Emotional terrorism: the ghosts of unintended consequences

I have written widely on the subject of legislation surrounding separated families and how it has been so cleverly stitched to ensure that the outcomes after separation are more heavily in favour of women than men. I have written less about the unintended consequences of this legislation and the way that practitioners drive the less than equalities based outcomes that we see in the family courts. These unintended consequences, which cause the ghosts of mothers and fathers to haunt even the President of the Family Division, are caused by the deliberate actions of feminist academics and their lobby group counterparts. These women, who seek to uphold a women’s rights agenda,  condemn some women to the same fate as men, the complete loss of their children after family separation. When asked about this, some of them shrug and say that there are always unitended consequences in legislation. On Saturday,  I met some of those mothers, for whom the unintended consequences of feminist legislation has lead to them becoming ghosts in the lives of their children and I was reminded again, that without voices speaking up for them, these mothers (alongside all of the fathers who lose their children throught the family courts), will remain just that. The ghosts of unintended consquences.

We have been told for many years that there is no bias in the family courts, that every case is different and that the best interests of children are paramount.  Fans of this way of thinking point to the gender neutral legislation in the Children Act 1989 and make reference to research carried out by academics such as Joan Hunt and Mavis Mclean. These academics, who are linked through their work to the single parent lobby group Gingerbread (who lobby from a women’s rights perspective, the Nuffield Foundation (who have routinely funded research from a women’s rights stand point) and CAFCASS (who make reference to the research carried out by these and other academics who influence social policy around the family).  Their work is also studied by social workers and other family practitioners, effectively causing the family services sector in this country to be delivered from the political standpoint of women’s rights.  Beyond that there exists within the legislation around separating families a clear and unequivocal bias which has been pointed out many times to government but which remains a stranglehold on delivery of equalities based outcomes for families and particularly for children and their relationship with both of their parents. This is the use of the Child Benefit entitlement as the gateway to determining which parent is the parent with care and which is the non resident parent, a division which has been eradicated in the Family Courts through the use of the new Child Arrangement Orders. This division however, effectively comes into play, the moment the parents step out of the court door as the one who receives Child Benefit becomes entitled to claim child maintenance payments from the other.

It doesn’t stop there.  The use of Child Benefit to divide two parents into receiver and payer (good parent/bad parent in the world of Gingerbread and other women’s rights lobby groups) spreads its tentacles into every area of post separation family life, impacting on housing, health and employment and causing one parent to receive everything and the other to receive nothing at all in financial and other support terms.  Given that over 90% of Child Benefit is paid directly to mothers (it was designed that way), it is not difficult to see how it drives outcomes which reflect this (90% of parents with care are mothers).

All well and good then. The women’s rights based legislation, which was designed to give primary care of children after separation to children through the possession of the Child Benefit, has done its job and delivered a 90% success rate.

But what about that 10% of mothers who do not end up as the primary carers of their children? What of those women who fall foul of the legislation which is inbuilt with the fail safe delivery of primary care into the hands of mothers. What do we think of these women who are mothers but not mothers due to the actions of the fathers of their children?

It would seem that like attitudes to dads who do not see these children, these mothers are viewed with suspicion, even by those who are supposedly set up to support women and their rights.  On enquiring of a social worker’s views on non resident mothers recently I was unsurprised if a little taken aback by her vehemence in replying that if children do not see their mothers it must be because these mothers have done something to deserve that.  On probing further I was firmly told that children who reject their mothers only do so on the grounds of them being mad or very very bad.  The irony of this was underlined by this social worker’s proclamation of being a feminist practitioner, which she likened to being all about equality.  If that is equality, bring back the suffragettes, for there are more than one of these bad apples in the family services sector in the UK. Which is why meeting alienated mothers on Saturday, for me, was such a powerful testament to our collective failure to yet get it right for separated families in this country.

A Family Court system which rests upon a legislative framework which is designed to drive particular outcomes after separation is always going to fail some families. A Family Court system which is adversarial and which is supported by a state run service which rests upon a political ideology it is again going to drive particular outcomes.  And those outcomes are not going to rest upon the paramountcy principle that the child’s best interests come first but upon the beliefs and the standpoint views of individual practitioners as they are influenced by their governing body. Thus, If CAFCASS is routinely using the research outcomes of feminist academics to inform delivery of its policy and practice, it will routinely view the lives of separated families through a feminist lens. Which is a political ideology, which in my view has no place in serving the needs of children in supporting their right to have a relationship with both of their parents. And which is a political ideology which has not only failed many fathers but which has failed mothers too. Those mothers I worked on Saturday for example, and many more it would seem for whom the emotional terrorism of their child’s father is mirrored by a state which seemingly accepts without question these ‘unintended’ consequences.

