Learning From Past Mistakes?

This is a guest post from Peter Davies the co-founder of the National Association of Alienated Parents in the UK, an organisation which gives advice and guidance to parents who have been rejected by their child after divorce or separation without cause.

Peter is a legally qualified advisor for NAAP which ensures that the guidance given is carefully differentiated and tailored to your individual case.

Protecting and informing rejected parents is always my aim and this piece is highly informative in terms of understanding the ways in which the Courts in the UK are grappling with the issue of parental alienation.

Contact NAAP for advise at peteraadvise@gmail.com


The recent ruling by the court of appeal, in Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568, is the culmination of a line of similar cases which began on the 28th March 2019 with Re: L (A child) [2019] EWHC 867 (Fam). In Re S the Court of Appeal appears to have consolidated some of these earlier findings besides giving a clear steer on how cases involving parental alienation should be handled. 

Much of the guidance given by the Court of Appeal appears to be the tail end of the long reverberating echo of similar advice given by Munby J (as he was then) in F v M in the matter of D (Management of intractable contact cases) [2004] EWHC 727 (Fam) as much as 16 years ago. It is remarkable that senior judges are still stating in earnest how PA cases should be handled in spite of firm advice from the ECHR in Pisica v Moldova (Application No 23641/17) 29 October 2019, where a mother was deprived of contact despite five years of proceedings during which she had obtained orders for the children to live with her. The ECHR advised that, in cases involving PA, the courts are under a duty to ‘…exercise exceptional diligence.’ 

When one sees the lamentable outcomes of cases like the recent example of Re A (Children) (Parental Alienation) [2019] EWFC B56 (HHJ Wildblood QC) – (8 years of proceedings, 36 hearings, 10 professionals, no contact despite an attempted change of residence) – and the re-repetition in Re S of advice given 16 years ago in (F v M), there does appear to be a faulty connection between courts above circuit level and those beneath it. 

In this series of articles I will explore reasons why PA is perceived differently to other forms on non – accidental harm to children. I will also explore the reasons why the development of precedent has been stultified in private family law. I will also suggest means of overcoming these problems in order for family law to adapt, evolve and protect children effectively.

Parental Alienation: The odd man out …. the poor relation … why?

As a functioning society we frown upon and ostracise people that do hurtful and harmful things to other people, their families and their property. Robbers, thieves, fraudsters, swindlers, violent offenders, killers, murderers, wife beaters, child abusers, corporate killers … the list goes on. Criminal offenders often become social outcasts who are reviled and despised. A criminal record, for even relatively trivial offences, will bar those convicted from some professions and jobs for life. As a society we can be unforgiving in this respect. Social distancing is a new phrase but it’s an old idea. Anyone that fails to respect our personal space, our autonomy or the personal space and autonomy of our children and wider families attracts a deserved label, our disdain and our contempt. We usually judge them and we are wary of them. We subsequently keep our distance

Our personal attitudes, our societal attitudes and the boundaries we impose are constantly under review. For instance, we no longer send little boys up Chimneys; children no longer go to work in mines; smacking children is now taboo – although not yet illegal; all children are now entitled to education and they must go to school; children under certain ages are forbidden from doing certain things which may harm them or which they do not have the maturity or experience to cope with. Yet, in other respects children have the same freedoms and human rights as adults and international conventions of their own to protect them. However, there are inconsistencies and anomalies. For example, recently, the genital mutilation of girls was outlawed but we still excuse, brush under carpet or turn a blind eye to the ritual mutilation of thousands of baby boys each year. Also, children are considered too immature to vote yet mature enough to say whether a parent should be excluded from their lives. Sadly, our standards are conveniently malleable and highly adaptable.

Generally, we do not like people that hurt others. So, why is it that when it comes to the non-accidental psychological injury of children (parental alienation) we abandon ways of doing things and societal norms which serve us well in virtually every other aspect of our lives? As a society we pardon or excuse the non-accidental psychological injury of children (parental alienation) when, sometimes less harmful, non-accidental physical injury of children enjoys virtual zero tolerance. In many ways we firmly believe that, the labelling of PA and the controversy which has been carefully cultivated around it by various self-interests, have served the protection and welfare of children very badly.

