From ‘Parental Alienation’ to [Abusers’] Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS) as a preferable term for how perpetrator fathers intentionally sabotage the child-mother connection

October 23, 2023

From ‘Parental Alienation’ to [Abusers’] Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS) as a preferable term for how perpetrator fathers intentionally sabotage the child-mother connection

Dalgarno, E., Meier, J., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Pollack, D. and Katz, E.

Introduction: Against the term ‘Parental Alienation’

This article is written to introduce the new term Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS), as an alternative to the problematic term ‘parental alienation’ (‘PA’) and offshoots of it in family courts.

We write to encourage people to avoid the use of the term ‘PA’ or ‘alienating behaviours’ (ABs). ‘PA’ is currently widely used to refer to how some parents seek to deliberately undermine the other parent’s relationship with their child. Unfortunately, allegations of ‘PA’ or ‘ABs’ are often used against mothers and children who report abuse by a father, to the detriment of many families. The origins, research on, and application of ‘PA’ and ‘ABs’ in the family court context are deeply problematic.

Given that the use of the term ‘PA’ is so troublesome, we agree with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls (UNSRVAWG), who recommended the concept of PA be banned from family courts (UNHRC/53/36 2023).  We also agree with the UK Government, who in their response to the consultation on the 2021 Domestic Abuse Act statutory guidance, rejected the use of PA and ABs. They explained in their response, the problems with the terms use and therefore encouraged courts and individuals to instead focus on a pattern of abusive and manipulative behaviours, which may include turning children against the other parent. Following this rejection, the term now does not feature in the finalised DA Act statutory guidance or the UK Government’s Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Guidance. This document makes it clear that, when an abusive parent deliberately manipulates or sabotages a child’s relationship with their survivor parent, the term ‘PA’ should not be used: Rather, this behaviour needs to be framed in the context of the larger pattern of abuse/maltreatment/hostility.

This is because many abusive fathers deliberately sabotage the child-mother relationship.

Here are three major problems with use of ‘PA’:

1. The scientific credibility of the term has been found to be entirely lacking and problematic, at best. There may be many papers on PA and ABs by proponents, but the problems with the science underpinning these studies, have never been addressed adequately. Quantity does not mean quality.

2. The use of “PA” by allegedly abusive fathers against mothers seeking to protect their children’s best interests has caused extensive harm to mothers and children worldwide e.g. the UNSRVAWG global report on custody violence, Ministry of Justice Harm Report, Mercer and Drew, 2022; Dallam and Silberg, 2016).

3. The use of ‘PA’ is also profoundly gendered: it is commonly used by abusive fathers to defend against abuse claims by mothers and children.  Research has demonstrated that it is far more powerful when used by men accused of abuse than by women accused of abuse. Even though PA can be alleged against either fathers or mothers with or without abuse claims, it has been proven to be especially destructive for mothers and children who report abuse.

These problems with ‘PA’ have been explained in detail in numerous articles, and in books such as Challenging Parental Alienation, a compilation of articles edited by Prof Jean Mercer and Prof Margaret Drew.

It is important to recognize that ‘PA’ is only the most recent concept in a long history of misguided concepts in the medical or psychological fields which have been originally touted as helpful, but ultimately recognized as harmful.  For instance, Thalidomide (a treatment for morning sickness removed from the market in 1961 after it was found to lead to birth defects and infant deaths in children), gay conversion therapy (a ‘treatment’ for what some people have wrongfully perceived as the ‘problem’ of homosexuality, now being banned in many countries across the world), and “holding therapy”, a form of “treatment” which resulted in a child’s death by suffocation.

PA is also only applied and ‘treated’ in relation to family court. It is not accepted in any other field, such as health and medicine, as a ‘real’ condition with real outcomes.

For all these reasons, i.e., the harm done in the name of “parental alienation,” it is best to avoid using and legitimizing the terms ‘PA’ and ‘AB’.

That said, each of the authors of this article has worked with mothers whose male ex-partners (before, during and/or after separation) gained control of the children and turned them against their loving mothers. In virtually every case, there was a backdrop of a pattern of physical and/or psychological abuse and coercive control by the father against the mother and/or the children.

In some instances, the children even told court professionals they wanted no contact with their mothers, after being in the care of the fathers and enormous pressure was exerted on them by their fathers after separation. Courts have sometimes followed these apparent wishes, despite proven histories of both child and adult abuse by the male ex-partners.

