The Dangers of Dismissing Parental Alienation

We represent a large group of alienated parents, grandparents and other family members who have been failed by a flawed system. As such, we felt we should urgently respond to The Guardian’s recent article crackdown on parental alienation could do more harm than good, dated 29th November 2017 written by Jane Fortin, Emeritus professor of law, at Sussex University.

Millions of people are desperate for Family Law reform. It has taken too long for parental alienation to be recognised. Yet this article argues that the proposed Cafcass crackdown on parental alienation could cause harm. How disappointing.

“Where we differ is, we actually have suggestions to propose, not just problems to raise.”

We argue that, the existing system is causing growing misery but acknowledge that if handled badly, any intervention could make matters worse given the relative complexity of this issue.  Our children need the right response, however, and need it urgently as the status quo places them at increasing risk. Where we differ is, we actually have suggestions to propose, not just problems to raise.

We know that our children and families are being harmed by parental alienation daily. According to the recent Westminster Dialogues, a conservative estimate of 1 million children are involved in repeat court cases at the moment with alienation at the core. That will just be the tip of the ice-berg. It is not acceptable.

The Guardian article states “as early as 2001, American researchers were warning that too often in divorce situations, all children resisting contact were being labelled “alienated” and their parents as abusive and “alienating parents”. That does beg the first question “what has happened in the last 15 years to improve the situation?”

Why have we allowed a system to persist where children do not enjoy healthy relations with both parents,?”

But from my own personal experience, as an alienated parent and a mental health nurse who works on an acute admissions ward, this statement also raises a number of nagging issues.

Firstly, it begs the question, “why have we allowed a system to persist where children do not enjoy healthy relations with both parents,?” Surely the adversarial nature of family law would be a good place to start, making the writer’s objectivity questionable (she is a family lawyer after all).

“Why hasn’t the legal profession campaigned harder to recognise and address parental alienation?”

In addition should we not question the efficiency (or lack of) of the labelling and/or assessment process if the article is stating “all children resisting contact were being labelled alienated”?  Certainly in the UK, Cafcass practitioners are social workers. But should not such initial assessments be carried out by mental health practitioners who would have the clinical expertise to effectively assess the mental state of all those involved, using a triage form of assessment early on?

The article also goes on to state “parental alienation is undeniably damaging, especially in its more extreme form.” This is a very valid and important point, it is also an unequivocal admission that it exists. So, again, why hasn’t the legal profession campaigned harder to recognise and address parental alienation?

“A social worker does not have the required skills or expertise to effectively assess the mental state of the alienating parent.”

There is overwhelming evidence that in most cases of severe parental alienation, responsibility between the parents is not shared. There will be a clear perpetrator and they will present with certain personality disorder traits. With this in mind, my argument is, that a social worker does not have the required skills or expertise to effectively assess the mental state of the alienating parent. Worse still, they may be ideologically unprepared to admit it when it is the resident parent targeting their former partner given the prevalence of sexist stereotypes.

The article raises concerns that “Cafcass’s plan to “help” “abusive” parents “to change their behaviour with the help of intense therapy” sounds Kafkaesque.” Our concern as a support and campaign group is that such terminology will unintentionally encourage further misunderstanding around the whole concept of parental alienation, which is already a complex and contentious enough subject. It will effectively deter intervention because it may be deemed too difficult and will be easier to sacrifice one parent for the sake of peace. We believe this has been the default position for far too long now and the cost to society in the short to medium term is unacceptable.

The old complexity argument misses the point. If the targeting parent has problems, those problems will not disappear by removing the target. Worse still,  by removing the target (the targeted parent), the children are denied a healthy relationship with a loving parent and their extended family which will cause significant problems later in life,  It also leaves them in the care of a parent with a psychological disorder and very real problems.

“As a group we welcome Cafcass’ recognition of parental alienation as a form of abuse. However their lack of understanding of it, particularly severe cases is worrying.”

The article states “hopefully it is [Cafcass] considering carefully the extreme dangers of mistakenly diagnosing parental alienation.” Once again, this is a valid point and relates to the concerns I highlighted above. However, the potential issue of having the wrong practitioners doing the wrong job will result in either over-labelling or under-labelling cases of parental alienation, or worse still, ignoring it. None of these outcomes are acceptable. Again, the latter has been the default position for too long. It could actually be said that for malign parents, it is their goal as evidenced by the rise in parental alienation cases in the recent past.