Emotional terrorism is present in so many of those cases that we work on where parents are simply shoved out of their child’s life, it is present before the separation and is maintained afterwards, aided and abetted by an unaware work force and practitioners who believe that proclaiming onself feminist really does mean delivering equalities based outcomes.  It does not. What it means is that those fathers who are disregarded because of the need to put women’s needs first and those mothers who are dismissed because they must have done something really really bad for a child to reject them are left, like ghosts, to deal with the aftermath of loss. A loss which for many is like living with terminal cancer without pain relief  and without ever being allowed to die.

Is this equality? Is this in the best interests of children? I don’t think it is. Do you?

The Battle for the Child’s Mind: Parental Alienation Awareness Day 2015

Today is Parental Alienation Awareness Day around the world. In the UK we are launching  Living Losses, bringing together women from mainland UK as well as Jersey in London to begin a year long arts based project to raise awareness of the problem of alienation and how it affects mothers, fathers, grandparents the wider family and most of all children. The project is already supported by women from all over the world and will begin a series of sewing circles in which women will sew the names of children to a growing tapestry which is testament to those they have lost to parental alienation. The tapestry, along with audio, visual, written and other creative media testimony, will be displayed in London at an exhibition entitled Living Losses in 2016.

The battle for the child’s mind which is caused by parental alienation is hugely damaging and can cause long lasting harm to children. In the UK, where this battle is increasingly forced upon the child by the reliance by family services, on children’s wishes and feelings to determine outcomes, the problem of alienation is set to grow bigger. Giving enormous amount of weight to what a child says should happen when parents separate, especially in the family courts, only encourages those parents who are willing to use the child’s mind to win outcomes to go further and stronger in their efforts to influence and persuade their children.  And yet this approach is endorsed and practiced systemically in the UK and is held up as good practice, when in fact it is nothing short of collusion in the systemic abuse of a child.

Children’s wishes and feelings should not be the determinant of what happens after family separation. For certain children should be consulted and their views taken into consideration, but at no point should any professional concerned with the wellbeing of children, ever give the child (or their parents) the idea that what the child says goes.  This only gives the child the message that they and not their parents are in charge and paves the way for an alienating parent to do what they do best, which is use the child’s mind to influence outcomes.

Today I will be working with women all over the world to begin to raise awareness of this problem as well as begin a multi layered approach to recording and analysing the problem of reliance on children’s wishes and feelings and the contribution this makes to alienation.  Today we will be sewing, but over the coming year we will be recording, filming, writing, painting, making, stitching and more to gather testimony from families affected by the problem.  We will be working with women in our sewing circles but as the year unfolds we will be opening the project up wider and wider to include all of the voices of families affected by parental alienation including alienated children and those previously alienating parents we have worked with who have healed.  Our aim is to bear witness to the problem, the lack of help available to overcome it and the way in which the battle for the child’s mind is made worse by the focus on over reliance on the child’s wishes and feelings.  We will also be writing and publishing new ways of working with families in the area of parental alienation and domestic violence, examining coercive control patterns and their presence in post separation struggles between parents.

Living Losses launches today on Parental Alienation Awareness Day 2015, but  the work we will do throughout the coming year will bring vital evidence and testimony of families themselves to help us to understand further the problem and how to help to heal those affected by it. Our aim is to create a movement of people who know what is needed so that we can bring pressure to bear on those things which need to change so that we as adults and parents take responsibility, so that our children and our children’s children, do not have to.

