The project to separate out, the needs of children, from the rights of their mothers and fathers, is important. Throughout many decades, the project to convince the outside world that children do not need fathers or that mothers whose children reject them must have done something very wrong indeed, has been ongoing. The picture of a parental rights fight as the dominant discourse, has been a useful way of obfuscating what is happening to alienated children.
Alienation of children from their own sense of self and the parental care that is theirs by right, is the child protection issue we are working with and keeping that at the forefront of our mind is key to everything we do.
For anyone who works with court mandated treatment of families affected by alienation, evidence based working is essential. Those of us who are concerned with helping families, read research evidence to inform ourselves and develop our practice. If we are to be fully informed, we read all of the research which relates to this field.
It was therefore necessary for anyone working in this space, to read and seek to understand the study by Joan Meier, which was published in 2019.
In a presentation to the National Council on Family Relations Annual Conference in 2018, Joan Meier stated that –
After years of challenging the concept in litigation, trainings, and scholarship, it became clear we need national, objective data to show (or refute) that (i)courts are eexcessively reluctant to believe mother’s abuse claims, resulting in widespread losses of custody to likely abusers.
(ii)alienation theory is used in a gender biased manner to facilitate the denial or minimization of abuse.
**This phenomenon is global and generating growing concern in Canada and the UK.Joan Meier 2018
KEY FINDINGS FROM THE MEIER STUDY
- Courts are far less likely to credit child abuse claims than partner violence (DV).
- Mothers’ reports of Fathers’ abuse in custody litigation are credited less than half the time.
- When Fathers use the alienation defense, courts credit abuse – especially child abuse – far less.
- Child abuse allegations and alienation defenses put Mothers at highest risk of losing custody
- Reduces likelihood of abuse being believed by a factor of 2
- Reduces likelihood of child abuse being believed by a factor of almost 4 (3.9
- When Fathers cross-claimed alienation, they were almost 3 (2.9) times more likely to take custody from mothers alleging any kind of abuse
The findings were summarised by Joan Meier in her presentation to the NCFR Annual conference as follows –
These data confirm the widespread complaints about family courts’ rejections of abuse concerns, potentially putting children at risk.
They also confirm that alienation claims are effective in negating abuse concernsJoan Meier 2018
This study, which makes strong claims about how the Courts are influenced into making decisions, by practitioners who work with the concept of alienation, has had widespread influence around the world, including in the UK. In February 2020, Joan Meier was a guest at a workshop held at Brunel University which was led by Adrienne Barnett, author of a report published in January 2020 entitled ‘A Genealogy of Hostility: Parental Alienation in England and Wales‘
Meier’s study is referred to as ‘ground breaking’ on the website for this workshop.
The Meier study was confusing to read, because as a clinician working in this space, it does not correlate with my experience of how courts make decisions about the care of children. For example, in my experience –
- fathers claiming alienation must demonstrate significant evidence in the court process in order to achieve the establishment of alienation as a possibility in their case.
- mothers claiming alienation, must do the same and in many cases of mother alienation, the practitioner belief that a child is rejecting because of something a mother has actually done is very strong. This gendered bias, which in my experience is sometimes in play in the family court system, is that if a child is rejecting a mother, it must be because she has done something very very wrong, (because children hardly ever reject a mother). This creates a higher bar for mothers to have alienation recognised.
The Meier study was undertaken in the USA. Academics in the UK however, used her findings to support claims made about the UK Family Courts. In Adrienne Barnett’s (2020) paper (see above), the same focus was applied to the discourse within, promoting the idea that alienation is something which is used by hostile fathers towards protective mothers. Barnett claims that the Courts take a widespread ‘hostile mother’ approach.
New Research Which Challenges The Meier et al (2019) Study
The Meier Study has been used around the world to embed information into public consciousness,
The Meier Study however, is now challenged by the outcomes of new research which replicated the Meier Study in order to test the claims being made.
Co-authored by Jennifer J. Harman, PhD Colorado State University and Demosthenes Lorandos, PhD, JD PsychLaw.net.
To be published shortly in Psychology, Public Policy and Law
The abstract states (reproduced with permission from the authors)
We tested a set of findings reported by Meier (2019) related to the use of parental alienation (PA) as a legal defense in cases in which there are allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. A total of 967 appellate reports in which PA was found or alleged were sequentially selected from a legal database search. Nineteen research assistants blind to the study’s hypotheses coded the reports for the variables used to test six pre-registered hypotheses using a series of logistic and linear regression models. We failed to find any support for the conclusions made by Meier (2019).Harman and Lorandos (2020)
The abstract gives some startling information in terms of Meier’s claims, amongst many of which are, that the family courts take child abuse allegations less seriously, when parental alienation is alleged by fathers.