We are aware of and deeply troubled by the struggles of these mothers and children. To address the real injustice and suffering of these mothers and children, we have developed a new term which we believe better captures the reality of these situations and avoids complicating the use of the term “parental alienation”.

The new term: Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS)

To replace ‘PA’ and ‘AB’ in situations where women and/or children have been abused, we recommend use of the term Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS). This term applies post separation when:

- The abusive father manipulates others, including but not limited to children, other family members, friends, neighbours, extended social network and professionals, into believing that the mother is disordered, vindictive, mad, bad, evil, untrustworthy, unsafe, dangerous, etc.;

- The abusive parent’s manipulation plays on sexist views of the female as a ‘hysterical, hostile or vengeful’ when she raises safety concerns or abuse claims;

- This manipulation results in third parties’ negative views of and actions toward the mother, such as removal of child residency, loss of contact and/or relationship with the child, loss of employment or educational opportunities, friendship losses, isolation, homelessness, defamation of character, and health and wellbeing strains;

- There is a clearly mapped history and evidence of a pattern of power and control (or “coercive control”) dynamics between the perpetrator father and victim mother;

- There is indication within this history that the perpetrator father intends to undermine or sabotage and control the victim mother’s relationships with their children.

Why is Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS) a preferable term?

The term Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS) is preferable to ‘PA’ or ‘AB’ for several reasons. In particular, CAMS has the following features:

1. It is gender specific. Unlike ‘PA’, it specifically links the undermining of the mother-child relationship to a gendered pattern of abuse.

It cannot be hijacked by male abusers. Because it refers to ‘maternal sabotage’, it cannot be used by male perpetrators casting themselves as the victim, and casting their victim as the “perpetrator” — a phenomenon known as DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim Offender) (Freyd 1997). DARVO and perpetrators’ claims to be victims of “alienating” mothers are ubiquitous. CAMS is designed to sidestep this manipulation of the legal system.

Why create this term CAMS to deal specifically with male-on-female abuse — what about men?

If you are thinking ‘what about men?’, we have devised CAMS specifically to describe sabotage of the child-mother relationship. This is for several reasons, e.g.:

• To counteract the prevalent idea that “alienation” is something that vengeful ex-wives do to ex-husbands. We believe that the undermining of children’s relationships with their parent is most commonly the product of a larger abusive pattern by men against women; this has long been documented in the domestic violence field and is even captured in the iconic “power and control wheel.” There is little if any actual empirical evidence that [many] mothers deliberately ‘alienate’ their children from their fathers to hurt the fathers.

• Women as a group are far more subject to partner abuse than men. Generally, they are physically and economically less powerful than men within both society and the home, and misogynist stereotypes are far more common than negative male stereotypes, making women far more vulnerable to multiple strategies of abuse (Stark, 2007).

• Biases against women, particularly when they report abuse by men, are widespread.  The recent UN report, which combined world values survey data from people in 91 countries over 13 years, concluded that 9 out of every 10  men and women hold biased views against women.

• Abusive fathers’ use of violence and inducing fear means that children may be ‘trapped in a web of fear and violence’.

• Abusers are also notoriously skilled at manipulating others’ perceptions of their adult victims/targets, including children, against their mothers.

Perhaps most importantly, CAMS is a powerful element of coercive control, which is well documented to be primarily exercised by men against women.

Coercive Control

We provide here a definition taken from the UK statutory guidance framework for Coercive and Controlling Behaviours, which encompasses the work of many of these scholars (including US scholars):  ‘Coercive control creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life. It works to limit their human rights by depriving them of their liberty and reducing their ability for action…the severe impact of controlling or coercive behaviour can comprise economic, emotional and psychological abuse, technology-facilitated domestic abuse, as well as threats, whether or not they are accompanied by physical and sexual violence or abuse…controlling or coercive behaviour can continue long after the end of the relationship. The related harms, offences and other forms of domestic abuse detailed in this section should also be considered in the context of post-separation abuse. The post-separation period carries a high risk of violence for victims, including children’.

In England and Wales, where coercive control is a crime, we can see the justification for focusing this concern on abusive fathers rather than non-abusive mothers:

● Women’s Aid (2021) found that, of the perpetrators convicted for coercive and controlling behaviour in England and Wales over a year-long period, 97% were male.

