Following the 2009 in vitro-assisted birth of Gus, a very public legal argument broke out between mother Danielle Schreiber and her former boyfriend and the child’s sperm donor, Jason Patric. Patric, a well-known actor who starred in films such as The Lost Boys and Speed 2: Cruise Control, petitioned for parental rights, arguing that he and Schreiber had been partners for years, and that he had every intention of fathering the child. He says he kept his name off the birth certificate to protect Gus from media attention.
Schreiber, citing section 7613(b) of California’s Family Code, maintains that as a sperm donor, and with no written agreement to the contrary in place before the child’s birth, Patric does not have any parental rights. In addition, Schreiber, through her lawyers, tells Newsweek that she and Patric never agreed to be co-parents, and that Patric never showed any intent of wanting to be the child’s father. A 29-page letter written sent by Patric in late 2008 or early 2009 to Schreiber portrays a tortured man who ultimately says he’s not ready for fatherhood, but would act as a sperm donor as a “gift” to the woman he had loved, as long as she kept it a secret.
The trial court sided with Schreiber, awarding her full custody of Gus. A Domestic Violence Restraining Order was also issued against Patric by the trial court on November 25, 2013; in an email to Newsweek Schreiber’s legal team says this was in response to past instances of verbal, physical, and emotional abuse (including anti-Semitic remarks) levied by Patric towards Schreiber.
Patric unequivocally denies these charges, and by now has spent roughly 160 hours in courtrooms trying to convince judges (and the public) that he is Gus’s father in every sense of the word. In May of 2014, an appellate court decided that though Patric could not claim fatherhood under section 7613(b), they would allow him to seek paternity under different sections of the California Family Code. Schreiber’s legal team has petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision; they have not yet responded to the request.
In the meanwhile, it has been 72 weeks since Patric last saw the child.
He has also launched the website Stand Up for Gus to promote awareness of parental alienation syndrome (PAS), a mental health syndrome he fears his son may have to deal with for the rest of his life, based on the acrimonious relationship between his parents.
Coined in 1985 by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, PAS describes a set of behaviors exhibited by kids whose parents deliberately turn them against the other parent, through a variety of techniques that are at once coercive, manipulative, vindictive and sociopathic. “It’s a violent act to a child’s mind,” Patric tells Newsweek, speaking of PAS, which he says he began investigating following his initial trial to assert his parental rights with Gus. He believes parental alienation is akin to what domestic violence was 40 years ago—a dirty secret that is harming millions but not acknowledged by many mental health professionals.
One of the reasons PAS hasn’t been embraced universally is because of controversies that punctuate Gardner’s career. In 1992, for example, at the height of the tumultuous scandal in which Woody Allen’s former partner, Mia Farrow, accused him of child abuse, Gardner told reporters that “screaming ‘sex abuse’ is a very effective way to wreak vengeance on a hated spouse.” Many took this as a tacit diagnosis of PAS—inferring that Gardner had sided with Allen and believed Farrow had manipulated her children into falsely believing Allen was a sexual abuser.
Nor did it help that Gardner, at first, repeatedly declared that fathers are more deserving of legal protection from alienating mothers than the other way around. Writing in The American Academy of Psychoanalysis in 1994, he said, “The campaign of denigration embarked upon by many parents (mothers more often than fathers) can be both vicious and creative. Mothers are generally more bonded to their children than fathers, and they are more likely to engage in a wide variety of manipulations designed to strengthen their positions in custody disputes.”
Within the decade, however, Gardner amended his theories about women and PAS. “In the last few years I have seen a shift that has brought the ratio now to 50-50,” he wrote in a 2000 report. But the legacy of his earlier statements remains and has led many to argue that PAS is just a tool used by men to seize custody from any mother who claims abuse, an idea bolstered by famous cases such as Allen’s. Psychologist Joyanna Silberg says she has seen many divorces in which parents—typically fathers—hoodwink judges and case evaluators with the term parental alienation and turn themselves into the victim. Silberg represents the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, a nonprofit that staunchly opposes many of Gardner’s original notions about PAS. The organization’s president, Paul Fink, has called PAS “junk science at its worst.”
But many PAS advocates think that this gendered characterization of PAS is inaccurate, and even intentionally misleading. “I know for sure it happens to both mothers and fathers,” says Amy Baker, a developmental psychologist who authored the book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind.