Reframing the Alienation Debate for the UK

It seems that the UK has finally arrived at the place where the alienation of children after family separation is an acceptable topic for debate. Ahead of the Withers Worldwide and 1KBW debate, which is being held this coming week in London, I thought it might be useful to assess where we are in terms of our understanding of the issues and the difficulties facing those of us who seek to bring this problem out into the open so that we can deal with it as we know we need to.

The coming debate is one amongst other upcoming events which focus upon the problem of parental alienation. This one is key in that it is led by some of the big hitters in the legal field and as such it commands attention within the legal community. What matters now, is how the emerging debate is actually shaped and influenced, so that those of us who work with the issue are able to take what works forward in the way which most helps children. Because it is the wellbeing of children which is at the heart of this debate, not the rights of their parents on either side. Parental alienation is a pernicious and hidden form of abuse in its worst form, and it is this reality which must take centre stage in my view as the debate moves on. This is about healthy and unhealthy parenting, not about parental rights.

The  legal system in the UK is not yet fully comfortable with the concept of parental alienation, which is a label which, just as in other countries, has been compromised by the parental rights movement on both sides of the fence. On one side we have the women’s rights argument which states that parental alienation is just something that fathers use to control mothers and on the other side we have the father’s rights movement arguing that most women are using children as a weapon to harm them aided and abetted by the courts.  Neither of these arguments are valid in my view and they have no place at all in the clinical debate about alienation as an issue affecting children. Parental alienation in its truest form is underpinned by the psychological and emotional abuse of a child, the child being forced into maladaptive coping mechanisms in order to survive the harm being done.  Parental alienation is not a parental rights issue it is a child protection issue and we would do well to ensure that this is where the focus is kept, when we discuss it.

Neither is parental alienation a gender issue although the way in which alienation happens in children’s lives is gendered. That is a confusing statement so let me unpack it a little bit. Some people argue that because more fathers experience alienation than mothers, it is a gender issue affecting men. This is an erroneous statement based upon a lack of awareness of gender analysis.  In truth, the incidence of alienating behaviours in families is roughly equal.  To unpack that a little more.  90% of parents who assume control over children after family separation are mothers. This is supported by the gendered legislation which underpins family separation. In short, the use of the gateway Child Benefit system, in which whoever holds entitlement to Child Benefit at the point of separation, holds the power over the children.  CB is paid mostly to mothers, it was designed that way in the legislation entitled ‘from the wallet to the purse’ which was a calculated move to put money directly into the hands of women in the seventies.  Thus it is largely mothers who assume that they are in control over children at the point of separation.

And so we have our 90% of mothers holding power over children and 90% of fathers who, as non resident parents are already more vulnerable to the child’s withdrawal over time. The dynamic of ‘power over’ is strong in alienation cases and whoever is willing to utilise the power they hold is able, if they wish, to alienate a child, subtly, covertly or obviously.  The non resident parent is experienced by the child as being weaker and less important in alienation cases and thus, if the parent seeking to push the other parent out is willing to exploit this in the child’s mind, it is an easy step to achieving it.  In these circumstances, shouting about equal rights does nothing apart from give further ammunition to the alienating parent who uses this to evidence to the outside world that the child has withdrawn because of the demands being made upon them. Around 10% of fathers are trapped in the alienation net and  simply left to drown, the louder they shout the more they confirm that they are the cause of the problem. Legislation change, long the cherished antidote to the perceived power imbalance, has no real way to address this kind of alienation case, because the problem lies not in the legislative framework but in the psychology of the alienating parent. Who would do what she is doing regardless of what legislation looked like.

So what of the 10% of fathers who hold the power over children after separation? What we see in this cohort is that the accompanying 10% of mothers who are non resident parents are almost always in that place because they have been alienated. If we concern ourselves with popular notions of what a non resident mother looks like (most notably in recent years portrayed with acidic glee on a Marylin Stowe Blog Post by an angry father), she is mad, bad and hugely dangerous to children. This father claimed that all non resident mothers are drug addicts, mentally unwell and never really wanted to be mothers in the first place. Little wonder we hear so little from non resident mothers given that kind of vitriol. The shaming and blaming of women who do not hold primary care in their children’s lives is rife in our culture.

