Sunday Herald

New law to stop divorcing parents turning children against each other

Scottish parliament to amend Family Law Bill after a 13-year-old hires an advocate in fight to see her sisters

By Neil Mackay
Home Affairs Editor
Sunday Herald - 02 June 2002

AT first Megan seems like any other 13-year-old girl from a middle-class home. She's pretty, but a little conscious of the braces on her teeth, has a taste for tracksuits and trainers and tends to look a bit peeved with her dad, Jack, when he interrupts her.

Megan, however, is no ordinary teenager. Although she can't be identified for legal reasons, this is a child who has single-handedly changed Scottish law. Last week, MSPs decided, after hearing her give evidence to the Scottish parliament about one of psychiatry's most controversial disorders -- Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) -- to begin drafting an amendment to the Scottish Executive's Family Law Bill.

The 'Megan Clause', which will be in legislation that is central to the government's claim that it is 'putting children at the heart of policy', will allow children to sue their parents for the right to gain access to their own brothers and sisters.

Supporters of the highly contentious PAS -- which many dispute even exists -- say the condition involves one parent, in a split family, 'brainwashing' their sons and daughters to 'hate' their estranged partner or other siblings who no longer live with them.

Megan's story is far from unusual -- tens of thousands of children experience bitter family breakdowns just as she has -- but it has been her way of tackling the system that let her down that is extraordinary. This is a girl who was so convinced she was right and the system was wrong that she hired her own solicitor and advocate in a bid to change the law -- and won.

By Megan's own account her mother was an emotionally bullying woman. Until 18 months ago Megan lived with her father, her mother and her two sisters. The town she lived in can't be identified. Following her parents' separation, Megan asked to live with her father. Her mother's response was to attempt to place Megan into care rather than allow her to live with Jack. After battling her mother at the Children's Panel for the right to live with her father, Megan and her father now live together while her two younger sisters have chosen to stay with their mother.

Speaking with an intellect that belies her years, Megan says: 'Everything was about control with my mother. She'd scream in my face and tell me nobody liked me while poking me in the face and chest.'

Megan, who not only has an excellent academic record but has also schooled herself over the last 18 months in child psychology, is a firm believer in PAS. Megan is sure her mother 'turned' her sisters against her father. 'She then turned them against me ,' she says. Psychiatrists say PAS involves a 'malleable child' being controlled by a parent who moulds them into fearing and despising the other parent, or their grandparents or siblings, for no reason.

'My sisters grew to hate my dad for no reason,' she said. 'Then they stopped speaking to me when my mum was about. She didn't overtly tell my sisters my dad was a devil, but it was a slow indoctrination. She could be very intimidating. They learned that if they said they wanted to be with him or see him she'd be angry with them, so they chose to identify with her for an easy life.

'After dad left, I spent two months at home. Mum was continually threatening me -- she even said she'd get someone at school to beat me up. When I told her I wanted to move in with dad, she said she would have me put in a home. The arguments just got worse. During one row, she even called me a 'f***ing wee bitch'.

'In the morning, my clothes were put in a plastic bag and she told me to go. One of my sisters wasn't even allowed to say goodbye. That was a few days before Christmas 2000.'

Her father had to seek a supervision order from the Children's Panel to prevent his daughter being placed in care by his estranged wife. 'She just wanted to punish me for not doing what she wanted me to,' says Megan. Recently another Children's Panel hearing renewed the order. During that hearing, her mother again tried to have her put in care

Although Megan's father has access rights to his two other children, his wife has refused both him and Megan the opportunity to see the girls. Despite repeated attempts to get her to comply through the courts, Megan's mother has not let them see the other sisters even though social workers, the courts and psychologists have all said she must grant access.

'I had to grow up pretty quickly,' says Megan. 'I realised I had to get to see my sisters and I had to help my dad get to see them too.' She hired a lawyer and began fighting her mother for the right to see her sisters. She is now named in her parents' divorce as also seeking access to the girls.

Megan recently gave evidence to the Public Petitions Committee citing Parental Alienation Syndrome as a reason why children should have the legal right to challenge for access to siblings who have been 'alienated from them' by their parents. 'Just because my sisters have had their minds poisoned by my mum doesn't mean I should lose the right to see them,' she said. 'I love them very much and I want to -- and need to -- see them.'

In her evidence to the parliamentary committee, she described the day her mother threw her out of her home. ' My little sister was five and she pleaded with me not to go. She stood there crying -- she did not want me to go. She curled her little fingers around my jacket and would not let go, but I had to leave.

'All the while my mother was dancing and singing to music.'

Megan's testimony has so moved members of the committee that they are now drafting an amendment to the Family Law Bill. Sources in the Scottish Executive said there was 'no way' the amendment would not become part of the law. One member, the independent MSP Dorothy-Grace Elder, said: 'Megan's address was simply awesome. She left all the members in stunned silence. We had no doubt about the truth of what she said.

'We know couples can go to war with each other when they separate, but the issue of children being kept apart from their brothers and sisters has never been raised before, but it has to be acted on right now. It is incredibly cruel to think of siblings being kept apart and missing out on a lifetime of love and friendship that is theirs by right.

'I'm preparing an amendment to the Family Law Bill, in the light of what Megan said, that will give siblings and grandparents the legal right to access each other as long as there is no risk to the children involved. This law will be solely down to Megan. She is an incredible girl.'

Sex war over Parental Alienation Syndrome

THE American psychiatrist who first diagnosed Parental Alienation Syndrome has found himself in the middle of a gender war in Scotland between the men's lobby and feminists over his research into the disorder.

Dr Richard Gardner, a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University's Medical School in New York, says his research has been turned into a political football, with the men's movement claiming it proves all women are out to paint men as evil and feminists claiming it is a charter for abusers to get custody of children.

Glasgow solicitor Frank Collins has already started acting for a number of men who claim they are victims of PAS, and that their estranged wives 'brainwashed' their children into hating them .

Gardner will be in London in the autumn for a two-day conference on PAS backed by the Equal Parenting Council, which campaigns for father's rights. He is also liaising with UK lawyers who have PAS cases on their books.

George McAulay, Glasgow-based chairman of the UK Men's Movement, said Gardner's research 'burst the bubble of the feminist dream' which he said was to 'drive fathers from families'.

McAulay's organisation, criticised by women's groups as sexist, says it wants a return to 'families led by fathers' . McAulay believes that in most PAS cases it is the 'woman who has wrongly alienated the children from their father'.

He said: ' Feminism has succeeded in demonising fathers and canonising mothers and PAS shows that to be wrong.'

But Margaret McGregor, the chair of the Zero Tolerance Trust which campaigns against domestic violence, said she was worried that PAS could be used as an excuse to allow abusive men back into the lives of their families. ' Particular care should be given so that no access arrangements can put an abused child at risk ,' she said .

Gardner, who has studied some 2000 cases of PAS, said: ' Both men and women do it. To turn it into a gender war is utterly self-defeating for everyone. If we forget the politics and stick to the science, then we will be properly looking out for our children.'

Gardner said abusive partners might attempt to trick courts into believing that they were victims of PAS. 'That is why our legal and medical establishments have to be astute and knowledgeable about PAS, so we can diagnose it properly and deal with real cases adequately in courts.'

Dorothy-Grace Elder, the independent MSP championing PAS in the Scottish parliament, said: 'Turning this into a sex war skews the righteousness of what is trying to be done.'

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