The Judicial position – severing parent / child bonds

Similarly, the judiciary clearly recognise the significance of severing the deep attachment bonds of love and trust which exist between most parents and their children. In Re C, a moving case involving the prospective adoption of a little girl taken into care as a result of child protection proceedings, Munby J observed:

‘…it must never be forgotten that, with the State’s abandonment of the right to impose capital sentences, orders of the kind which judges of this Division are typically invited to make in public law proceedings are amongst the most drastic that any judge in any jurisdiction is ever empowered to make.’ ( Re C (care proceedings: disclosure of local authority’s decision making process) [2002] EWHC 1379 (Fam) at 150 ).

We argue that it is no less ‘drastic’ whether these bonds are severed by the state or another parent. It is no less traumatic for children or parents. Yet in public law there is a far greater degree of diligence and care required of courts before taking such a drastic step than in private law. If severing the bond between parent and child is now amongst the worst things a court can do then surely, does it not follow that, it is one of the worst things that an an individual or parent can do? After all, the personification of the ‘state’, in family law, is really no more than another person sitting in judgment.

Whilst the controversies and debates rage on so does the non-accidental psychological / psychiatric harm of children and families. The reality is that the non – accidental psychological manipulation of children under other names are facts of life which are incontrovertible. The courts of England and Wales have been publishing judgments referring to the phenomenon for at least the last 37 years since Latey J coined the term ‘implacable hostility’ in Re B (A Minor) (Access) [1984] FLR 648. It is almost 200 years since the first reference to alienation was made in Bell v Bell when Mr Bell claimed that the mother had set out to, “alienate the affections of the child”, from him.

Influence misused or undue influence

The noun Influence is defined as:

‘ …the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself: the influence of television violence | I was still under the influence of my parents | [count noun] : their friends are having a bad influence on them.’

Societies, allow parents to influence, mould and model children’s minds to believe their pet ideologies. Religions have been doing so since Adam was a boy. “Give me the child until he is seven”, said Aristotle, “and I will show you the man”. Our legal system recognises concepts like ‘undue influence’ where a parent can abuse their unique position and attachment bonds of ‘love’ and trust to gain a practical or financial advantage. The legal concept of ‘parental responsibility’ is axiomatic to the Children Act 1989 and that responsibility includes the obligation to influence our children in ways which protect their well-being as well as influencing them by inculcating behaviours which protect them from harm. It is a parental duty to influence one’s children and it is therefore inevitable that some parents will abuse their position of trust to influence their children against another parent, another individual or another entity. We all encourage our children not to talk to strangers for their protection. Therefore, ostracising individuals falls within the capability of most parents although relatively few misuse that ability. In another context, encouraging parents Children to avoid other adults is an example of good parenting.

A burgeoning jurisprudence, which catalogues many findings of children being emotionally harmed by non-accidental psychological injuries, culminated recently with the publication of Re S by the Court of Appeal (Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568). Yet, despite this clear guidance, the clear guidance which preceded Re S and the fact that the rule of law applies to all of us, there is seemingly no shortage of flat earthers who refuse – for flawed ideological reasons – to accept centuries of reliable observations of human behaviour confirming the fundamental human condition. The fact is, whether we like it or not, some parents abuse their children in a range of ways. A sub-set of these parents use their children to harm or antagonise and hurt another person. Some of these parents do this deliberately whilst others may do this because they suffer from a psychiatric disorder. Others may do so in the genuine belief that they are acting in the child’s best interests. But, as Re S states clearly,

‘… the manipulation of the child by the other parent need not be malicious or even deliberate. It is the process that matters, not the motive.’

Therefore, the question of intent does not arise. The Court of Appeal has given a clear message that it is not necessary to prove an alienating parent’s behaviour was voluntary. In so doing the COA appear to have concluded that a parent, engaging in alienating behaviour, risks bearing absolute responsibility for their deeds.

