This week we have been in Antwerp where we delivered two lectures to Judges and Advocates from Belgium and Holland at the Het Huis Symposium on complex divorce.
Whilst Britain struggles with the Brexit issue, our sense of our work as being strongly connected to European models of legal and mental health practice, increases each time we visit other European countries.
What is strongly emerging as we build relational networks across Europe, is the clarity with which the issue of parental alienation is understood and increasingly worked with. A fellow speaker on the agenda for the Het Huis Symposium was Marie France Carlier, a far sighted Belgian Judge who utilises a consensus model of case management of problematic situations where children resist or reject a parent after separation.
I am very interested in the model of case management in which the Judge acts as ‘super parent’ overseeing the rebuilding of a family hierarchy which requires that the parents act as parents to their children and not as gate keepers to the relationship that children have with one of their parents. This is because we know that power and control is a foundational cornerstone of parental alienation which allows the dynamic to flourish and grow in the child.
At the very basis of all of the reunification programmes in cases of parental alienation around the world is one very simple thing. Despite what those who profess to have magical solutions tell you, their interventions are exactly the same as all of the others and they rely upon this one simple thing to work – a shift of who holds the power over the child.
That is not to say that the shift in who holds power over the child is the only thing which brings the child out of the split state of mind, but it is the cornerstone of all interventions around the world. And there is no need for that to be a secret in my view or held up as being something ridiculously expensive or magical, when in fact it is a straightforward and very necessary response to an imbalance of power in a post separation struggle around the child.
In discussion with Marie France this week we compared the approach in her court to that of other countries and recognised that as the Judge she holds the power to create behavioural change right from the very beginning of the case. Far from the often lengthy and somewhat outdated games of legal ping pong which go on in other jurisdictions to determine whether a case is parental alienation or not, this Judge takes hold of the dynamics and sets out her expectations from the start.
It is a little like a wiser elder with the power to set consequences being willing to do so to create order amongst chaos. What is absent in this model is the notion of parental rights, the focus is on responsibilities and children’s wellbeing. I like this model. I like it an awful lot. It has huge potential for creating significant change by preventing the conditions in which parental alienation can flourish.
Parental alienation is an extremely tricky phenomenon which takes root when the dynamics around the child reach a critical configuration. Take one parent determined to interrupt the relationship with the other parent, take a parent with a mental health problem, take a parent with a hidden and unresolved issue from childhood, take a vulnerable other parent with fragilities of their own which can be easily exploited, add a dash of legal hocus pocus in an adversarial system and a child whose resilience is lowered, who is sensitive, already parentified perhaps, afraid and anxious and put that whole mess in front of a Judge who doesn’t really get it and bingo what you have is the unstable, unpredictable and unresolvable alienation case.
We cannot go on allowing children who are in the middle of this chaos to suffer in the way that they have been. Their plight, which hitherto has been to be subjected to this chaos until someone proves alienation in court and then someone else comes and removes them from what they have been clinging to, has to be heard and responded to.
Families affected by alienation deserve better than what they have had in some parts of the world. They also deserve better than being promised magical solutions which prey on their desperation. They deserve dignity, respect and a serious attempt to build a response to the problem which deals with matters in a calm and knowledgeable way.
The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners provides the opportunity to examine and develop models of intervention for families in Europe which are located in the historical literature and which take what works from the best interventions around the world.
Learning from the gold standard interventions which use therapy as a basis, Linda Gottlieb’s Turning Points for Families taking the lead by far in this category in my view. With the Judge as the ‘super parent’ and trained mental health practitioners who understand how to manage power dynamics and rebuild family hierarchies in a way that meet children’s best interests, this is achievable.
As we continue the project of education and training of Judges and legal people in Europe, the information that parents need to get recognised interventions which work, is increased.
With parental alienation indexed in the World Health Organisation Classification of Diseases the ICD-11 and increasing awareness and appetite for collaboration, Europe provides the fertile ground for immense positive change in this field.
Nick presenting at the Het Huis Symposium in Antwerp this week.