In court custody battles over the past few years, a new term, “parental alienation”, has taken root. The phrase – based on a “syndrome” that has been internationally discredited and is banned from use in family courts in some countries – is based on the idea that one parent brainwashes a child to distance it from the other parent, who is blameless. Children’s wishes and feelings are often seen as manipulated and therefore are often discounted by the family courts and professionals.
I have watched, horrified, as parental alienation has become the go-to litigation tactic, often used by domestic abusers to discredit allegations made against them by their ex-partner. Although parental alienation can be raised by either parent, overwhelmingly I see it being deployed as a counter-allegation by fathers when mothers try to prove they or their children have been subjected to abuse.
Parental alienation can happen, but it is extremely rare, as a Cardiff University review concluded. Yet time and time again I have watched the allegation being used by abusers to silence, threaten and blame victims of domestic abuse who are simply trying to protect their children from unsafe contact.
Even worse, there are cases where the courts have found domestic abuse to have been proved – and yet the victim is still told by the judge that she must not “alienate” the children from the perpetrator, and if she does not promote contact then the children could be moved away. So, on some occasions, children have been moved from their home with their protective parent, the victim of abuse, to the abuser’s home. Children in this situation could not be more vulnerable.
When domestic abuse has been proved, there are entirely justifiable reasons for a victim to have negative views of their abuser, and the term “parental alienation” should never form any part of subsequent proceedings. But for men who are abusers there is another reason to use it too: one woman going through proceedings said, “Women are often legally advised that if they mention abuse then they’ll lose custody of their children to their abuser.” I have seen this happen.
In last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches, mothers described their gruelling legal battles as they try to protect their children. Jane’s ex-husband dragged her through the family court after their two children refused to go to “contact” with him. The father accused Jane of alienating the children against him. Ultimately, the judge ordered the police to forcibly remove the children from their home. The police body cam of the removal is extremely distressing.
As a family law barrister, I have advised and represented teenagers who have been through the trauma of forced separation and many years later are still desperate to return to their mother’s care. The teenagers in the documentary describe being traumatised, angry at professionals for not listening to them, and desperate to live with their mother. Repeatedly, they ran away from their father’s home, to go back to her – at which point the family court issued a power of arrest on Jane if they absconded back to her again.
When the domestic abuse bill was before parliament, some mens’ rights groups fought for parental alienation to be defined as domestic abuse. Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, experienced a backlash from this lobby after she opposed their plan, and said parental alienation campaigners were attempting to thwart her efforts to help victims of abuse. Unfortunately, parental alienation is still defined as controlling or coercive behaviour in the draft statutory guidance.
But where did it all start? Dr Richard Gardner, an American child psychiatrist, created the concept and produced a series of self-published books on parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s. He testified in more than 400 custody cases, discrediting allegations of domestic abuse or child sex abuse and recommending transfer of residence from one parent to another. He believed that 90% of mothers alleging child sexual abuse were liars who brainwashed their children, and that paedophilia “is a widespread and accepted practice among literally billions of people”. Gardner and the “syndrome” were discredited by the late 1990s.
A US judicial guide states that the supreme court ruled the syndrome was based on “soft sciences” and is thus inadmissible. It is not recognised as a legitimate clinical term by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. A UK government report last year highlighted concerns about the unscrupulous credentials of so-called “experts” on parental alienation. And yet, over the past decade, the concept has gained traction here and is now a regular fixture in our family courts. And the weight applied to so-called parental alienation experts by the family courts is often significant. The family court support service, Cafcass, has adopted a practice guidance on parental alienation giving junk science further weight. There is no empirical evidence that a transfer of residence can make a child love the alienated parent, but there is evidence that it can result in further harm to children.
Two years ago, 77 leading professionals signed a letter calling on the president of the family division to tighten the law to prevent unregulated experts from writing reports in family cases. Unfortunately, he refused to take this issue forward, leaving victims – primarily mothers – and children at risk.
The dangerous label of parental alienation is now the single biggest threat to the credibility of victims of domestic abuse, and to the voices of children. It gives validation, power and control to perpetrators. Any court that countenances unevidenced allegations of parental alienation is potentially sanctioning abuse. Sadly, it may take a tragedy before anyone will actually listen.