Change in residence for alienated children is not harmful

Many aspects of parental alienation defy logic and are counter-intuitive. Many alienated children appear to have close, loving relationships and secure attachments with favoured parents and they appear settled in most or all domains of adaptive functioning. For this reason it would not appear to be in the child’s best interests for residence to be changed from the care of the alienating parent to the rejected parent. We might assume that this is very harmful. However, these concerns are not borne out by the science. Reay (2015) observed that separating the child from the alienating parent was not harmful to the child. This sentiment is shared by Warshak (2010, 2015) from the Family Bridges program and Dunne and Hedrick (1994) detail cases where change of residence to the rejected parent successfully resolved alienation without mention of it being harmful to the children. The conclusion is therefore that change in residence is not harmful, although there is the possibility of initial distress.

My own experience is consistent. I have been involved in cases where approximately 30 severely alienated children have had their residence changed from the alienating parent to the rejected parent, and in the majority of cases no contact between the child and the rejected parent had occurred for some time prior to transfer of residence. Not on a single occasion in any of these cases has the child been unable to tolerate such changes in residence, including 6 children (separate cases) who were first placed in Local Authority bridging placements while preparatory work was done before transfer to the rejected parent. Further, many looked-after children in Care Proceedings who are known to have been abused protest vociferously about being removed from the abusive parent, but quickly settle in foster care with complete strangers and not parents with whom they previously experienced a loving relationship prior to family breakdown.

A unique case of severe parental alienation, resolved

The case in question involved a pre-adolescent boy who rejected his father following family breakdown. He was displaying marked anxiety and disturbance in his social and educational functioning. He previously had a close, loving relationship and secure attachment with his father. The mother is known to have alienated the child from the father and she eventually admitted that she had, albeit unwittingly. My recommendation was the immediate restoration of contact with father, rapidly increasing to whole day and weekend staying contact. In the event that the mother did not facilitate this I recommended change of residence to the father. There were no safeguarding risks in relation to him. An attempt was made at direct contact, supervised by the social worker. This is the only case I have ever been involved with where a child was unable to tolerate contact with the rejected parent. Upon arriving at the contact centre the child was hysterical and inconsolable and the contact was aborted. The social worker drew the conclusion that the child was suffering from deep trauma related to his father.

The Court was so concerned about the child that it issued an Interim Care Order, of its own volition, with the child remaining in the mother’s care. Within a short space of time the mother asked the social worker to arrange another contact session. On this occasion the child demonstrated only mild, transient trepidation leading up to contact. He immediately engaged with his father and within a few minutes he had restored his relationship with him. At the end of the contact the child was very positive about seeing his father again. On the next contact he ran to his father and hugged him. Contact rapidly increased, the child was reunited with the paternal side of the family and the final order was made for shared residence.

What was unique about this case was how powerful the mother’s influence was in both alienating the child and enabling reconciliation, but she only chose the latter following a robust intervention from the Court.

Lord Justice McFarlane refers to parental alienation in keynote address

In a keynote address to the Families Need Fathers Conference on 25 June 2018 Lord Justice McFarlane, the new President of the Family Division refers to parental alienation. The full keynote can be found here, but I have included some of it below –

“I wish to say something now about ‘alienation’. For some time there has been debate as to whether or not the holy grail of ‘parental alienation syndrome’ actually exists. For my part, I have never regarded it as important to determine definitively whether or not psychologists or psychiatrists would be justified in attributing the label ‘syndrome’ to any particular behaviour in this regard. In time gone by, there was similar debate as to whethera diagnosis could be made of ‘Munchhausen’s Syndrome by Proxy’ in such cases the focus of the Family Court, rightly, moved away from any psychological/psychiatric debate in order to concentrate on the particular behaviour of the particular parent in relation to the particular child in each individual case. If that behaviour was found to be abusive then action was taken, irrespective of whether or not a diagnosis of a particular personality or mental health condition in the parent could be made.

In my view, ‘alienation’ should be approached in the same way. From my experience as a first instance judge, albeit now more than 7 years ago, I readily accept that in some cases a parent can, either deliberately or inadvertently, turn the mind of their child against the other parent so that the child holds a wholly negative view of that other parent where such a negative view cannot be justified by reason of any past behaviour or any aspect of the parent-child relationship. Further, where that state of affairs has come to pass, it is likely to be emotionally harmful for the child to grow up in circumstances which maintain an unjustified and wholly negative view of the absent parent.

The Women’s Aid research describes accusations of parental alienation being used against women who raise concerns about domestic abuse to the extent that allegations of abuse are ‘obscured by allegations of parental alienation against the non-abusive parent’.

Drawing matters together, that short quotation from the Women’s Aid research neatly points to a theme in this short address which is to stress the importance of fact finding. It is, as I have already observed crucial, both to the interests of the alleged victim and, in fact, to those of the alleged perpetrator, for any significant allegations of domestic abuse to be investigated and determined as matters of fact, similarly any significant allegation of ‘alienation’, should also be laid out before the court and, if possible, determined on the same basis.”

Conference on Parental Alienation – London 30th & 31st August 2018

This parental alienation conference is co-hosted by the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners and the Family Separation Clinic. It brings together world leading experts in the field of parental alienation to consider the legal and mental health interlock which is necessary to promote successful resolution in these difficult cases

Indirect contact with alienated child deemed ‘grooming’ behaviour by rape counselling service

In a current case where a mother has alleged that father has sexually abused his two children, the elder of the children (a girl aged 7) was referred for trauma therapy. The rape service therapist concluded that the child showed evidence of severe trauma, on the basis that she was angry in play therapy. The child made no allegations to the therapist.

The therapist concluded that the child should have no contact with the father, without meeting him or being provided with the case papers. The social worker halted plans for the reintroduction of direct contact following this advice.

After several months the social worker started planning for indirect contact. The rape counsellor was critical of the social worker for not taking seriously the alleged allegations of the child (these had never been repeated to anyone other than the mother, including the Police, Children’s Services, paediatrician etc) and concluded that the plans for indirect contact were tantamount to grooming behaviour by Children’s Services.

Parental alienation was not considered and there was no evidence that the practitioner was PA-aware. The children did not see their father for 16 months.

Choosing an ‘expert’ in parental alienation in the UK

Some psychologists claim to be ‘experts’ in parental alienation. Some are, but most aren’t. If you are selecting an expert for your case (whether you are parent, advocate or other professional), then consider the following –

  1. Ensure that your expert psychologist is a HCPC-registered practitioner psychologist and has extensive post-qualification experience of providing advice or intervention in high-conflict disputes about contact and residence
  2. Ensure that your expert has extensive experience of evaluating cases of bona fide abuse versus parental alienation and is experienced in identifying which children have been abused, which children have been alienated, and which might best be considered ‘hybrid’
  3. Ensure that your proposed expert has a broad, comprehensive and contemporary understanding of the parental alienation and science, especially current science regarding legal and mental health interventions for parental alienation
  4. Ensure they have attended PA-specific training and/or provided training and/or presentations to legal and/or mental health professionals regarding parental alienation
  5. Ensure that your proposed expert is able to make recommendations for intervention to address parental alienation, including them having a full appreciation of the legal interventions available, such as change of residence