Part 2 in a Series of Articles
By Joan Kloth-Zanard, RSS, ABI and LC
During the past year, I became aware of a very contentious PAS case emanating out of the New Haven Court system. Jerry Mastrangelo is a good father who loves his 13-year-old triplets from the top of their heads to the tip of their toes. He would do anything for them and that is what he is doing right now. Since 2005, he has been struggling with an ugly family court fight to stop his ex-wife, Trudianne, of Bethany, CT, from impeding and destroying his relationship with his innocent children. It is seen as a crime, which many refer to as Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome.
And so the trial begins. The Honorable Mark T. Gould presiding knocks on his door to notify the bailiff that he is ready to enter the courtroom. We all rise as the judge takes his seat. Tensions are high for everyone. I am quite sure that cases like these really push all judges to the limit. But for the plaintiff and defendant, the stress of the unknown outcome, which depends on their evidence and presentation is almost deafening for them.
This case begins with something I had never heard of called a Porter Trial. Basically, in layman’s terms, it is a special trial to determine if an expert witness’s testimony will be accepted or barred. Under the Porter Trial rules, there are several tests that must be proven by the attorneys to have an expert included or excluded.
In this case, the expert is Dr. Amy J. Baker, who holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and utilizes her training as a researcher with expertise in parent-child relationships, child welfare and parental alienation. She is also the author and editor of two books as well has written well over 50 articles in her areas of expertise. The Plaintiff’s attorneys, Martha Anne Weiler, Jean Welty and Thomas A. Esposito, claim that the use of the word syndrome in relation to Parental Alienation Syndrome invalidates it and her testimony as an expert because it is “witchcraft” or junk science. The defendant’s attorney, Norm Pattis, claims that the word syndrome is not the issue here as it is really just a word for a group of 8 behaviors that Dr. Richard Gardner noticed to occurring in Parental Alienation cases and then supported further by his colleagues and the scientific community.
According to the judge the gateway question is if there is scientific principles and methodology that back up the testimony of this expert witness. There were several tests that the judge used to rule on the validity of Dr. Amy J Baker’s Testimony. The first of those questions was about the subject matter of this case. In other words, are the behaviors/syndrome (developed by Dr. Gardner) and the strategies (17 Reported by Dr. Baker) documented well enough in peer review articles, books and other acknowledged venues? The answer to this according to the judge was a resounding, YES.
Next question addressed was if the behaviors/syndrome have been tested. And if those tests had an Error Rater or margin for error built into their reliability. This brought in the issue of the Daubert Rule as to the validity and reliability based on a case involving a polygraph machine, which obviously as a mechanical device could result in breakdown. It was determined that despite the ambiguity of the Daubert Rule, the tests on the 8 behaviors identified by Dr. Richard Gardner were sound and thoroughly tested.
As to the question of Dr. Baker’s 17 strategies used by a parent to create a hostile and aggressive relationship between the children and the other parent, the judge stated there was NO evidence presented that discredited this or the 8 behaviors and thus the standard for these two items, behaviors and strategies, were sound.
Further, was the question of acceptance by the general science community that Parental Alienation existed, without prejudice to it not being in the DSM. The judge again felt that this was evidentially proven with Dr. Baker’s testimony. As to whether Dr. Baker’s testimony was subjective or unsupported by others, the judge ruled that he finds her testimony persuasive as well as objective and supported by other practitioners and experts in the science world.
Additional areas of question for the judge included whether Dr. Baker’s testimony was relevant to the case. Since Dr. Baker was only testifying on a generic level, not specific (i.e. she was not speaking on specifics of the case but in generalities about Parental Alienation) and her information was not of common knowledge to most people, it was thus relevant to the case. The judge further stated that her testimony was reliable and scientifically valid.
What does all of this mean? That the plantiff’s rebuttal witness to Dr. Amy Baker’s testimony, a Dr. Garber, was dismissed and his testimony never heard. It was determined by the judge that Dr. Baker’s testimony was not only valid but necessary in making a responsible decision about the case and therefore, any commentary on Dr. Garber’s part was basically, unnecessary. Or in other words, Parental Alienation and it’s syndrome passed the Daubert Test of admissibility.
After an hour break for lunch, the attorney for the father, Norm Pattis,, continued by calling his various witnesses to the stand. During the next hour, Attorney Pattis called several of Mr. Mastrangelo’s neighbors, friends, a business partner and even Mr. Mastrangelo’s first wife. All testified to Mr. Mastrangelo’s positive parenting role and reputation as a father. In fact, Michael Katz, a former NY Jet’s football player, said he wished he had been his father. To this end, Attorney Weiler for the mother, and her associates had no questions of these witnesses.
Then came the testimony of two others who had personally been involved with the Mr. Mastrangelo’s family and his Triplets. First to be called to the stand was Andrew Spurrier, a family court evaluator who made four independent reports on the family back in 2006 through 2007. At that time, before the case could get to trial, the parents had worked out a parenting plan and thus his position, as an evaluator was finished. But the relevance of his reports to Mr. Mastrangelo’s case was now in question. Both Attorney Weiler, for the mother, and the Attorney for the Minor Child (AMC), Ms. Ann Epstein, passionately spoke about the age of the report and how it would therefore not have value at the present stage of the children’s respective ages, now 13. Attorney Pattis, the father’s attorney, argued that these reports showed a baseline from 2007, to the changes in the children’s behavior at present, thus backing up their assertion that the children were being brainwashed and programmed to hate their father. The judge, understandably was on the fence with this, but decided to allow the reports in as evidence to be determined as to whether they were substantial but no testimony was taken from Mr. Spurrier beyond his qualifications.
Next on the days line up was Tina Spagnolti, the children’s elementary school psychologist. Her work with the children ended also in about 2007, but included a diary written by Carli, one of the triplets. Again, Attorney Weiler and AMC Epstein objected to this witness, as her files were not current. Again, Attorney Pattis reiterated that despite the age of these files, they presented evidence of where the children had been in their relationship with their father back then to where they are now with that same relationship. The judge allowed the evidence in and some testimony on the diary in question.
From this writers view point, as a professional and researcher, that if there is evidence that dates back in time, that presents a major change in the children’s behavior and attitudes toward their father, that this evidence helps to establish a pattern of behavior. And it is this pattern of behavior that supports the establishing of Parental Alienation in the children. As Dr. Amy Baker repeatedly stated in her testimony, when there is no evidence or substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, a yet a child rejects a parent, this is clearly a sign that someone or something is influencing the children’s behavior to disrespect and hate the other parent. In cases of true abuse and neglect, children just do not behave this way. It becomes fairly self-evident that, any evidence showing this pattern to “rewrite what a child believes and feels about the other parent such that it is reflected in the child’s behavior” should be included in making a decision about what is in the children’s best interest and welfare.
The day ended at 3pm with the last of the character witnesses testifying to the father’s stability and accessibility as a good parent and provider for his family. Tomorrow will be a half a day with testimony from Dr. Hiebel, the reunification therapist, Dr. Mann, a pediatrician and Dr. Bob Horowitz, a custody evaluator. In all, today’s court trial seemed to provide a positive framework for the father and his side of the case.