Next year in London, the Family Separation Clinic, in association with the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners, will hold a two day European Conference devoted to understanding the legal and mental health interlock in working with cases of parental alienation.  The two day conference, which will be held at the Royal Society of Medicine in Central London, will feature Amy J.L. Baker, the most prominent researcher in the field of parental alienation and will provide unique learning opportunities for all mental health and legal professionals working with families affected by the problem.

Parental alienation is the complete, unjustified rejection, by a child, of a once loved parent.  It usually takes place within the context of family separation, but it can arise in families still living together.  The Clinic, which is a specialist in working directly with alienated children and their families, is focused upon delivering the interventions which work for children in these circumstances.  The Clinic works within the family court process in the UK and is focused upon the mental health interventions which are interlocked with the legal processes which are required to bring about change for the alienated child.

The UK has been separating children from their unwell alienating parents for decades, although it has not always used the term parental alienation in doing so.  Since 2003 however,  separation from an alienating and sometimes psychologically unwell parent, in the form of transfer of residence to the rejected parent, has become more commonly used.

I work with children in residence transfer and beyond and this year have completed eleven such reunification processes, all of them successful, all of them carried out on the basis of my own recommendation or those of child/adolescent psychiatrists or clinical psychologists. In addition I work with children in post residence transfer recovery to ensure that the movement from the psychologically split state of mind to integration, is complete.

The legal and mental health interlock is a critical part of the work that we do because without the court process holding the alienating parent to account, any intervention will take either a) a phenomenally long time to make any kind of difference or b) it will fail.  The biggest problem in the UK and Europe currently is that there is very little understanding of the fact that standard therapeutic intervention in cases of parental alienation, does not work and worse than that, it is configured around the concept of fixing the rejected parent in order to try and appease the alienating parent.

Working with colleagues across Europe, it is clear that this same problem is replicated and that the judicial awareness of the need for the legal and mental health interlock is low.  Thus, the work being done in each member country, is to educate and raise awareness in the judiciary of the way in which cases of parental alienation, require the legal and mental health interventions to be interlocked so that the conditions for change are set in place.

When the dynamics around the alienated child are right, (which is when the judge is in the role of the ‘super parent’ holding the collapsed hierarchy of authority around the family in place), work with the child becomes much more effective.  This is because the child is no longer subjected to the intra-psychic dynamics which have caused the entry into the psychologically split state of mind.  When this occurs, the child is enabled to encounter the rejected parent in supported conditions and the alienating parent’s influence is held at bay.  In the UK,  the use of residence transfer and suspended residence transfer to create these conditions, both work when the mental health differentiation of the case is properly matched to the legal intervention.

In the UK, parental alienation has become an increasingly accepted term in the family courts and underpins judgements in which children are moved in a residence transfer to live with the parent they have been rejecting. This can occur directly to the parent or via a stepping stone transfer when the child goes into foster care first.  Reunification programmes such as Family Bridges in the USA are not used in the UK but the work which is delivered in the residence transfer, has similar content and in cases in which the Clinic is involved, the ninety day cessation of all contact with the alienating parent, is recommended.  This allows the child the respite from the influence of the alienating parent and enables the normal and healthy attachment bond to the rejected parent to emerge.  In all  of the cases of direct transfer I have completed this year, the children have shown normal responses to a formerly ‘hated’  rejected parent within very short periods of time (some as short as twenty minutes).  In stepping stone transfer this has taken longer because of the dynamics involved in the move to foster care first.

The work of the Clinic is being shared with other organisations in Europe as the Clinic trains other organisations, it is also being shared via the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners, a Europe wide organisation which is developing membership, regulation and standardisation of practice across fourteen countries in Europe, to ensure that delivery of international standards are embedded.

International standards of practice which are codified in the literature in this field, require that practitioners use the correct differentiated intervention in a case of parental alienation and that generic therapy is not used because it is contraindicated.  Assessment protocols, which require practitioners to fully describe the different layers of pathology seen in cases of parental alienation are core to this work.  This approach has been in use in the UK for well over five decades now by psychiatrists and has been used by the Family Separation Clinic since 2009. Residence transfers, which constitute the separation of a child from the source of the influence causing the alienation reaction in the child, are now carried out regularly in the UK and are always fully investigated and evidenced in doing so.  Most residence transfers are carried out on the basis that a parent is implacably hostile with a range of psychological problems present, including but not confined to personality disorder.

The legal and mental health interlock, which many practitioners with families are not sufficiently aware of, will be showcased in the conference in 2018.  Practitioners from all over Europe both in the legal and mental health profession will attend and there will be the opportunity for discussion and debate about this important and emerging field of work in the consciousness of everyone who works with separated families and their children.

The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners can be reached here.

Details of the 2018 Conference will be posted shortly.

Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal  by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall, will be published shortly by Charles C Thomas (Illinois) with a foreword by William Bernet. M.D – Professor Emeritus, Vanderbilt University
Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association and President of the Parental Alienation Study Group.