However, these child victims of emotional abuse need the intervention of the courts to protect them and correct any imbalance in parental power and give them back their childhoods. The state, via our legal system, is the only body which has the power to intervene to do that and the essential role which the courts have to play in shifting the base of power, in the affected families, cannot be underestimated. Alienating parents cling to their power jealously. Therefore, attempts to placate them or persuade them by any means are usually fruitless. Re S also identifies the importance of early action or intervention.

Early intervention as a societal Norm

Here are some examples showing why we generally encourage and usually automatically take prompt action by acting quickly. It is a cultural norm.

We do not hesitate to spend a few pounds to fix a leaky gutter because we know that this may cause dampness, wet rot / dry rot and a potential bill of thousands of pounds.

If the car engine overheats we do not drive on and hope it’ll go away. NO! We stop and get it fixed because we know that the problem could escalate and cost thousands to put right unless we take action.

Similarly, when we notice changes in our physical health we know that early action can prevent a problem escalating and in some situations putting off a visit to the GP could actually prove to be fatal. In short, with few — if any — exceptions, early interventions cost less in whatever way we measure the cost. They also save a great deal of pain, stress and mental harm.

An Early[ish] or earlier than usual intervention

In Re: L (A child) EWHC 867 (Fam) the president appears to have recognised the futility of endless attempts to placate the implacably hostile behaviour of parents and close relatives to the extent that he supported a judgment which significantly changed the residence of a 9 year old boy from the Midlands to Northern Ireland when the case fell, ‘… short of attracting the labels “intractable hostility” or “parental alienation”. As such, Re L represents a somewhat earlier judicial intervention than has been the norm in the family courts. It also introduced some significant ideas regarding the way that cases involving the non — accidental psychological / psychiatric injury are dealt with and the various dicta and standards which have been applied.

First, the idea that a change of residence is a measure of last resort was firmly dispensed with by MacFarlane P. He said:

 ‘whilst having the greatest of respect for the two judges who gave judgments in Re: A, I would wish to distance myself from the language used insofar as it refers to a decision to change the residence of a child as being a ‘weapon’ or ‘a tool’… such language in my view risks moving the focus of the decision making away from the welfare of the child which must be the court’s paramount consideration.’

Second, he anticipated that, ‘…threshold for triggering…’ a change of residence may be lower than that applied previously. At paragraph 59 of Re: L the President says:

 ‘It is important to note that the welfare provisions in CA 1989 S 1 are precisely the same provisions as those applying in public law children cases where a local authority may seek the court’s authorisation to remove a child from parental care either to place them with another relative or in alternative care arrangements. Where, in private law proceedings, the choice, as here, is between care by one parent and care by another parent against whom there are no significant findings, one might anticipate that the threshold triggering a change of residence would, if anything, be lower than that justifying the permanent removal of a child from a family into foster care.’

In other words, Re: L clarifies that the trigger for a change of residence would be less serious than that in public law proceedings where adoption of a child can involve the complete severance of a parent / child relationship and is very much a last resort when,” nothing else will do.” This is a significant departure from the conventional wisdom we have grown used to and marks a registers a marked variation in the conventional approach taken by the courts in cases involving a change of residence — i.e. that the focus confirmed by MacFarlane P is very ‘child focussed,’ based upon child protection principles and prevention rather than cure by avoiding further non — accidental psychological injury through earlier interventions.

Third, we have long felt that obtaining the wishes and feelings of children and placing them in the invidious position of choosing between parents is sickeningly lacking in empathy and in itself emotionally harmful and abusive. It appears that, ‘Mrs Beer,’ the guardian at the time of the president’s judgment in Re L, and the president both agree with us. It is clearly inappropriate for a relative stranger to interrogate younger children about their wishes and feelings in every case.

The court agreed that L was so ‘conflicted’ that his wishes and feelings would be indistinguishable from those of his mother. His wishes and feelings were therefore not necessarily his own. The court was reminded that, ‘ascertainable’ does not simply mean what children say but also how they behave. MacFarlane P observed that:

‘Actions speak louder than words. In that regard the Guardian’s observation of this heavily conflicted young boy, who has a good relationship with both of his parents, yet can only speak negatively of his father when in the care of his mother and maternal grandmother, speaks volumes and, as the judgment demonstrates, his voice, in that regard, was heard loud and clear by the Judge.’

