Over the last month I have been relentlessly hassling Cafcass (The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) in an attempt to get them to safeguard my children from their mother’s ongoing emotional abuse. At time of writing, I have now not seen my children for almost 11 months. This is due to their mother denying me contact and alienating my children against me and my family following or separation last year. For a detailed explanation of parental alienation click here.
“The current system in place for battling parental alienation is inadequate and flawed.”
A couple of days ago a member of management from Cafcass telephoned me to discuss my concerns about their lack of effective protection of my three children. I asked him numerous questions such as “what are you planning to do to protect my children?” Most of the questions he was unable to answer. However he rather surprisingly agreed with me that the current system in place for battling parental alienation is inadequate and flawed.
At the end of the conversation he informed me that he would be open to any suggestions or ideas I might have in working towards contact and reconciliation with my children. In response to this comment I wrote an evidence based proposal and emailed it to him directly. I eagerly await his response!
“In order to seek a solution to any problem, we first need to understand it.”
I appreciate the following is a lot to read, and could be quite heavy going for those affected by parental alienation. However I would encourage those parents battling to see their alienated children to read this in its entirety. I myself feel more knowledgeable about this problem after researching it further in order to write my proposal. I believe that in order to seek a solution to any problem, we first need to understand it.
The following is an anonymised version of my proposal.
An evidenced based proposal to Cafcass in tackling the issue of parental alienation
Thank you for taking the time to contact me on the # May. I very much appreciate the fact that you are open to suggestions from me in terms of promoting contact and reconciliation between my children and I. As such the following is an evidenced based proposal of how I feel Cafcass should approach the issue of parental alienation concerning my children and their mother.
As you are aware, following our separation my children’s mother accused me of physically and emotionally abusing all three of my children. As one would expect this triggered a safeguarding concern resulting in the court not permitting any contact between myself and my three children until these claims were investigated further. As is all too often the case when parents engage in alienating behaviours, these claims were clearly used to justify my children’s rejection of me as their father. As expected the subsequent Cafcass report stated that there were no safeguarding concerns.
“It is unnatural for a child to reject a relationship with a loved and loving parent.”
The Case Manager at the team wrote in the report that he felt the children’s mother had elaborated the truth. The same report also stated that the children’s mother was attempting to make me look like an ‘ogre’ in the eyes of our children. In line with numerous theories such as John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, it is unnatural for a child to reject a relationship with a loved and loving parent. However this is the harsh reality for too many families following divorce or separation. In summarising the Cafcass report, it was evidenced that my children’s mother was exhibiting alienating behaviours and emotionally abusing our children. Evidence showed that their mother was preventing our children from enjoying and benefiting from healthy attachment relationships. She continues to prevent contact with the children, not just with myself but also with all members of my own family.
When we spoke in person on the # March at ####### Family Court we both agreed that in an attempt to make sense of their parents separation, my children are in fact responding in a maladaptive way. We also both agreed that unknown to them they are subconsciously protecting themselves from the psychological dissonance they are currently experiencing. During this same conversation, you expressed the particular concern that both you and the Case Manager (at the time) have in respect of my eldest son B, given his very rigid thinking and strong assertion that he has no positive memories of me at all. We both agreed that he is not able to process the current situation by himself and needs help and support with this. You also went on to inform me that your professional opinion was that without anything being done to help B change his view of me (and without his mother being able to challenge his thinking (whether intentionally or not)), B is at a grave risk of developing serious emotional mental health issues in the future. This was also echoed by the District Judge when we went in front of her on the same day, who highlighted to my children’s mother the potential for the children to be very damaged by the current situation if she continues with her current approach.
The current belief from the leading researchers in parental alienation is that children can, with effective therapeutic input recover from parental alienation very quickly and with the right ongoing support, become healthy, happy and stable once again. However, my current concern is that Cafcass is struggling to recommend a robust and effective enough intervention.
A further concern of mine is that Cafcass is unable to differentiate between a child who is responding to a conflicted dynamic within a family setting and a child who is in the care of an alienating parent. Practitioners without the experience of the ways in which children respond to family separation, will invariably approach each case in the same way (Woodall, 2015). Such professionals consider that it is conflict alone which gives rise to the child’s refusal to spend time with a once loved parent. Some professionals will put forward the idea that the parent who is being rejected has done something to justify such an extreme reaction and subsequent rejection. In relation to my circumstances I was told by the Case Manager at the time “you need to accept the consequences of your actions.” Subjectively this appeared to be a suggestion that my children’s supposed rejection of me was justifiable and normal.
