Coping with the Parental Alienation Syndrome

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KEY PLAYERS IN THE GAME

The biggest problem in the ‘Custody game’ is that there is no single authority that deals with all the issues. The government’s attempts to deal with the ‘problem’ have been a patchwork at best.

The Government

The government took an interest in family problems under the Thatcher regime, when it was shown that the largest payout of welfare benefits went to single-mothers. The knee-jerk reaction was to pursue ‘deadbeat’ dads who did not pay maintenance for their children after separation.  It was seen as a financial problem, not a social one.

The Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up. This separated the previous court orders for Maintenance and Contact. Whereas a father who did not see his children might stop paying maintenance, and so have some negotiating power, the situation changed so that non-payment of maintenance now became a criminal offence, and the father could be, and often is, fined or jailed. Stopping or disrupting contact was not considered an offence. Though legally, not obeying a court order for contact is to be ‘In Contempt of court’, this is rarely pursued. 

The end result was that mothers could now stop or disrupt contact with impunity yet still get maintenance. The government’s response was that “It is not in the interests of the children for the mother to be fined or jailed”.

It is worth noting that there are many single-mothers who have been fined or jailed for offences as trivial as not paying parking fines or TV licenses, and similar. These matters are the concern of the criminal and civil courts where the children are not an issue of the case. This inconsistency is one of many that need to be addressed before justice will prevail.

The ‘Interests of the children’ has become a standard reply on just about every argument for punishing the errant parent. In spite of that, increasing media coverage of the ‘fathers problems’ with contact, and the amount of cases being brought back to court for mothers stopping contact, led to the use of the legal ploy of the mother stating:

I am happy for the children to see the father but they do not wish to see him”.

In spite of her being ‘happy’ for the children to see the father, it would be a rare case when she encouraged them to do so; PAS had become a legal strategy for the mother.

The Family Business Authorities

The main authorities that deal with Family business are:

The Home Office

The Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD)

The Department of Health (D.o.H).

The Home Office: This division has an overall responsibility for the Probation Service, a part of which was the Family Court Welfare Service (FCWS), This has now resolved to become CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service www.cafcass.gov.uk/ ) and not  directly under the Home Office.

The importance of this historically is that the FCWS having been derived from the Probation service tended to have staff trained in dealing with offenders, and fathers were considered as such, irrespective of their part in a separation. The FCWS was also considered the ‘Cinderella’ division of the Probation Service. The probation officers were in a ‘no-win’ situation in that whatever they did, one parent or the other would be unhappy, and they would get no thanks for whatever they achieved.

In all, being a Family Court Welfare Officer was rarely a career of choice. Many come into it as a second career, and court welfare officers might typically be retired servicemen, ex-nurses, or women who were coming back into work after their family had grown up. Very few would have much experience either of family law or child welfare. The main essential of their job was being able to interview parents and write a reasonably legible report.

Bearing in mind that Court reporters have to do around sixty cases a year, and at most spend about four hours with each parent (usually less, and done in two interviews with each), their reports usually consists of “She says this and he says that”, and with the conclusions of who should have the child. Needless to say it ends up with the mother getting custody unless there is an exceedingly good case for the father or an exceedingly bad case against the mother.

For the FCWO the easiest thing to do is to recommend the mother, as this will normally involve the least work. It doesn’t require investigating the allegations from each side. At this point PAS comes into its own, as the FCWO will have spoken to the children who will state (in the presence of the mother) that they do not wish to see the father again. There has been the odd FCWO who will interview the children in the presence of the father, and found the children are quite happy to see the father again.

Although children are defined as ‘minors’ in criminal and civil law, with their evidence being considered as unreliable, in Family law, their statements are regarded as reliable. This is fundamental to PAS. It relies on the fact that government’s document ‘Working together under the Children Act 1989’ has become the guideline for custody cases, and in that document it is set out that the child’s views should be taken into account.

In so far as FCWO’s (or Court Reporters as they are now called) do not officially recognise PAS, the father cannot present this as a case in his evidence. If he does, and it goes in the court report, it is likely to be ignored by the court, or even used against him. This in turn makes the father’s solicitor unlikely to use it as an argument, so in even the most glaringly obvious cases of PAS it may not get presented in support of the father.

The Lord Chancellor’s Dept (LCD)

The LCD is in charge of the courts. It cannot influence the courts but can carry out studies on the efficiency of the courts, and promote changes in the law and the codes of practice. The LCD was responsible for getting unmarried fathers Parental Responsibility Orders (PRO) that had only previously been available to divorced fathers. It has also carried out studies on why contact orders are not obeyed in so many cases.

It is the Family Law courts that deal with custody disputes. At the lowest level there are the Magistrates courts, then the District Courts, and the High Courts.

It is advisable for fathers to avoid the Magistrates courts if possible. Magistrates are typically drawn from volunteers whose experience in law might be limited to something like having been a legal secretary for some years. Their knowledge of child welfare might well be limited to their own family. The majority of Family law magistrates are women, and one might assume they are sympathetic to mothers. And again, Magistrates are volunteers, so the attraction of the job is the power rather than the money. In most cases it is the father who is pleading.

The LCD is making great efforts to improve the Court system, but by its nature of being historically reluctant to change; operated by the Judiciary which is effectively ‘beyond the law’, and by archaic laws conceived to deal with crime and property rather than family disputes, it may take a long time.

The Department of Health (D.o.H)

Most child welfare experts believe that these matters should be dealt with by those trained in Family therapy and child psychiatry rather than the courts.

PAS is not easy to define legally, and is essentially a medical problem, so should be dealt with by experts in that field. But this in turn creates another issue. To be dealt with medically, PAS has to be recognised officially as a medical ‘disease’ or a definable ‘syndrome’.

A ‘syndrome’ is a group of factors that are found together in a disorder. In the Parental Alienation Syndrome the factors include:

  • The child hating the father
  • The child stating that it does so of its own accord
  • The mother stating she has not influenced the child
  • The child’s ‘hate’ extending to all the fathers family and acquaintances
  • The mother cutting off all forms of communication between the child and the father
  • The mother exploiting every situation that will denigrate the father

The problem for psychiatrists is that the ‘syndrome’ factors are spread between the mother and child, and it is the father who suffers. It has no parallel with a syndrome where the sufferer alone has all the factors.

The closest ‘syndrome’ to PAS that is accepted officially is the ‘Stockholm syndrome’. This is where a hostage is so frightened of their captor that they obey everything they are told to do, and will even be frightened of being rescued in case the captor harms them in the process. To that extent they will identify with the captor and denigrate anyone attempting to rescue them.

Children suffering from PAS might be classed as hostages. They have lost one parent and are in fear of losing the other. They reflect the attitudes of the mother regarding the father, and in turn, the mother rewards the child for its ‘truthfulness’.

Over a period, the child might start to ‘remember’ bad things the father did. This falls into the ‘False Memory Syndrome’. The mother will have removed all evidence of the father from the family home, so the child will have little to reinforce real memories.

 

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