Hot on the heels of the article by Francesca Wiley QC in Family Law Week, comes a short but to the point article in the Sunday Times about the issue of parental alienation. The news in the article is about the issue of development of a protocol for working with such cases in the legal system. This wording is reproduced from the print version and the article is written by Nicholas Hellen.
Leading family lawyers and therapists have warned that children are being affected by a disorder known as parental alienation.
They develop a phobic attitude to one of their parents, which can lead them to cut off all contact and fabricate wild allegations against them.
One mother who blames her former husband for loss of contact with her alienated child said this weekend: “It feels like a bereavement. It is almost unbearable.”
Now a group of QCs, leading psychiatrists and psychotherapists are to set up a working party to draw up new guidelines for the management of these cases through the courts.
Michael Gouriet, a partner at the law firm Withers, said the current system was not equipped to deal with these cases because it led the court to take a non-interventionist approach.
He said: “Cases involving parental alienation . . . require much greater judicial and professional involvement from the earliest stage.”
The working group is likely to include Withers, the barristers’ chambers 1 King’s Bench Walk and therapists such as Karen Woodall of the Family Separation Clinic.
Children involved in custody battles can become affected by the disorder from a combination of brainwashing by one parent seeking to “weaponise” them and the children joining the vilification.
The phrase parental alienation syndrome was coined in 1987 by the American child psychiatrist Dr Richard Gardner. It has been given credence in Canadian and, to a lesser extent, American courts. However, experts in Britain remain reluctant to use the term.
Nick Woodall, a partner at the Family Separation Clinic, said: “It is an extraordinary phenomenon when you see it.”
He contrasted it with the high-profile custody battle between Madonna and Guy Ritchie over their son Rocco, 15, who refused to return to New York to see his mother.
“It is not about a 15-year-old who is a bit fed up and thinks he will enjoy life better with his Dad because he has a bit more freedom in London than he would get in New York with his Mum. That was not parental alienation: he was simply voting with his feet for a period of time.
“The children we meet are phobic. They think the parent they are rejecting is the devil. At one extreme you will find some children will make the most appalling allegations of abuse against their parent.”
At the other end of the spectrum, he said, were children who gave extremely frivolous reasons, such as disliking the smell of the parent’s dog.
Woodall, whose clinic has dealt with approximately 40 cases of the disorder in the past year, said children who felt forced to chose between parents would construct their own reality to justify the decision.
“Rejecting their attachment produces huge amounts of guilt and shame, so to suppress the guilt and shame they have to find a reason . . . not just to convince you [the professional] but also to convince themselves.”
He said the current system of resolving disputes put too much onus on the child, at a point when they are in no state to make the right judgments.
“There is an over-reliance by court reporting officers and the courts in general on the children’s wishes and feelings. That leaves children who are in crisis determining what is in their best interest.”
One parent who has no contact with her child agreed: “The courts assume the child understands their own mind, yet they don’t at that age. They are prey to emotional manipulation.”
Although the article is short it is to the point and offers a clear picture of the reality of parental alienation and the impact upon children of it over their lifetime. As such it is a first step to raising awareness in the wider society, of the problems being faced by a parent when children reject them unjustifiably and the impact of that upon children which is damaging in the long term.
Following on from the Withers/1KBW seminar and the article in Family Law Week, it seems that the topic of parental alienation may indeed be coming into sharp focus in the UK.