Suffer the little children; and as adults, they still do

Having just completed a ten day round training trip, during which we have had the pleasure of meeting parents as well as practitioners, I am focused at the moment upon the stories that we have heard along the way. Stories that are sad, stories that are difficult to listen to and stories that are uplifting and full of hope. All of the stories are about one thing, relationships between parents and children and the ways in which this country of ours gets it so badly wrong when it comes to supporting families after separation.

I have borrowed the title of this blog from one of the participants on our recent London workshop about children’s transition difficulties. I have done so because it seems to me that this sentence describes eloquently, the scandal of what we are doing to children in some separated families this country. In short, we are standing by and watching the institutionalised abuse of these children and we are doing nothing about it. Worse still, we are, through  the continued existence of organisations like CAFCASS, enabling the state to inflict appalling injury to our children. Children who are suffering now and, as this man attests, as adults, they continue to do so.

I am grateful to this man, who told us the story of reuniting with his daughter after she had suffered from alienation from him for 21 years. This man’s story, so calmly told, moved those of us listening to it to tears. 21 years of being prevented from seeing his children. Aided and abetted by the state system, his children’s mother removed him from their lives without a concern for all those years of lost dreams, hopes and potential happy memories.

This story is the story that so many of the parents that we work with are all too familiar with. That this man was reunited with his daughter after 21 years was down to his courage, his strength and his ability to keep on surviving the ghastly things that had been done to him and to his children by the system that operates around family separation in this country. Interestingly, It was also down to the compassionate, sophisticated and human approach to the issue of children’s alienation from parents that operates in another country in Europe, one not so far from our own shores.

The difference between the way in which the state in that country interacts with separated families could not be further from our own. The key to this being the way that social services, the police and the mental health system in that country, understand that children who are alienated from their parents are being abused. In that country, the abuse is recognised and acted upon whereas in this country, it is all too often dismissed, excused or simply waved away as being non existent.

Never more so than by CAFCASS. Set up to supposedly support parents experiencing family separation, CAFCASS has, for too many families become the terror that stalks them. Day after day on this training tour we heard the same story, of the lack of knowledge amongst CAFCASS staff, of their crass dismissal of a parent’s concerns about a child’s behaviour and of the ways in which the arrival of CAFCASS in the case caused problems to escalate and the child’s reactions to worsen.

Now there is something rotten in our system of supporting separated families and whilst one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole basket, one good apple amongst a basket of bad is going to have a hard time convincing the outside world that its not CAFCASS that causes the biggest problems.  I am not, however, going to fall foul of stereotyping and say that all CAFCASS officers are the same. I work with a couple of CAFCASS officers who absolutely ‘get’ the issue of the alienation of a child and the serious damage it can do over a lifetime. Sadly however, these fantastic people are like gold dust, because the overwhelming experience that I have of CAFCASS’ knowledge of children and family separation mirrors that of the parents we met over the course of the past few days. It is basic, it is based upon foundation level social work theory and it is a bit like bringing in the auxiliary nurse when what you really need is the surgeon.

In other countries, where family separation is considered to be a social problem that affects children, services to support the family are properly funded, evidenced based and delivered to mothers and fathers as well as to children. Take Norway for example, where parents must complete a course1 on working together for the sake of their children after family separation. Much more detailed and sophisticated than the Parenting Information Programmes that are delivered around the UK, the Norwegian course offers a fully rounded exploration of how separation impacts upon a child as well as what can go wrong in the process of caring for a child afterwards.

In the UK, you would be forgiven for thinking that all that matters in terms of children and separation is conflict and  poverty, such is the influence of the lone parent model that has driven our support to separating families over the past four decades. The idea that separation itself can be the cause of children’s behavioural difficulties is ridden over rough shod, mostly encouraged by the efforts of the single parent lobby, who consider that the idea that separation can affect children is somehow stigmatising parents.

