Clinical Reasoning, Cognitive Dissonance and the Unreliability of CAFCASS

Five days after the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners Conference in London, at which eighteen of the world’s leading authorities on parental alienation delivered what Sir Paul Coleridge, (a former High Court Judge) referred to as ‘gold standard’ evidence, two social workers from CAFCASS have released a podcast about parental alienation for Community Care.

Sarah Parsons is the Principal social worker and assistant director at Cafcass, whilst Julie Doughty is Lecturer in law at Cardiff University who also conducted a review of research and case law on parental alienation for Cafcass Cymru in 2018.  Neither of these people, attended the EAPAP Conference (CAFCASS being noticeable only by their absence),  and yet both appear to feel confident enough to both make and release a podcast about parental alienation.

If it were not for the fact that these people hold disproportionate amounts of power to their expertise, I would find this podcast mildly amusing as it sounds like two A level students presenting for their mock exam.   Given that world experts were in London only five days prior to its release, one would imagine that the questions the pair raise in their podcast are very easily answered.

In no other scientific field of enquiry would two people be able to put out information which is as inadequate and misleading as this.  Listening to this podcast, one would be forgiven for thinking that the research evidence which was presented in London does not actually exist.  Which reminds me that CAFCASS, in all the years of its existence, have acted as if they and only they are expert in the field of divorce and separation and their capacity for cognitive dissonance which enables them to maintain that belief, is second to none.

Cognitive dissonance is the capacity to maintain a belief which is proven by the evidence to be false.  As the picture headline suggests, the incoming evidence which threatens a belief system, causes a defence mechanism to shut down the power of rational thinking in order that the false belief can be maintained.  Many in the family court system appear to suffer from cognitive dissonance, including those who represent parents such as Families need Fathers who attended the conference last week.

Speaking to a representative from FNF, both Nick and I asked whether or not they would stop promoting generic therapy, given the overwhelming evidence presented by world experts, which shows the damage that this does to families affected by parental alienation.  We were astonished to receive the reply that no they would not stop promoting such therapy as they cannot prefer one approach over the other.  Given that PA is like a cancer and one would not promote treatment for cancer that was shown to make things worse not better, we were left somewhat aghast at this response from FNF.  Only cognitive dissonance, the capacity to defend against the evidence in order to maintain a false belief, can explain why such a body would maintain such a stance.

If you don’t like what I have to say about FNF because you want to keep believing in them and you don’t want to listen to me, at least listen to Steve Miller M.D who told us that –

• In general, traditional therapy is contraindicated.

• The word contraindicated does not mean “not indicated” – it means forbidden


Back to CAFCASS.

I am very aware that the release of this podcast via Community Care is likely not a coincidence coming so close to the EAPAP Conference.  What I know about CAFCASS is that they use a particular approach to control of information.  Having witnessed them last year releasing a media piece saying they would remove children from alienating parents (whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that CAFCASS have no power to remove anything from anyone), I was unsurprised to see them retract their remarks almost immediately, saying that things blew up too soon for them.  With the release of Julie Doughty’s cobbled together piece of research for CAFCASS Cymru last year, the attempt to control the information space around parental alienation was clearly set out.   The podcast released on Wednesday is, in my view, made for exactly the same purpose.

Whilst the podcast in itself is a garbled effort which maintains cognitive dissonance at best and at worst, misleads, deliberately or otherwise, it is worth hearing it simply to understand what CAFCASS is doing.  Remember, these people preside over a service which has disproportionate statutory power in relationship to their skill level, especially in the lower courts.  And so understanding this, is an essential part of knowing how to challenge their positioning.

Sarah starts by telling us that ‘this is a controversial subject and that there is no one position adopted across the literature on the subject.’  Julie agrees and goes on to say that ‘because of the wide variation on the subject, it did make the task’ (of writing her report) ‘quite difficult…’

Had this pair attended the EAPAP Conference, they may have learned something and thus their positioning may be a little less equivocal.  Here is a brief example of the positions adopted by those who lead in the literature across the world.

