Guardian/Observer

Poisonous parenting

An appeal court judge has granted a new hearing to a father who claims his ex-wife turned his son against him. Maureen Freely reports on the controversy in the family courts over 'parental alienation syndrome'

Maureen Freely
Tuesday October 1, 2002
The Guardian

We don't have the names. But the basic story goes like this. About two years ago, a multi-millionaire and his brother had a "profound quarrel." Soon afterwards, the brother went to visit the multi-millionaire's ex-wife. He told her that she was endangering her son if she let him have any contact with his father: the man, he said, was a homosexual alcoholic drug addict who waved guns around.

There had never been any trouble over contact between the boy and his father, but once the mother's mind had been "poisoned", she began to show great reluctance. She was quick to pass her doubts on to her son. Although the boy continued to visit his father, he too began to show a "profound antipathy" to him. Eventually, he said he never wanted to see his father again. The mother said that was fine by her. The father went to court.

Family courts are closed courts and what happens inside them is not in the public domain. We know the facts of this story only because the case reached the Court of Appeal, where different rules apply. Last month, Lord Justice Thorpe granted the father permission to appeal against a high court ruling barring contact. We also know that he overturned the ruling because it failed to give serious consideration to the possibility that the boy might have been "alienated" against his father.

The father's allegations "called for much greater prominence and much clearer findings" by the high court judge who heard the case, he said. This might sound like common sense to you and me. But the word "alienation" has a stormy history in the world of family law. It is so laden with meaning that many barristers won't use it at all, for fear of annoying judges who might then rule against them. Could the appeal court's ruling signal a sea change in the way family courts handle intractable disputes?

For some time, it has been received wisdom that it is a good thing to give serious consideration to the wishes of children caught in contact disputes between parents. It would be hard to argue otherwise; too many of us remember the bad old days, when children making allegations of abuse were hardly believed at all. But some experts now say that it is dangerous to take children's testimony at face value. What children say must be put into context and interpreted with care. This is especially important during contact disputes.

The man who has made this case most forcefully is Dr Richard Gardner, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University in New York. He first gained prominence for his work on false abuse claims, one reason why some women's rights organisations view him with suspicion. Over the years, he became concerned about the number of parents who conducted campaigns to turn their children against the other parent during custody disputes. Some managed to turn children against their otherparent forever.

Family courts often failed to see what was going on, and so colluded with what Gardner felt to be a form of abuse. In 1985, when he first named it "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS), it was his view that most of the perpetrators were mothers. More recently he has noted a gender shift - about half of the perpetrators he hears about now are fathers.

The manipulation that can lead to PAS can be quite subtle. A classic case is the mother who assures her young son that everything will be fine during his next visit to his father: "But if something does happen, darling, you do know, don't you, that you can ring 999?." In moderate cases, there will be a routine running-down of the other parent in front of the child: "He's such a bastard, isn't he? He's late with his maintenance, he drives too fast and his girlfriend is a trollop."

In most cases, the alienating parent is just extremely angry, often justifiably: divorces are born of betrayal. Douglas Darnall, another US psychiatrist, suggests that most divorcing parents engage in some alienating behaviour at some point. It's only in extreme cases that you see "obsessive alienators". These are the ones who become utterly convinced that the other parent is a demon and see it as their duty to save their children from his clutches. If their fears are well-founded - if the parent in question is indeed a drug addict with a thing for guns - then of course they have a case.

PAS as Gardner describes it applies only to vilification campaigns that have little basis in reality. If successful, the child will become the alienating parent's unquestioning ally. He will give weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalisations for this campaign and will show no guilt or ambivalence about it. He will use adult (ie, borrowed) language when referring to the hated parent, and may even extend his hatred to that parent's family and friends. This is the sort of child Gardner wants courts to stop taking at face value. He wants it recognised as a syndrome so that the court will have no choice.

PAS has yet to be recognised by the American Psychiatric Association. It has gained acceptance in US family courts, but it is still very controversial. Some courts are not just forcing alienated children to visit their other parent; in some cases, they have moved the children into the hated parent's house. A parent who tries to block such a move can face a prison sentence.

Gardner claims that such draconian measures can work wonders. But others are up in arms about these tactics: last month the California chapter of the National Organisation for Women (Now) became so concerned about the use of PAS in family courts that it launched a statewide campaign to refute and ban it. California Now claims that most of the parents who use PAS in court are fathers, and that many of them use PAS to dismiss the mother's real concerns about violence and abuse.

Fathers' rights groups have called their data and anti-father bias into question. The slanging match is fast becoming an all-out gender turf war. If PAS becomes an accepted syndrome in Britain, could we see the same thing happening here?

Not necessarily, says Penny Cross. As the head of Match (Mothers Apart from their Children) she knows only too well that parental alienation is not a gender issue. She estimates that about 90% of the 1,500 Match members are living apart from their children due to alienation.

As a member of the Equal Parenting Coalition, Cross has met many men in the same position. She thinks the only way forward is for men and women to work together "to take power away from the hands of those who are chronically enraged".

Like many involved in that campaign, she thinks the emphasis should be on children and what is best for them. "Parent education is absolutely vital. You need to learn how to undo your marriage with the least possible harm to your children."

When Gardner visited England last month, he met a number of judges as well as Anthony Hewson, chairman of Cafcass, the organisation that produces child welfare reports for the family courts. But many family law professionals in Britain are still reluctant to think of parental alienation as an illness, while others worry that acceptance of PAS might lead some courts to dismiss abuse and domestic violence allegations, thereby putting children at risk.

Dr Hamish Cameron, one of Britain's most distinguished consultant child psychiatrists, thinks that one way forward is to leave off the "S". He says: "The concept of PAS is an enormous step forward. But if you use the word 'syndrome' it scares the judge and it scares the lawyers. They think, God, we need an expert. All they really need is a little illumination. The understanding that the mechanism can occur really is a revelation," says Cameron. "Once you can see that it's a system of ideas in the mind of a child, it's more comfortable to deal with. There's even room to feel compassion for the alienating parent, who is often acting on misunderstandings that have risen out of fear and incomplete knowledge."

That said, it is also important to bear in mind something else Gardner mentions frequently. PAS, as he defines it, is not caused by alienating parents in isolation. The biggest alienators of all are the adversarial mechanisms of the courts.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002