Current experts in the field of parental alienation, such as The Family Separation Clinic in London advocate a detailed assessment. Following this and in accordance with evidence based practice The Family Separation Clinic advocates individually designed interventions. This appears to be in stark contrast to the current approach of Cafcass, which does not officially recognise parental alienation and as such appears to all too often recommend an approach of ‘one intervention fits all’. For example, in my own case it was recommended that I attend a co-parenting course. The course facilitator started the course by making the somewhat uninspiring and insensitive comment that “the Family Courts do not have the time or the resources to understand the complex dynamics of each of your situations.”
Despite a lack of official recognition of parental alienation by the UK government, recent judgments have brought this issue into the public domain for further debate. The case of child S, aged 12 and his father’s request for transfer of residence went to court in 2010. Reflecting on the case HHJ Bellamy (sitting as a deputy High Court Judge) highlighted the following points:
- The concept of alienation as a feature of some high conflict parental disputes may today be regarded as mainstream.
- There is no professional or expert consensus as to the approach the court should take with an alienated child. The solutions tried in this case had failed. The case demonstrated that there could be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
- Alienation will only be a feature in a small number of cases and may be outside the experience of the care professionals. In cases involving an alienated child it is “essential that the court has the benefit of professional evidence from an expert who has personal experience of working with alienated children.”
The above points highlight Sauber and Worenkliens’ (2013) argument that due to a lack of professional awareness of the complex dynamics of family separations, there is a risk that some professionals unknowingly collude with the parent who is engaged in the alienation process. As in my case a professional only made contact with my children after the process of alienation had been completed. According to Kelly (2010), the problem of alienation being experienced by children stems from a reaction to conflict. The roots of which usually emanate from unresolved issues in the relationship experienced by one parent or both.
As we agreed in the aforementioned telephone conversation, the term ‘in the children’s best interest’, gets used often. However Baker et al., (2013) point out that the opinions of children in such circumstances, must be listened to with caution and experience, because, they argue it is often what is not being said as much as what is being said which gives away the reality of the trauma and conflict that the children are experiencing. Baker and Fine (2013) put forward the argument that children who are coerced or forced to choose one parent over another results in the rejection of the targeted parent.
Children who are being exposed to alienating behaviours are very likely to want someone to intervene on their behalf (Baker 2013). All too often by the time any input is facilitated by professionals, alienated children may have been placed at the top of the family hierarchy. As highlighted by Cafcass, my eldest son appears to be taking on a paternal role in his current home setting. This ‘power’ has been afforded to him by his mother, the alienating parent. It saddens me to know that he has now been elevated to a position to make decisions within the family setting that are not rightfully his. Due to the complexities of parental alienation, any children in this position are at serious risk of being further abused by those who are trying to help. This is particularly the case for those people who are unable to break the bind that the child is facing, such as those that enable such alienating behaviours, be it knowingly or unknowingly (Gottlieb 2012).
When a child is presenting with the above alienating behaviours, they have already begun a process of splitting all of their feelings for each of their parents into two stark and distinct directions. At this point they present with only profound love for the resident parent. For the targeted parent they present with a deep hatred and sometimes fear. Gottlieb (2012) argues that to the affected children, these feelings will feel real, as such they will base them ‘on fact’. This is a result of constant alienating behaviours by the resident parent. This will result in the repeating of such behaviours to observers and which, when challenged by professionals, may even escalate.
As already discussed Cafcass have highlighted my children are at risk of long term emotional and psychological issues. My children’s current presentations and behaviours can also be indicative of a maladaptive attachment to the alienating parent. Cafcass has evidenced that in relation to her response to our separation my children’s mother appears to be transferring her own emotions onto our children. This in turn results in her depending on our children for support in dealing with her emotions, this dependancy is known as ‘parentification’. Minuchin (2004) refers to this phenomenon as ‘spousification’ and points out that it can create conditions in which the child is elevated to the top of the family attachment hierarchy (Kerns and Richardson, 2005) by a parent and given the choice and the responsibility for taking care of the parent by rejecting the other. As already highlighted my eldest son has been ‘elevated’ within the family hierarchy.
During our conversation at court we also discussed the possibility of assessments. Gabbard (2010) advocates the need for assessments of both parents, to determine whether or not blame projection is present. Blame projection, is a common feature of separating couples, but is one which can be minimised with the appropriate intervention and co-operation of both parents. Woodall (2015) highlights the issue that a parent who remains with the rigid belief that the other parent is to blame, without being able to accept or acknowledge any responsibility for the current position, is likely to remain in a hostile and rejecting position. In my own case this is an issue that I have been relentlessly trying to highlight to numerous professionals that I have come into contact with, most of all Cafcass. Such an attitude from the alienating parent is likely to influence a child who may also appear to have some element of rigid thinking, as is the case with my eldest son. A fixed and rejecting partnership between the alienating parent and affected child will result in the child viewing the targeted parent as a threat and/or unwanted. Cafcass have also highlighted this as a concern in the case of my eldest son.