Dr Amy J L Baker

“Parental alienation syndrome occurs when a parent emotionally manipulates a child into turning against his or her other parent, in the absence of abuse or neglect.”

Professor William Bernet M.D

Parental alienation is an important phenomenon that mental health professionals should know about and thoroughly understand, especially those who work with children, adolescents, divorced adults, and adults whose parents divorced when they were children. In this book, the authors define parental alienation as a mental condition in which a child – usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce – allies himself or herself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justifi- cation.

Linda Gottlieb

Most professionals believe that if a child has rejected a parent, the parent must have done something to warrant it. Few people would even think of another explanation: namely that the child had been programmed or brainwashed, just like what occurs in a cult or in the well-known Stockholm syndrome. But if one were to compare alienated children to foster children — specifically, children who had been removed from their parents due to actual abuse and neglect — the difference would be obvious.  Children who have truly been abused crave a relationship with their parents.  Paradoxically — and this is what makes it so counterintuitive — with few exceptions, abused children protect their abusive parents.  They do not disparage, attack or reject them.

Dr Steve Miller M.D

“Many people who claim to go by the book

have never read the book or even know which book”

Listening to Sarah and Julie, one is left both wondering which research evidence they refer to when they made this podcast.  It would seem to me that not only have they not read ‘the book,’ they are unaware that such books exist, leading this listener at least, to wonder whether the topic being discussed is actually the established science of parental alienation (which was set out at the EAPAP Conference), or a personal belief system which is being defended, in order to maintain the cognitive dissonance required to carry on business as usual.

Had Sarah and Julie bothered to spend time in the company of the world leading authorities on parental alienation, they may have learned for example, that there is nothing controversial about pathological splitting, the underlying problem which is seen in parental alienation.  Pathological splitting, which was discussed by Amy J.L. Baker, the world leading researcher on parental alienation, was also unpacked by myself, Linda Gottlieb, Nick Woodall, Bill Bernet M.D, Brian Ludmer, Steve Miller M.D and Dr Hamish Cameron.  It was also referred to throughout the two day conference as being the problem in the child which is recognised as significant emotional and psychological harm.  Far from being controversial, this issue, which is caused by harmful parenting practices including enmeshment and the recruitment of the child into a hostile coalition against a parent, is well recognised in the research literature.  It is also well recognised in UK case law as Sir Paul Coleridge outlined for us from his time as a High Court Judge.  Julie and Sarah would have learned a great deal about parental alienation had they attended the EAPAP conference.  But they didn’t and it shows in this podcast.

Confusingly the pair begin with a somewhat unnecessary discussion about whether or not parental alienation is the same as implacable hostility.  Julie concludes that the two things are not the same as the former is what adults do and the latter is about the child. Sarah agrees, and enthuses that as social workers for children, focusing on the child is what we really should be doing.

The next section is about the prevalence of parental alienation.  Sarah states that as the definition itself isn’t agreed it is impossible to know what the statistics are.  Given that Sarah presides over a service which doesn’t keep statistical evidence, I would have thought that is more likely the reason we do not know how many families are affected by it.   Her conclusion confuses us further as she states that there are research studies which say that the number of people affected by PA are quite small and research studies which say that the number affected is quite large and so CAFCASS adopts the position that although they do see children being harmed by alienating behaviours, they don’t want to ‘under identify it or over identify it...’

She goes on to say something along the lines of a child may be being alienated or not be being alienated and concludes that the issue of prevalence is ‘tricky’ but that the better everyone is at agreeing a definition, the better social workers will be at identifying it.

Confused?  Me too.  Let’s hear what else they have to say.

