Those of you reading the news in the UK over the past few days, would be forgiven for thinking that a breakthrough was occurring here. Before you break out the bubbly however, let me further set this news in context because, far from this being something to celebrate, the news that CAFCASS have finally ‘got it’ when it comes to parental alienation, is what I think is called in the USA, false news.
Being a veteran of the UK family services scene and having been for a spin round the block a few times, I am well versed in the manner in which CAFCASS are skilled at claiming the space which they feel needs to be cleaned up. CAFCASS have a history of being ‘fixers’ and this is not the first time that a spin on reality has been pulled on unsuspecting families. Let me take you back to the turn of the century, somewhere in London, shortly after a significant conference had been held to introduce a project called ‘Early Interventions.’
Now the format of this project was (and still is) truly groundbreaking. If ever there was an approach which would triage the difficult cases into the specialist help they require, this is it. Unfortunately however, the project does not fit the underlying political ideology which runs through CAFCASS like the word Blackpool runs through a stick of rock. This political ideology, which has no place whatsoever in the support given to post separation families, is that of women’s rights, in which the idea that contact with a non resident parent (father), can only take place ‘if it is safe to do so‘ comes first, last and always.
This concept, which has been promulgated for the whole of the time that I have been involved in this field, is one which has poisoned the lives of too many fathers (and indeed mothers) who are separating. The idea that ‘contact’ – what a horrible word – may not be safe for children, is one which even children themselves are heard to utter. This concept is part of the brainwashing which goes on in the ancillary services around the family and it is this, more than anything else, which leads to desperation and despair in non resident parents. Back to the early interventions project.
Early interventions as a project was endorsed by Lady Butler Sloss and commended to government in the early part of this century. All signs were good that this project, the first of its kind to truly address the needs of the separating family population would succeed. Founded upon the principles of triaging easy cases into following guidelines about making child arrangement orders and taking the difficult cases into a court managed process, this project aimed to sort out the family court process swiftly and competently. Unfortunately, at the last minute, as the project was making its way through the government channels of approval, a civil servant, seconded to CAFCASS, switched the project for another, this time run by Relate. What happened next is history (for those who are interested, read Nick Langford’s ‘An Exercise in Absolute Futility‘) but you can be sure that what really happened is that the early interventions ethos, was kicked into the long grass, never to be heard of again.
What a tactic. Take a project which offers families real help and gives fair and equitable outcomes to help parents to share the care of their children and switch it for another which looks similar but which in fact is ideologically different. From the inside the Ministers can be told that their requirement that an early interventions project is delivered has been met, from the outside the world can be told that early interventions is safe in the hands of CAFCASS. Bingo. For CAFCASS it is an easy win. They can deliver an early interventions project within their own comfort zone. For parents however, it is another two decades on the road to the hell that is the family court system. More children lost to their loving families, more families sacrificed to the political ideology of women’s rights first, children’s indivisible from their mother’s wishes and feelings.
I should be clear here and say that not only has this sacrificed the relationships that fathers have with their children, it has sacrificed too many mothers relationships too. The women’s rights political ideology, goes hand in hand with a kind of blinkered approach to helping families where children display a refusal to see a parent. And there is none so savage and none so judgmental as social workers who, when confronted with a child making allegations against a mother, assume that something must be wrong, in fact much more wrong because good mothers don’t have children who hate them.
This is a deeply complex issue in the UK which I see again and again in my work and which leads to abusive fathers being able to control their children into refusing a relationship with their mother and then control the professionals to see only the good in father and the bad in mother. It comes from a lack of training, a lack of subjective knowledge of the self and a disproportionate degree of power which is held by social workers in the family court system.
Back to CAFCASS. What I see happening now is round two of the CAFCASS strategy to bury an irritating issue. Having been forced to recognise that the cases left in the family courts are those which feature a child refusing to see a parent, CAFCASS are now ready to claim the space for their own. And the grounds upon which they are going to claim the space? High conflict.
High conflict. Think about it. High conflict.
Not personality disordered parents who are harming their children, not coercively controlling parents who are using their children to control the other parent, not children who are unable to cross the transition bridge and using the coping mechanism of withdrawal. No. The message being circulated widely by CAFCASS is that it is all about high conflict. And worse than that, they have the audacity to tell the world that it being all about high conflict and as such being a polarised debate, they, CAFCASS, have come to claim the middle ground and tell us that it is a spectrum problem.
That’s alright then. CAFCASS have come to save the day and sort out the high conflict couples (50 of which are being sought right now for their trial of ‘intense therapy’), we can all relax and go home, nothing to see here folks.
But parental alienation is not about high conflict.
In it’s severe form, it is a complex range of serious mental health problems which are caused by the decompensation of one parent and the manner in which this influences their child.
In its moderate form it is the influence of a parent without a personality disorder to cause a child to struggle to make transitions back and forth.
And in its milder forms it is the display by the child of the cluster of behaviours which are seen when they are becoming anxiously bound into a parent’s reactions to the drama of the family separation.
Whilst parental alienation may arise in a scenario where two parents are conflicted, it is more likely to arise in the scenario where one parent is displaying resistant behaviours and the other parent is desperately responding to that in an attempt to flag the harm which is being done to the child. The notion that parental alienation is about high conflict is false but it is an easy win for people who want to believe that both parents contribute to a child’s refusal to see a parent and it is a really easy win for CAFCASS who want to clear up the PA space, presumably so that they can tell the world that the problem is dealt with.
There is something dark and something murky about the ancillary services around separating families. It is an overly emotional and overly personalised arena in which too many individual beliefs and feelings are able to drive outcomes. This toxic swamp, in which families affected by parental alienation are expected to find help and support, adds to the impact upon the child. Too many children are, in my experience, sacrificed on the alter of the personal subjective reactions of ancillary staff in this field and CAFCASS claiming to be expert in the field of parental alienation, without any of the training or skills to work in such an arena, leaves me frankly, chilled to the bone.
If there is high conflict in many parental alienation cases it is often excacerbated by the personal subjective responses of family court professionals to the problems seen in the family. Responses which allow professionals to act as judge and jury and which are underpinned by the disproportionate power they hold in the court process. Unskilled and inexperienced people should not be allowed to practice in this field and yet this is what we are told is going to happen by CAFCASS.
Working with parental alienation requires the highest levels of skill and self knowledge in order to bring solutions to families instead of increasing the problems. So many family court professionals who end up tangled up in the webs spun by the alienating parent, do so precisely because they hold too much power whilst having too little responsibility for personal and professional competency.
In the coming days, as someone who is currently examining the standards of practice with PA families for the worldwide Parental Alienation Study Group, (a worldwide group of leading experts in this field), I will be scrutinising what CAFCASS are proposing to do and comparing it with internationally recognised best practice. I will be doing it publicly and transparently.
There will be no pulling the wool over the eyes of rejected parents and families on my watch and no blaming them by trying to convince them that they are part of the problem either.
I see high conflict coming.
I do not routinely see it in families affected by parental alienation.
I do see it in the battle to save Britain’s alienated children.