Living Losses launches today at the Family Separation Clinic in London. Audio and Visual testimony from mothers affected by the problem will be available here shortly and at Livinglosses.wordpress.com and soon on Instagram.  A twitter account is now promoting the project @livinglosses hashtag PAAD15

On the power of parenting co-ordination to resolve intractable cases

This morning I have been reading Sir James Munby’s advice to parents in the the case of Re H-B (contact) and thinking about how, in such cases, small actions in the midst of highly charged emotional situations, can lead to devastating consequences for children and parents alike.  In this case, the action of the father’s new wife, in pushing and bruising one of his children, has lead to him not seeing his children at all and his children maintaining an entrenched and refusing position.  In the Appeal Decision, this small but significant act is set out, alongside the usual bewildering array of expert reports, views from CAFCASS, efforts of the Judge in the case and the contributions of the parents.  Sir James however, in making concluding remarks, puts all of the responsibility for the loss of the relationship between father and children upon the mother and father themselves. He also speaks of being haunted by the thought that in time to come, when the children become aware of the reality of what happened, they will lose not one but both of their parents. Sadly I have to concur with his concern, this is the risk for far too many children in these circumstances, but does it have to be this way?

From where I am looking no it does not. These cases, which are worrying as well as vexing, do not have to dragged out for years and years and they do not have to be configured in such a way that the children are burdened with the responsibility for fighting their parent through court. The fact that they are, highlights for me, not the intractable nature of the case or the contribution of the parents, but the nature of the family court process and the gross lack of family court services that could support a well structured process.

The way in which the parents (who are already emotionally distressed and highly litigious as a result), interact with the family courts is well documented.  The court, which offers a cool, calm and collected approach to dealing with family separation, requires parents who are emotionally dysregulated as well as often discombobulated to present themselves in such a way that objective judgments can be made about events which are often wholly or largely subjective.  For many parents this is simply an impossible ask, which means that however much calm they manage to achieve inside the court, outside of it they are simply driven to act out what is really going on.

And what is most often really going on is that the normal human emotions of anger, jealousy, possessiveness and despair, are driving people who in every other way cope normally with their lives, into situations where they are simply unable to prevent themselves from behaving badly.  Family separation is a hugely pressured time in people’s lives, breaking up a relationship, repartnering, trying to cope with children’s reactions whilst making sure they see both sides of the family can turn some parents into appearing to be raving lunatics.  Whilst in the midst of this the children, who are just as badly affected, are given supreme amounts of power as increasingly in our society we turn to them for decisions about what should happen in their lives after separation.  And it is no different in court.

Sir James, in his comments in this Appeal Decision says that parents have the responsibility for making their children do what they do not want to do and charges these parents wholly with not having achieved that.  Given that the prevailing culture within CAFCASS today is that children’s wishes and feelings come first, I think that the court carries some of the responsibility for not helping the children to understand that adults and not children are the people who make the decisions about their wellbeing. Reading about the number of people involved, including therapists and expert witnesses as well as CAFCASS officers and the fact that the children were instructing their own solicitors, I cannot help but think that it is not just the parents who have failed to make these children do what they are told.

The whole family court process seems to me to be set up in ways that cannot help but risk failing separating families who are, after all, just ordinary families going through a difficult time.  For sure there will be a small group of highly intractable cases which are about very difficult or dysfunctional parents, but too many of the families who go through the courts and end up mired in conflict and lack of clarity do so because of the court process, not because of anything they have done or are doing.

In America, where in some states a much more progressive approach to managing families going through separation exists, Parenting Co-ordination is one way of resolving those cases which are potentially intractable.  In those court rooms the Judge is the inquisitor, who makes very early findings about disputed facts and then discharges the family into the hands of the Parenting Co-ordinator with an expectation of what should happen. It is then for the Parenting Co-ordinator, a cross between a therapist and mediator, who manages parenting arrangements throughout a defined period of time. Even those very difficult cases, where allegations of domestic violence or sexual abuse are made are not allowed to drift, with criminal proceedings heard within a very short period of time and the case returned to the family court for parenting arrangements to be made.  This robust and absolutely child focused approach to managing family separation seems to be to be a wholly more appropriate way of supporting these families through the emotional chaos that erupts around separation. Short circuiting the endless rounds of professionals reporting on the  ‘he said/she said’ situation and cutting right through the win/lose approach which so badly serves families.

Sir James is absolutely right when he says that cases like this are haunting. They are. Not only do they haunt those of us who work in the family court system, they haunt the next generations. For when these girls become mothers, their internalised understanding of what mothering and fathering is will be fractured and broken. Which does not bode well for the children they will struggle to bring up in a settled parenting relationship.

Family separation is an emotional and psychologically distressing experience and parents need much more than stern words and blame to help them get through it. Parenting Co-ordination is one way of helping, there are many others. Perhaps Sir James might welcome the solution to the problems he very clearly identifies.