Far from stigmatising them, an interest in how children adapt to family separation seems to me to be an utterly sensible way to support families who are separating. One of the practitioners I met last week said that in her view, children themselves also want more attention to be paid to their experience of their parents separating. This is not about giving children more of a ‘voice’ in family separation, (a phrase that makes me shudder with horror because I know that what it means in practice is to heap more anxiety upon little heads that are already filled with fear and confusion), it is about helping children to express the feelings that they struggle with when their parents are living separately. We can only do this if we are alive to the fact that it is not just poverty or conflict that has an impact on children, it is the experience of the physical separation of two parents that were once internalised as a whole and the ways in which children’s lives change when they are making transitions between those two parents.

Amy Baker’s study of adults who experienced alienation as a child2tells us that children whose parents separate are at risk of being affected over their life time, unless two parents can deal with the difficulties that children struggle with in relating to them separately. Baker’s study of 40 adults who were affected by alienation as children, shows us that the impact can be severe in terms of self esteem, self confidence, integration of personality, feelings of guilt and shame and more. The study tells us that many of these adults, when they were children, were given the responsibility for choosing what they wanted to happen after separation, something that CAFCASS increasingly do through their reliance upon children’s wishes and feelings reports. These adults tell us now that they secretly wished that someone would remove that ‘choice’ and responsibility from them because it was too great a burden for them to bear. Contrast that with the Children’s Commissioner for England, who, in response to the family justice review recently   said something along the lines of children’s relationships with their parents after separation should only continue if the child wants it to. For shame.

The lack of understanding in this country, of what happens to children during and beyond family separation both saddens and angers me at the same time. Sometimes I see alienated children whose faces are frozen with fear, in similar ways to those children who are being physically or sexually abused. These children are often those that CAFCASS throw up their hands in horror over, when I suggest that they are suffering abuse. The notion that a mother could be abusing her child by enmeshing her with her own hatred/dislike of the child’s other parent or acting out her own childhood upbringing, is not a palatable explanation to too many of these practitioners. Easier for them to tolerate it seems, is the idea that a child is refusing to see a father because that parent has done something bad. As one officer stated to me recently, ‘culturally this child is expected to respect his father and do as he says, that he will not even see him is a measure of how badly this father has behaved towards this child.’ I resisted the urge to slap this person and attempted to explain (yet again) that children who reject a parent in this way are not doing so because of the badness of a parent, but because they are being placed in a double bind by the parent they are aligned with, often their mother but also, in some cases their father. And it is this parent, the aligned parent, with whom we should be concentrating our efforts to understand what is happening and why, because it is this parent who is often the one who is responsible for the child being trapped by intolerable emotional pressure.

Children’s reactions to family separation and to relating to two parents who are no longer living together are myriad and diverse. Not all children will struggle, some will adapt well, others will find the transition from one to the other problematic and some will go on to be unable to tolerate the pressures that are being placed upon them by either a parent who sets out to alienate or one who is unconsciously attempting to align the child to their world view. In this country, we are unfortunate that we surround these families with practitioners who have only basic training and scant knowledge of the ways in which children’s reactions can escalate to become seriously dysfunctional. As one parent said to me recently, if his dad and his step mum were breaking his arms and legs on a regular basis something would be done about it. That they are breaking his mind and his perspective and his ability to relate to other people is just disregarded.

Which brings us back to the man who was alienated from his daughter for 21 years, who, when he finally reunited with her again, had to collect her from a mental health hospital in another country, such was the suffering she had continued to experience. Suffering, it turned out, at the hands of her mother, the very same suffering that had been blamed, during the court process on his determination to stay close to his daughter. Suffering that continued to be inflicted upon her for the years after the court process had ended, by a mother hell bent on making her captive of her own mind.

After ten days of travelling this country, I have met so many parents for whom this nightmare is a reality. Parents who have been labelled and judged and rendered impotent in their efforts to help their children by the appalling, incompetent and uncaring services that surround our family justice system. Parents who know that their child’s behavior is abnormal, parents who know that their child is being harmed, parents who can only stand by and watch helplessly as they are blamed, shamed and terrorised by a brutal process which slowly but surely eradicates them from any kind of ability to protect their children.

