The Drama of Being a Social Worker: Counter Transference in The Post Separation Landscape

In the United Kingdom the welfare threshold is a test which is applied to determine whether a child is suffering from or is likely to suffer from significant harm in the care of a parent.  This is the threshold between private family law and public law (when the state becomes involved and may issue care proceedings).  The threshold criteria is explained here in full and summarised below

(information taken from

The ‘Two Stage’ Test in care proceedings

In order to justify making a care or supervision order, the court has to satisfy a two stage test:

The first stagethe threshold stage – there must be sufficient reasons to justify making a care or supervision order – or in other words, the case must cross a threshold. This threshold can only be crossed if the court agrees:

  • that things have happened which have already caused significant harm to a child,
  • or pose a serious risk that significant harm will be suffered in the future,
  • or which show that the child is beyond parental control.

To meet the threshold criteria  section 31(2)  of the Children Act 1989 must be met.

The second stagethe welfare stage –  even if the threshold is crossed,  it must be in the child’s best interests to make an order. It is not inevitable that a care order will be made every time a child has suffered significant harm (but it is likely).

The importance of the ‘threshold criteria’

Therefore, we can see that the ‘threshold criteria’ are the facts that a local authority have to prove in a care case. If the Judge cannot pass the first stage – threshold is not met  – he or she cannot go on to consider what if any orders to make. The care proceedings will come to an end.  It is therefore vital to establish at a very early stage exactly what the LA want to rely on as their threshold criteria and to find out if the parents will agree or there needs to be a court hearing to test the local authority’s evidence.

The LA will have to prove that things happened on or before the date they applied for a care or supervision order. The LA can rely on information that became available after that date, as long as it is information relevant to what was happening at that time. See R G (Care Proceedings: Threshold Conditions) [2001].

How is significant harm caused?

  • EITHER by what the parents are doing or failing to do for their children (i.e. its more likely to be perceived as ‘their fault’)
  • OR because the child is beyond parental control (which may not necessarily be considered the parents’ fault).

Please see the case of WBC v A [2016] EWFC B70 in October 2016 where the court decided that there was no need to try and link a child being beyond parental control with anything that was the parents’ ‘fault’ – therefore threshold could be met on that basis without any need to ‘blame’ the parents.

However, whether or not the parents are to ‘blame’ for what has happened to the children, there must be a clear link between the significant harm and the events on which the LA rely.

Lady Hale in the case of Re J [2013] UKSC 9 said:

Time and again, the cases have stressed that the threshold conditions are there to protect both the child and his family from unwarranted interference by the state. There must be a clearly established objective basis for such interference. Without it, there would be no “pressing social need” for the state to interfere in the family life enjoyed by the child and his parents which is protected by article 8 of the ECHR. Reasonable suspicion is a sufficient basis for the authorities to investigate and even to take interim protective measures, but it cannot be a sufficient basis for the long term intervention, frequently involving permanent placement outside the family, which is entailed in a care order.

Working in the field of post separation relationships where children resist or refuse a relationship with a parent, a therapist MUST understand the way in which the legal and mental health interlock works.  This interlock, which is the way in which the legal framework makes the mental health intervention potent, is necessary in all cases of parental alienation, where the dynamics causing the child to reject a parent are likely to meet the threshold criteria.

This is not the usual landscape of work for therapists and anyone working in this space has to be aware that some of the behaviours which are seen in aligned parents, are likely to have their origins in hidden psychological problems.  This landscape contains many booby traps for the unaware practitioner, not least the fact that the aligned (aka the alienating parent) holds much of the power, at least until the point is reached when the case is judged to have crossed the welfare threshold.