Into the mystery: on working with alienating parents

At the Family Separation Clinic we are regularly working with parents who in the outside world are called alienating.  In our world these parents are called the aligned parent, (until or unless we can demonstrate that they are indeed alienating).  Why do we start from this place, especially when we know that alienated parents face too many professionals working from the he said/she said position? Well we do it because we know that unlocking these incredibly difficult cases depends on us being able to work with both parents not just one as well as the children.

We also do it because we know that many alienating parents do not know that what they are doing is causing alienation in their children. We do it because if we simply marched into someone’s world from a preconceived standpoint we would miss much of the nuanced behaviours that go to make up difficult behaviours.  And we do it because we believe, without fail, that everyone who comes to the Family Separation Clinic is deserving of the kind of care that heals not harms and to start from a place where our understanding of someone is not already formulated before we have met them.

That said, working with alienating parents is our daily experience and it is both mysterious and illuminating at the same time to meet parents who have caused their child to reject the other parent.

Many parents come to us and tell us that they are alienated parents.  They do so on the basis of their child’s withdrawal from them and/or the court’s decision that there should be no further contact.  Whilst we recognise that all of these experiences are that of alienation from a child, we work very carefully with each family before we ever get to a place where we offer a view on whether this is a pure or hybrid case or indeed whether it is a case of a child justifiably rejecting a parent.  Parental alienation is not, in our experience, one simple experience, it is as different and as nuanced as each individual person is.  Whilst the narrative of alienated parents has much in common, each family is configured in unique ways and each family separates in its own individual way. When designing and delivering treatment routes,  accepting the narrative of one parent over the other, without meeting and working with the other, would be like diagnosing cancer on the basis of listening to someone describe their symptoms. This is why working with the whole family is so important in cases of parental alienation.

We know of course that not everyone can achieve the goal of getting the other parent into a situation where they are compelled (sometimes invited) to work with us and we do work with alienated parents individually too.  However when we work with individual alienated parents, we will spend a good deal of time working out whether this is a pure or hybrid case and whether this person has done something to contribute to the child’s withdrawal. And where that has happened, we are fearless in raising that with the parent (a process which is not always easy).

But it is in working with aligned parents that we uncover much of the mystery around the alienation experience and discover much of what causes it in the first place.  Whether the aligned parent is a naive alienator or a conscious and deliberate one, their actions, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours contribute hugely to our understanding of how and why a child splits their thinking into all good and all bad and withdraws from the parent they are projecting the negative feelings onto.

Some recent work has given a great deal of insight into this.  What follows is a composition of alienating parental behaviour, this is heavily disguised to ensure that no-one can be identified.

Pure and conscious alienating behaviour Dan is sixty and father to Archie who is eighteen.  When Dan’s partner and Archie’s mother left him two years ago to live with someone else, Dan entered into a period of fury which caused him to do damage to property and threaten harm to his partner.  Dan’s rage has calmed down now into a cold and at times viciously cruel tendency to use Archie to harm his mother.  Although Archie no longer sees his mother because he cannot cope with his father’s rage when he does, Archie’s whole life is sent to his mother by his father in pictures and narratives which describe what a wonderful boy and man he is and how much she is missing by not being there.  When Dan comes into the Clinic to work with us (by choice not compulsion) he spends many hours showing us how Archie’s mother brought this upon herself. Archie, when he eventually comes in to see us, is almost catatonic and unable to do much other than agree with his father that his mother is someone he will never countenance seeing again.  When we finally get Archie on his own he is resigned.  Dan sees this resignation as evidence of how much Archie’s mother has let him down.  Our work is focused on allowing Dan to unload the rage which is linked to narcissistic wounding.  Archie sees his mother ten months after first coming to the Clinic.  She is strong and supportive and understanding with him.  He looks less burdened after they have spent two hours together, she tells him she knows that she will have to wait. Dan eventually, through the regular attending receives at the Clinic, experiences a reduction in rage and a normalising of his behaviours.  Dan came to us because he wanted us to support Archie in his rejection of his mother. He leaves us knowing Archie has seen his mother and will do so again.  Dan’s fury has abated although he will not ever give his blessing (he says) to Archie having a relationship with his mother.

