The power of enforcement in high conflict family separation

This week I have been reading the submissions to the review of the Children and Families Bill and have noted in particular, that enforcement, that issue within Private Family Law that the government were once so keen on has dropped out of sight.  I noted also, amongst the submissions, something from Liz Trinder et al, on the need not for enforcement but for more therapeutic services for high conflict separation. This memo, tucked away amongst the list of submissions made me smile.  Not because its something pleasurable to read, it is not, and certainly not when you deconstruct the bias inherent within it.  It made me smile because the conclusion that is being drawn within the interim findings on ‘The Enforcement of Contact for Child Contact’ is something that we have been delivering for the past four years;  therapeutic intervention in high conflict and intractable cases.  Particularly in cases where children resist or refuse to see a parent. A snippet from the Memo which has been submitted to the review of the Children and Families Bill tells us that

The research is being conducted by a team of socio-legal researchers with many years of experience of family law research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded the research, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. The research team would like to thank both Cafcass for enabling access to their electronic records and the President of the Family Division for granting permission for the study.

Which looks, from where I am standing, as if there is a bit of team action going on here. Cafcass give access to electronic records so that the ‘socio-legal’ academics can review material which has been judged by the judges overseen by the President of the Family Division.  Given that the material that these researchers are looking at, was produced by Cafcass who have been, for many years, informed by those same socio-legal academics and the cases have been adjudicated upon by those same judges that are being advised by Cafcass, I wonder exactly what it is that is being researched here.  Are we really to believe that anything new or anything different will be raised through such an incestuous and self replicating system?

No surprise here that this research is funded by friend of single parents,  the Nuffield Foundation, who are already known to be  deniers of the reality of implacable hostility .

Indeed, one of the key findings of this study is that the ‘stereotype of the single, implacably hostile parent was a rare occurrence within this study of every C79 application made in England in March and April in 2012, a total of 215 cases.

Now March and April 2012 may well have been a quiet month for implacable hostility and I of course, cannot attest to having seen every C79 application during that period.  What I know about implacable hostility however, is that how one views its presence or absence is less to do with how one reads the paperwork and more to do with the lens through which one interprets what one is reading. Here’s a case example of implacable hostility as recounted by these socio-legal reviewers;

Case example. The index order specifies staying contact with a 6 year old. The unrepresented mother does not cooperate fully with the court process. Contact broke down immediately triggering an immediate enforcement application. The same judge threatens a transfer of residence if the mother does not comply. Further contact was agreed. The father later contacts Cafcass to say that contact is being undermined. Note – the mother had raised concerns about domestic violence issues at index stage but none in the enforcement proceedings(I-68).

It may be that the ‘lens’ through which I read case material is not the same as that through which these socio-legal academics see the same words.  In this review, I see, through the use of the words ‘unrepresented mother’ and ‘concerns about domestic violence’, a theme which is consistent not with unbiased review and efforts to understand implacable hostility, but the kind of assumptions that lead academics to perpetrate the same outcomes. Unconscious, perhaps, but non-the-less, biased. And it is this which leaves me feeling queasy when I think about the ways in which the incestuous cycle of funding for academic study which informs the family courts, leads to nothing very new.

The memo concludes with recommendations.  These are for less enforcement, less committal and more therapeutic intervention strategies for high conflict cases.  This should please me, surely?  As I am often accused, by those who troll these pages, this kind of thing should be good for ‘business’, therapeutic interventions being the ‘business’ we are in at the Family Separation Clinic.  But I am not pleased.  Not in the slightest bit.  I am not pleased because I know that our services would be largely unnecessary without strong and powerful enforcement.  I also know that part of what we do in delivering our therapeutic mediation, parenting co-ordination and support for families where children are alienated, has a hefty dose of enforcement contained within it.

When families get into trouble after separation they are in need not of kid gloves but an iron fist in a velvet glove. Therapy with such families is not for the faint hearted, because it requires a huge amount of gumption to be able to hold a family system in such chaos. Family separation causes the ‘system’ that has governed the lives of families to break down and within that kind of maelstrom, whilst adult feelings are high and often out of control, children are left to founder.  It is not the kind attentiveness of most therapists that is required during this transitional period, it is tenacity, determination and the willingness to hold the reins to prevent the horse from bolting out of control.  A recent case example shows the kind of intervention that works well in these kinds of cases.

A twelve year old girl and her ten year old brother were referred to us by a local authority because it was thought by social workers that they were ‘alienated’ from their mother.  Several years of court processes had lead to a position where the children were simply refusing to see their father and were involved in a vicious campaign of hatred against him. We undertook assessment.  It was clear that there was, indeed, a thread of determined and seemingly untreatable implacable hostility with the father of these children.  Nothing that had been done had shifted his position, which was that the children hated their mother because she had done some terrible things to them when they were younger.

