The malignant pseudo-science of ‘parental alienation’
‘When one husband and father beats his wife or child, it is inter-personal violence'
‘When one husband and father beats his wife or child, it is inter-personal violence; when a million do so, it is structural violence.’ Adapted from Johan Galtung.
The COVID-19 pandemic obliged us to reassess what is important, be it loved ones, health, or life itself. Meanwhile, lockdowns were irksome but the privileged were safe at home. Not so, for the millions of women and children exposed to domestic abuse.
What image does this conjure? Housewives with black eyes? And the abuser? A brute that can never belong in our own nice circle? We are good at such self-delusion. In reality, we would probably not recognise such a monster even if he stared us in the eye. Meanwhile, we assert loftily that vulnerable mothers and children could just pack their bags and leave. Besides, they are protected by police and family courts because they have all the rights, don’t they?
The reality is much more sinister. For most women, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time – when they are most likely to be killed. Or, they must risk the alternative: going from the domestic frying pan into the fire of a family court.
Globally, almost a third of women are exposed to partner violence, and a billion children annually experience physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect. In England & Wales, 27.6% of women and 13.8% of men were exposed to domestic abuse by 2019, with women disproportionately suffering on a severe ongoing basis. A recent study found that 99.7% of 22,000 UK women were repeat victims, mostly of their male partners/ex-partners.
Domestic abuse frequently worsens when the relationship between the mother and father ends. Abusive fathers may seek vengeance and use family courtrooms to continue abuse by legally manoeuvring against mothers to deprive them of living or contact with their children.
When abused parents (usually mothers) and children enter private family court proceedings and disclose abuse against her or her child(ren), they plead for stopping or limiting contact with the father. To counter this, court professionals and abusers often invoke the ‘parental alienation’ argument. Here, the mother is accused of making false abuse claims and seeking to remove the father for no good reason. She is also counter- accused as a liar and fantasist, ‘mentally unstable’, and worse. In short, she gets painted as an unfit mother whose children should be removed from her.
The nightmare is worse for mothers and children from disadvantaged economic or ethnic backgrounds or those with a disability, or living in rural areas. Such structural disadvantage is magnified when lawyers and professionals tasked with safeguarding families dismiss medical evidence of abuse, by arguing that this just “gets in the way” of contact.
The tragic irony is that it is worse to accuse than to abuse because many judges, attorneys, and psychologists believe in the notion of ‘parental alienation’ as explaining most abuse allegations. The perverse consequence of this is that evidence of real abuse is discredited even before it is properly investigated. Thus, family courts write-off many genuine safeguarding concerns. For example, if children disclose abuse, the professionals tend to rebut by asking “who put you up to say that?”, and not “how do we keep you safe?”
So what is parental alienation? It was developed by the late Dr. Richard Gardner, an American child psychiatrist, who stated that ‘children are naturally sexual and may initiate sexual encounters to seduce an adult.’ His non-peer reviewed theory posited that alienating behaviour occurs when one parent misuses their influence to turn a child against a previously-loved other parent. There is no agreed definition of ‘alienating behaviours’, even among its advocates. It has also been debunked by the World Health Organization and the European Association for Psychotherapy, who warn of the risk of using such junk pseudo-science “allowing for violence against children and their mothers to remain undetected, and/or contested”.
Unfortunately, and perhaps because science was late onto the scene, the harm has been well and truly done in terms of false, gendered biases that have become deeply-entrenched in juridical beliefs around ‘alienating mothers’. A large study concluded that ‘alienation trumps abuse’ in court proceedings. Worse, it doubles the risk of a child being removed completely from a protective mother and placed permanently with the abusive father.
This is dangerous because it minimises and silences genuine safeguarding concerns that need to be investigated away from the discredited theory of alienation, misuse of which is responsible for the majority of abused children and mothers going unheard. Put simply, when the phrase ‘alienation’ is deployed, it has gendered impact. Mothers, much more than fathers, are disbelieved by judges.
