The Separation from Source Protocol is my preferred name for the gold standard treatment route of transfer of residence in parental alienation cases. This protocol, which we are evaluating in our work now, is sometimes called the ‘nuclear option’ by unaware alienation practitioners. The lack of alienation awareness which is denoted by the idea that separating a child from the source of the abuse they are suffering is somehow a radical or dramatic or too powerful an act, is typical of those working in family services in the UK. It is also typical of anyone who works with alienated children but who has not ever witnessed the remarkable transformation that comes when a child who is being abused by a parent via alienating strategies, is liberated from that parent’s coercive control.
Coercive control, as I have written about previously, is perfectly showcased by the alienating parent’s relationship with their child.
Evan Stark described coercive control as ‘a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self’
Used largely by the political ideology of women’s rights campaign groups, the idea of coercive control being something which is enacted by a parent over a child has yet to dawn on the collective unconscious in the UK. This is however, exactly what underpins an alienation reaction in a child. It is therefore exactly what needs to be addressed when intervening to create change in a severely resistant child.
At the Family Separation Clinic, we intervene in such cases and carry out transfer of residence to begin the treatment of alienated children. We also work therapeutically with children and their families post residence transfer which is, in my view, the only place where therapeutic work, systemic or otherwise, belongs in severe cases. Whilst hybrid cases may well respond to therapeutic adjustment work, which is very different to therapy and combines psychological education with behaviourally contracted compulsion to change, pure and severe cases should, in my experience, only be treated by using the ‘separation from source’ protocol.
I like the term ‘separation from source’ because it describes perfectly the underlying pathology of the case, the source of the problem being the alienating and unhealthy parent and the separation being the placing of the child with the rejected parent. In my work I have separated from source, children who have not seen a parent for one, two, three, four, five six and in one case, seven years. I have placed these children with the rejected parent in combinations of direct transfer, stepping stone transfer and kinship transfer. In every such case I have seen the remarkable transformation that all alienation aware practitioners know about. The child moves from the presentation of feral, ferocious and fearsome resistance, to warm and loving acceptance. The longest period of time I have seen a child take to make this transformation is just under 96 hours, the shortest time is minutes. In each and every transfer I have undertaken (and I do these more and more regularly now that the UK is finally accepting that transfer is the right way forward in such cases), the child emerges with the attachment bond with the rejected parent wholly and fully intact and their capacity for recovery undiminished. Supporting optimum recovery however, is about how the ongoing relationship with the source of the problem (alienating parent) is managed over time in combination with how the resilience of the child can be built and their insight into what happened to them supported.
Separating a child from the source of the problem is however, in itself, THE problem for too many practitioners who profess to be alienation aware but in reality are either only at the start of their understanding or still in resistance to the reality that alienation of a child is true child abuse. I have worked in pure and severe cases where practitioners have resisted a transfer of residence seeing it as being draconian or nuclear based on the assumption that if a child is transferred to the rejected parent they are somehow at a risk of harm. This is a fundamental lack in understanding and causes cases to drag on and the child to continue to struggle with the double bind they are placed in. What such practitioners fail to understand is that the child’s presentation of fear and anxiety are the acting out of the alienating parent’s agenda. That is why a child’s proclamations about a rejected parent sound so brittle, they are not their own but a photocopy of their parent’s beliefs and feelings, that is why an alienated child appears to be, at times, to those who understand their presentation, slightly ridiculous. The drama of the alienated child is that they are acting out a scene which is not their own, it is a parental script which, if you look closely at the alienating parent, is an attempt to tell a story of something that happened, not to the child but to them and not in the here and now but in the past, sometimes the long gone past.
The truth is that the real source of the problem of parental alienation may lie in the dead and distant past and the enactment of the family trauma in the here and now is simply a mimeograph, a haunting, a ghost in the nursery come to life in the child. When we are dealing with trauma patterns from the long dead past, there is little hope of therapeutic treatment because none of the markers of this trauma are actual in the people enacting them in the here and now. This is why therapy with pure and severe or in truth, hybrid cases, has little hope of success and why therapeutic programmes without changing the underlying dynamic of power and control are so pointless. It is like delivering therapy to living descendents in the hope that long dead relatives might change. In alienation cases, children do not have time to wait for those historical trauma patterns to change, which is why separation from source is the way to go to give children their childhood’s back. And giving children their childhood back is what transfer of residence actually does.
A long time ago when I first began this work I encountered my first transfer of residence of a child who had not lived with his father since being preverbal and who had been in proceedings for seven years, professing a deep hatred and fear of the father for most of that time. This story is told in the book Please Let me See my Son by Thomas Moore. Before I worked with this family I had an awareness of the problem of parental alienation and I had heard from Psychiatrists that transferring the child to live with the hated parent was the way to go. All through my work with Thomas he told me, ‘just give me an hour with my son and I promise you all will be well‘ and I tried to believe him even though I wondered whether it could possibly be the case that all would indeed be well. His case, which is so eloquently told in his book, was complex in so many ways and my work with his family showed me the first real outline of how difficult such cases can be. It was my first foray into forensic psychotherapy and it opened my eyes to much of what I know to be true today.