There are no clear figures about how many parents become alienated from their children after separation because no-one collects them and no-one records them. Similarly, no-one records the outcomes for children in the family court process and so we simply do not know how many families are affected by this problem.  In our experience however, mothers AND fathers experience alienation and mothers AND fathers alienate children.  How they do this is often different and based on gender roles but alienation is not a gender issue.  Removing it from the gender based parental rights field is an essential step in moving the debate on in my view, here is where the debate this coming week is perfectly focused, moving it away from the experience of parents and onto the experience of the child.

Alienation of a child from a loving parent is a cruel act and one which causes intra-psychic distress to the child. There is a wealth of respectable research from around the world which has mined the reality of this issue. Research which is not based upon the self reported experience of parents who are part of the parental rights based movement, (which can only ever provide a one dimensional view), but research which gets close to the interplay between the parental relationship and the impact of the transgenerational messages on either side of the family upon that. This is where the focus of the debate must go and this is where the answers to the problems facing children in these families will be found.  Around that is the way in which the legal system listens to the mental health field and responds in ways which create the right conditions for changing these children’s lives. Dialogue between the mental health profession and the legal system is well underway now and I am confident that what is emerging is a strong foundation for the UK’s response to parental alienation, based on the right research with the right approaches to resolution at the core.

At this critical juncture there are key people working together to bring about change. Mental health practitioners and legal people with the power to bring about the cultural shift  that safeguards children and creates new protocols for changing their lives. I am heartened by this positive movement and delighted to be part of it. As we gear up for a summer of debate and dialogue, I will report back regularly on our progress.

For everyone affected by this horrible problem in the UK, hope is on the horizon and change is in the wind. It isn’t going to happen overnight but that it is happening at all is a wonderful thing.

1KBW and Withersworldwide debate on Parental Alienation is on Tuesday 24th May for invited guests.  On the panel are  Deborah Eaton QC, Stephen Jarmain, Dr Florian Ruth, Dr Mark Berelowitz, Lisa Lustigman, Sarah Brooks and Karen Woodall. 




  1. Just needed to read this Karen. I have been stupidly reading two forums that I have found very difficult to read, so why read? May be I hope to find more understanding, but I don’t. Those involved write the most vicious stuff, which feels like there is no hope out there, so entrenched in their beliefs. At the moment I want to just run away from it all. It is all about them and nothing to do with the children.


  2. Indeed Jane, why read them? Perhaps because this issue has been framed around the rights based arguments for such a long time it becomes habit. Now we have a chance to move it to where it really needs to be, to the mental health angle and to the focus upon the child. All parents who suffer have my absolute care and dedication to the cause of changing this situation for their children for the better but I am not going to do this within the parental rights debate because that is not where it belongs. Let the parental rights people do what they do, the focus for me is on children and healthy and unhealthy parenting and how we expose that and treat it in families. This is where the debate on Tuesday is located and this is why I believe it will herald a change in the way we approach the issue. K

    Liked by 1 person


    Thank you Ms Marple, I have emailed you separately as I would like this to be a blog post too.

    ‘Am lost in the Underworld myself…. How do you care for yourself effectively over the long run? I have been separated from my sons for 18 months… I know..not long compared to some but every day a torture, minute by minute. I have pushed away people close to me as I cannot always bear their clumsiness and minimising of the situation. Also, I have noticed others cannot take an open wound, they want it to be healed,or they want to heal it, so we can all go back to normal. So slowly but surely they begin to resent and judge you for being wounded and you become the problem. I have reached some kind of full stop, I can feel it but the days won’t stop, the morning always comes, hours til sleep, hours of consciousness to be parcelled out, the relentless ticking of the clock. Social services are involved and I must attend therapy with the alienating family. How can I speak openly? My eldest son had recently made contact. Things I said about his situation at a Signs of Safety meeting were then reported back to him and he broke contact. Meanwhile my youngest son shows almost textbook symptoms, no happy memories of our 13 years together, complete historical revision of past, complete splitting. I try and explain to the professionals involved, and I am by no means inarticulate or emotional in my approach, but still they focus on our relationship, asking me to explain how/why he feels this way. And, as a woman, so judged…always the unspoken…’what did you do?” If I am logical I am cold, although I am only trying to contain the hurricane, to speak clearly, if I am emotional I am damaged and my children remain frozen, rearranging letters in some distant ice palace. My life has shrunk to something I don’t recognise, I move through the world like a normal person, occupying space, crossing roads, catching trains, but in my heart i am trekking across a frozen tundra with no destination in sight, moving because I must move, breathing because I must breathe, because I don’t know how to stop. I am lost, so lost and so far from my children. Words cannot explain my loss, it lives in my body, too large to be described and I am its slave.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for putting into words what I simply couldn’t…..
      I had a 13yr old son who loved me, now I have a 16yr old who “doesn’t have one happy memory” of me!! It sounded to like my own situation not to let you know your words helped!!
      I hope we both get our sons back….. time is NOT a great healer in this case!


