This post follows on from something I wrote for the Parental Alienation Studies Group, an international group of experts working in the arena of children’s resistance and rejection of relationships with parents and wider family after separation. It develops my thinking about how practitioners in this field need to be supported because of the constant bombardment we face in the intra-psychic world of the the family. It builds upon my thinking about why there are so few practitioners in this area in the UK and how more people might be encouraged to do this work. It is informed by a piece written for PASG by Judith Pilla, on the subject of a class action which has been called for by a group of targeted parents.
Judith’s response to the idea of a class action, in which targeted parents take collective action against either individual practitioners or a governing body, reviews the current state of being in the US in terms of holding practitioners to account on the matter of their diagnosis and intervention. Judith discusses the way in which the concept of parental alienation is not even accepted in some states in the US, mirroring the current state of affairs in the UK. As in the US, the UK governing bodies of psychotherapists and counsellors, social workers and psychologists, offer little if any recognition of the concept of parental alienation, leading to an absolute silence on the matter of how it should be diagnosed and treated. Working in this void as a practitioner is particularly risky, because there is very little in the way of protection from constant complaint and negative projection, which leads to extremely cautious intervention and timid behaviours on the part of those who work in the field.
All practitioners working in the field of assisting alienated children, are subject to attack of one kind or another; by parents unhappy with outcomes, practitioners who think that they have the right to criticise working methods and governing bodies who fail to recognise the risks to practitioners working in the conflicted arena of alienation. Some governing bodies, fail completely to recognise parental alienation as a concept, preferring instead to rely upon the belief that this work is simply about family conflict. This creates what Judith Pilla calls a ‘positive sanction’ against the ability of any practitioner to do this work without risk of contravening the ethical code of a governing body, bringing risk, each time someone is unhappy with an outcome, of complaint which is highly likely to be upheld. This leads to a highly risk averse population of practitioners who will seek to find a way of making their intervention comply with the rules of their governing body, instead of delivering the intervention which is right for the child. As I read Judith’s review I could not help but think that the first thing that has to be done in this area is to raise the reality of parental alienation as a concept by setting internationally recognised standards of diagnosis and treatement of the problem. That way those of us who are taking the risks and pushing the boundaries, are safeguarded from what can actually be an exhausting round of attacks upon our person and practice.
A good example of this comes in my own work in the UK where I am involved in working with families under court instruction. In many respects, the instruction of the court provides some protection because the interventions we use are governed by the regulation of the court and are tested through the rigour of cross examination. Increasingly in London and surrounding regions, parental alienation and the interventions which assist children are accepted and there is recognition that the evidence base we have built have been tested and proven successful. Being able to offer a portfolio of successful interventions in both private and public law cases, ensures that our proposals are accepted in court. Not all courts it is true and of course all of our interventions are heavily attacked by the legal teams acting for the aligned parent. It is down to us as individual practitioners, to be able to offer the evidence to the court of our success and then demonstrate it’s efficacy through the cross examination process. So far we have achieved a number of very positive outcomes in this way of working, leading to an increasingly positive view of our work. But this is hand to hand combat, it is building the evidence base one successful case at a time, it is exhausting and debilitating too when a case is unsuccessful.
There is no doubt in my mind that a case of pure and severe alienation (that which Craig Childress calls Pathogenic Parenting) is a child protection issue and not a problem of conflict between parents. If we are confronted by what we consider to be such as case we will ask for a diagnosis from a Child Psychiatrist or a Clinical Psychologist before we recommend intervention. In all such cases, removal and protective separation has to be the approach taken, because this is a safeguarding issue not a problem of conflict. In such cases, this is when we see the remarkable change in the child who is relieved of the burden of having to carry the often delusional belief of the alienating parent. Our willingness to do what it takes in the right way, is evidence in my view that we are doing the right thing for children and the right thing is NOT therapy in any ordinary understanding of the word.
In other cases, those we call ‘hybrid’ which we are currently working on refining in terms of our assessment and treatement routes, the concept of safeguarding is less clear. Nevertheless, the interventions we use are far away from the standard therapeutic approaches of sitting in a room talking about the problem and are in more concerned with challenging and regulating parental behaviours and educating and testing the ability of a parent to change. All of these things are not considered to be regular therapeutic intervention and as a therapist I am always clear about what is and what is not therapy. Because we are working with an often litigious and often rights focused group of parents however, there are numerous times we will face the negative transference from a parent who seeks to undermine what we do, challenge it or simply complain about it to whoever will listen. This leads to an almost impossible dynamic as a practitioner in which if I am to do the right thing for the child, I have to do the wrong thing in the eyes of one of the child’s parents. The risk of complaint in such a scenario is so high that without a clear an unequivocal understanding of parental alienation in the governing body of a practitioner doing this work, it is virtually certain that anyone doing the right thing for the child will face complaint.