What many practitioners in this landscape do not understand is that parental alienation is made manifest by the use of power and control behaviours in a parent.  This parent may be psychologically unwell but high functioning and may at the same time appear to be utterly compliant in most scenarios.  The parent is likely to rely upon the child’s refusing behaviour as evidence of the rejected parent’s historical poor relationship skills and is additionally seen to be very capable in a practical parenting capacity.  It is not until this parent is asked to do something that they really do not want to do, (make the child see the rejected parent for example), that the underlying dysfunctional behaviours are seen.  Encountering such a parent can be difficult for naive practitioners who are unaware of their own subjective material because the parent is powerfully manipulative and as such is capable of extreme manipulation.  Which is why so many social workers in the UK, who are brought in at the point where the welfare threshold is crossed in alienation cases, fail the child they are being asked to rescue, becoming instead, aligned with the alienating parent.

I have long been interested in cases where social workers have failed to recognise that the child who is alienated is being abused by the parent to whom they are aligned.  In such cases, even where there is a clear judgement of emotional harm and the case has passed into public law, social workers have been seen to resist the notion that a child should be removed from the alienating parent and have continued to see the problem as a ‘he said/she said’ situation.  In repeated cases over the past five years I have found myself to be at odds with social workers who, in public law cases, hold what I consider to be disproportionate amounts of power in that they are able to determine the use of resources in a case, whether a child is removed into foster care for example, and how a child should be helped and who by.  In this situation, where it is clear that the understanding of alienation by a social worker is severely limited AND they are being manipulated by unwell parents, the lack of social worker self awareness becomes starkly apparent.

As therapist practitioners we must fulfil a range of criteria in order to safely practice in this field, one of which is a deep self knowledge.  Having been consistently in therapy and supervision for the years I have been doing this work, I am aware that without this personal and professional work, the path through the woods would be peppered with my own projections and my own counter transferential material.  Working with social workers, who do not have to be in therapy and who receive supervision delivered in a political ideological framework (families are analysed using the traditional feminist model of patriarchal power and control), it is easy to see how they fall into the traps of confirmation bias and counter transference reactions in alienation cases.

In his paper on five counter transferential reactions, Dr Alan Carr -Principal Clinical Psychologist, Department of Child and Family Psychiatry in Norfolk, writes about the different ways that practitioners in the helping professions experience counter transferential reactions.  In  furthering the understanding of social workers and CAFCASS officers in the field of parental alienation, I have been examining counter transference and the problem it causes in public law cases.  In such cases, I have seen social workers disagree with experts and refuse to accept their advice, leaving children in the care of a clearly unwell parent on the basis that that parent is providing good enough practical care. The argument in such circumstances being that the balance of harm is against removing the child because it would disrupt the attachment to the primary (albeit unwell) parent.  I have also seen social workers go behind the judgement of the court in such cases and manage a case so that their projected beliefs about the situation prevails.  In all such cases, practitioners and experts alike are helpless in the face of such determined incompetence, because the power held by social workers in public law cases is disproportionate (in my view) to their skill and understanding in this field.

So what can those of us who know, do in the face of this?

One of the things we can do is draw attention to the reality of what lies beneath the public face of UK social work.

The other thing we can do is provide education and models of work which are effective in such cases to demonstrate the inefficacy of current social work training and service delivery.

And finally, we can support social workers to do better, because in working alongside social workers I recognise that whilst most have disproportionate power with little concept of the responsibility they hold for protecting alienated children from the abuse they are suffering, some recognise the reality and want to help.  Some also know that they will be the people held to account when this child abuse scandal is finally recognised.   Providing help, information and support to practice better and deliver the right outcomes for children is as important a step as criticism of social workers.  Not everyone wants to turn a blind eye, not every social worker is oblivious to the harm which is being done.

Dr Carr’s paper is interesting because it highlights one of the themes which is prevalent in this field which is the counter transferential reaction by the social worker who sees the child as the victim and wishes to become the rescuer.   Dr Carr describes it thus –

 The Victim role is characterized by helplessness; the Persecutor, by aggressiveness; and the Rescuer role, by help-fulness. In the basic drama a rescuer assists a victim to escape from a persecutor. In more complex dramas individual switch roles at critical points.For example, a helpful rescuer may become an aggressive persecutor if the victim does not capitalize upon the rescuer’s help to escape the aggression of the original persecutor.