      1. YOU can always heal, regardless of what others do or do not do – never surrender the power you have to own your personal feelings (and thoughts)


    2. A journey and experience I KNOW so so well…….and for those of us who have travelled that road (and learned anything) there’s absolutely no doubt that this is, at its core, a mental health issue.


  4. Hi Karen

    I would love to come up to town for the event at Wither’s but it’s just not possible at the present time. I agree we are on the verge of paradigm shifts in attitudes towards alienation.

    Wall LJ (as he was then) ordered a change of residence after finding that the threshold of harm had been crossed in an ‘alienation’ case as early as 2003. There is now a burgeoning body of case law from the higher courts which shows that amongst the senior judges there is often an understanding of the dynamics involved. However, there are still too many cases where this understanding is displayed when ruling upon the earlier mishandling of cases involving alienation by the lower courts. It is nearly always for the same reasons which are: failure to identify intractable cases at a sufficiently early stage, failure to involve appropriately experienced expertise at a sufficiently early stage, lack of clear directions and unambiguous case management, failure to carry out early fact-finding when allegations have been made, lack of judicial continuity and the fashionable use of ‘robust case management’ as an excuse for simply not listening and being over eager to dispense judgments. Each of these points has been highlighted by the upper courts at least once. It is clear that the main problems we have faced lie within and around the lower courts.

    But there are also problems and systemic bias in the way that aspiring lawyers are taught. The student legal textbooks still depict a heavily gendered narrative that alienation is something used exclusively by abusive fathers to provide a cover for their abusive behaviour and developments in alienation case law appear to have been airbrushed out of the landscape. Instead cases and explanations of judgments are cherry picked in order to paint a picture. They still promote an impression that civilised and adult parents settle their disputes away from the courts with the best interests of their kids at the forefront of their thoughts. Within this construct the parents that go to court are portrayed as selfish, unable and unwilling to prioritise their children’s best interests. This false dichotomy omits a vast middle ground that includes those loving parents for whom court is a last resort, who have tried everything possible to maintain contact with their children and who care so deeply that they cannot stand by idly whilst their children are emotionally abused. In other facets of the law i.e contracts, it is accepted that agreements require willing parties for them to function. However, in family law, if one party refuses to play ball then both parents get tarred with the same brush by those involved in the system.

    The prevalence of alienation is crying out for an objective study and this was also highlighted some 13 years ago. Bernet and Baker estimated it and more recently Harman and Biringen estimated that 22 million adults over 18 years old were being alienated from their children in the USA. In a population of 245 million that amounts to 9%.

    In a recent (2015) survey by the solicitor’s family law organisation ‘Resolution’ almost a third of the young people surveyed gave evidence of having suffered from alienating behaviour by their separating parents and said they would have liked their parents not to be horrible about each other to them (31%): they wished their parents understood what it felt like to be in the middle of the process. The Resolution study covered the spectrum of prevailing climates in parental separation styles from amicable agreement at the mild extreme to implacable hostility and heavily conflicted separations at the opposite extreme. The study suggests that alienating behaviours are relatively widespread. All of these studies confirm the prevalence of alienation is higher than estimated by Trinder et al. who (despite citing Bala) developed their own definition of ‘intractable hostility’ to produce a figure which was markedly lower than that estimated by specialists in the field.