“All current evidence suggests that such a conflict of loyalty should be addressed as soon as possible.”
In response to my two eldest childrens’ continuing rejection of me, the opinion of Cafcass was to “give them time and space.” The Cafcass Case Manager attempted at the time to assure me that this was what my children “wanted” and I “should respect and accept their wishes and feelings”. However all the available evidence informs us that such rigid views from the alienating parent, projection of blame and an insistence that a child is making their own decisions are all signs that a child is trapped in a conflict of loyalty to the alienating parent. Stahl (2001) argues that such loyalty conflicts stem from children being afraid to love both their parents. This is due to the amount of pressure being placed upon them by the alienating parent. All current evidence suggests that such a conflict of loyalty should be addressed as soon as possible.
In terms of effectively assessing the issue at hand, The Family Separation Clinic argues for the categorisation of types of alienation. Bala (2012) has developed a system of categorisation, in order to determine whether the type of alienation belongs to one of the following:
- Hybrid or Mixed – This involves such conflict whereby both parents have extreme differences in parenting and personalities. Resulting in children being unable to relate individually to the two parents that have parted.
- Pure – In this case a parent is maliciously and deliberately causing a child to reject their other parent.
Bala’s system breaks down the the category of pure alienation further into the following:
- Pure and Conscious Alienation – In this case the alienating parent is aware of what they are doing and refuses to or is unable to stop their negative behaviours.
- Pure and Unconscious – This is the case where a parent is unable to know or understand what they are doing is wrong. This is due to a personality or psychiatric disorder.
Bala also states that the treatment of parental alienation is dependent upon the categorisation of the problem. Bala also argues the importance of differentiating between hybrid alienation and pure. He argues that this assessment step is pivotal in deciding upon the most appropriate and effective intervention. A case of hybrid alienation will require a very different route to that of pure alienation and a case of pure and conscious alienation will often require a different approach to pure and unconscious.
“The assessment of whether a personality disorder is present or not, makes it possible to determine the most effective intervention.”
A presentation of pure and unconscious alienation is arguably as difficult to address as a hybrid presentation. This is due to the alienating parent being completely unaware of the impact of their behaviour upon the child. Baker (2013) argues that pure and unconscious alienation is often the result of a personality disorder. Baker also argues that when an alienating parent is completely unable to recognise or acknowledge that their behaviours are causing a child to be in a severely alienated state, a personality disorder should be investigated in the case of the alienating parent. The assessment of whether a personality disorder is present or not, makes it possible to determine the most effective intervention. Early on in my case Cafcass identified that my childrens’ mother does not acknowledge or recognise that her approach is causing our children to be severely alienated. With this evidence in mind and my professional awareness and understanding of personality traits as a Charge Nurse on a psychiatric assessment ward I have been relentlessly requesting Cafcass consider a personality disorder. I would argue that Cafcass’ own account of her presentation fits in with Bala’s category of pure and unconscious. The aforementioned category type is viewed as needing the most swift and robust action, such as a transfer of residence (Bala, 2012).
In terms of arguing for a more mental health orientated approach, as much as a difference of opinion regarding the clinical difficulties in diagnosing parental alienation as a syndrome persist it is however included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). DSM-5 authors Dr. Narrow and Dr. Wamboldt (2016) state in a scientific paper that parental alienation may be diagnosed as Child Affected by Parental Alienation Distress (V61.29) if one is talking about the child. If one is talking about a parent alienating their child parental alienation may be diagnosed as Child Psychological Abuse (V995.51). This, they argue confirms that parental alienation is indeed in the DSM-5.
Where the targeted parent has not contributed to their position of alienation, all evidence suggests that a child emerges immediately from their position of alienation, particularly when there has been respite from the coercive behaviours of the alienating parent, such as a change of residence (Woodall, 2015).
“Evidence also highlights the need for the rejected parent to be reintroduced as quickly as possible after an intervention begins.”
One of the unorthodox elements of the delivery of interventions specifically tailored to challenging parental alienation is that it is most effective when facilitated ‘in situ’. In essence therapists, mediators and parenting co-ordinators attend the home of the resident parent involved rather than parties being required to attend certain locations. This unorthodox delivery has several advantages. Facilitation ‘in situ’ attempts to minimise the risk of non-attendance by the alienating parent. Another advantage is that the affected children can remain in their family environment while undergoing psychological support. Evidence also highlights the need for the rejected parent to be reintroduced as quickly as possible after an intervention begins. Thereby exposing the child to the feared or hated parent in a safe and supportive environment with support from practitioners who are unafraid to override the child’s expressions of fear.