Pure and unconscious alienating behaviour Agnetha is a forty two year old woman who has three children aged between 9 and 14. English is her second language but all of her children speak it as their first language. At home Agnetha only speaks Danish and her children do too.  Their father is English however and speaks to them in English.  Agnetha came to the Clinic via a court order and we spent several weeks working with her alone to understand her views on why her children had withdrawn from their father.  It became clear through doing this work that Agnetha believed that the children’s father had ulterior motives for wanting the children to spend time with him at his home, she believed he wanted to abuse the children.  When we took Agnetha through the reality, which was that their father wanted to share in the children’s upbringing she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept that this was true. we asked for a psychological assessment on Agnetha and it turned out she had borderline personality disorder, a presentation which is unlikely to be treated swiftly. This determined our treatment route.

Hybrid alienating behaviour Asar and Mamun came into the Clinic via a court order. Their children are aged 8 and 9 and have aligned themselves to Asar. They refuse to see their father and hide when he comes to pick them up. When we start work with Asar she says she has always supported the relationship between the children and their father and that she is confused, upset and bewildered by their refusal to see him.  Mamun on the other hand sees Asar as the person responsible for the children’s withdrawal and continuously points out behaviours that he sees in her which cause it.  Asar sees Mamun as being too aggressive with her and with the children and says that she understands why they don’t want to see him, she used to feel like that too.  On working with Asar it is clear that she sees herself and the children as a unit with Mamun an outsider.  Asar’s mother comes into the clinic with her and confirms that Mamun is aggressive.  When we work with Mamun he can present as aggressive although it is clear this is caused by frustration more than anything else. Asar says that she wants to resolve the problem. Eventually we start a programme of parenting co-ordination which restores the relationship between the children and Mamun although he still interprets much of what the children say and do as being the influence of their mother and grandmother.

Aligned parents are all different and their behaviours are as unique as they are.  Respecting aligned parents is an important part of working with them even when we know that they are deliberately alienating children, even when we know that it is severe and therefore abusive.  Respect is an important part of our work and we have respect even when we are acting against the wishes of the aligned parent, even when we are asking the court to do something powerful such as change residence.  Respect and understanding is what is missing in so many of these families and it is therefore essential to offer this even when making decisions against someone.

When we are working with alienating parents we never forget that this person is part of the child and always will be and that the child’s journey, once alienated, will always require them to know how to cope with what has been done to them and the person who has done it. Healing alienation happens when all parties are involved and new behavioural patterns are established. Even when a child has to be removed from an alienating parent that is still the case.  The mystery of alienating parents is that they cannot ever be removed from the child’s internal and external landscape and it would be wrong to even try.

The role of domestic violence in parental alienation

More from the book which we are working on today.

Nick Woodall

Parental alienation is the enactment of power and control over a targeted parent through a child or children by an alienating parent. To that extent, it falls within the widely accepted definitions of domestic violence and abuse (i) which are enshrined in legislation and policy around the world. However, in our experience, whilst domestic violence and abuse may be recognised as an element of the relationship between parents in dispute over children matters, the professionals who advise the courts rarely, if ever, approach the case with an understanding that a child’s rejecting position may be the extension of a pattern of domestic abuse that has been present between the parents whilst the family was together.

Around the world, domestic violence and abuse is almost exclusively set within a feminist framework which argues that it is ‘a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage…

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Measuring Loss.

How do we measure the loss to a child when a parent is removed through family separation by one hostile parent acting against the other.

Or the loss that happens when the court officer says ‘no contact.’

As a society we have been trained to measure it in ‘the best interests of the child.’  A phrase which alternately means prevention of conflict is best for the child and a child does not really need two parents to do ok.

In some cases that may well be the case.  Where a parent (mother or father) has harmed or could harm a child  and where there is a clear benefit to the child to remove them from conflict which is severe and unending (and in that case the removal should be from the parent causing the conflict, not the targeted parent, the one who is usually removed).

We do not measure loss because we do not measure the number of ‘non contact’ recommendations and we do not follow up on how children fare when no contact is ordered.

And we definitely do not follow up on what happens to the targeted parent when the child is surgically removed from their world.

This is what happens to the child.