Julie finds parental alienation a very unhelpful label but goes on to conclude that in the sense that parental alienation is about a child being resistant to a relationship with a parent it is in that sense ‘quite helpful.’  She manages to differentiate parental alienation from estrangement but goes on to say that the problem with the research is that it is all from North America and it is polarised and then makes a completely misleading statement in which she asserts that most of the research is from people who are running reunification programmes and therefore are promoting their own businesses.  So much for William Bernet who is Professor Emeritus of Vanderbilt University and a seriously well respected researcher.  Or Amy J L Baker, the most well known researcher on this subject in the world, neither of whom run reunification programmes and neither of whom base their research upon their own work with families.  That fact doesn’t deter Julie however,  who goes on to promote her own research for CAFCASS Cymru, in which she, (presumably more experienced than any other researcher on this subject in the entire world), draws conclusions which absolutely can be relied upon because she, Julie, tells us they can be.

The podcast wears on and Sarah tells us that children report to CAFCASS that their parents badmouthing each other is a very distressing experience, which completely contradicts her opening statements about parental alienation not being about one parent acting against the other.   She tells us that we mustn’t jump to conclusions that this is always the case but that this is absolutely happening.  What I took from listening to this is a confused muddle of thoughts in which social workers are being exhorted to understand that this happens but not believe in the research because it is not evidence based, whereas the cobbled together evidence which is promoted by CAFCASS can absolutely be relied upon although one must not jump to conclusions about it.

As I listened I grew more afraid for the parents and children who are affected by parental alienation because it is clear that these two haven’t got the first idea about what parental alienation is and thus they have even less of an idea about how to treat it.  What they have got however, is disproportionate amounts of power in the lives of families affected by PA, which is why we will continue to see the kind of outcomes which leave children so badly harmed not just by their parents but by the state services which are supposed to protect them.

Sarah goes on to say that the evidence for parental alienation which social workers must look out for is in the research evidence (which Julie tells us cannot be relied upon).  She manages to tell us that differentiation from justified rejection is the starting point but then veers off into a confusing ramble about someone called Amy Baker and people who said they were alienated, ending with the best interests of the child statement and other such soundbites which have long been the escape route for CAFCASS taking any meaningful action on anything at all.

Nothing about the ascertainable wishes and feelings of a child – other than put yourself in the children’s shoes and use some social work questions from the CAFCASS website.  Nothing about power and control issues and nothing about pathological splitting.

Plenty however, about social work and what social workers should be doing.  Which of course is what these two people are.  They do not use clinical reasoning because they are not clinicians and they have absolutely no experience at all in the reunification of alienated children and their families.  What they do have is a whole load of cognitive dissonance, they are social workers, not experts and they hold disproportionate power over the lives of children of divorce and separation.  It would be funny if it were not so terrifying and it could easily be ignored if the outcomes it heralds in terms of social workers involvement in the lives of alienated children did not lead to such tragic outcomes.

Social workers are not the people who should be dealing with alienated children.  The level of ignorance in social work about alienation is equalled only by their terrifying reliance upon a child’s stated wishes and feelings. Having witnessed at least three local authority social work teams actively and seriously damage alienated children in the past two years, in my view the last people who should be intervening in such situations are social workers.

The podcast ends with Julie telling us that we don’t need to use the label parental alienation because social workers are more than capable of identifying the problem (not quite sure what the purpose of that statement is) and eventually winds up with a somewhat pointless statement about the court sorting out the problems between the parents. Which of course is the underlying belief about PA held by those who do not understand it.  The belief that this is about two parents arguing and behaving badly is one which conveniently overlooks the research evidence, the practice outcomes, the knowledge base from recovered alienated children and the established science.  This approach allows CAFCASS to maintain its position as experts in divorce and separation whilst muddying the understanding based upon assertion rather than fact.

I am left wondering what the point of this podcast is, until I remind myself that the history of CAFCASS shows us that controlling the information space around particular topics is a strategy which has been used repeatedly by this body.  Given that CAFCASS is recognised in the UK to be failing parents (the EAPAP Conference heard from Andrew Bridgen MP on this matter) and the higher court Judges are well versed in the lack of knowledge shown by CAFCASS in cases of parental alienation, keeping control over the information stream on the matter is likely to be of importance to them.

What is also likely to be important is their choice of intervention for PA, which listening to this podcast is likely to be about as confused as their understanding of the problem itself.  Which given the current position in the UK,  leaves parents increasingly vulnerable to being pushed into the dead end of generic therapy.

