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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

June 12, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Are British family courts catching up to those in the U.S. in their understanding of and response to parental alienation? This article suggests they may be (Family Law Week, 6/2/16). It’s an article for lawyers, judges and, to an extent, mental health professionals. If it’s any indication, British courts, while still behind the curve, may well be catching up when it comes to parental alienation. The writer, attorney Francesca Wiley, hits most of the high spots in her discussion of PA and generally gets right how courts should approach ascertaining and dealing with an alienator.

Having revealed that PA is taken seriously in the U.S. and Canada and that, in Mexico and Brazil it’s actually criminal, Wiley offers this revealing statement:

In the UK parental alienation was often seen as a phrase relating only to campaigners for fathers' rights and as a consequence professionals and courts were slow to accept such an analysis could or might be right.

So from the outset it’s interesting to note the attitude of British judges that can be summarized as “if fathers are saying it, it must be suspect.” That there is by now a large and growing body of science on PA from researchers in over 40 countries around the world apparently troubles those judges not at all. No, if a father asserts in court that he’s being alienated by his ex, then the only conclusion to draw is that there’s something wrong with him (as his ex says). It’s not possible that his claim “could or might be right.”

That’s a fair indication of the anti-father bias in British family courts. When a judge ignores the science in order to also ignore a father’s cries of alienation, something nefarious is at work and a pro-mother/anti-father bias looks like the culprit.

Unsurprisingly, social workers may be promoting parental alienation whether wittingly or not.

Almost inevitably and for understandable reasons professionals, including Guardians, social workers and child protection police officers and by extension the court, have assumed a default position of initially believing allegations made by children (often supported or manipulated in the manufacture of extreme allegations by their primary carer either consciously or unconsciously).

This position can be adopted and reinforced by professionals despite there being no other objective evidence beyond the allegation and despite any nagging doubts about the likely validity of the allegations and the conduct or mental health of the parent with whom the children reside.

Any residual concern is usually put to one side and there can be inadequate exploration of the psychological functioning of the children or adults of the family at an early stage (and /or unless application is made for the same in the family court). The focus remains on the accused, not the accusers. This approach can be replicated by the police and the CPS, which can reinforce the problem.

We’ve long seen anti-father bias among social workers, and their role in parental alienation is more of the same. Here in the U.S., for example, social workers in child protective agencies have been found by the Urban Institute to ignore fathers as possible placements for children when they’re taken from abusive or neglectful mothers. Elsewhere studies indicate a strong anti-male/anti-father bias among social workers dealing with custody matters.

Indeed, one British judge, cited by Wiley, made it clear how important is the input of mental health professionals trained to diagnose and address parental alienation.

I regard parental manipulation of children, of which I distressingly see an enormous amount, as exceptionally harmful. It distorts the relationship of the child not only with the parent but also with the outside world. Children who are suborned into flouting court orders are given extremely damaging messages about the extent to which authority can be disregarded and given the impression that compliance with adult expectations is optional. Bearing in mind the documented history of this mother's inability to control these children, their relationship with one another and wholly inappropriate empowerment, it strikes me as highly damaging in this case. I am disappointed that the professionals in this case are unable truly to understand this message.

Of course the science on PA demonstrates that the problem of courts and mental health professionals giving children license to flout court orders is the least of our worries when it comes to alienated kids. Particularly for very young children, the process of teaching them that a loving and caring parent is in reality abusive can promote serious mental illness. When one powerful parental figure demands that a child alter his/her view of reality and adopt one that contradicts the child’s lived experience, a child whose grasp of what is real and what isn’t may be tentative can edge uncomfortably close to schizophrenia.

Perhaps most important is the need to act quickly to stanch any ongoing parental alienation. Delay is the enemy of a healthy outcome, since the longer alienation lasts, the worse and more intractable it becomes. Experts in PA, like Linda Gottlieb, emphasize the need for courts to intervene quickly and decisively.

Practitioners should be alive to the need to make urgent applications to the court to counter any delay in the police process and to allow for proper fact finding on the allegations undertaken by a family judge especially when there is no clear time line from the police…

Re E (A child) [2011] EWHC 3251 (Fam) includes guidance for case management in parental alienation cases, and in particular notes that in such cases evidence should be heard at an early stage and emphasises the need for judicial continuity…

The sooner the court hears oral evidence the better in cases such as these. Despite the very real pressures on the court and the current judicial thinking to allow for only composite or "rolled up" hearings in the average case, these serious and complex cases do require allegations (if made) to be resolved first and/or for the court to determine and make findings as to the appropriateness of a parent having contact as soon as possible.

And once a parent is exonerated of the claimed abuse, what should a court do to re-establish regular contact between the parent and the child?

A clear view seems to be emerging that judicial control of situations of these types is essential. In an appropriate case a suspended residence order can be considered a weapon in the court's armoury to ensure contact is finally supported by an intransigent parent.

Temporary suspension of the alienating parent’s access to the child is one approach, but that often results in worse behavior later. Recall the case of Canadian dad Danny Dimm. His ex aggressively alienated their son from him, so the court ordered that he have “make-up” time, i.e. several months of uninterrupted contact in a row. Dimm’s ex responded to that by taking the child and disappearing. She was later found hiding in a DV shelter in the United States.

Mental health professionals like Gottlieb urge a change in custody. They point out that parental alienation constitutes child abuse and, generally speaking, abusive parents should have at best limited contact with their kids. That’s an extreme approach, but PA can be extremely abusive.

#parentalalienation, #childabuse, #socialworkers

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