With the help of a nonprofit group, Fulton County families are fighting custody battles where “parental alienation syndrome,” a form of emotional abuse inflicted on the child or children of divorcing parents by one parent, is used to deny one parent custody.
Robyn Rowles lost full custody to an ex-husband accused of alcoholism and abusing their children. Her crime in the custody battle was parental alienation, according to the court custody evaluator and appointed guardian ad litem.
Those court officials were appointed by a former Superior Court judge who has since been replaced by Superior Court Judge Belinda Edwards, who is being accused of potential corruption or gross incompetence by William Perry and the Georgia Ethics Watchdog nonprofit group.
Perry said he believes there may be fraud and corruption in the Fulton County family court system and that he hasn’t seen anything like the rulings that have been handed down.
“In my eight-year experience working in ethics and good government and those kind of issues, I've really seen nothing like this,” Perry said Thursday at a news conference. “It is again just all I can ever come up with is bizarre. And if it's not corruption, it's incompetency and needs to be watched anyway.”
“It is the mission of the Superior Court of Fulton County to ensure that all members of our community are treated fairly and that everyone has equal access to justice,” Chief Judge Robert McBurney said in a statement. “Our judges strive to give litigants a fair and full hearing and then decide cases on the facts presented in open court and according to the governing law.”
Robyn Rowles’ ex-husband, Sean Rowles, has been arrested on domestic violence charges and accused of mistreating their children.
Sean Rowles was arrested in 2011 and charged with simple assault after allegedly pinning his wife several times between a table and a hutch, according to a police report. At the time, the couple lived in Rhode Island.
According to an incident report from the previous month, Robyn Rowles called 911 to report her husband was threatening to take the kids away. The report states Sean Rowles threatened police officers in the house and used expletives. He told his wife in front of officers that she couldn’t prove who caused her injuries.
In April 2012, Sean Rowles was again arrested on charges of domestic assault after Robyn Rowles jumped from a car he was driving. He then ran over Robyn Rowles’ arm, according to the police report.
“It appeared that the right arm may have been broken,” the officer wrote in his report.
But despite evidence including a notarized letter signed by Sean Rowles in 2014 saying he would relinquish his parental rights, the judge decided last year he should be awarded full custody of the children.
Now, Robyn Rowles sees her children only during four-hour, supervised visits every other Saturday.
“She has never been arrested, she has no history of violence, no history of alcoholism or drug abuse, and no mental health issues,” Perry said.
The act of trying to turn kids against the other parent is not a condition recognized by experts, Perry said.
“Mental health professionals do not believe that this is something that is a true syndrome,” Perry said. “It has been outlawed in many states as something that can be used in child custody cases. Yet, here in Georgia, here in Fulton County, the judge is using it in Robyn's case and others.”
But Dr. Richard A. Gardner described parental alienation as a form of emotional abuse in his book, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. The book was originally published in 1992. The American Psychological Association released a statement in 2008, saying the organization has no official stance and notes a lack of evidence for PAS.
While experts agree fighting over custody by bashing or lying about the other parent to the child isn’t healthy, the experts don’t accept the description as a formal syndrome.
According to a guide by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, PAS should not be accepted as testimony in the courts.
On Monday, Judge Belinda Edwards will decide whether the father, Sean Rowles, can move the couple’s children out of state. Robyn Rowles said she fears she will never see her children again and that they would be in danger in her ex-husband’s care.