The problem is linked to money and corruption: so-called ‘alienation experts’ manipulate uninformed mothers and fathers to adopt ‘parental alienation’ as litigation tactics, knowing that this means getting paid to provide arguments in court. They are not cheap and together with other legal fees, the scam costs thousands to mothers, fathers and the state.
A linked financial dimension is particularly disturbing. This is the multi-million ‘care’ industry including children’s homes (some of whom are the setting of many historic or recent abuse scandals) that take away children from parents in poverty or other socially-disadvantaged circumstances.
‘Alienation’ is the legitimised and institutionalised trump card to diminish and silence abuse allegations in family courts everywhere, ranging from the US to Canada, England, Australia, Spain, and New Zealand. For mothers, it can mean the loss of all hope to protect their children from continued paternal abuse while also risking losing contact themselves with their offspring. Inevitably, mothers are obliged to prioritise their legal obligatory duty to enable continued contact between child and abusive father, over ensuring safeguarding a dangerously-vulnerable minor. That is how post-separation abuse gets perpetrated by child-contact arrangements.
Also, thereby, a lucrative global industry of ‘alienation experts’ keeps the gravy train rolling with judges and court professionals treating them as objective experts rather than as financially-motivated self-interested parties. The pseudo-science of alienation has tragically captured the justice system, as one of many mothers states: “Real evidence was just turned away, time and time again […] I was seen as an alienating mother”.
Often, mothers who are themselves victims of psychological abuse, unknowingly adopt the term ‘alienating’, playing directly into the hands of so-called experts. The court responds, ‘’ah, so there is alienation, we will appoint an alienation expert’’. The mother is then unwittingly trapped into her child being assessed by an ‘alienation expert’ who is often entrenched in false evidence bases and gendered ideologies of mothers as manipulative/hysterical.
While there is increased awareness and attempts to crackdown on bogus, non-regulated psychologists in England, at least, the problem is too deeply entrenched. Meanwhile, parental ‘alienation’ proponents and indeed, family courts are, chameleon-like, amending the language by adopting new terms such as ‘implacably hostile’ and ‘psychological splitting,’. These are new code for an ‘alienating parent’. Who does not know that in every family, a parent may bad-mouth another or a child may ‘take sides’ at some time or other in the daily rough and tumble of domestic life? And yet that could be used to deny abuse and mis-represented later in legal adversarial debate as ‘splitting’.
Possible remedies such as in The Council of Europe Istanbul Convention offer, as yet, little hope for mothers in, for example UK, that has not ratified it. Meanwhile, the Harm Report shows that courts in England and Wales are failing to even meet the Convention’s basic principle to secure the safety of victims while not destroying the lives of parents and children. Neither does this adhere to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 to achieve gender equality for women and girls, where structural, state- sanctioned violence such as this is neither measured nor monitored.
But what of the global picture? From France, to Australia, to America, and other countries noted previously, right back to the UK, parental alienation has become the go-to litigation strategy to counter claims of child and/or domestic abuse. In 2018, 60,000 American children were forced by courts into unsupervised contact with an abusive parent. But Spain, Italy and Scotland are prohibiting the use of this ‘Nazi theory’ in child custody cases, with Spain also allowing children to have their voice heard in legal proceedings.
International campaigners and movements like #thecourtsaid have spoken out, along with parliamentarians, child-survivors , academics, journalists, professionals, and celebrities. The struggle continues to go back and forth. Most recently, the ‘alienation’ lobby have tried to ensure its inclusion in the Domestic Abuse Act legislation developed specifically to protect against abuse.
The mental health impacts of family court proceedings for domestic /child abuse where alienation is used to silence it, actually re-traumatises victims. That has led to sensible calls for a system of independent domestic abuse advisors to support and guide victims through the justice system.
If a child was abused by any other adult such as a teacher, they would be arrested, prosecuted and perhaps jailed, apart from losing job and reputation. But a parental abuser can have continued licence to abuse, thanks to the flawed justice system that presumes the sanctity of contact at all costs.