I faced complaint against me in 2012 and I was ‘tried’ by my then governing body by a group of people who had no knowledge and no understanding of parental alienation. Despite being assured that at least one person on the panel who heard the complaint, would have experience in the field in which I worked, no-one did and I was told that parental alienation falls within the remit of family therapy in which conflict is present. That experience taught me that as a practitioner in the field of parental alienation in the UK, where I am pushing the boundaries of those governing the work of practitioners, I am very much alone. If I am going to do the right thing for children, I am going to be doing the wrong thing for governing bodies as well as those who believe that those governing bodies are the holy grail of ethical practice.
Never one to believe in the perfection of those who seek to govern others, my view is that if ethical practice in this field is actually about doing the right thing for children and that is not accepted by a governing body because there is no recognition and no understanding of the problem of parental alienation, then what that body is governing is not ethical practice. What it is doing is encouraging practitioners to abide by the rules of a body which has yet to be educated to understand the way in which a child is helped in an alienation situation. This is the positive sanction which Judith Pilla refers to, which raises obstacles to the proper interventions via lack of knowledge or regard for the issues facing children in this arena. Which leads me to ask the question, who in the field of alienation, would ever believe that abiding slavishly to those rules in such an institution, is doing the right thing for alienated children?
The concept of class action rests upon the idea that practitioners who do not do the right thing for children in alienation cases are acting unethically. I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment and one day, those who slavishly abide by the rules and put children into intolerable situations using standard therapy or worse, do nothing to help when it is clear it is a safeguarding issue, will be held to account. In order to get to that place however, there has to be a whole lot more education, awareness raising, training and absolute pressure put onto governing bodies of practitioners to accept the concept of parental alienation or pathogenic parenting (I don’t mind which it is), so that practitioners CAN be held to account. Currently practitioners in the UK at least could not be held to account for failing to do the right thing because a) there is so little awareness of the concept of parental alienation and b) that lack of awareness allows any practitioner working in the field who is not doing the right thing for children, to happily carry on doing it in the knowledge that they are protected by their governing body.
A better way for the UK will be to continue to push at the boundaries of accepted practice and to continue to raise awareness of parental alienation as a safeguarding issue and to keep on building a portfolio of successful interventions which are not governed by bodies who do not accept the concept of alienation but by the international standards set down by experts in the field. Increasingly I find myself looking to those experts to provide the guidance and the standards for practice by which our work can be governed. When I am working with others who understand this field and the risks to the practitioner within it as well as the interventions which really work, I feel safe in an often impossible world. And I know that the boundaries I am pushing in my work in the UK are those which have already been challenged by those who have gone before me in this work.
This work requires us to break traditions, open up new pathways for understanding and treatment and sail against the prevailing winds to do the right thing for children. And doing the right thing for children is, was and always will be at the heart of my own personal moral and ethical code. That is why ethical practice for me is not about moralising or preaching the codes of those who set themselves up to govern others, but about doing the right thing for children who are trapped in an impossible situation.
In the UK we have a long way to go before we are getting it right for children in this arena and along the way, anyone who is trying to break new ground is, like me, going to risk an awful lot in doing so. Even I get tired of the constant bombardment at times and recently I have felt very much that without the support of others who are working in the same way, I will not be able to go on for very much longer. As part of taking the initiative in building mutual support networks we are now starting to build a European Alienation Practitioner Network and will be holding an inaugral meeting in Prague next summer to explore how this will work. Our vision is to have this network linked into the PASG and to set and maintain agreed standards for practice with families which can be interntationally recognised. This will, we hope, provide a governance for practitioners which offers the understanding and support which is protective as well as ensuring that the ethical standards for such work are properly aligned with the practice we know is necessary. This is not about building a new governing body in which we can monitor others but about collaboratively finding an agreed set of standards to which alienation practitioners can affiliate. It is not about judging or preaching, it is about learning, supporting, encouraging and shaping the future.
I will report back on this work as it progresses. I hope that this initiative provides parents with some reassurance that those of us who want the right ways of working with parental alienation/pathogenic parenting to be brought into the mainstream, are committed to building the transparent structures that will offer a greater hope and belief that the practice in this field can be aligned with the very best of what has already been achieved.