Those who have colluded with this process, who have ignored what is being done and ridden roughshod over those children’s lives will ultimately have to be held to account for it. And perhaps as more children reach their majority and find the parent they were prevented from being with again, we will, finally, begin the kind of class actions that will prevent this abuse from continuing through another generation.

Until then, suffer those little children, and, as this man testifies, as adults they still do.

1The program Continued Parents – GOOD NOK cooperation after divorce, developed by Modum Bad – Relationship Centre in Norway is now a permanent programme under the Children, Youth and Family Affairs.

2Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind (Norton Professional Book)


13 thoughts on “Suffer the little children; and as adults, they still do

  1. What CAFCASS and the courts also simply do not understand also is the speed with which alienation can happen. Miss one contact weekend or visiting due to work with a mother who refuses to re-schedule, and the child breaks. They break because they are under constant pressure, a permanent ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and rely on the regular visits to justify keeping up the fight, and being able to keep up the fight, by being able to forget about it for a short while. The degree of resilience and loyalty displayed by most of these children is remarkable indeed – more than adults display under similar circumstances where an external force is vying for their support or control of their minds – but we all have our limits. To endeavor to break the natural resilience of a child should be an imprisonable offence in family law as it is when a child is coerced into sexual or criminal activity. Women now enjoy protection from coercion from partners under domestic violence laws…but their children not from their parents’ aberrant coercion.
    The low speed of response by CAFCASS and the courts, and the generally pathetic quality of that response, is what keeps CAFCASS and the courts in work. It is layer upon layer of compound abuse.


  2. Spoke to a young man the other week. He had been asked as a young teenager effectively to decide whether we wanted to live with mum or with dad. Now he says: ” I didn’t understand, thus I made the wrong choice.” He suffered years of abuse and neglect and says he will never forgive his now estranged mum for what she did. Where is CAFCASS following up on such cases, seeing that a young teenager caught between waring parents is just not capable of understanding the consequences of such a choice?


  3. As usual Karen touching and wonderful, with deep understanding of the problems and pressures put upon the child. I had my final hearing today and had the chance to talk with the guardian over a quick smoke outside. She had little reason to talk to me since she was at a hearing after all, however she kindly did allow me a few words. I can’t go into the details of my case here, but what I will say is that in general Cafcass officers don’t seem to grasp the poor misguided philosopy of putting a child under pressure to choose when they are asked “do you want to see your daddy”, as if they are in some way free to give a heartfelt true honest answer, indeed they are not. When a child has not seen his missing parent for some time he may become accustomed to the drip drip of ‘after all we can get on without him can’t we sweetheart?’ and ‘yes, but don’t forget who loves you the most’ or ‘I know you want to see daddy, but the judge says you can’t, and besides you’ve not seen him in all this time, you sure you still want to?’ That Cafcass can’t see these subtle abuses or just refuse to consider them astounds me, and I tell you i’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, if I can see it whay can’t they, who are supposed to be trained in this area. The actual idea of allowing the child to decide who he or she wants to see and to be tested as to its loyalty, is appaling to me. If only Cafcass had the training that you have Karen and the sense to see whats really going on.


  4. Please continue the fight, I pray my kids estranged from me for a few years now get the help they need, I’m trying with no support from the system, the guardian says he can only do so much , ? I begged him to at least do that .


  5. Suffer indeed Karen. Its good that you highlight the lack of support for families going through separation. Hostile separation particularly impacts on everyone involved in a way that you would, in your pre-separation world, ever envisage.

    I have felt suicidal at some points (the first Christmas springs to mind) and have nearly at one point lost my job. I am past that now but i remember meeting a dad whose children are now adults, he has a good relationship with his sons and had to fight like hell through court etc. he whispered to me once about nearly killing himself expecting shock but meeting empathy and understanding. it is for many part of our lot. Things do get better of course but the struggle with the children saps every bit of physical and emotional energy, it scars you.

    i shudder to think what could have happened without FNF and TSFSF. They have kept me and my relationship with my children alive.

