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.