Thursday, 18 April 2013

Parental Alienation in Children's Issues matters

"I don't care if he spends time with her, I just don't want to see him. I don't talk crap about him at home, we just don't talk about him." "My daughter just hates him, I don't know why. It's not my fault."

I have a fascinating matter where the issue of parental alienation has cropped up. If you haven't heard of it before, it is where one parent influences the child's opinion of the other parent so that they demonstrate dislike to the other parent.

This can cause the child to unreasonably object to spending time with the other person, or to make unreasonable demands on them. When asked, the child who has been affected will often not know why they are behaving as they are, or will give a nonsensical reason, such as 'He's too tall.'

I will discuss the controversy about Parental Alienation in the context of the Family Courts in another post, because that is an entire subject of itself.

For now, I will look at how it affects children, and what sorts of behavior can trigger it.

There are lots of websites promoting this or that view of Parental Alienation, and some of them clearly push their own agendas. The origin of the term came from American psychologist Richard Gardener, however his term 'Parental Alienation Syndrome' has not been accepted by the wider medical community as an actual mental illness or condition.

Wikipedia says this about Parental Alienation Syndrome: "Parental alienation syndrome (abbreviated as PAS) is term coined by Richard A. Gardner in the early 1980s to refer to what he describes as a disorder in which a child, on an ongoing basis, belittles and insults one parent without justification, due to a combination of factors, including indoctrination by the other parent (almost exclusively as part of a child custody dispute) and the child's own attempts to denigrate the target parent. Gardner introduced the term in a 1985 paper, describing a cluster of symptoms he had observed during the early 1980s."

Where Gardner appeared to go wrong is trying to attribute the behavior to the child, rather than the parent.

Other groups, such as and Parental Alienation Awareness Organisation have lots of resources to look at, and I recommend glancing at them if you deal in Children's Issues matters.

Douglass Darnell, Ph.D, has written lots of articles about the subject, several of which are featured on the PAAO website, including one titled 'Three types of parental alienation.' It is not possible to reproduce the text here due to copyright, but please look through the site where the full text is available.

What is most useful to a solicitor dealing with this sort of matter is the summary of each type of alienating behaviour.

Naïve Alienation
"Tell your father that he has more money than I do, so let him buy your soccer shoes." 

Active Alienation
"I don't want you to tell your father that I earned this extra money. The miser will take it from his child support check that will keep us from going to Disneyworld. You remember he's done this before when we wanted to go to Grandma's for Christmas." 

Obsessed Alienation
"I love my children. If the court can't protect them from their abusive father, I will. Even though he's never abused the children, I know it's a matter of time. The children are frightened of their father. If they don't want to see him, I'm not going to force them. They are old enough to make up their own minds." 

The intentions behind each type are different, but the one that has affected my practise the most is the last one, the obsessed alienation.

[I have redacted this section, because once I publish this under my own name, it might lead to identification of the client.]

The matter proceeded to a s62G Family Report, where a report writer sits down and spends time with the parents and the children in different combinations, and observes the interactions. On this occasion, the child again refused to spend time with the father, and the report writer had to make her report on the basis of the CCC reports, and the time she spent with the mother and the child.

The report writer noted a few things that the mother said, which pointed towards Obsessive Alienation behaviors. She said things like "We never talk about him" and "I don't care if she spends time with him." What the report was clear on, however, was that there was no reason at all for the child to react the way she did to the father. There was no history of abuse, no family violence, and the father appeared child focused and responded appropriately to the child at the contact centre.

The mother swore affidavit after affidavit saying that she didn't oppose the relationship between the child and the father, but it was clear that the damage to the relationship was emanating from her antipathy to the father. Even though she didn't SAY anything bad about the father in the presence of the child, she was completely unsupportive of him spending time with the child.

The problem is that for the mother, her attitude to the father is probably justified. He appeared to have been an asshole during the relationship, and probably hasn't helped things since then.

However, the Family Law Act 1975 states that the Court MUST take into consideration 'the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both of the child's parents.' The Court has interpreted this to meant that it must take into account that there is a possibility that the child will benefit from this relationship.

In this case, it was clear that the father HAD THE CAPACITY to have a good relationship with the child. But he was prevented from doing so by the child's unreasonable attitude to him.

The Court is now considering whether to change the residence of the child to the father's care. As the report writer said, "The court should consider which parent is better able to support all of the child's relationships." This seemed like an extreme move, especially since the father only sought access, not residence, but if you consider that the child has a possibility of having a benefit from a relationship with both parents, and that the mother was incapable of supporting one with the father, it begins to make more sense.

If you take anything from this wall of text, I recommend that you discuss with your clients the nature of Parental Alienation, and the possible outcomes (including the child being removed and placed with the other parent). If it is entrenched, your client might become very emotional when you start describing their features and attitudes under the heading of 'Obsessed Alienation', but in the long run, if you can head off the trauma, it will be better for them, and for the child.

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