    Best of luck Karen but you do not need to rely upon luck because the evidence is on your side.


    1. extremely inciteful comments padrestevie. however, i would add that the evidence has been there for many many years now – in my opinion, it’s the lack of will, integrity, empathy and competence from the judiciary that’s been at the heart of the problem

      I’m extremely familiar with the “justice wall case” you refer to. in ’04, whilst preparing for a shared residence hearing in the high court (duration – 5 days!!), i stumbled across a v a and saw it as the perfect template for improving the plight of our 4 children. at the hearing, not only was the notion of introducing a competent GA-L totally dismissed by the sitting deputy district judge he also replaced a repeatedly “breached” contact order with an indirect order that would also be breached and frustrated over the next 18 months. when, in ’06, my application seeking leave to have the unworkable ICO reviewed was heard, the one and only (at that point) lord justice wall refused that leave. unable to avoid my previous citation, wall did, however, provide a “steer” in his judgement that would result in the very same GA-L being appointed to represent the 2 youngest children in ’07 (following expiration of the both strategic and spiteful 2-year s.91(14) order imposed in ’04) – in addition to the same GA-L being appointed, i couldn’t believe my luck when the very same social worker that worked on a v a was assigned to my case. with the ultimate professional, experienced and competent social worker in my children’s corner i, truely, believed the worst was behind us. mrs p was every bit as good as the a v a judgement portrayed her (and better). she was “on call” for my children any time of the day or night, 7 days a week.

      after 3 years without any contact, direct contact was re-established via LJ McF and (despite breaches to that order) a shared residence order was in place within 6 months (Jun-08) but with 3 months of that (not for the first time) social services were reintroduced and, very soon, conspiring to challenge the court’s decision and discredit mrs p. by this stage, i had managed to achieve judicial continuity but, despite the tooth-less judge putting my ex on clear notice that a change of residence would be imposed should there be further breaches the shared residence order was, effectively, dismantled and the social worker left abandoned by the court. without the support of the court, and for the emotional well-being of our children, i felt i had no choice but to withdraw my application prior to a 5-day hearing listed for late 2009.

      during the court years, one of the most alarming experiences for me was that despite judges, social workers, psychiatrists et al being aware that i was, myself, an alienated child (between ages 7-27) only one of them EVER attached any importance and relevance of that fact to where my deepest motives lay – the psychiatrist who did “get it” was soon air-brushed out along with his uncriticised reports.

      my experience was that most of these people (paid to put the welfare of clients and children first) put their own self-interest first followed by the parent/client and, finally, the child. the opposing parent doesn’t even feature where the well-being of the child is concerned. without the will, integrity and competence the understanding required for meaningful change won’t happen


    1. Hi EHFR. Whenever I read accounts like yours I realise just how lucky I was to have a FCR and judge with the appropriate skills and knowledge allocated to my case. In 2004 the chances of this happening would have been very slim indeed. At the time Munby J, in F v M; Re D (A child) (Intractable contact dispute) [2004] EWHC 727, cited 3 cases heard by Wall J (A v A (Children) (Shared residence order) [2004] 1 FLR 1195; Re O (A child) (Contact: withdrawal of application) [2003] EWHC 3031 & Re M (Intractable contact dispute: Interim Care order) [2003] 2 FLR 636) to illustrate a sort of spectrum of implacable hostility. He made a list of recommendations for dealing with ‘intractable’ cases.
      The recommendations are remarkably similar to those made 13 years later in the, ‘Parental alienation: surely the time has come to effect change?’ article. They are also similar to the recommendations in Re A (A Child) (Intractable Contact Proceedings: human rights Violations) [2013] EWCA Civ 1104, [2013] 3 FCR 257 and they have now been repeated ad nauseum together with calls for authoritative research in the area. It is now a familiar mantra.
      But, it is quite a feat to get an article on alienation published in ‘Family Law’. Cases like Re A attracted the attention of the great and the good because they were truly appalling systemic failures on a monumental scale but despite many cases worthy of commentary and extensive coverage in International Journals there appears to have been little appetite or enthusiasm to comment in the domestic legal press until now. Let us pray that this heralds a change in attitude.
      A lot more judgments have been published in the last few years and I think we are now seeing the consequences of repeated exposure to daylight.
      Until recently family law has been perceived judicially as perhaps lacking the intellectual challenges of other branches of law. I think that is changing, albeit at glacial rates of progress and I think I have benefited from the changes and an increased awareness. But, the changes have been too slow.
      There are problems with the implacable hostility model. The main problem is that it can still take repeated court appearances in order to justify the ‘implacable’ designation and by the time the court professionals realise what is going on it can be too late to rescue contact. The solution is to identify the hallmarks of intractable cases early on and act decisively. Perhaps changes of residence and enforcement should not be restricted to being measures of last resort.