This counter transferential reaction is often seen in social workers who use the feminist model of patriarchal power and control and who sees a (victim) mother in a relationship with a man they assume to be abusive (social worker as rescuer) and who, when the mother does not accept that the man is the cause of the problems, will threaten the mother (social worker switches role to persecutor) with removal of the child (victim).

In the classic alienation case, the most common counter transferential reaction in social workers is beautifully depicted in the cartoon from the Dr Carr article below –

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 11.21.11

This reaction, which is to see both parents as the perpetrators and the child as the victim, puts the social worker in the role of rescuer. The most common outcome of this reaction is that the social worker will fail to act on the expert evidence that one parent is unwell and the other is not and will instead reconfigure the problem as he said/she said situation, with a recommendation for therapy.  It is easy to see that CAFCASS, in their recent announcement that they are now expert in the field of parental alienation and that all cases are hybrid in need of intense therapy,  are playing out this counter transferential reaction in full.

Parental alienation is not about ‘contact’.  Although the problem comes to light in the post separation landscape and although it may, at first, be surrounded by what looks like conflict to the outside world, it is not about high conflict, it is not about communication and it is not and never was, a he said/she said situation.  What it is, is the consequence of the actions of one parent, the reactions of the other and the resilience (or lack of it) in the child.  Which is why, in some families, some children are strongly affected and others are not affected in any way.  Which is why in some cases, a parent with a personality disorder will be the cause and in others there are no personality problems seen at all.

What we need in the UK is a uniform understanding of the post separation landscape and the way in which family breakdown triggers maladaptive reactions to change.  We need a sophisticated training programme for all professionals who meet parents and children in this post separation world.  Anyone who is doing this work should have a knowledge of their own subjective self and should be in therapy regularly to avoid projecting their own unresolved issues onto the families they work with.

One of the most sobering elements of Dr Carr’s paper is this conclusion –

In each of these cases, the worker identifies with the abused child, and much of the emotion felt about the parents of the family being assessed has its roots in the worker’s feelings about his or her own parents.

Finally this CTR may occur in workers who have themselves been victims of child abuse.

Which means that we have, at the forefront of our state response to the problem of parental alienation, a high likelihood that we have some workers, who are projecting their own unresolved child abuse trauma, onto families where unresolved child abuse trauma is being projected by one parent onto the other through false allegations of abuse.

Which explains why, so many workers who see this problem are completely unable to take the right action.  It is because the identification with the abuse they assume the child to have suffered, is too strong to enable clear vision.

Which is why we must articulate the problem clearly, help social workers to understand it and teach them how to intervene using the power they possess.

Because resolving parental alienation requires an exchange of power and in the space around the welfare threshold, this power could be used responsibly to swiftly and permanently liberate the child from the problem.   Interlock the power held by the state which is invested in social workers, with the mental health interventions known to work for alienated children and the child abuse scandal from the post separation landscape of the past five decades, can be readily and swiftly dealt with in the UK.

The drama of being a social worker – all it requires is a change of mind.


Our trainings for Professionals in Belfast and London in March 2018 are booking up quickly.  

Learning Outcomes:

  • knowledge of parental alienation in worldwide research
  • awareness of how international standards of intervention translate into a UK setting
  • understanding of the legal and mental health interlock in case management of parental alienation
  • ability to conclude first-stage differentiation and consider effective responses to the problem of parental alienation in children of all ages.

We have five places left for each.  To Guarantee a place book here.

22 thoughts on “The Drama of Being a Social Worker: Counter Transference in The Post Separation Landscape”

  1. This is what happened at my first court hearing. I applied with concerns about emotional harm for child due to verbal pressure from Mother turning him against me and supplied evidence that was happening via means of a report from a family worker. The Cafcass officer at the hearing tarred us both with the same brush and ordered phone contact for the alienating parent – which has made it worse – unable to now protect child from Mother’s negative influence while in my care.


