Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
“What’s in a name?” This is an important question that is sometimes asked. A surname is an important recognition of a person to a particular family, clan or tribe. It carries a lot of history and in many cases a lot of pride. The surname of a person is a reflection of the fact that two people, a mother and a father, have created a living being together. It also means the sharing of certain genetic attributes and that the child/children belong to the two persons who have created them.
One of the more extreme forms of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that happens is the enforced name change of children. This results from an acrimonious divorce or separation and hostility which continues unabated. Such hatred for the partner by the custodial parent, usually the mother, takes many forms. (These are covered in other works by the current author.) Often there are a number of aspects acting in concert. Each reflects the hatred of one party against the other. The surname change however, is normally due to the mother wishing to totally obliterate the father as well as his name.
As a clinical psychologist and expert witness for the courts, I am involved both with mothers and fathers who have lost custody with their children and frequently have also lost contact. About 25% are mothers and 75% are fathers. Trying to find a just and fair resolution to this problem of acrimony between parting couples is on the whole for the benefit primarily of the children. It is also however, of benefit to the parent who has difficulty in having access to a child.
I have in the process of my work observed the following: 1) The reaction of children is to feel helpless and distressed as their parents show their animosity including making contact between the absent parent and the child difficult, and sometimes impossible. Most of those that are in such a position are fathers. There are however, also mothers who suffer similarly; 2) Destroying the chance of non custodial parents playing a role in a child’s life and providing love as well as guidance and emotional support for that child.
The result is: 1) a child who is often emotionally scarred for life, unless something is done about the problem of the alienation of “brainwashing” of the child against the absent parent; 2) The rejection of the parent being deprived of playing a role in the life of the child.
We will consider in what follows how the ultimate alienation by mothers works and how it could be prevented by policy and the judiciary.
The ultimate rejection
There are many forms of rejection. These include the vilifying of the absent parent in every possible way to the child via brainwashing of the child over an extended period of time. Ultimately the child wishes for little if any contact with the absent parent, blaming that absent parent for all that has been described by the custodial parent. In at least half a dozen cases in which I have been personally involved, the absent parent, usually the father, has been rejected in this extreme manner. It is done by having the names of the children changed from that of the father to either that of the mother or the mother’s new partner. This is often done without permission from the absent parent, usually the father, and without having been given the permission by the court or other legal organisations.
Such obliteration of the father’s name, and in so doing the father himself, as an equal carer and parent is carried out following the “brainwashing” of the children’s thinking. Once the child has accepted the information, which is very likely to happen, such organisations as CAFCASS and the courts will “rubber stamp” or accept the “children’s view”. Neither social workers or the courts appear to be looking behind why children seek or accept such a name change. The change of name is then communicated to schools and other organisations with which the child interacts.
The position of the obliterated parent i.e. the father is a weak one. If he insists on protesting and considers that the child should retain his own name via the courts, it threatens the positive relationship he may still have with his children. This is because the threat of court actions is used by the mother to create further bad feelings towards the father. “You see, your father is trying to make me go to prison. That’s the sort of man he is.” Hence penal or punitive action may rarely be instituted any way by the court against the mother’s action of changing the children’s names. Hence this becomes an effective weapon involving the children by claiming that it is the children’s desire that their names be changed.
Many fathers are unaware of this scenario. Others are aware and hence reluctantly go along with the children’s last names being changed merely to keep the peace and merely to be able to have some contact with their child. What is not realised by the judiciary is that such vulnerable children will do anything the custodial parent wishes them to do. The father involved will often avoid taking any action due to the fact that such children are vulnerable and may suffer from the result of further abuse due to the mother’s hostile intentions. Mothers are quite capable in failing to accede to Court Orders and will make it as difficult as possible, if not impossible, by claiming that the children are “unwilling to have contact with the father.”
The blame is therefore totally unjustly placed on the father who is absent rather than the mother who orchestrated the name change in the first instance. The reaction of some fathers is to opt out of continuing to pursue their fatherly contact. This is then used by the mother again to ‘hammer home’ and to show the children how little father really cares about them as he now appears to have abandoned them. This is what mother said all along and now there is active proof. This father has not only been obliterated by his name being removed, but also he is sidelined as a less than desirable parent in the eyes of the children and hence has no further contact.
The only other reaction possible is for the father to accept the humiliation of seeing his child’s acceptance of the name change. Some fathers therefore accept the name change only so that they can continue to have at least some access to the children they love and towards whom they wish to continue to play a part in their lives.
Preventing the obliterating of paternity
There is a way of preventing the sad state of affairs just described. Those who represent the child acting as a true Guardian ad Litem should be aware of the manoeuvrings or strategy of the alienating parent. These include the holding and using of the child as a hostage to get their own way, and the using of the child as a bargaining tool against the non custodial parent i.e, the father. Hence children who accept a surname change should be viewed with some suspicion. Why should the child accept this or want this to happen? That should be the question asked. The father should also be contacted and made aware of what is happening. There is often the failure in professionals such as social workers and even the judiciary to look beneath the surface as to what children claim they want or accept. It should be realised that the idea of a change of surname originates not from the child at all but from the custodial parent. The child merely accepts what that powerful parent want to happen. The child being of unequal power is more than likely to do what the custodial parent, i.e. the mother, wants. The child, as in any process of alienation against the father, identifies with the custodial parent, that is the mother, under whose control he/she lives.
CAFCASS and the courts need to be aware of all this and immediately make contact with the father to ascertain his wishes on the matter. He is unlikely to agree to such change of name. The court and judiciary need to be involved to prevent such a change unless father agrees. This is most unlikely to be the case. Again CAFCASS and the judiciary need to be aware of the consequences of the mother being prevented in changing the surname of the child. The likely response from the mother is, as already stated, to put further restrictions on the father for regular good access to the child. The judiciary in making a judgement can act in various ways to improve the situation and indeed to carry out real justice: 1) to automatically accept a mother and children’s account, and to accept the name change, this however not being justice at all; 2) direct that no name change should occur and prevent the potential restriction of good access by the father to his child. Should mother fail to adhere to this direction, the courts can make clear the following options: a) Father have custody of the child with mother having reasonable access as was indeed intended for the father when the reverse occurred and mother had custody; b) Placing the child in care until the matter of good access for the father occurs or mother agrees to this occurring in deed rather than merely in words; c) Carrying out any number of punitive or alternative actions in order to ensure both parents have good access to the child.
This would constitute a true illustration of justice and those that are most likely to benefit from this is the child. The threat of this could well be sufficient to prevent the obliteration of the role of the father as well as his name. The threat however, must be capable of resulting in judicial action should the threat be insufficient to change the situation.