Fact finding had been undertaken.  A section  37 report was undertaken.  The children were deemed to have met the threshold for welfare concern.  The case moved to Public Law and a care order was put in place for both children.

We were asked to assess the potential for therapeutic input at this stage. Therapeutic intervention in cases of pure parental alienation is very unlikely to work.  This is because pure parental alienation is a phenomenon which arises because a parent is likely to have a personality disorder and cannot be treated.  We set about assessing whether this was, indeed, such a case.  We determined that whilst it had some features of pure alienation, there were other features which told us that there may well be some contribution made to the children’s position by the mother. Not because she had ill treated them as accused by the father, but because the nature of her leaving and the pattern of her early relating to the children after the separation had been somewhat chaotic.  

There were allegations of domestic violence on both sides of this case.  We considered however that these were simple red herrings, thrown in by both sides to detract from the reality of what had happened in the separation.  Our assessment determined that this was a hybrid case of alienation.

 We brought both parents in for interview and told them that we would work with them.  We told them that the care order would stay in place until we were satisfied that the children were living in a safe environment.

We put in place a twelve week intervention with a three strikes rule (that favoured by Sir Paul Coleridge).  Three instances of behaviour designed to destabilise the programme or put the children in a conflicted position again and the care order would take effect.

Within week one, the two children were having tea at their mum’s house.  Within week two they began overnight stays, by week three mum was collecting them from school twice each week and by week four they had stayed over for the weekend.

 By the end of month two, the ‘family’  had accumulated two strikes.  The mother because she had tried to change arrangements and then blamed the father, the father because he had become angry and refused to allow the children to see the mother during one weekend.  On both occasions we had intervened and ensured that the arrangements happened as they had been set down.  On both occasions the therapist had not offered kind attentiveness but instead had offered a lecture and some psycho-educational instruction.  By the end of month three the children were in a shared parenting pattern, the parents were communicating using an online diary space and the ‘system’ was starting to settle down.

Six months later, ongoing parenting co-ordination ensures that the lifting of the care order does not lead the parents back to their previous place of conflict and therapy is concentrating upon building respectful communication as well as skills for parenting effectively apart.  The parents are learning about children in transition, about how to help children to have unified family ‘narratives’ and how to build self esteem in children who have been badly affected by being ‘parentified.’

There is nothing in that intervention which could be recognised as being ‘therapeutic’ in the usual sense of the word.  And an awful lot of enforcement and willingness to use consequences.  The beauty of that particular intervention is that both parents went on to use the three strikes approach in their parenting of the children.  A ‘parallel processing’ between therapist and parent which was mirrored by the parents with their children.

This case study is one directly from our work with families.  It would have been largely unnecessary had Cafcass and the Courts been willing to enforce strongly from the outset.

I am disappointed that the idea of enforcement has been dropped by the government because it could prevent so many cases from escalation.  I am concerned also that the socio-legal academics are not only going to get rid of the idea of enforcement, they are going to try and convince Cafcass et al that ‘therapeutic intervention’ is what is needed and we will then find a wave of the kind of good intentioned but feeble interventions that can and will make things so much worse instead of better.

Working with family separation, particularly high conflict cases is no walk in the park.  As Amy Baker notes in her excellent new book  Working with Alienated Children and their Families, A Clinical Guidebook‘ the therapist involved in such work has to be a ‘highly skilled clinician who can balance empathy with the willingness to use threats of the ‘strong arm of the law’.  Its not for everyone but, when it is done and done well, the therapist becomes the ‘port in the storm’ for the children who are so badly wounded by the experience of living through the horror of family separation.  In short, the therapy most effective is that which is unafraid to enforce.  A far cry from the softly softly approach which Trinder et al appear to be advocating.

For me, the lesson in all of the work that I do is that when families break down, so do the rules and in the absence of rules, when pain and suffering are high, all manner of misery is perpetrated by parents, both consciously and deliberately as well as unconsciously.  Being willing to get into that dirty, messy and often deeply scary place with parents is part of what is necessary in order to bring about change.

As one parent said to me this week.  ‘Since you came, our boy knows that there is someone out there sticking up and sticking in on his behalf.  We will get through this eventually but until we do, I know that having you around is giving him some real respite from the fear that all hell is going to break loose again.’

I couldn’t help wondering why it takes us to drive a family to the edge of destruction before the court will do something decisive.

Or why, socio-legal academics who recycle the same old ideas continue to hold sway. When all it takes is boundaries, consequences and the determination to use them.

Something every judge in the land could employ every working day of their lives.