‘I lost my mother she became a sort of dark shadow in my mind, like an ink stain or a blot on a perfect landscape. She spoiled, in her absence, all of my special days, happy days, glory days and for many years I resented her for that.  But then, as I grew older and worked out she hadn’t left me, that my hatred of her and my indignation that I should have anything to do with her had driven her away, I began to wonder what my life would have been like (would be like) if she were not this dark stain on my past, someone I never wanted to talk about in case anyone asked me awkward questions.  One day I decided to find her on facebook and I was knocked over by the experience.  My loss was measured in the years of her life which were shown, picture by picture, status by status and her words on my birthdays, to my sweetest child, I love and miss you every day..’ That was me. That child was me.  And the hours and the days and the weeks and the months and the years that had rolled by since she turned into that dark stain on my internal landscape, were washed away by the realisation of what I had done. And what they had helped me to do.’

And this is what happens to the parent

‘Timeslip, time dialation. Realising the different stream speed between me and him. I still hold onto the boy, the 12yr old who was taken, hoping he holds onto something of me from then. I hold on feeling as though it was yesterday….waiting, time flashing by, waiting, hoping, looking, waiting, slow in the moment, condensed nothingness of 6years, a blink….the wounds still open and raw, waiting, hoping to connect to the boy, to my son that was lost, taken.

For him now 6 years on, to me the painful long stare and blink..for him, filled with so much, such a long time, such a gap, canyon between now and then, so much experienced, so much thought, so much shared, so much lived, so much grown.

I look at what im expecting, to connect with my boy. The reality is he doesnt exist anymore. Im hoping to connect with him, for him to find connection between him now and him then….to me a blink, to him a lifetime.

The difference in me between 12 and 19, the experiences,…the memories, the events, a continuous stream…….and im expecting my attempts to connect with him will resonate from a place we were connected. That 6 years to me….the longest blink. That 6years to Josh,……when i look back at how it was for me…..it was a lifetime.

I watched Interstellar last night. Similar dynamics play out here on earth in cases of alienation. …..you dont have to travel at the speed of light to experience timeslip. The thoughts that have been fermenting in my head about timeslip and six years have been occuring over the 12months as the 5yr waypoint was reached….and also with losing the home i had last year which brought things into more focus.

As each day passed, it may as well have been a year. The longer cases of alienation go on, the less likely they are to be resolved….as each year passed through his teens, it may as well have been a decade.

Now i end up frozen in time, perpetually 39 whilst he grows and ages. One day in the future i may see him again, he could be 64. I will still be 39 in a 90yr old body….my brain turned to sponge as months condensed to minutes, weeks to seconds…..leaving nothing but space and a vacuum.’

I received an email last week, from a dad and step mom who drove past their child recently.  She told me that his dad commented that it was the first time he’d actually seen his son in a year – and a year ago he was about 5’4″ and now he is six foot plus. Another way of looking at loss –  he has lost his young son; lost 8″ of growing and maturing from pre-teen boy to young adult.

‘They tell you that they will come looking for you one day, how do you tell them that you don’t want one day, you want now and every day.  Who will ever recompense that child (and me) for all of the days and nights I was not allowed to be there?’

Who indeed.  Measuring living loss, two things that the family courts cannot help you with.

For the sake of the children? Or because for too long we have been told that the only thing that is wrong with family separation is conflict and poverty?

Time to change our thinking.

Living Losses launches on Parental Alienation Awareness Day – 25th April 2015 at the Family Separation Clinic in London.  More information at livinglosses.wordpress.com

Alienation watch: the abuse that children suffer when they make false allegations of sexual abuse

At the Family Separation Clinic we work with families where allegations of sexual abuse are made by children against a once loved parent.  These allegations, which are made by children against their mother or their father, often come at distinct places in the separation process.  They are also often a key feature of a particular configuration within the family, in which coercive control plays a major part.

Coercive control is most easily recognised when it is perpetrated by a man against a women. This is because the existence of coercive control patterns in relationships has been isolated by women’s groups, as being only about men’s patriarchal privilige and their exercising of power over women.  From a mental health perspective, this is a one sided and somewhat naive approach to understanding the very serious issue of coercive control.  Control which is exercised within families both horizontally, that is between people who are in partnership relationship together, or vertically, that is people who are in a familial relationship.  Horizontal lines of relationship can also include siblings, who can play a part in increasing the power of coercive control or be controlling themselves.  Children too can become controlling although the power that they hold to coerce that control is not as strong as it would be if they were adults.  When children withdraw from a parent however and are supported in that and elevated to the role of decision maker by an aligned parent, they become all powerful indeed.  This is where allegations of sexual abuse can give rise to the kind of power and control in the family that only kings can dream of.  Imagine a child who comes to understand this – one word from me and everything and everybody stops.  What greater level of power and control could anyone wield over any other human being?  And it is this power, which is conveyed to the child through the making of false allegations against a parent.  And it is not just the aligned parent who puts that power into the child’s hands.