  5. Karen, is it possible to access a copy of the ‘Parental alienation: surely the time has come to effect change?’ article without subscribing to Family Law? I’ve also seen the date of 26th May for a WithersWorldwide event on this subject – is that a separate event or a typo?


    1. its a typo EHFR it is tomorrow. The article can only be accessed through subscription but I will try to get a copy of it tomorrow. K


  6. Compatible with children being parented by people (rather than gendered) and becoming a parent in turn. The official approval of gender is a major mechanism encouraging this behaviour. An official choice that effectively prejudices childhoods and prejudices again if met again in adulthood.

    Gender identity Vs Good parenting? Gender identity chosen by reasonable people in positions of power. So why? Those same people remain silent. Children (and parents) affected by these institutions are likely to be given the opportunity to be answered one day.

    The evolution from experiencing childhood and parenthood open to everyone 50 years ago with family life, today segregated by crude gender. According to statistics more single gender households than dual within our lifetimes. It’s been increasing steadily over the last 40 years, defined by gender at the ratio of 90-10, a culture supported by Family Court outcomes.

    The concept of parenting was open for both genders in 1970 with only 2%? of children living in one gendered households. It’s climbed ever onwards defined only by gender. So the question to an institution-at what percentage do they think the concept of parenting as open and equal gets replaced by a societal norm of inclusion and exclusion by gender? Will this benefit or damage the future lives of children?

    The opportunity when divorce rates started rising in the 1970s to place good parenting above everything else was subsumed for gender identity. My guess for what it’s worth – political expediency. So dull expediency won the day?

    Is P.A. non gendered? We know it’s not gendered, the same for parenting, not gendered (the same bias creating both distortions). Medical sciences evidence shows neither, instead the commonality of people. So why institutions official bias? Why didn’t they choose a science based framework?


  7. My matter was at court for several years, for most of which I represented myself. The other side had a very experienced and cold-hearted solictor, and also a QC. The idea being the solicitor could do whatever she wanted outside the court process knowing full well the QC would get whatever result she wanted in the courts. The matter should have been in the High Court or at least in front of a Circuit Judge, but instead was in the magistrates court and district court – all very inexperienced in dealing with Parental Alienation, which it was proven to be in this case.

    The QC was a very reputable one from this very chambers (1KBW). Whilst in the debate tomorrow all the lawyers will say whatever it is that Karen wants to hear, and completely agree about how pernicious PA is, the question I have is what is it actually that these lawyers are prepared to really do about it when they are representing the alienator? I’m not asking what they would do in an ideal world, I’m asking what they will do in the real world? A world where the alienator can spend circa £250K in the court process, all of it manipulated by the lawyers (in this case particularly the solicitor), bearing in mind the alienator is in a very confused and frightened state of mind, which the solicitor takes full advantage of.

    Are you able to ask them this question Karen? Of course, it would be articulated in your own style, but it is an all too important question.

    We can blame the alienator, CAFCASS/SS, even the children and even the alienated too, but what about these legal people? It seems to me they get away with anything and everything.

    Word of warning: This is potentially a very difficult question and these high profile lawyers themselves can be narcissitic as well – do tread carefully as it could potentially explode. Narcissists don’t like to be challenged.

    I hope we will be made available a summary of the debate, if not on this blog then elsewhere on the net.

    Good luck tomorrow Karen.


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