  2. Is what Dr Carr is describing here a version of the Rescue Game, aka the Karpman Drama Triangle?


  3. I am interested in the legal side of this. I suspect that there are no cases at all where the threshold criteria have been held, by a judge, to have been met by the ‘mere’ manifestation of PA. In other words, social workers do not consider the harm from PA as being ‘significant’ for the purpose of S32. Am I wrong about this? Are there any such cases please?


    1. Actually, I have found a case that might, in theory, be useful: In W (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 772, Lord Justice Ryder commented that
      “There can be no question that the court’s jurisdiction to make orders under sections 37 and 38 CA 1989 was engaged on the facts of this case [STOPPA’S emphasis]. The interim threshold for the making of an interim care order was clearly satisfied and there was jurisdiction to make that order.”

      So…It is possible for PA to trigger transfer of care of a child to a Local Authority. In theory. In practice, we as TPs are going to have a lengthy uphill battle to get this done…


      1. Yes the issue being that in a lot of cases social workers can and do refuse to take a child into care or, when in care, dictate the kinds of intervention which can be used – which is called going behind the findings.


    2. there are many cases Paul, I don’t have time to list them but PadreStevie may have those in a list for you. PA has been recognised as serious harm to a child for several years now and tussles between social workers and judges well documented. Mrs Justice Parker had some well chosen words to say about it.


  4. Hi Karen – yes i know re H well. i also am a bit excited by some of the recent county court decisions, in particular Her Honour Judge Gordon-Saker in Re B [2017] EWFC B24 (Judgement 22-3-17). I had a small dance around my living room table when i read the words “this child is to go to live with her father today.” Decisive, robust, correct and immediate. Also of note is HH Judge Lochrane in W vs G [2015] EW misc B47 (CC) and Michael Keehan QC in TB vs DB 2013 [EWHC 2275 (Fam)…

    As to the main point (private vs public and S37), isn’t the problem that Social Workers recognise egregious physical and sexual abuse – (possibly because of their individual ‘transference’ issues) – putting the case in the purview of a public law case – but simply will not or cannot recognise the fact that psychological abuse is equally harmful, sometimes with more serious long-term effects? But cases like W (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 772 emphasise that emotional harm CAN sometimes cross the threshold into ‘significant’ harm.

    I guess we need a paradigm shift, to clarify what we mean by ‘significant’. Public law harm like physical and sexual abuse seems to happen mainly in lower-class families, where emotional abuse like PA often happens in middle class families where everything seems, on the outside, lovely.

    PA is serious and significant, and morally equivalent to other kinds of harm. I completely agree that a change of residence in PA cases is not a nuclear option at all, rather a safe, conservative option that would be effected without hesitation if that same child were being physically or sexually abused.