The legal definition of Coercive control is – Any incident or pattern of incidents. of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse. between those aged 16 or over.  This definition, which is claimed by all of the women’s rights groups as being only about men’s patriarchal power over women, describes patterns of behaviours which, to the mental health professional are present in many families, particularly those where high conflict separation occurs.  Incidents of controlling behaviour, which include terrorising someone into believing that they will never see their children again, threatening to remove, harm or kill the self and children, reconfiguring past history to terrorise someone into believing that they are abusive, convincing others that they have done something that they have not and utilising external agencies to drive that person out of their home and the lives of their children, are all acts of coercive control, only they are rarely recognised as such.  Why not?

In the current climate, where once again we are surrounded by the hysteria of child abuse epidemics, there is a perfect opportunity for any parent seeking to utilise such coercive control as part of the separation process.  Act now, think about it later appears to be the watchword for most professionals, including the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.  Allegations made by children which are flimsy and which barely stand up to a first examination, are being put through to the criminal courts where parents will languish in absolute torment as they wait for their day in court.  Working in the toxic pot which has been caused by the over emphasis on children’s wishes and feelings, the needs of children not to be placed into such appalling abusive situations, has been completely overlooked.  As I wrote in my last post, causing a child to believe that they have been sexually abused is about as abusive as it gets and yet children in these circumstances are left by unaware professionals to the machinations of the alienating parent for months and sometimes years before a criminal case is heard.  And then they are surprised when new allegations are made, allegations which are immediately proved to be untrue because a child has not been near the parent they are alleging harmed them for many months and sometimes years.

Act now, think later mentality arises from several elements of belief in professionals combined with imperatives from society.

The use of feminist practice in working with families which teaches that women are inherently disadvantaged and men  are inherently advantaged.  This requires the practitioner to believe the woman is always acting in the her own and her child’s best interests against a dangerous man.

The over zealous reliance on children’s wishes and feelings as being the determinant of outcomes, coupled with the tendency to completely discard children’s needs for relationships with both of sides of their families.

The discovery that in the 1970’s children were very much abused but in that culture their voices were not heard and the desire to right that wrong by making sure that children in the 21st century are seen and heard in a way that over compensates for historical wrongs.  In essence, children’s wishes and feelings, beliefs and allegations are taken as being the gospel to both make reparation for the way in which children of the seventies were not seen and heard AND to demonstrate that such things could never happen again.

The fact that many of the practitioners working in the field of family support services were children of the seventies and as such are highly likely to be unconsciously repairing their own experiences of living in a culture where children could be abused because they were not seen and heard.

This mentality has permeated every level of the services that surround separated families and is held as being best practice within the women’s lobby groups such as Women’s Aid and Refuge who unashamedly speak of educating women and raising their awareness that they have been abused.  Such work may have a place in the world of fighting for rights, but does it have a place in supporting families through the difficult process of separation? Especially when children, the people who have to negotiate change the most, are in need of help which is not about their mother’s rights but about their emotional and psychological needs.  I would argue no, it does not have such a place.  In fact I would argue that it is in fact wrong to allow a political ideology that causes practitioners to believe that all women are vulnerable to dangerous men, to drive the practice of practitioners.  When this occurs, the real abuse that children suffer, that of becoming conduit to coercive control exerted by one parent against the other for example, is completely overlooked. Most often it is just not recognised  or believed in when it is control exerted by a woman against a man. Even when that woman is using children as the weapon to achieve the outcome desired, which is the eradication of the man in her life and that of her children.  If that happens the other way around and a man uses that level of control, it is much more readily recognised and acted upon (although not always).  Either way, the child who is being used as the conduit is being abused and especially so when that involves false allegations of sexual abuse.  But who knows that.  And more to the point, who even really cares?

