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January 23, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s another fine piece by Neil Lyndon writing in The Telegraph (The Telegraph, 1/20/15). As usual, he educates his readers on important points of family law, and family court practices. But at the same time, he misses the boat in several important ways, and that’s sad to see from such a normally astute observer of sexual politics as they play out in divorce cases. He can do better; he usually does.

His subject is Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome and the case he sites is spot-on.

A High Court judge in London ordered that a 10 year-old girl should be removed from her mother’s care because the girl had been systematically estranged from her father by her mother’s “ranting” against the man.

Ruling that the mother’s conduct was manifestly harmful for the daughter and contrary to her long-term interests, Mrs Justice Parker observed that the child had been manipulated into believing that her father did not want her; and she ordered that the girl should be taken into the care of social services as a half-way measure towards placing her in her father’s care. The court heard that the girl was likely to be resistant to being reunited with her father without such interim measures.

That, according to psychologists who study PA and treat families experiencing it, is exactly what Justice Parker should have done. The sad truth is that a change of primary custody is the only thing that will deflect an alienating parent from her/his abusive behavior. PA and PAS are opportunistic behaviors. Without day-in and day-out contact with the child, a parent can’t turn a child against the other parent. If the targeted parent has enough access, the child sees that he/she isn’t the uncaring ogre the alienator says. So taking away the opportunity to alienate is necessary.

And Lyndon’s correct when he points out that, for the mainstream media, cases of PA or PAS are lurid headline grabbers, but for everyday parents in family courts, they’re all too common.

To the national media, this story stood out as an extraordinary moment, reversing normal prejudiced assumptions that a mother will give children kindly care while a feckless father swaggers off over the horizon.

Men’s and fathers’ groups saw the case in a different light, however. To them, it reflected a phenomenon that they see all too frequently – the elimination of fathers from their children’s lives by unmitigated, unscrupulous demands on the children’s loyalty on the part of the mother with custody, along with the unremitting denigration and belittling of the father.

Indeed, one of the world’s authorities on parenting after divorce, Dr. Edward Kruk of the University of British Columbia, says that between 11% and 15% of children of divorce experience an alienating parent. By any stretch of the imagination, that’s a huge number. In the U.S., there are about one million divorces filed every year involving about 1.5 million children. That’s between 165,000 and 225,000 alienated children each year, or between three and four million alienated kids under the age of 18. In short, parental alienation of children following divorce is a major problem. And of course alienation can happen during marriage too.

But to hear judges tell it, PA is either rare-to-non-existent or not worth bothering about. Seldom do we see alienators punished by courts. Psychologists plead for them to do so, but the judges aren’t getting the message. Only last year I wrote about a case in which the mother had plainly done everything in her power to alienate the child from her father. No less an authority than Dr. William Bernet testified to the effect and his opinion went uncontradicted by any other expert. It made no difference; the alienating mother got primary custody anyway. So the fact that Mrs. Justice Parker actually took action against the alienator was even bigger news than the alienation itself.

For those [family court reform] organisations, the only unusual feature of this case was that the harmful conduct of the mother was actually recognised by the court; and that, for once, officialdom did something about it.

All true.

But then Lyndon goes off the rails a bit.

It is called “implacable hostility”. Some psychologists have written about "Parental Alienation Syndrome" but that designation is not recognised by the courts. The phenomenon is so broadly overlooked in the family law system that no official figures exist for the numbers of children it may affect.

No, actually it’s not called “implacable hostility.” One reason for that is that such a term doesn’t convey the reality of PA. “Implacable hostility” can indicate any form of enduring dislike of one person by another. The whole point of parental alienation is that it’s not a father-mother relationship, but a father-mother-child relationship. Many, perhaps most, divorced adults dislike their former spouses, but the core of parental alienation is the attempt by one to turn the child against the other.

Worse, parental alienation is very much recognized by the courts, at least in the United States. Dr. Bernet’s masterly compendium on PA cites some 500 separate court cases in which the phenomenon has been recognized. If the U.K. has yet to follow suit, Lyndon should say that, but to suggest that, as a general rule, “the courts” don’t recognize PA is not accurate.

And, in my opinion and that of many others, Lyndon’s far too optimistic about the miracles he believes is about to be worked by the recent amendments to Britain’s Children and Families Act.

Despite the dominance of a gynocentric culture over the last 40 years, a broad and deep consensus on children’s needs for both parents and the equal responsibilities of mother and father is now securely in place in Britain.

According to a recent YouGov poll 95 per cent of us agree that both parents should share responsibility for bringing up children and 85 per cent agree that fathers are instrumental in bringing up children. That consensus has been reflected in recent amendments to the Children and Families Act 2014 which now require courts making child arrangement orders “to presume that the involvement of both separating parents in the life of a child will further its welfare”.

Yes, the general public thinks shared parenting is a good thing for kids and that fathers should play prominent roles in their upbringing. But that’s been true for many years, both here and in the U.K., Canada and elsewhere. Has it made a difference? It has not. Percentages of sole and primary maternal custody remain stuck year after year, decade after decade in the 83%-90% range. In the United States, the percentage of mothers with custody has barely budged in over 20 years.

The point being that, as I’ve written too often to recount, there’s a vast gulf between what We the People want, what social science teaches, and what those in positions of power are willing to do. I suppose they think they know better than we do, but on this issue they don’t. Lawmakers and family judges routinely ignore the teachings of social science and the dictates of simple fairness in favor of removing fathers from children’s lives.

If Lyndon believes for one second that a few words in the new law will substantially alter that status quo or the prejudices that give rise to it, he should rethink the matter. Face it, the law calls only for the “involvement” of both parents in children’s lives. It doesn’t take a genius to see that “involvement” can mean anything or (almost) nothing. Does 10% parenting time for Dad or Mom constitute “involvement?” It would be hard to argue that it doesn’t. And that simple fact is an open door through which any judge can step on his/her way to doing exactly what’s been done all along. The new law is a clear prescription for maintaining the status quo. It’s a public display by elected officials of “doing something” about a problem without doing a thing.

If I’m wrong, I promise I’ll celebrate in the streets, but I doubt I’ll need to.

Lyndon goes on to ask plaintively,

What form of legislation can outlaw the insidious undermining or disparagement of the other parent by snide remarks or the lurid exaggeration of imagined fears which require the children to line up their loyalties with the apparently threatened or embattled parent?

The answer is well-known. Laws requiring both parents to actively promote the relationship of the other parent with the children are aimed at doing exactly that and in many cases have worked well. Of course the key to the efficacy of any law is whether judges are willing to apply it as intended. Judges who ignore those “friendly parent” statutes are adept at finding excuses for doing so. But more scrupulous ones strike a blow for keeping two parents actively involved in children’s lives.

And that of course means striking a blow against parental alienation.

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