mother has primary physical custody of the children and a father alleges PAS, the court will award custody in 44% of cases to the father.
  • When a father has primary physical custody of the children and a mother alleges PAS, the court will only award the mother custody 28% of the time.
  • If a mother alleges that a father is abusive, and the father alleges PAS, the court is twice as likely to strip the mother of custody than when there is no allegation of PAS.
  • If the mother alleges sexual abuse by the father and the father alleges PAS, the court is only likely to believe the mother once out of every 51 cases (even though conservative estimates by experts say that abuse allegations are likely valid at least 50% of the time).
  • Even when abuse is proven, fathers are only likely to lose custody in 13% of custody cases.

If you’re a woman facing a custody battle, these findings should give you pause. It’s important to make careful decisions about how you’ll present your case in court and operate with an attorney’s guidance.