The following are vignettes of successful work undertaken by The Separation Clinic(Woodall, 2015):
1. Three children aged 8,9 14 all severely alienated and refusing to see their father. When I began work with them in February 2015 they had all been completely rejecting of their father for a period of two years.
This case has been successfully treated through a combination of therapeutic intervention and parenting co-ordination whilst working with a Guardian who understands alienation and who is able to hold the tension of the court’s expectations that the children will have a relationship with their father very firmly. This enables the therapeutic work to be undertaken swiftly because it limits the risk of triangulation in which the alienating parent utilises the doubts and lack of understanding in professionals to continue the children’s ability to reject. The time taken to resolve the children’s rejection of their father was less than four weeks, the length of time taken to achieve optimum time between children and father for therapeutic challenge and readjustment of the relationship was twelve weeks. Compulsion of the children to attend periods of time with their father was achieved through the use of court directions. Compulsion of behavioural change in the alienating parent was achieved through a suspended transfer of residence.
In the above vignette it is clear that it is the combination of court process plus therapeutic work which creates the dynamic change which liberates the children.
2. One child, severe rejection of more than five years, treated in a combination of therapeutic work and supported parenting time. Successful treatment arrived at by therapeutic work with parents plus immediate reconnection of child with rejected parent and movement into a shared care situation. Dynamic change was created by the threat of a change of residence and the removal of all ability by the alienating parent to triangulate the dynamics in treatment (case was handled by one therapist with the Guardian acting as super parent and receiving reports on a regular basis, the Guardian holding the power to return the case to court at the request of the therapist). Treatment time from rejection to reconnection was fourteen days.
In this vignette it is clear that the threat of a transfer of residence is the core element that creates the compulsion for change.
So to continue with my proposal, in light of what my children are currently being exposed to, my question is this, if my children were being abused in any other way what would be the recommendations from Cafcass? Would the response be much more robust and urgent? Bearing in mind that Cafcass Chief Executive Anthony Douglas publicly states that emotional abuse inflicted by a parent on their children following a separation should be treated the same way as any other form of abuse.
With all of the above evidence in mind and the circumstances of my case, I propose Cafcass provides the following recommendations/approach:
- A thorough assessment of both parents to ascertain the category type of parental alienation. This is to be carried out by practitioners that are experienced in the assessment of and treatment of parental alienation.
- Following assessment, the formulation of an effective, robust and category appropriate psychological intervention
- The psychological intervention to be facilitated ‘in situ’ due to a consistent lack of engagement and attendance at previously ordered interventions by the alienating parent.
- The first session is to involve only the children and their mother. However in line with above stated evidence I will be present from the second session onwards.
- The frequency and length of intervention will be dependent on the amount of progress being made
- If there continues to be a lack of behavioural change on the part of their mother the option of a temporary/permanent change of residence to be available and/or an extension of the intervention
Baker, A. and Sauber, R. (2013) Working with alienated children and families. New York and London: Routledge.
Baker, A. and Fine, P. (2013). Educating divorcing parents in working with alienated children and their families. New York and London: Routledge
Bala, N. (2012). Children who resist post separation parental contact. London: Oxford University Press.
Gabbard, O. (2010). Long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Gottlieb, J. (2012). The parental alienation syndrome. Illinois: Charles Thomas Publishing.
Kelly, J. (2010). In: Fidler et. al (2012). Children who resist post separation parental contact. London: Oxford University Press.
Kerns, K., and Richardson, R. (2005). Attachment in middle childhood. New York and London: Guildford Press.
Minuchin, S. (2004). Family Therapy Techniques. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
Sauber, R., and Worenklein, A. (2013). Working with alienated children and their families. London and New York: Routledge.
Stahl, M. Retrieved from article by – remarks made at the plenary session of CRC’s conference in May, 2001.
Woodall, K. (2015). Understanding and working with the alienated child. Available at: https://www.familyseparationclinic.com/articles [Accessed 09/05/2017].
Woodall, K. (2015). Three vignettes in the successful treatment of parental alienation. Available at: https://karenwoodall.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/three-vignettes-in-the-successful-treatment-of-parental-alienation [Accessed 09/05/2017].
I am an alienated parent of three. Part-time psychiatric nurse, part-time writer. I am also an online activist against parental alienation. I use my knowledge of mental health and lived experience of parental alienation to promote awareness of parental alienation.