It is not essential for social workers to ask a child’s wishes and feelings and the decision falls within their discretion provided it is in the child’s welfare interests.

Fourth, we view the opening remarks as highly significant. In only the second sentence the president quotes the original judge’s view that:

‘The appeal concerns the approach to be taken in a case which, on the judge’s ruling, falls short of attracting the labels, “intractable hostility” or, “parental alienation”.’ Upon closer analysis the reason for this becomes clear. The statement of the president, quoted above is worth repeating:

‘Actions speak louder than words. In that regard the Guardian’s observation of this heavily conflicted young boy, who has a good relationship with both of his parents, yet can only speak negatively of his father when in the care of his mother and maternal grandmother, speaks volumes and, as the judgment demonstrates, his voice, in that regard, was heard loud and clear by the Judge.

Fifth, at para 73 the president states: ‘…the case turned on one issue, namely that of emotional harm. The judge concluded that the level of emotional harm and the potential for future harm were such that, in the absence of any clear indicator of change, a move of home was justified.’ It is notable that the recommendation that L was being emotionally harmed, was at risk of future emotional harm and should have his residence changed was made by his guardian. In other words, a social worker. There is no mention of the court seeking any expert or psychological advice being given whatsoever. Clearly, two findings of fact that will be essential in most PA cases are:

– the child is being emotionally harmed by one parent;

– The parent is incapable of changing their abusive behaviour.

Sixth, it appears that in spite of the fact that L was subjected to an unrelenting barrage of emotional abuse he did not appear to have believed his mother’s and his grandmother’s propaganda. He was not sharing the delusion that his father was a, ‘bad man…’. Therefore, upon close reading it appears that L was not displaying symptoms of psychological splitting in front of his father. He seems to have been conscious of what things he needed to say for approval from his mother and grandmother. There is no mention of L offering negative views of his father whilst he shared his company. On the contrary, his lived experience with his father appears to be the opposite of what he was stating in his mother’s presence. Historically, to convince the courts that a change of residence is in a child’s best interests, expert psychiatrists and psychologists have relied upon making the ICD 10 diagnosis of a shared or encapsulated delusional disorder.

Therefore, it appears that the court found that the combination of current harm and prospect of future harm were sufficient to warrant a change of residence from his mother’s household, in the Midlands, to his father’s household, in Northern Ireland. The change was to protect L from further emotional abuse, current harm and the prospect of future harm. That L still felt able to enjoy contact with his father indicates that he was not yet fully split or suffering from a delusional / encapsulated delusional disorder. Why is this important?

Why is the recent case law a game changer?

Until Re L, a change of residence has usually been considered a measure of last resort.

Although attempts to placate the mother went on for around six years before the courts realised that responsibility for L not seeing his Dad rested solely with the mother and grandmother and that neither of them were capable of changing their behaviour for the benefit of L. Re S lists several previous cases which also dragged on but where the children had become so entrenched that, by the time the courts woke up to what was happening, it was too late to intervene effectively. In some of these cases there were attempts at transfers which went on to fail for various reasons. In other cases, there was no attempt to unify the non — accidental psychologically harmed children with the targeted parent. In most, if not all, of these cases the realisation that the children were actually being abused and emotionally harmed did not occur until the children were in or were entering their teens. By this time, children are more difficult to deal with, they are likely to vote with their feet and their wishes and feelings are likely to carry more weight. Indeed, with older children, their wishes and feelings can sometimes be determinative.

However, there is now a longer list of reported cases — and a much longer list of unreported cases — where transfers of residence have been successful. Therefore, what strategies were engaged in these cases? Why were they successful in obtaining a transfer of residence order when others were not?

The case law shows that there are cases where judges made rulings that claims of PA, having been used by a parent to alienate a child, were false or where both parents should shoulder the blame for a child refusing contact. On the other hand, in successful cases, we know that experts relied heavily upon the DSM and ICD to assert that children were being emotionally harmed and abused. In these cases, the expert’s recommendations were pivotal in the judge ordering that residence must be transferred.

