'My controlling ex wanted my child at all costs'

‘My controlling ex wanted my child at all costs’

In acrimonious divorces fathers are encouraged to use their children as a weapon – and now family courts are being accused of wrongly taking kids away from their mothers. Stella Wainwright investigates the growing controversy

‘Suicidal’ is how Jenny felt when her eight-year-old daughter was taken away from her last year. She was told there would be no communication between them for six weeks. ‘I don’t think there is anything more devastating than being separated from your child,’ she says.

Who had ordered this separation? A religious cult? Was Jenny a neglectful mother? No, it was a UK family court that had found her guilty of ‘parental alienation’ – deliberately turning her daughter against a father from whom Jenny was estranged.

In high-conflict separations, where differences cannot be resolved through mediation and a battle for parental residence ensues, this concept is increasingly being introduced by legal teams. Shockingly, says the BBC, which aired its programme Mums on the Run: Failed by the Family Court in autumn, parental alienation has led, in some cases, to children being forced into contact with convicted paedophile fathers.

An England-wide survey by Manchester University was revealed in the BBC report. The 45 mothers of the children in the study all detailed serious health problems (which they attributed to the stress of court proceedings) including miscarriages, heart attacks and suicidal thoughts. The concept has been cited separately in the deaths of some women.

The phrase ‘parental alienation’ was first coined in the 1980s by controversial US psychiatrist Richard Gardner. He claimed that some women in divorce cases were brainwashing their children to believe their fathers had abused them, recommending reprogramming by forcibly removing the child from its mother for a period of time.

Sarah (an insider high up in the family court judicial system) says that, despite the findings in the survey and the BBC report, parental alienation ‘does actually happen on the ground’, adding, ‘There genuinely are some women who maliciously set out to cut fathers out of their children’s lives, sometimes claiming physical or sexual abuse when it hasn’t happened.’

This, however, does not satisfy critics. Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, who led the Manchester University research, said at the time of publication that the credibility given to the concept of parental alienation was a ‘national scandal’ and that it represented nothing less than a ‘handy tool for abusers’.

In recent years concerns have been raised over inappropriately qualified psychologists appearing in family courts as experts in parental alienation when there is no such specialism, especially when they recommend an intervention (such as therapy) that they will benefit from financially. Labour MP Alex Cunningham has been quoted as saying that ‘unregulated self-declared experts [individuals with little to nothing in the way of formal qualifications or accreditation] are invited to give evidence [even though they] may in fact have a vested financial interest in diagnosing so-called alienation which they can then be paid to treat.’

These growing concerns have resulted in MPs calling for an inquiry into the use of the concept in court. Former shadow cabinet member Jess Phillips, who campaigns for justice in the family courts, has claimed that ‘fancy lawyers’ use parental alienation to argue women are ‘mad, hysterical, bad’.

The problems, say campaigners, are exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding proceedings in family courts. A law passed in 1960 means that nothing that happens can be reported without the express permission of the judge. In other words, those in the system can’t speak openly about their experiences. While undoubtedly this protects children against identification, critics argue that it makes it impossible to effect change in a system that has some very serious flaws.

In light of this, the women who spoke to YOU – including the court insider – could only do so anonymously, therefore their names have been changed.

Anna, 37

When Anna split from her husband after 11 years, her boys, aged six and nine, didn’t want to see their father. She says it became increasingly hard to get them to go for their weekend visits. He would resort to pulling them away as they clung to her, peeling their fingers from around her neck.

‘I wasn’t trying to keep them from seeing him,’ she says. ‘I just didn’t want to force them to go. He said they didn’t want to go with him because I had bad-mouthed him. He couldn’t accept that they didn’t want to be with him because he had behaved so badly. He couldn’t address his own failings, so he had to make it something that I had done.

‘They didn’t want to go because he was very authoritarian and heavy-handed with them. Very angry. But then, despite his strictness, on the flip side he was behaving like a teenager, introducing them to a lot of new girlfriends and leaving inappropriate things around the house, such as erotic underwear. One day my little boy came back distressed after finding drugs. The boys told me they felt unsafe with him.’

After her ex secretly recorded a conversation with Anna where she told him that his behaviour was erratic, he accused her of parental alienation and threatened to use the voice recording in legal action.

‘He found “experts” who specialise in parental alienation to argue for him in court. My barrister told me she didn’t know whether I would lose custody of my children. I was horrified. I had night terrors and the doctor prescribed antidepressants. I was in hell.

‘Desperate to keep my boys, I engaged with the parental alienation experts my ex had found. They run a “reprogramming” course which I felt was designed to push my ex’s agenda. I thought that if I didn’t agree that I had turned my children against him, I would lose custody. It broke my heart. Now they live with me, and he sees them for a few hours every other week.’

Jenny, 48

‘In my case, the court decided that I had turned my child against her father, and that the way to rectify the situation was to “reprogramme” her by sending her to live with him for almost two months. No contact between us. It was devastating. My daughter’s voice wasn’t listened to in court because the assumption was that she must have been influenced by me.

‘People think you must have done something wrong, but I hadn’t. My ex has been abusive, controlling and wanted full custody of our child at all costs. He used expensive lawyers to argue that I was alienating him and called a parental alienation “expert” to “prove” his case.

‘This expert made me enter a reunification programme. It was forced therapy. My responses were constantly monitored for anything that might suggest I was anti my child’s father. You are obviously desperate to have your child back, so petrified of saying the wrong thing. I felt I needed to actively promote my ex’s character to appease them.

‘It felt like a witch hunt. The person running the course told me, “You are too close to your daughter”, but obviously as a single parent you are close. If you say your ex is abusive, they say it’s because you have an agenda. And because of the secrecy surrounding the family courts, you feel you can’t risk talking to anyone, so you suffer in isolation. It makes you feel like you’re going mad.

‘My daughter has a depth of trauma that I can’t even begin to describe. She’s very clingy as she is terrified that we will be separated again. She has trouble sleeping and will shake when she hears sudden noises at night. We can’t even talk about the time we were separated. She now has a mistrust of authority and is highly anxious.

‘My ex and I now share responsibility for our daughter, but that time was the darkest of my life. I feel fortunate though, compared to the women who still don’t have access to their children.’


by lawyer Elizabeth Fletcher, director and mediator at FLiP (Family Law in Partnership)

What constitutes parental alienation?

Cafcass (cafcass.gov.uk) – in effect the court’s social worker – defines it as ‘when a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent’.

What happens if you are found culpable?

The ultimate sanction for a parent who is proven to be alienating a child against the other parent, and refusing to desist, is a change of the child’s residence from one parent to the other.

How reliable are the experts?

In most cases a court-appointed state welfare officer completes a report. Some families appoint an independent social worker, which they pay for privately and jointly.

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