Dave Jones (not his real name) appears calm and accomplished. A Wyoming native who grew up loving the ranch life, he now owns his own business in South Salt Lake, teaching workplace safety to those who work in dangerous professions. But his ready sense of humor and the fact that he has a close extended family and many friends belies his hidden turmoil. Away from work, his recent years have been filled with stress and strife. More than anything, Jones wants to be a father to his children and feels devastated that he hasn’t seen them in almost two years.
Flying home on a red-eye June 18, 2011, Jones anticipated a Father’s Day lunch with his children the next day. But there was no answer when he called his ex-wife’s home Sunday morning. She eventually dropped the children off for a visit that lasted just two hours before she picked them up again.
That Father’s Day lunch in 2011 was the last time he saw his daughter. A four-hour counselor-facilitated visit is the only time he’s seen his son since.
Jones believes his kids are experiencing parental alienation, which occurs when one parent tries to turn a child against the other parent through bad-mouthing, casting him or her in a negative light and making the child feel guilty for wanting to spend time with—or even loving—that parent. Jones says his ex-wife, Sharon, has turned his kids—Jeremy, 14, and Melissa, 16—against him to the point where they now want nothing to do with him.
[Editor’s note: In consideration of the children’s privacy, the real names of Dave Jones, his wife and his two children have not been used.]
A month after the abbreviated Father’s Day visit, Jones went to Sharon’s house to pick up the kids. She met him in the driveway and said she was not going to let the kids go with him. He said she then demanded to know who he went to Hawaii with. (Jones says he went to Hawaii on business the month before.) She then said the kids didn’t want to go with him because they were afraid of him. Exasperated, he asked what she thought he should do with the situation. She replied, “It really sucks to be you right now.”
Although Jones’ 2010 divorce decree specifies his visitation as every Tuesday night and every other weekend and holiday, he says that’s never happened.
“I am heartbroken that they are growing up, and I am not a part of their lives,” Jones says. “My son caught his first fish with someone else.”
Jones says he understands his kids’ divided loyalty. “I know how manipulative this lady can be. If I was in [my kids’] shoes, I don’t think I would do anything different,” he says. He believes his kids are thinking, “I can either stay with my mother and do whatever she says, or go with my dad and get my mother’s wrath when I get back.”
The 57-year-old local businessman says he pays 76 percent of his children’s support, 50 percent of their medical expenses and his son’s entire private-school tuition. He also says he’s spent more than $10,000 trying to see his kids. He’s hired attorneys, counselors and a “special master”—a court-designated professional who acts to assist divorced families in conflict. He’s been told he can enlist the help of police to enforce visitation, but feels that would make the situation worse.
Jones says that Utah’s treatment of divorced fathers and mothers is highly unequal. “If I didn’t pay my child support, they would take my driver’s license, garnish my wages and maybe throw me in jail,” he says. But there has been no penalty for his wife continuing to keep the kids away from him.
Chris Wharton, a Salt Lake City attorney whose practice focuses on family law and criminal defense, says that the conflict is not so much an issue of mother versus father, but an issue of custodial versus noncustodial parent. “The custodial parent has the advantage,” he says.
Wharton has two cases pending in litigation where alienation is taking place. He says that alienation is not uncommon in cases of high-conflict divorce or separation, especially when children are in their preteens or teens. At that point, he says, it’s easy for the alienating parent to tell the other parent that their child doesn’t want to see him or her.
Typically, Wharton says, the noncustodial parent doesn’t force the issue “because he is concerned that if he continues to push the order in court, it is going to drive the children away even further. The more that he defers, the more time goes by since the children have seen him, and the more difficult it is to resume a more normal, meaningful parent-time visitation schedule.”
Jones worries that his ex-wife is planning to drag out the custody conflict without him having a chance to see the children until they turn 18—at which point they may have become too estranged from him to want him in their lives at all.
Your Father Doesn’t Love You
Ned Holstein is the founder and chairman of the board for the National Parents Organization, a group that has helped pass bills in many states to encourage equitable treatment for fathers and mothers in parenting disputes.
Alienation is very common, Holstein says. The majority of divorces involve some degree of alienation, where one of the parents makes an effort to cast the other in a bad light. “In most cases, it is mild or intermittent when, in their anger or frustration, they let something slip that they may later regret,” he says.
In more serious alienation cases, behaviors cause a child to be mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of all their problems and/or the enemy. The noncustodial parent is then to be feared, hated, disrespected and avoided.
The standard every-other-weekend visitation schedule is the perfect setup for alienating a child, Holstein says. A mother can say, “Your father doesn’t love you. That’s why you’re not seeing him this week.”
When he filed for divorce in 2010, Jones presumed he would have regular visits with his kids. But as soon as he moved out, it became difficult to see them. He often received a text message on Tuesday mornings saying they were busy that night. The times they could visit grew shorter. “They never offered makeup time,” he says. “They never said, ‘I can’t come over on Tuesday, but I could visit Wednesday.’”
Wharton says that under state code, both parents are supposed to work together to try to schedule makeup time at the soonest possible date. But as time passes and alienation continues, pressure builds on both the kids and parents, and the parent who is doing the alienating often becomes more extreme in his or her excuses for why the kids can’t visit.
Differing opinions about the LDS Church helped fuel the Jones’ conflict. He’d joined the church at his wife’s invitation during their marriage, but later decided it wasn’t for him. Early on, when his daughter did visit him, she said that rather than staying over on a Saturday night, according to the visitation terms, she needed to go back home to get ready for church the next day.
In May 2011, when Jeremy visited without his sister, he decided he wanted to stay the entire weekend. Jones called his ex-wife and told her Jeremy didn’t want to go to church the next day and that he was keeping him, per the visitation order. Jones says his ex-wife “went into a tizzy,” and he received an e-mail from her that said his children would be going to church no matter what the holiday or who had visitation.
Wharton has seen other parents disagree over church attendance. He recommends that if one parent is using church attendance as an excuse for alienation, “the other parent can offer to have [the kids] ready for church. The other parent can pick them up and have them back to the other parent within an hour of church ending. Or the parent who is being alienated can take the children to church and sit through it, even though he may not enjoy it.”
LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter says, “We hope that parents will do all they can to maintain a sense of harmony as they keep the interests of their children at the forefront.”
A few weeks after the abbreviated 2011 Father’s Day visitation that was supposed to last until 7 p.m., Jones says, “Jeremy didn’t want to talk or visit me anymore, for no apparent reason.” Jones says that Aug. 16, 2011, during a rare phone call with his children, Jeremy told Jones that he and Melissa did not want to come to Jones’ home anymore because of what Jones believes. Jones says he asked, “What do I believe?” and Jeremy replied that he did not feel comfortable discussing that with his father and hung up.
Jones believes that was in reference to Sharon “telling the kids that since I left the LDS Church, their beliefs must be different from mine,” he says. “I have never discussed my religious or spiritual beliefs with either Jeremy or Melissa, nor did we ever discuss why I left the LDS Church.”