The abstract goes on to say –
Results indicate that the majority of courts carefully weigh allegations of all forms of family violence in their determinations about the best interests of children. These findings, along with several others, raise concerns that the methodological, analytical, and statistical problems we detail about Meier’s report (2019) make her conclusions untrustworthy. Discussion focuses on the importance of using open science practices for transparent and rigorous empirical testing of hypotheses and the dangers of misusing scientific findings to mislead influential professionals who affect the well-being of millions of families.Harman and Lorandos (2020)
KEY FINDINGS FROM THE HARMAN & LORANDOS STUDY
- Harman and Lorandos identified at least 30 conceptual and methodological problems with the design and analyses of the Meier Study. The severity of this raises the concern that the study is being used as a ‘woozle.’ (P.2) The concern is raised that there is potential for misleading a naive scientific audience. (P.3)
- An example is given of such a statement which is that the concept of parental alienation, ‘ was created specifically as a rationale for rejecting child sexual abuse claims.’ This is said to be repeated throughout the Meier study. The repetitive nature of this statement and Meier’s claims that the study provdes ‘evidence’ for this, was the motivating factor for the Harman & Lorandos Study.
- Harman & Lorandos criticise the Meier report for its claims that Guardians ad Litem (GALS) and evaluators were not likely to credit mothers abuse claims and need to be educated about the use of PA claims when child abuse is alleged by mothers. Harman & Lorandos argue that ‘this implies that all claims of abuse made by mothers should be taken at face value and fails to acknowledge that these third parties have had access to considerably more information than what is provided in the judicial reports the research team reviewed.’ (P.5).
- Further criticism of the Meier report is found in the use of embolding words to persuade the reader to believe that the findings were statistically significant when they were not, and making the reader believe there is a consensus on a topic when there is not.
Reconstruction of the Meier Study
Harman & Lorandos reconstructed the Meier study and give a lot of detail about the work they put into doing so. They also highlight the difficulties they encountered when trying to obtain information about how the original study was constructed.
In January 2020 the hypothoses were pre-registered by the Harman & Lorandos team in order to minimise potential for their own ideological biases. A team of nineteen research assistants who were blind to the study’s hypothoses, coded 967 appelate reports for the variables used to test the pre-registered hypothoses.
The results of this study are startling and the conclusions are serious. From the authors themselves on page 36 of their report –
In conclusion and after transparently and rigorously testing six pre-registered hypothoses, our results soundly disconfirmed nearly all of the findings we tested from Meier et al’ (2019) report or discovered the findings to be in the opposite direction claimed by the authors. We identified 30 very concerning conceptual, methodological and statistical issues with Meier et al’s (2019) study and when asked to provide us with appendices and statistical output to evaluate her conclusions, she refused to provide them, questioned the inquirer about who they worked for and what types of clients they represented (mothers or fathers) and referred them to a national archive for the material, where such material was still not available at the time of writing. This response raises concerns about the validity of Meier et al’s (2019) data and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.Harman & Lorandos (2020)
The report into this study is lengthy and complex. It gives significant detail about how these authors have diligently reconstructed the Meier et al study, to show the unreliability of the findings from it, which are currently being used around the world, not only to attack the concept of alienation of children in divorce and separation, but to also attack those who work in this field.
Hiding the Child
The strongest feeling I am left with after reading this report, is a deep concern about the way in which the Meier study has been used in an attempt to shift the narrative away from the plight of the alienated child. This has been achieved by persuading people to believe that parental alienation is only about abusive men using the issue to control protective mothers. The Harman & Lorandos study, which thoroughly debunks that claim and others of a similar nature, puts some serious questions on the table about the credibility of the Meier et al (2019) study.
Alienation of children is a serious mental health concern, it is a problem which has been clearly identified and articulated over the past decade in particular and it has begun to be properly addressed as the child protection issue it truly is. The concept of alienation of children and the harm that this causes, is now well recognised in the UK family courts, where case law sets out how this should be managed.
The Harman & Lorandos study makes transparent, the risks being taken in hiding the alienated child, by all those who accept the Meier et al (2019) research without question.
Alienated children right around the world need protection and this study helps to place their needs back where they belong, at the forefront of our collective consciousness.