I do not usually have to cross a picket line to attend a conference, so that was a something new. Families Need Fathers had organised a conference about parental alienation, with speakers including Anthony Douglas from Cafcass and Chris Cloke from NSPCC. Legal Action for Women and Women Against Rape had written an open letter to Cafcass and NSPCC urging them not to attend a ‘conference that gives credence to misogyny’ and were staging a protest outside the venue.
I spoke to two of the protesters. Lisa Langstaft from Women Against Rape told me that the protest was not about the subject matter of the conference and that they did not dispute (or really know much about) parental alienation. The object of the protest was Families Need Fathers. They were also protesting about Cafcass and NSPCC for speaking at one of their events because, the protesters contend, Families Need Fathers deny domestic violence. Their open letter sets out their allegations very clearly. If true they are very serious, including incitement to murder mothers who are obstructing contact with children.
Nina Lopez from Legal Action for Women told me ‘Any father who denies the extent of domestic violence cannot be a caring father’. Whether you accept that statement or not, what could not be denied, was the honesty of these ladies’ beliefs. They were courteous and made no attempt to intimidate or to stop anyone attending the conference.
For my part, I started the day with divided feelings. I have argued enough cases against violent and abusive parents, who should never be allowed near a puppy, let alone a child, to know that the abuse of which the protesters complained is very real and that real parents and real children have died violent deaths. On the other hand, I have been involved in tragic and heart-breaking cases where perfectly decent parents (of both sexes) have been subjected to rejection by their children, at the instigation (deliberate or not) of the other parent. In the real world, the villain is more often sad than bad, and rarely helps us with identification, by wearing a black Stetson.
Should NSPCC and Cafcass have attended? Even if all the allegations against FnF were right, I think that they should. The conference speakers were all professionals from the law, social work, psychiatry and psychology. The delegates were, for the most part parents. Mainly, but not exclusively fathers, who often felt that the Family Court was institutionally biased against them. There is an urgent need for everyone within the family justice system to engage with people who feel excluded. If some fathers believe that the Family Court is against them from the start, are we not obliged to try and engage with them?
I also think it should be said, that the 2013 reforms to family legal aid have worked to increase many parents’ sense of isolation and bias against them. A parent who has made allegations of abuse to doctors, or the police will be likely to have legal aid and access to lawyers. Those accused, have no such support and can be forgiven for thinking that they have been convicted without trial. How can the state reconcile the right to a fair trial, with a system which ensures inequality of arms? It is important that children are protected from those who may cause them harm but that guilt must be a matter of evidence and not presumption. Any other approach harms children who may lose a parent who had much to contribute to their lives. A litigant in person father, raising a question with Judge Wildblood, from the floor, explained that he was dyslexic and had been to court 37 times about seeing his children. Leaving aside the question of fairness to him, how can this be fair to the children whose lives must be dominated by an unending feud, stress and uncertainty?
What did I learn from the day? We heard compelling descriptions of alienation from Dr Sue Whitcombe, a Chartered Psychologist and Dr Hamish Cameron, a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Parental alienation has no class or gender base. Because the majority of primary carers happen to be mothers they feature in more cases as the alienating than the alienated parent. Dr Cameron was quite explicit, saying ‘men do it too’. He has likewise seen instances where the non-resident parent has, deliberately, or otherwise, sought to alienate a child from the resident parent.
Dr Whitcombe explained that children are hard-wired to attach to their parents; even to the neglectful and abusive ones. With cases of alienation she explained, you will see an absolute level of estrangement which is rare even after abuse. This is linked with a lack of any emotional context for the things which the child is saying are the reasons they do not wish to see the other parent. The reasons given are sometimes bizarre, sometimes trivial, but they arise as a defence mechanism for a child who is trying to protect himself from an unbearable level of adult conflict, with which they simply cannot cope. Anthony Douglas, who told us that he had, in his childhood experienced alienating behaviour from one of his adoptive parents, warned against professionals being too eager to dismantle this defensive shield ‘unless you are confident that you can replace it with something better’.
Adopting easy stereotypes would lead us to label the alienator as the bad, manipulating parent and the alienated parent as the aggrieved innocent. Dr Whitcombe and HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC urged compassion and understanding. Deliberate plotting is a rarity. More often we are seeing a reaction to fear and insecurity which is often inter-generational, so that the alienated child, inculcated with a black/white, binary view of the world is more likely to have difficulties in their adult relationships and to themselves alienate children from their other parent. I think that Emily Bronte had it right all along, when she showed, in Wuthering Heights, how the abused becomes the abuser, cascading the harm from one generation to the next.
So, we have a problem and we cannot just throw up our hands and say it is insoluble. It damages the lives of both parents and the child and that damage can endure throughout the child’s life and blight the lives of generations to come. We heard of lives destroyed and parents driven to suicide. Dr Cameron said that we only see what we know. Hence, there is still a problem of parental alienation being unseen and unrecognised by social work professionals. Although Anthony Douglas was very clear about the reality and pernicious effects of a child being alienated from one parent, a parent questioning him from the floor recounted being told by a Cafcass officer that parental alienation did not exist. Dr Whitcombe told us that Cafcass Cymru still resist the use of the term. Whilst there are Cafcass training webinars on the subject, a FoI request made by one of the delegates had revealed that from 1400 Cafcass staff, the two webinars had been watched by 22 and 32 members.
According to Anthony Douglas, Cafcass’ new High Conflict Pathway will include compulsory training for practitioners in these matters. He reflected how, for the child, it was ‘a double whammy’ where one parent was using the child to meet their own needs, whilst the child was being kept from the other parent who could meet the child’s needs.
Judge Wildblood had a clear approach, stating that the first thing which is needed is an early factual determination. Is this parental alienation, or has the parent alienated themselves from the child by their unacceptable conduct? In my experience, Courts which are overburdened with work and short of resources may be resistant to this approach, but, in the longer run, it will help the children and stop cases dragging on for years. Once this has been resolved there should be a clear judgment which can be used as the basis for getting help and support where it is needed and (if necessary) compelling a local authority to act to protect the child from further harm.
I suppose that it is to be welcomed that we are now beginning to understand the phenomenon of parental alienation, how it arises and (just sometimes) how it can be undone. None of this, however, prevented the day from being a sad focus on our almost infinite capacity to mutilate and destroy those we are supposed to love and care for.