    1. Hi Paul, the problem that we have is that even in such circumstances where judgments are made, removal of children into care is not always guaranteed and even where removal into care is actually undertaken, social workers can control the intervention being made. This leads in some cases to children being stuck in care because social workers will not allow the intervention which is necessary to be undertaken, their skill set and knowledge base plus their own transferential material will not allow it to happen. These cases happen behind closed doors of course so no-one recognises the risk to alienated children but it is clear and present and this year I have seen it in action on more than one occasion. The problem is that social workers are working slavishly to the UNRC rights of the child and are, in one psychologists words, ‘asking children about their wishes and feelings to the point where children themselves believe that they are in charge of what happens.’ There is such a lack of skill and knowledge about the ascertainable wishes and feelings, how to obtain them, how to analyse them, that anyone who uses this approach is often regarded as being abusive to children in this setting. When I read commentary from abroad about bringing in a new model of work such as AB-PA, I know with absolute certainty that it is doomed in its entirety as a change making model whilst we have social workers and CAFCASS sitting in this space with disproportionate power and absolutely no accountability. AB-PA or the Childress model, has been used in this country by psychiatrists to remove children from a parent and to place the child with the rejected parent, the problem being if the child gets caught in the local authority net, that is likely where they will stay because no social worker is going to allow anyone to diagnose anything on the basis of the child’s symptoms and judges do not have the power to override those kinds of decisions if the local authority and CAFCASS line up together. Reform of the ancillary services understanding of what PA is in terms of abuse has to come first and we will only achieve that in the current circumstances by proving that not allowing the child’s voice to dominate proceedings is beneficial to the child. when we achieve that on a consistent basis (and that will require tangling with social workers and/or training those who really do ‘get it’ – and there are some who really do), then we can look at paradigm shifts in terms of how we treat PA. Currently however, in the shadow of Childress behaving as he has been, it would be extremely difficult to do anything with his model, especially as it depends upon a faulty (in my view) understanding of how legal systems work around the world. It is a shame because the internal workings of what Childress is talking about in his model ARE those which were routinely used by psychiatrists such as Hamish Cameron who supervises the work of the Clinic. Childress should publish for his peers and demonstrate the efficacy of his model instead of attacking me all the time and telling the world that ‘gardnarians’ are the problem – I don’t know what a Gardnarian is if I am honest with you, it seems to be a label he has invented to describe anyone who doesn’t agree with him. If he shouted less and listened more he might find that there are some who are closer to him than he thinks – though in doing so he would probably go off on another rant about how anyone who is not him who is doing this work is somehow copying him – we are not, we’ve been doing this work for well over a decade but he and his avid followers will have you believe otherwise – that’s Childress’s issue not mine however, my issue is about how to interlock the intervention with UK legal frameworks and currently the real stumbling blocks are social workers and CAFCASS and their disproportionate power in the post separation landscape. K

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, thanks Karen. Isn’t there the possibility of a consensus here – that is, all practitioners agree that there are cases of ‘pure’ alienation, where AP is wholly to blame, and alienates deliberately to destroy the relationship between TP and child? Some think such cases are all cases, some think that they comprise only a percentage. But our family justice system cannot even get right the cases that are egregious! Let’s start with them. That would give us some traction to start with, and internal disputes between experts can be ignored for the moment.

        As to what happens after transfer of residence, that is more your bag than mine. I completely accept though that, under the current paradigm, progress both with kids and the AP is likely to be inhibited by the ignorance of social workers, sure. The first step is to get the children out of the thrall of their tormentor. After that, it’s over to those with specialist knowledge, like you. I do not have this knowledge, and have long-since learnt not to stray onto matters outside my area of specialism.

        All power to you. I know it’s a difficult road!


      2. another point whilst i think of it. If social workers are incapable of healing rifts after transfer of residence, lawyers (esp judges) should know this…then, a transfer of residence direct to the TP would be a better option in pretty much all cases..


      3. you are on point with your thinking Paul. At the Clinic we prefer direct transfer because the split in the child’s mind can be better held and treated that way. The problem with social workers however, is that when they become involved in a case they hold disproportionate power (as do CAFCASS) to their capacity to understand what is required, therefore, their own subjective feelings, plus their lack of training in this field, drives the agenda. In terms of how we treat, I consider Childress to be treating pure cases and we at the Clinic have no problem at all with his argument that children should be removed in pure cases, our problem comes with his formula for diagnosis because it just won’t wash in the UK where it would be impossible to get a child removed on the basis of the child’s symptoms alone. I am simply unwilling to sacrifice another generation of children to uphold his belief that getting America to fall in line with his model would make the rest of the world follow suit. I am additionally aware that we have been removing children from parents on the basis of encapsulated delusional disorder for five decades in the UK and it has NOT produced the total resolution by any of the Christmas’s in those five decades that Childress promises. Additionally, even when some of the children I have worked with HAVE been removed on the basis of encapsultate delusional disorder they have not made an immediate switch on removal, especially when a stepping stone transfer has been used into care. I think this is because children who are alienated will use anyone they can find to uphold their split state of mind and social workers are really susceptible to the intrapsychic manipulations by alienated children and alienating parents. And so, this leads me to a place where I can agree with Childress’s model but only so far, the bit where it interlocks with the current mental health and legal models here and in many countries in Europe is simply faulty. I can see where it could be improved but given the time he spends attacking me, I am not going near him to show him how to do so. Anyway, in the UK we press on, we are in an increasingly new space in terms of pushing this agenda into the right places and the Childress effect is just a distraction from that work. I think that what we do is more or less exactly what he sets out – but if I say it he just accuses me of copying him and incites his followers to go on another attack and so what is the point of even trying to build consensus with him. I have no argument with him or anyone doing this work, I just want to get on with it because i know where we need to be and what we need to be doing.