    Yesterday i got news that the father of my niece’s daughter had hung himself. My niece had alienated her from her father. He was by no means the most enduring character but the sad thing is my grand niece is only 18 and is devastated. Had not seen him in 7 years but some tentative face book stuff from his family recently. She will be riddled with guilt. He will be buried with a picture of his daughter and her half sister from a new marriage in his coffin.

    The sad parody of separation is played out every day in this country. The broken lives. The dads who drift off to protect themselves, the legal pigs with their noses in the trough. Saddest of all the children their innocence broken by an adult world that is riven with selfishness and greed. The alienating parents who congratulate and encourage each other. Little Johnny is doing great without dad/mum and yet like lemmings they run to a cliff where their children’s destiny is likely to be adult pain and dysfunction. The same sad script repeated from generation to generation.

    What are we offered? Mediation? Court? meds from the GP. I will leave myself open here but i understand the parent who does the gravest of all deeds. Again and again it raises its head. The sad pictures of the kids. The neighbours describing how he was just an ordinary bloke.
    To understand it is not to condone it of course.. It is the ultimate parental alienation. You cannot and will not have the children. Ever. Fear, control, anger and all those emotions that provide such a potent and in this case tragic cocktail. it is the tip of a morally and socially corrupt phenomena that our society refuses to acknowledge. The ultimate elephant in the living room. I hold my own hands up-until i walked this path i lived in splendid ignorance and was happy with my oblivious state.

    I had my boys last night. They cooked a Mexican dish. we laughed around the cooker. Each one had his job. Salsa man, chicken man and salad man. the food was lovely and i asked them when they were going to open their restaurant. Would dad get a discount?

    This morning dropped them at school. I have a standard line. “if I hear one good report from a teacher today or one report of good behaviour your in trouble…I will be up to this school to speak to the principle.” it always makes them smile. I have a secret hand sign for my 12 year old and as he turns the corner into school i get it flashed back. Its our gang. It was lost for a long time but its made its return and it appeared this morning.

    These small moments are of course denied to a family who once were much the same I suppose. My heart goes out to them. The father who must have witnessed those self induced moments of horror. The poor mother left with nothing in this world and the children, their laughter now memories drifting on the wind. We get the usual finger pointing and words of condemnation. Understandable of course. our own alarm is tempered to by the ammunition it may give the “dad is dangerous culture” that pervades the post separation landscape. Our opponents will of course be genuinely touched by the tragedy but there will be the undercurrent of “i told you so”. It is meaningless to tot up the gender figures. Most are dads. Their sin is there for all to see.

    The greatest tribute to the loss of such innocence and beauty would of course be a society that re-evaluates itself and that has the courage to offer a meaningful and child centred support network to separating families. To lead couples out of the dance of pain that often marks end of parental relationships.

    It will happen again sadly. They were ordinary people and those who have the power to potentially change it are unlikely to stick their heads above the parapet. They lack the moral gumption and are too intoxicated by the nectar of power. I give them their due. They are at least consistent but such is their moral and ethical ineptitude (which is often seen as strength) it will be of little consolation to a mother whose world is broken and who deserves our prayers. Those who could potentially trigger the changes that could leave such pain possible but perhaps less likely are less deserving..

    They will sleep easy in their beds tonight and certainly more so than one parent. I cannot imagine for one second her pain but neither would I want to share the comfortable slumber of those who hold power and yet rest impervious to such sadness.


  6. The individual Cafcass practitioner may well come to an understanding of the dilemma’s facing children caught up in adult conflict…..that is if they see the child in the first place….and context counts for a great deal….without it it becomes very easy to take the child’s expressed views as gospel…those of us who have worked with children in deep anxiety and crisis know that professionals have to gain the trust and confidence of children before they unburden themselves and reveal the impact of their parents conflict on their day to day lives…we used to have a saying….go at the child’s pace….and I have used this when Judges and Magistrates have asked me to produce definitive and justiciable statements from children in very tight time scales….because according to politicians speed is of the essence….and Cafcass is now like a shitehawk on speed….due to the restrictions and limits placed on their practitioners by an incompetant and uncaring executive overloading them with cases….triage…proportionality… minimum….blah blah blah…but what it comes down to in real terms is the undermining of and rolling back the principles and hard earned rights embodied in the 1989 Children Act and UNCROC…..but of course the real pain is still experienced by children….and much of this pain will blight them into adult life unless we have genuinely therapeutic and instrumental interventions which aims to address and mitigate children’s suffering….and also help their parents to have a primary understanding of potential harm….and these interventions need resources….skillful practitioners…realistic time scales to work in….and reasonable caseloads….none of which Cafcass has….nor will it regain under Anthony Douglas’ stewardship…..yes suffer the little children indeed