● Looking specifically at male vs. female experiences of coercive control, it was found that 5x more female victims had experiences sufficiently severe (such as extreme repeated belittlement and threats to harm) to be called ‘coercive control’ than male victims— around one in three females compared with only about 1 in 15 males (Myhill 2015).

How is CAMS an example of coercive control?

Coercively controlling male abusers sabotage the children’s relationship with their mother in order to:

● enforce their belief that the mother and children should be obedient to them and their authority in the family. (For such abusers, children are considered a possession, beneath the mother who is also seen by the abuser as a possession.)

● abuse the mother by indirectly hurting her relationship with her children. One study reported an abuser said: ‘Why [attack] her mothering? It was just to assert power over her … attacking something … that probably means the most to her’ – perpetrator quoted in Heward-Belle 2017, p.8–9). Examples of this are available globally, such as in this study from South Africa: ‘He’d tell me I’m a crap mother, that someone else should be looking after my children, that I don’t know what I’m doing. He would undermine me and say this in front of my children’ (Dekel and Abrahams, 2023, p.6).

Recognition of CAMS can also help professionals see how male abusers exploit the family courts in order to succeed in their post-separation abuse of the mother, including sabotage of mother–child relationships.

How is CAMS part of a pattern of abuse?

The idea of child-parent relationship sabotage is not new. It is long-established in academic research, particularly research in the domestic violence field, such as the power and control wheel noted above.

● McHale (1997) and Feinberg et al. (2012 p.3) studied how an abusive parent can undermine the other parent with ‘criticism, disparagement, and blame’, taking a ‘competitive approach’ against the other parent in attempting to gain ‘authority or warmth’ with a child at the other parent’s expense.

● Lamela et al (2016) studied how abusive parents make ‘disparaging communications to the child about the absent coparent, sabotaging the other co-parent’s parental authority’, and interfering in other ways in the other parent's relationship with the child.

● Researchers have identified abusive fathers stopping new mothers from looking after their babies (Buchanan, 2018), with news reports of courts denying children from receiving breastfeeding, because it was deemed as interfering with the father’s visitation. Others have reported abusive fathers stopping mothers and children from playing and having fun together (Katz, 2022).

Post separation abuse

Because abusers lose direct control over their adult targets after separation, their focus on the children as a vehicle for continuing their abuse of the mother increases post-separation. Spearman et al (2022, p.1225) define post-separation abuse as:

‘the ongoing, willful pattern of intimidation of a former intimate partner including legal abuse, economic abuse, threats and endangerment to children, isolation and discrediting, and harassment and stalking.’

Spearman et al (2022) explain why post-separation abuse is likely to be male-on-female, involving male perpetrators using children, courts and litigation against female victims. They explain that ‘mothers are more vulnerable to ‘post-separation abuse’ through custody litigation for several reasons, including:

● gender differences in economic power (wage disparities between partners),

● gendered discourses of parenting that undervalue mothers’ unpaid domestic labour, and

● misogynistic norms that position mothers as obstructive or vindictive.

Additional research supports this analysis:

Harrison (2008: p.393) studied how a perpetrator-father used the children and the court-ordered supervised contact to continue abusing the mother, despite not being in contact with her. The perpetrator-father’s conduct taught the children not to respect their mother, to treat her abusively, and to feel compelled to do so for fear of the perpetrator-father:

’He’s nasty, verbally abusive. Through the children, he’ll say things to the children about me and they’ll come back and tell me what he has said about me… even though the contact centre is public.’

Several other researchers have studied how litigation abuse is a form of post-separation abuse, where the law is used to exert control over and continue abuse of victim-survivor mothers.  

How does CAMS relate to children taking the side of the (male) abuser post-separation, and why is this suspicious?

Post-separation, some children may seem to take the side of the abuser. If there is a backdrop of family violence, this behaviour cannot be taken at face value.  Rather, it should be explored for whether it is a continuation of a child’s defence and survival strategy used during abuse, i.e.

● Children facing abuse from a parent are less likely than an adult to be able to “fight” or “flee”. They are more likely to “freeze”,  “submit” and “trauma bond” or develop a coerced trauma attachment to the abuser to try to keep safe and avoid harm (Bancroft, 2022a; 2022b; Lahav et al., 2019; Santos et al. 2023).