I will write more about therapy and parental alienation when I get back from my break but let me leave you with this from clinical reasoning expert Steve Miller M.D on the pitfalls of therapy for parental alienation –

Success in therapy should be defined as the restoration of a normal relationship between the child and the parent – not a subjective opinion by the therapist or anyone else that the child is allegedly “making progress.”

Alleged progress should be based on objective criteria. It should not be based on a therapist’s vague, subjective impression that the child and the parent are allegedly “making progress” or “doing better.”

In general, if a therapist has not meet the treatment goals within a specified time, the duration of therapy should not be extended based on a bald claim that, with more time, the therapy is likely to be successful.

With proper intervention, a normal relationship is usually achieved in days or weeks, not months or years.

Parents be aware.  The battle for standardised understanding and practice in the field of parental alienation is here.

We will win it by making the old ways redundant now that we have built the new.

But cognitive dissonance is a powerful defence, just don’t expect the old to give way without a fight.

10 thoughts on “Clinical Reasoning, Cognitive Dissonance and the Unreliability of CAFCASS”

  1. Cafcass LCA missed/ignored our concerns at mother’s attempts to alienate our children. And whilst not fully alienated (yet) there were clear alienating behavious which had succeeded sometimes, but at other times we have managed to rely on the kids’ resilience and reminded them of their loving relationship with their father. The fact that they haven’t fully ‘split’ is no comfort however, as we know the children are continually battling their mother’s attempts.

    But because Cafcass officer didn’t accept this, and said there must have been reasons for them to have this stance sometimes, blaming their father. He ignored totally the domestic abuse, as cafcass have no protocol for DA where males (& non-resident parents) are the victim.

    Even when cross-examined on the stand, he said he had no direct experience or training on PA, but had read ‘a lot’ – probably the few conflicting articles on their library.

    So the judge wouldn’t instruct a PA expert.

    We said the order would break down. And lo & behold it has and we are now starting another court case. Will we find Cafcass are any more appreciative of what is happening? I doubt it. Their arrogance & inclination to always believe the Resident Parent mother & inability to assess the true ‘voice of the child’ by reading their actions, rather than merely writing down the children’s words, give us no confidence.

    Courts rely on Cafcass. They have inordinate amount of power & are not fit for purpose. Until we can train them we’ll not touch the surface of resolving all these cases which keep coming back to court time after time.

    I hope somewhere there’s someone who can resolve this huge gap in Cafcass’ knowledge. I don’t see it happening anytime soon & that exasperates me.


  2. I am a member of Dr. Bernet’s PASG, as well as on three working groups of Simply Parent; first, I want to thank you, Karen, for boldly calling out the ignorance of professionals who wield terrifying power over abused children and families suffering from parental alienation…

    Here in the United States , I am involved in a case where a targeted parent has not seen his children in 17 months- despite having “unfettered parental rights”. The GAL assigned to the children by the magistrate in May 2018 waited until three days before the scheduled “trial” to contact the targeted parent. She states she “doesn’t understand what is going on with this case”; that attorneys for the targeted parent and the alienating parent are not cooperating with her.
    Despite their being an open child abuse investigation against the alienating parent –
    The GAL (who has been practicing law since 1976), claims that in order to “prove” parental alienation, it will cost the targeted parent an additional $25,000!
    How wonderful that family court professionals can put a price tag on child abuse.
    To say I am outraged is an understatement.
    We must expose every unethical act of professionals who perpetuate the Psychological Maltreatment of children and families in Alienation Abuse cases- which are estimated to affect 20-30 MILLION targeted parents in the United States alone.
    I was a child alienated from my targeted parent; I will use my voice to speak out against this abuse of the courts and social services until I can no longer speak. Your article has fueled my indignation and motivated me more so than ever to work alongside my colleagues to evoke lasting change for these abused families.
    Enough is enough.


