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.