● For a child, attempting to please an abusive father by playing, smiling, laughing, or mimicking/responding to their demands for “care” and “affection” may be a way of deflecting the abusive father’s aggression or managing it, based on the situation they are trapped in. As noted by Jenny Kitzinger (2015, p.176): ‘it is precisely the children who are most vulnerable, eager to please and easily-led who obstinately reject any idea that they have ‘rights’ and refuse to develop a ‘sense’ of their own power. Such unexpected conviction from the most vulnerable children is understandable if we accept that a ‘sense’ of powerlessness may in fact reflect their external ‘reality’. Children are sometimes hopeless because there is no hope, helpless because there is no help and compliant because there is no alternative. Powerlessness is in the food they eat, the air they breathe and the beds they sleep in. As one 9-year-old, explaining her own abuse, said simply: ‘He was big and I was little. I had to do what he said’ …’.

In such cases, it is unlikely that the child will step out of this behaviour until they are safe from the perpetrator father’s harm and control. This is because:

● A child who has had an abusive father may be traumatized or at minimum frightened, having been exposed to an ever-present threat and intimidated by the abusive father. A child may therefore have seen that power and coercion ‘works’, and that it is safer not to identify with the victim-surviving mother who is under attack.

● They may also have been directly abused by that father. (Generally, false allegations of rape and abuse are rare, and children tend not to make false allegations of abuse, so any abuse report should be taken seriously and explored fully).

● Though they do not often exhibit this in court, many abusive fathers make it clear to the child victims that they hate the mother and want to destroy her relationship with her children. In this context, children know they need to fall in line with the abuser father’s goals in order to avoid risking their own safety — even if they do not really want to. Displeasing the abusive parent is too dangerous; such children may instinctively suppress their affection for their other parent to stay on the dangerous parent’s good side.

● It does not require ongoing, persistent physical violence for a child (or adult) to learn that it is too dangerous to anger the abusive father — more ‘subtle’ abuse, which is rarely obvious to an outside observer, can  also create that fear. Most abusive relationships entail patterned behaviours of ongoing abuse.

So, what do health and legal professionals therefore need to consider about children taking the side of the (male) abuser in CAMS?

A child’s apparent warmth towards the abusive father may be based on the defence strategy that they need in order to survive. This applies to situations when they are:

● placed in a room with their abusive father – such as during supervised or unsupervised contact

● asked about their abusive parent – such as during a family court evaluation

● Seen and interviewed when the child is aware their abusive father is nearby, and they may have to return to his care

Health and legal professionals should also be aware that often perpetrators are master manipulators, influencing not just children but also adults, including professionals involved in these cases.

Conclusion: Summary of 5 key points made in the article

1. We have explained why we disagree with the use of the term ‘parental alienation’ (‘PA’). ‘PA’ seems to be a neutral term, but it is not. Apart from lacking definition and scientific credibility, it is unavoidably sexist, and draws on stereotypes that women are vindictive, hostile or hysterical, despite best efforts by its proponents to depict it as “gender neutral” in recent years.

2. As an alternative to using the term ‘PA’ when an abusive parent intentionally undermines the other parent’s relationship with the children, we propose the term Child and Mother Sabotage (CAMS). We see this as a preferable term for mothers because it cannot be hijacked by male abusers, as parental alienation so often is. (We explained the justifications for focusing on male-on-female abuse, including that the most severe undermining of parent-child relationships is executed by abusive fathers against their maternal targets, because it is a prime form of post-separation abuse, and because severe and repeated domestic abuse is mostly perpetrated by men, and supported by social and physical inequality.)

3. CAMS draws attention to the male abuser's motivations to control and ‘possess’ the family, to hurt the mother by hurting her relationship with her children without regard for harms to the children, and to use the courts against them.

4. Finally, we explained why it is important for professionals to be alert when children appear to take the side of an abusive father, as this can be part of a child’s compliance with a frightening parent rather than a reflection of children’s genuine feelings. This may be a defence strategy, not an authentic personal choice.

5. We close by saying that professionals need to be aware that many male abuse perpetrators are master manipulators of third parties, including children, social networks, and professionals. Abusers’ motivation and ability to sabotage women’s maternal role needs to be fully understood. CAMS is the best term for achieving this goal.

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