    1. Heidi,

      I am also in the US, and my experience is consistent with the perversion that you describe. The GAL in my case, the delays, the six (6!) different judges over years, the obscene amount of money – I am afraid this is what passes for normal here. GAL, lawyers, judges, clerks etc. – all combined they might possess the knowledge of alienation that Karen has in her big toe! Even worse, they may understand more than I give them credit for, but none of it fits the narrative that continues the spending stream.

      Best interests of the children?


      What a sick joke.


  3. Karen, you have stated much in this blog and as usual you hit the nail on the head!! The biggest conclusion I have drawn from this is how right you are about children’s treatment of the alienated parent!

    My best friends foster children and one day when I was just about at the end of my tether over my son, my friend sat me down. She very calmly asked me if I notice how much the children in her care crave the love and attention of their abusive parents (and they are specialist carers, so the kids have been very badly abused) I hadn’t really made any connection between my own situation with my once loving son to the love these children have for their parents. Even the most badly abused and neglected still yearned to go home, there was indeed a major difference between the kids they care for and my situation with my son! It was truly only then I started to see the alienation which i knew existed become a reality!! The mindset of abused children is indeed very different from that of alienated ones!

    When I read this tonight Karen, it reminded me of the conversation I’d had, and although my son has not returned to me as yet, I know what he says is pure alienation!
    In this most difficult of situations Karen you have been a Godsend to me, even in my darkest, most emotional of times, I know you ARE right, and when I’ve wiped away the tears, I’ve seen and witnessed the proof for myself!!

    Thks for all!

    Frankie x


  4. Having read this blog is it worth returning to court to challenge the way CAFCASS dealt with my case. I have been alienated for the past 18 months from my son and CAFCASS and the courts have left me with sending a card every month and a text message every week. I only get responses from my son when I send him a gift like money or a voucher. I sent him money for his holiday at the start of the summer break. He expressed meeting up with me again but I have had no responses since he returned from his 1 week holiday and he has gone back to school.


  5. I really feel for all the parents and children that have been separated due to PA. I have in fact, in my research, only come across situations where alienated parents of alienated children have lost contact, often for many years. My hearth bleeds at the idea.

    I guess I should feel blessed that I still see my children and yet, here I am, stumbling upon this blog because I am looking for answers, solutions and help to save my children. I have joint custody and the children spend a bit more time with me. However I am leaving in hell: my children live under an enormous amount of pressure from their father who wants to increase the time they spend with him to 50/50 and doesn’t miss an opportunity to belittle and denigrate me indirectly through the children. It normally takes 2 or 3 days when they return to me, before they stop accusing, belittling, kicking me and treating me like I count less than zero and telling me they don’t like me, they don’t want to live with me . I do fear that if nothing is done I will loose them too. PA jeopardises all my attempts at introducing or keeping boundaries. After a few days usually things turn to normal and they become normal loving kids who hug and say ‘I love you” to their mum and enjoy what we do together. By that time i am happy and… exhausted.

    I have no faith in Cafcass or Court and I really feel powerless. I was really impressed by Karen’s comparison with children seriously abused by the parents, who still crave to be with them! It is so powerful.
    I know that this battle will be won one day and that the wall of cognitive dissonance will fall. I just wish it were now.


  6. Excellent article. I cried. My Cafcass officer deemed genuine my child’s allegations of abuse based on spending 2 hours with them total, body language and how they spoke of it and put it in the section 7. Horrific. All DV swept aside. Fortunately the SW has clocked child is being coached and it’s in her report which will go into court. Also that There are no injuries consistent with the claims made by alienating parent nor child and child’s language is very adult. Cafcass should be scrapped.


  7. I have just withdrawn from five years worth of proceedings – I was bullied into accepting an ‘expert witness’ who was not an expert in PA and guess what, she made all the classic mistakes and drew the wrong conclusions. I cannot put myself and my daughter through any more court sanctioned abuse in order to rescue my son. One day he will return and we will be there to mend him. Many thanks Karen for being the person you are. Don’t let the ignorant get you down lady ❤️


    1. sending you my best Toni, when this happens it is grievous but you have made the right decision. One day we will stop this from happening, we keep on until we do. x


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