This is the second in a series of articles which examine the underlying mental health issues which are seen in cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation.
I began working in this field over ten years ago, a time period when the issue of alienation of children has become increasingly understood in the UK Family Courts. Alongside that, the issue has become one which is more understood amongst the general population. Since 2020 however, a strategy to hide the reality of what happens in families where children reject a parent in the absence of harm done to them by a parent, has been underway. This strategy, is designed to hide the reality of the harm which underlies the problem of what we call alienation. It is designed to hide child abuse.
The argument that alienation of children is only about abusive men making false claims in order to control protective mothers, holds no weight when such cases are examined in the court process. It also holds no weight in scientific research. The idea that protective mothers are routinely losing their children to abusive men is simply not borne out in evidence and it is evidence that the Court relies upon when making decisions about protection of children.
Serious cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation always, in my experience, involve mental health problems in the alienating parent, whether that is a mother or a father. Serious cases of alienation are seen when a child is bound to a parent with encapsulated delusional disorder, a personality disorder which is unresponsive to therapy and issues such as fabricated or induced illness are at play. Serious cases of alienation of children often involve false allegations by the parent to whom the child is aligned and often echoing allegations by the child. Some of these allegations are made in cases of induced illness, an issue which is diagnosed by psychiatrists and psychologists in the process of assessment of the underlying psychopathology in families.
The idea that a child who makes an allegation of abuse is not listened to in such circumstances is about as far away from reality as it is possible to get. The alienated child’s voice, is heard throughout proceedings, because this and the child’s behavioural display, is one of the major ways that alienation is evidenced. Whenever I have worked with alienated children in the family courts, their voices have been heard by a Guardian, often by a Social Worker and they have often been asked their wishes and feelings repeatedly in the run up to any ruling that they have become alienated from a parent. The alienation from a parent, in serious cases, is secondary to the underlying psychological and emotional harm that the child has suffered, it is a by-product of the problem which the Court is dealing with, which is that the child is not safe in the care of the parent to whom they have become aligned. The notion that a child’s wishes and feelings are being ‘translated’ by experts is equally a nonsense. The child’s wishes and feelings are considered in the light of the context in which they arise, they are ascertained and the Court makes the decision about how those wishes and feelings should be weighted in any decision made.
In ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child, the court will examine harm that the child has suffered and harm that the child is at risk of suffering in the future. Harm of a child is defined as any treatment which impairs the child’s health and development both now and in the future.
The idea therefore, that children are simply handed over to abusive fathers is a myth borne of ideological intentions. Children who are removed from a parent, in cases of serious alienation, are those judged to have been at risk of serious harm because they were being cared for by a parent who was unable to recognise the damage they were causing and who were unresponsive to other means of protecting the child.
An example of how fabrication or induced illness is seen in cases of alienation is written about by Thomas Moore in his book ‘Please Let Me See My Son’. In this description, of the complexity of alienation of children and the underlying psychological and emotional harm, which is caused by personality disordered parents, the impact on the child is held central to the narrative. The removal of this child, from the care of his mother who was causing him serious harm, was only the beginning of the recovery process. Induced illness, over a long period of time, was a feature of this case.
It is this, centrality of the child in such cases which is so important because in cases of serious alienation, where the child is psychologically bound to a parent because of what that parent is doing, it is only by holding the child’s needs at the centre of the analysis, that decisions about protection from harm can be made. A child who is being physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally harmed, must be protected, even if that child does not want that protection.
The popular and increasingly unrealistic claims being made about alienation of children are an attempt to obfuscate the reality of why this is treated as such a serious issue in the court process. Far from this being about the ignoring of domestic abuse and false claims of alienation routinely being upheld to give children to abusive fathers, the impact upon children, of serious harm being inflicted upon them by mothers and fathers who have mental health problems, is the real story that the public needs to know about.
This is not a DA versus PA debate, domestic abuse which is found as fact precludes a case from being considered as alienation at the Family Separation Clinic. This is about the need to protect children and the underlying mental health conditions in parents which drive that. Alienation, in such circumstances is simply a by product of those mental health issues, it is the red flag which alerts us to the deeper problems which cause serious harm to children.
That may be unpalatable for some, it does not make it any less true or any less urgent in terms of protecting abused children in divorce and separation.