  7. I’m all for the class action that you speak of, and I think 1000s would be right behind you. It’s outrageous what Britain has done to the poor, to fathers, to its children, to say nothing of the countries and cultures that it continues to wage war on economically (and often militarily). It really is time for holding certain individuals and organizations to account for institutionalized child abuse. Children who grow up abused just continue the abuse.

    Bob Geldof spends a lot of time abroad working with impoverished children, I understand. He should be back here, helping children here, so that they get the kind of moral upbringing that is needed in order to raise a more moral generation that really will put the eradication of world hunger foremost, instead of merely talking about it whilst secretly only being concerned with profiting from that new form of imperialism called globalization.


  8. [Karen, please feel free to remove, or move to another article, this posting if you feel it correct to do so]

    Many of us may remember come across news stories of a young lad in America who divorced his parents. This is a story from the last millenium – some 20 years ago – from before my marriage when I was in my youth. I never paid much attention to it but certainly thought it to be strange at the time.

    This boy was 12 at the time and must have been a bright spark to have had th fortitude to go to court and get what he wanted because that is precisely what he got.

    Having read a news article on him recently, it seems this boy seems to have gone through all the motions of Parental Alienation. His wishes and feelings were completely acknowledged, upheld and supported by all those in authority. And now?

    Now, this boy is now 32 and, unfortunately, it seems he’s a mess.

    The news article I refer to is here:

    It seems that while there may be some justification in this young boys actions, regrettably, it seems what is absent is proper therapeutic input. It also seems that both his parents more than likely talked negatively about the other parent to him.

    Despite everything, what comes across is his mother tried, til the end, to meet up with him but, unfortunately, failed. And this is something he deeply regrets now.

    Karen – do you think you could take a few minutes and comment on this case and how therapy of the type you offer could have helped here? In particular, I am talking of helping the parents and the boy and whether they could have been helped. Also, what about the fact that the boy changed his name and did everything to get a new life and, perhaps, a new identity. To me, it seems, everything went wrong and was dealt with completely incorrectly and all this in spite of the best intentions of all those around him. Would this lad benefit from therapy even now?

    I really feel for this boy – maybe particularly as it could happen to my children.


  9. I’m about to cry just reading these things I understand only to well re P A as I’m in it with my children yes it is a very hopeless and sad place to be not seeing your children and what must they be thinking !
    Two yrs in court still not a lot further forward.
    One part of me wants to walk because of the pain this may be causing to my baby’s that herts so deep I couldn’t explain.
    I feel very much I’m in the frozen dance I guess. I believed someone soon will see what’s going on but no it’s aloud to continue to harm me and my baby’s. just not right.
    It is so much about keeping the relationships together not about this right that or what ever ! Just keep those loving relationships together. I would say its been 3 yrs now of hardly any contact of any form. And the begging a day not seeing my children was very hard now 3 yrs later and still fighting I fight because I must they are part of me.
    But here’s the but part. You do start to think well I must be no good that’s why this is happening to me. But I know the system just doesn’t care from courts to Cafcass I carnt belive they allow this harm to carry on.
    But of course they do !!!
    But those relationships back together.
    I went to one meeting for fnf the advice I got was that we would eat s it !!!! Didn’t want to say the real word. I’m guessing still at this stage I would eat some if it brought my baby’s back to my heart. It’s all one big sad shame this the system sits back and destroys us all.


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