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Richard Gardner, 72; Had Theory on False Claims of Abuse Against Parents

June 12, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Richard A. Gardner, a child psychiatrist who concluded that the influence of an angry parent in custody battles could prompt a child to make false charges of abuse against the other parent, has died. He was 72.

Gardner, who suffered from the painful neurological syndrome called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, committed suicide May 25 at his home in Tenafly, N.J.

A practicing child psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons for the last 40 years, Gardner wrote about three dozen books -- self-published by his Creative Therapeutics company. Many were designed to help children cope with family breakups, such as his 1970 "Boys and Girls Book About Divorce," now in its 28th printing.

He also helped pioneer therapeutic games, creating one of the first for children, "The Talking, Feeling and Doing Game," in 1973.

But Gardner achieved his greatest notoriety as an expert witness in more than 400 trials on child custody and crimes involving sex abuse, offering his theory of parent alienation syndrome. Under that syndrome, Gardner said, one vindictive parent -- usually the mother -- can turn a child against the other parent, causing the child to denigrate the noncustodial parent and even accuse the parent of abuse, sexual or otherwise.

Gardner's radical recommendation in blatant cases was to award custody to the accused noncustodial parent, even though, in some cases, the child often refused even to visit.

The psychiatrist was widely quoted by national news media in such highly publicized cases as the custody dispute of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in which Farrow accused Allen of abusing their adopted child.

Gardner developed his theory, not from any standard research methods, but from his own observations during 40 years of psychiatric practice. Gardner's "syndrome" is not recognized by either the American Psychiatric Assn. or the American Medical Assn., and critics have pointed out that his writings, unlike those published by scientific journals, have not been subject to peer review.

Among his books were "The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse" in 1987, "Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited" in 1990, "True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse" in 1992, and "Protocols for the Sex-Abuse Evaluation" in 1996.

In the 1987 book, Gardner commented on the reasons behind the syndrome: "Although the mothers in these situations may have a variety of motivations for programming their children against their fathers, the most common one relates to the old saying, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' "

Gardner's prolific commentary and testimony were criticized by other mental health professionals, child-abuse specialists and some legal experts as unscientific and biased against women.

Born in the Bronx, New York City, Gardner graduated from Columbia College and the Downstate Medical Center of the State University of New York and served in the Army Medical Corps in Germany.

He is survived by his partner, Natalie Weiss; his mother, Amelia Gardner of Manhattan; three children from his former marriage to Lee Robbins Gardner, Andrew of Cherry Hill, N.J., Nancy Gardner Rubin of Potomac, Md., and Julie Gardner Mandelcorn of Newton, Mass.; and eight grandchildren.

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