    2. RRE: M (CONTACT: WELFARE TEST) [1995] 1 FLR 274 AT 278-9, CA
      “namely that the court should consider whether the fundamental need of every child to have an
      enduring relationship with both parents is outweighed by the depth of harm to the particular child
      that might thereby be caused by the contact order.”RE: M (CONTACT: WELFARE TEST) [1995] 1
      FLR 274 AT 278-9, CA
      Appeal allowed “I have concluded that the judge failed to make a finding or sufficiently reasoned
      finding on alienation by the mother or to make it clear that he was not making such a finding”.
      There was a serious breakdown in the child/father relationship and the judge failed in his quasiinquisitorial
      duty to assess the origins of the breakdown. that the court should consider whether the
      fundamental need of every child to have an enduring relationship with both parents is outweighed
      by the depth of harm to the particular child that might thereby be caused by the contact order.”
      E: M (CONTACT: WELFARE TEST) [1995] 1 FLR 274 AT 278-9, CA
      RE S (Children) [2004] EWCA Civ 597 2 FLR 710
      “It is essential that the passage of time should not become conclusive in depriving the children of a
      relationship with their father.”
      At paragraph 17 “It is a case in which the passage of the years has almost become conclusive and
      should not be allowed to become conclusive without a major judicial effort to rescue for these
      children a relationship with their father before it is too late.”


  5. “There is such a lack of skill and knowledge about the ascertainable wishes and feelings, how to obtain them, how to analyse them, that anyone who uses this approach is often regarded as being abusive to children in this setting.”

    I’d love to know if anyone has actually seen social workers or CAFCASS guardians provide an analysis to accompany the child’s stated wishes and feelings? I was astounded when these professionals simply provided to court a record of the child’s wishes & feelings as told to them, with absolutely zero analysis accompanying them! So where there was no depth to items on the list, or lame excuses such as ‘too busy’, further in depth understanding was impossible to gain. It would seem that these professionals considered probing the child’s answers unacceptable, instead preferring to assert their own subjective ideas as to why the child had said this or that. Without burrowing below the surface those same wishes and feelings can become largely uninformative. Surely it is not abusive to ask follow up questions of a child to ensure everyone really understands why they are saying what they are……is it??


  6. Karen, earlier on one of your replies you wrote “social workers are really susceptible to the intrapsychic manipulations by alienated children and alienating parents.

    In your work, do you come across social workers who understand their own susceptibility to this? Similarly do these social workers understand/accept how, without the kind of ongoing personal therapy/supervision psychologists typically undergo, they are liable to insert their own personal biases/ beliefs into their subjective interpretation of a family scenario? And do they even acknowledge how dangerous this is to the families they purport to help? It makes me wonder if it’s time for social workers to take a back seat in cases of emotional abuse on the basis they are not qualified or psychologically self aware enough of their own shit, to sit in judgement on a family?


    1. I would like social workers to be fully and properly trained in this field SS. In fact, the Family Separation Clinic now has a policy of not working with social workers unless they undertaken our training, to prevent them from undermining the work we can do with families in public law cases. It is not a popular approach but necessary as social workers hold disproportionate power to their understanding and can cause a lot of damage to a child because of that in my view. K


      1. Karen, I’m delighted to hear that that is the approach you are taking at the FSC.

        As for your view that “social workers hold disproportionate power to their understanding”, I couldn’t agree more. Moves to redress this dangerous situation are long overdue, me thinks.


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