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)