As a group we welcome Cafcass’ recognition of parental alienation as a form of abuse. However their lack of understanding of it, particularly severe cases is worrying. And the absence of urgency and pace in attempting to understand or ‘play-catch-up’ with the available evidence is distressing.

One of our many concerns regarding Cafcass’ current approach to parental alienation is their plan to “help” “abusive” parents “to change their behaviour with the help of intense therapy.” Such proposals and the subsequent reporting of such plans, (the above mentioned article is a good example) raises several concerns:

  • Firstly Cafcass currently fail to show any evidence of understanding or acknowledging the complex dynamics of cases of severe parental alienation.
  • They currently lack an evidence based diagnostic tool for assessing parental alienation and doing so early on.
  • Their approach has been based on what they diagnose as conflict. Yet conflict implies two equal parties with implacable differences. Parental alienation is, however,  more often than not, the sum of a targeting parent (usually the resident parent with the most exposure to the children) using their position of power to abuse the targeted parent (usually the non-resident) who is desperately trying to maintain a relationship with their children in the face of a prolonged barrage of counter-parenting, stonewalling (refusal to communicate) and disruption. Conflict is the wrong term. Abuse or bullying is a far more accurate description, reflecting the power play between respective parties. Non resident parents have no power whatsover. Even recourse to litigation or enforcement of orders is labelled as abusive. These parents and their children are being bullied.
  • As stated above, evidence shows us that most severely alienating parents will present with undiagnosed personality traits/disorders. Parental alienation sets in over time, making early diagnosis imperative. However Cafcass don’t currently have the knowledge to identify alienating behaviours and do not accept that such cases should be dealt with within the context of mental health. This is despite personality traits, behaviours and disorders coming under the remit of a mental health disorder.

“Articles like this fail to put forward the complexities of assessing and subsequently managing parental alienation… and offer no solutions.”

As a mental health practitioner myself, I am fully aware of the evidence that states that such disorders are not treatable. This means that parenting circumstances need to be adjusted and third party support in the form of coaching, mediation and therapy will probably be required and most certainly set within the context of mental health, not social care.

A further concern is the media’s reporting of such plans being put forward by Cafcass. The article calls their planned approach Kafkaesque. But articles like this fail to put forward the complexities of assessing and subsequently managing parental alienation, they add to the complexity, imply it is too difficult and offer no solutions.

This article, and others like it, make assumptions and project out-moded parental stereotypes. The last sentence of the article is a good example of this;  “failure to establish the real reason for a child’s resistance to contact may lead… to the child being removed from a victimised mother seeking only to protect her child.” Notions of victim mother, primary carer and aggressor father, primary income driver are stuck in the 1950s and do not reflect modern practices.

“A well informed, evidence based, media led increase in public awareness of this form of abuse is much-needed.”

In addition, the article in question, written by a lawyer, comes from a self-interested place. Note the final comments about legal aid. Funding isn’t the most relevant of points unless it is to point out that access to legal aid involves a victim narrative creating a pattern of abuser/abused that is often far from the truth.

An independent, professionally facilitated, multi-stakeholder approach to developing tools and methodologies for identifying and addressing parent alienation is now more important than ever. And a well informed, evidence based, media led increase in public awareness of this form of abuse is much-needed.

Cafcass have a Chief Executive who publicly states parental alienation should be dealt with and with the same severity as any other form of abuse. That is good news, at last. However, culturally Cafcass appear to be struggling to disseminate such values down to their frontline staff who even as recently as last week were still denying its existence. There is clearly much work to be done to ensure that Cafcass as an organisation will soon walk the CEO’s talk and there will need to be a mountain of work with the courts, legal profession, police and social services to address the harm still being done.

While parental alienation continues to fester unaddressed, given the importance of time in mitigating the severity of the psychological problems, children continue to be unprotected and abused and those uncovering the problems continue to be attacked and harassed.

This is simply not acceptable.

The residual problems for the children resulting from misunderstanding, whether by accident or design, is unacceptable. This is not just because of the clear psychological abuse but because parent alienation quite clearly hampers gender equality at home as well as undermining equality in the workplace, all of which will undermine the children’s futures.

Parents and children need peace not pas.

Critics need to bring solutions not denial.

This abuse has to stop and now.

Further reading, including evidence based approaches to parental alienation can be found on our Research Articles Page here.

 btg dad


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Thanks

The Peace Not Pas Team