Outside of the feminist paradigm, where analysis of coercive control does not depend upon believing that the world is run by the patriarchy and all women are subjugated under the rule of men, the reality of life is that patterns of coercive control are being played out up and down the family lines across the country.  And the holding of such power and control is equally likely to be by women as it is by men.  In this world, (that which I call reality), there are family patterns which can herald the likelihood of children being used to achieve desired outcomes.  One of these patterns is the fused dyadic relationship between a mother and her own mother and especially if that grandmother has herself been divorced or separated (and especially if that was a highly conflicted separation or the grandmother suffered narcissistic wounding)  In this scenario, mother and grandmother reconfigure the ‘true’ family as co-parents to the children and create a situation where the ousted father is the demonised representative not only of himself but of the absent grandfather.  This pattern can go back even further in time and there are incidences of mother, grandmother and great grandmother all fused into a suspicious, angry, vengeful coalition, which collectively projects blame and negativity on the ousted father in the present.  This kind of coalescence of fear, anxiety, blame and negativity can be impossible for children in their care to resist.  These are the children most likely to fall into a pattern of making false allegations, these are the children who are most likely to make escalating false allegations of child sexual abuse.

There are coalitions of this nature which involve grandfathers too, however, when a grandfather is present in such a dynamic he is often silent, emasculated, terrorised or simply absent in his mind if not his body.  Such men know their places and do not cross any boundaries.  Such men are likely to know that something is wrong but be unable to do anything about it.  Such men know that to speak the truth would be to cause such upheaval that they too would be ousted. In the sub and unconscious world of these coalitions, many imperatives not to speak are in place.  Men in this world are likely to do what they can where they can to ameliorate the worst but they are powerless in a strucutre in which the person perceived to be the weakest is crowned king or queen and given all of the compensating power for the wrongs exerted against the oppressed within the group.

And it is into this scenario that the alienation unaware professional enters when children make false allegations of child sexual abuse.  The arrival of the professional, which one would hope would help to illuminate the real problem, often acts swiftly to simply embed and entrench it making it impossible for the child to be liberated now and perhaps for a very long time.  The unaware professional, instead of seeking the objective truth, relies upon her (sometimes his) ‘intuition’ which is derived from a combination of belief system crossed with education, all steeped in the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time.  In the 21st Century this appears to be –

1.  Women and children always tell the truth.

2. There is no sexual abuse smoke without fire.

3. The child must be protected from the parent they are making the allegation against.

4. Children’s wishes and feelings are paramount, what they say must be believed.

Which, when I look at it, reads to me pretty much like some kind of superstitious hubble bubble that belongs in the times of witch hunts and mass panic rather than a properly thought out approach which is scientifically tested.

Surely, in any 21st Century society concerned with justice and equality and fairness the right kind of practice that keeps children safe would look something like this.

1. What are the circumstances surrounding these allegations?

2. What is the physical evidence that corroborates these allegations?

3. What are the gains for the family with whom the child resides when the child makes these allegations?

4. What is the loss for the parent with whom the child does not live?

5. What are the historical patterns of power and control in this family and how have they played out through the separation?

6.  If these allegations are proven to be untrue, who is actually abusing this child?

7. What must we do to protect this child from this in future?

As part of our work at the Family Separation Clinic we are developing assessment protocols that allow understanding of how and why a child is coerced into making false allegations of abuse.  We are also looking at the familial patterns that create the conditions in which such allegations arise.  In doing so we are mapping the experiences of parents who have been so accused and who have been proven to be innocent of such charges.  We are also looking at the outcomes for children in these circumstances and none of these are, at first look, pretty.  Children in such circumstances often lose not one but two parents.  The first because of the allegations made and the way in which delay in the criminal courts give the other parent ample time to complete the alienation project.  The second because the parent who is causing the child to make the allegations is unwell and when the turmoil of the separation is over and the battle is won in that the child is fully alienated, that parent goes back to focusing only upon their own needs, using the child to uphold and meet those.  Unwatched by professionals, unguarded by family and unable to prevent the damage being done, that child often crumbles into a replica of the parent they have been abused by.  And so the generational march of dysfunction goes on.  Unchecked by our family services because it is unrecognised.  Unrecognised by our family services because they are so steeped in political ideology that they cannot see the reality for the distorted beliefs they have been fed.

Children suffer when they are forced to make false allegations of sexual abuse.  They suffer because their childhood is taken from them along with a beloved parent by someone who is using them to exercise coercive control (which is often upheld by professionals around them).  Parents in these circumstances need help not consciousness raising, they need intervention not the upholding of their rights.

Children in these circumstances need saving but I doubt that they will be, anytime soon.