Specifically, the threshold of harm was crossed in these cases when children were clearly refusing contact, displaying extensive signs of alienation from Gardners list and, importantly, presenting with an acknowledged, recognised and diagnosable psychological / psychiatric condition. The earliest examples we can trace are Re O (2003) and V v V (2004). Dr Kirkland Weir, who was one of only a few experts involved in these earlier cases, stated:

’… that the mother’s hostile attitude to the non-resident parent and her prejudicing her child can amount to emotional abuse and that professionals can become embroiled in a mother’s paranoid belief systems, and collude against the father’.

In this instance Dr Weir is referring to an alienating mother’s psychological symptoms. Under DSM V these would be:

• DSM-5 297.1 Delusional Disorder (persecutory type; shared); ICD-10 F22

• DSM-5 300.19 Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (delusional attachment

pathology imposed on the child for secondary gain; spousal abuse, court advantage); ICD-10 F 68.10.

In purely alienated child, the DSM V / ICD – 10 warranting a change of residence would be:

• ICD-10 Shared Psychotic Disorder (shared persecutory delusion) and • DSM-5 V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse.

At this point we should note that Dr Craig Childress’s AB-PA formulation also hinges upon the same knowledge base. The diagnosis of a shared, persecutory delusion is axiomatic to his, ‘attachment based,’ description of the psychology relating to the PA dynamic. Dr Childress then uses this diagnosis as a basis for diagnosing child psychological abuse which is the tipping point for recommending a change of residence

Now, here is another reason why Re L is so significant. There is no reason to presume that L actually believed his Mother’s or his Grandmother’s propaganda. In fact, his presentation and the fact he visibly enjoyed his father’s company suggests he did not. L’s residence seems to have been changed on the basis of behaviour that has not yet clearly crossed the threshold of abuse according to the DSM and its application by Dr Childress and others. Nonetheless, the court accepted the opinion of a social worker that emotional harm had occurred and there was a risk of emotional harm continuing and getting worse unless there was a change of residence. The court appears to have accepted that behaviour and symptoms which fall ‘…short of attracting the labels, “intractable hostility,” or, “parental alienation,’ to quote Re. L, is nonetheless:

• Sufficiently emotionally harmful;

• Carries with it a risk of even worse future harm;

significant enough to trigger a change of residence when the perpetrators of the harm show little, if any, capacity to change their ways. In other words, any formulation of PA which requires the proof of the existence of a shared persecutory disorder exceeds the level of harm that is sufficient for the UK courts to trigger a change of residence.

The court is clearly more concerned with child protection than it is with the defining much argued definitions like PA. The fact is that some parents do alienate children from other parents and other parents do false claim to be alienated for many reasons. Whatever the name of choice, this week, the facts are that the case law from Re L: to Re S tells us that:

• Some parents are responsible for the non-accidental psychological / psychiatric injury of their children;

• Some parents do falsely claim to be alienated;

• It is not necessary to prove PA in order to persuade a court that the threshold of harm

for private law has been crossed;

• There is no point in obsessing about PA. Focus upon behaviours and leave the labelling

to others.

• Change of residence is not a measure of last resort;

• The threshold for triggering a change of residence may be lower than that applied

previously.

• It is not essential for social workers to ask a child’s wishes and feelings and the decision

falls within their discretion provided it is in the child’s welfare interests.

• It is not necessary to prove PA or implacable hostility: the court has set the bar lower;

• The level of emotional harm and the potential for future harm were such that, in the

absence of any clear indicator of change, a move of home was justified. It is notable that the recommendation, that L was being emotionally harmed, was at risk of future emotional harm and should have his residence changed, was made by his guardian. In other words, a social worker. There is no mention of the court seeking any specialised, expert or psychological advice being given whatsoever.

• Two findings of fact that will be essential in most PA cases are:

– the child is being emotionally harmed by one parent;

– the parent is incapable of changing their abusive behaviour.

The Family Court is clearly attempting to establish some ground rules to be applied in cases which involve the non-accidental psychological / psychiatric injury of their children.

One comment

  1. A most excellent and coherent analysis of facts. If only the courts, particularly the lower courts could keep up with and apply the same.

    I look forward to the next instalment of what is a truly fantastic article.

    Rob.

    Like

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