When Thomas’s son was separated from the source of the problem (his mother) he went into foster care. Shortly afterwards he was reunited with his father and has lived with him ever since. The route to reunification was simple, Thomas went to play table tennis with him. That is all. Nothing fancy, nothing therapeutic, simple exposure and a warm and loving welcome. Though the road after reunification was long and tricky at times, the actual reunification utilised the loving bond between father and son and in moments the alienation was gone. That is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of parental alienation. It appears complex, it appears fearsome, it appears abusive to take a child and place him with the rejected parent but the truth of the matter is, it is not. It never was and never will be. Which is why the separation from source protocol, used in the right way, provides immediate relief for the child. And it is the child we are concerned about in alienation cases.
In so many ways as I track the outcomes of the transfer of residence cases we work on in our research programme, I am becoming more and more aware that the problem in parental alienation is not the family affected by it but the practitioners who work with it. The infection of the doubt and disbelief that such interventions work being the primary cause in so many cases of the lack of change for the child. At the Clinic we are regularly instructed in cases which have been to a number of other practitioners before they reach us, all of whom have cautioned against transfer of residence for one reason or the other, the most common of which is that the child cannot be transferred because they have not seen a parent for xxx period of time. And in looking at this previous work with families, it seems to me that the barrier to the separation from source protocol is not actually the appetite for it for there is certainly growing appetite amongst the judiciary in my experience, but the risk averse timidity and the slavish dependence on the voice of the child agenda amongst practitioner groups. It is within the mindset of these people that the fear begins and it is this fear which the alienating parent plays upon, sometimes for many years, in order to ensure that their coercive control is continued. These cases are infectious, they cause whole groups of mental health and legal professionals to act out and they cause mayhem in emotional and psychological responses within adults. All because what is being presented to them is challenging their own personal beliefs and bias and all because they do not have the awareness that the attachment bond between a child and a loved parent can never be broken.
I am not advocating the use of the separation from source protocol in every case, there are some cases where I would not recommend it and I would not carry it out if I was asked to either. Without clearly differentiated analysis which shows me that this is a case which will respond as I expect it to I would not be foolish enough to separate from source and undertake a transfer because in some cases that would mean transferring the problem with the child. These are the hybrid cases which are layered with complex dynamics and which require a robust framework of intervention and testing. Where differentiation and analysis shows it is the right thing to do however, separation from source is something I would undertake without hesitation because it provides for the child the immediate relief from the horrible dilemma they find themselves in. Beyond that, the longer term programme of recovery and resilience building is the core focus for the Clinic and we are working on several such cases at one time with our growing team of alienation aware practitioners.
Separation from source provides immediate change for the child, the restoration of normal healthy loving relationships with all previously rejected members of the family and a return to the full range of emotional and psychological resources available to the child. A key learning point from our research being that there is an arrest in the child’s use of a full range of psychological skill sets during alienation which are released upon recovery. Thus we see children move from mirroring the alienating parent’s fixed and fused fearful beliefs to the freedom to develop their own sense of self, hold their own views and independent opinions and explore the full spectrum of emotional and psychological responses in the relational world. Children move from being fixed and frozen even in their physical appearance, to being relaxed, flexible and communicative. In all the cases we work in there is a return of a joyful childhood innocence which allows the child to return to the unconscious world of the development of the self. This is, for me, why the separation from source protocol is so powerful and so ethically correct for any alienation practitioner to use. Though it is radical it is far from being nuclear, it is kinder, fairer and healthier and it gives children back the childhood which has been stolen from them by a parent’s unhealthy mindset.
The Separation from Source Protocol is being studied now at the Clinic using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis and Discourse Analysis to understand the benefit to children of this gold standard intervention. The multiple layers of influence, starting with coercive control and including transgenerational transmission of trauma as enacted by the child are demonstrating that such a protocol provides children with the opportunity to recover immediately and build resilience to being further affected by the alienating strategies of an unwell parent. Travelling with children from the alienated state of mind to a year or more beyond separation from source, it is possible to describe the benefits and dispel the myths which cause fear in the minds of practitioners.
These journeys are a privilege to track and record and will, I hope, provide the next generation of children with the protection provided by alienation aware family services so that no more children have to be put through programmes of forced contact with the child living in situ with the alienating parent (unethical in the extreme due to the harm being done to the child who is left to navigate the rage of the alienating parent alone) and no more rejected parents are exhorted to change just a little bit more so that practitioners can alleviate their own anxieties.
The Separation from Source Protocol, coming soon if we have our way, to family services near you.
The Family Separation Clinic is currently involved in several initiatives to drive policy and practice responses to parental alienation in the UK and in Europe.
- A UK working group to examine protocols in working with parental alienation in the UK family courts.
- A funded Research Programme to establish the effectivness of protocols as described above.
- The convening of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners, to examine best practice in legal and mental health responses to the problem across Europe.
- A series of clinical seminars to raise the awareness of effective treatment routes for parental alienation in the UK.
- Two policy seminars in London and Edinburgh for the Judiciary at which the outcomes of the research and working group initiative will be presented.
The purpose of these initiatives is to raise public awareness and provide evidence based outcomes to drive policy and practice in the UK and in Europe towards an effective response to the problem of parental alienation.