Post Separation Conflicts Which Affect Contact for an Alienated Parent
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Post-Separation Conflicts Which Affect Contact for an Alienated Parent
Dealing With Parental Post-Separation Conflicts
Let us consider the effect on children as well as adults of the increasing prevalence of divorce and separation between adults with children. The first objective will be to consider how to prevent conflicts between previously close adults followed by positive aspects of mediation as well as at times some of the negative repercussions of mediation. Further discussed will be mediation as an alternative to litigation and also the use of education and counselling to deal with post-divorce problems.
Each year, 50% of all marriages now end in divorce and 1 million children are exposed to a divorced family in the United States alone (Taylor, 2005). Among the methods of resolving some of the issues that develop as a result of such separation and divorce, we will consider mediation between the parents. Unfortunately many adults do not believe in, or trust the process of mediation when it is ordered. Children and adolescents coming from families with high levels of marital conflicts display a variety of difficulties. Much depends on the intensity of the problems between the adults. Such problems certainly effect the self-esteem of both children and adolescents. In many cases in later life both children and adolescents develop more fearful attachment styles in comparison to those coming from families of low marital conflict (Sirvanli-Ozen, 2004). It is frequently necessary to involve psychological treatment in high conflict divorce (Boyan & Termini, 2005).
Preventing Conflicts if Possible
There has been relatively little research in how to prevent problems between warring adults which in turn is a way of preventing children from suffering from this conflict. Children are totally involved when marriage breaks up and conflicts arise. It has been felt by numerous investigators that children should be included in the mediation process (Moloney & McIntosh, 2004; Mackinnon et al.,2004; Louw & Scherrer, 2004). Such preventive approaches do much to reduce the negative outcomes experienced by children of divorce (Haine et al., 2003). If at all possible a different kind of family life in which quality of relationship is the key factor needs to be established (Walker, 2003). In this way parents can institute more protective behaviour that may enhance children’s short and long-term adjustment (Kelly & Emery, 2003). Rye et al., (2004) emphasise the importance of promoting forgiveness of an ex-spouse in post-divorce adjustment. This is likely to reduce the level of depression, anger and other negative emotions that frequently result from relationships breaking up.
Positive Aspects of Mediation
We will now consider some of the positive as well as negative aspects of mediation. Therapeutic divorce mediation is one of the several interventions that hold promise for assisting highly conflicted parents to resolve disputes about their children (Smyth & Moloney, 2003). During the mediation process it is vital to introduce an intense child focus in order to reduce the conflicts between parents by asking them to consider what is most important i.e. the child and his/her future (Kelly, 2003a). It is always important to emphasise that is should not be a question of who wins and loses the arguments but what is the common purpose of both parents (McKnight & Erickson, 2004).
It has been well known that divorce puts the emotional, economic and educational well-being of thousands of children in danger every year. The levels of conflict between parents is a key factor in how well the children overcome the challenges that divorce creates (Schepard, 2004). Courts today, seek to involve both parents in a child’s life rather than having to chose between them. Mediation and education have replaced to some degree the courtroom as the primary forum for resolving parental disputes. Unfortunately, mediators as will be seen later and Courts of Justice do not always work together effectively.
Since April 2001 the Children & Family Court Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS) became responsible for family court work including the provision of mediation services. Family court mediation offers a gateway for social work with children and families whose needs are largely left untouched by current services. Such an organisation could thereby play an important role within the broader extension of prevention by a process of early intervention. Parenting and support services have for some time been recommended by the Government of the United Kingdom. Over the past decades, mediation has become a popular approach to reducing conflict and resolving disputes (Mantle & Critchley, 2004), but not when the hostility between the parents is pathological.
Following such mediation after divorce there are many legal consequences. Among them is the regulation of the relationship between parents and children in as far as how it relates to contact with children (Kraljic, 2005). Contact with children is often the central problem of divorcing parents. Instead of maintaining genuine relations with their children, they may abuse them for their own purposes, including practising parental alienation. Mediation should help parents and children realise that parenting does not end with divorce.
It is also very important to involve the children at some point in time in the process of mediation (Schoffer, 2005). One must listen to the child but one must also listen to the ‘secret voice ‘ that does not always speak within the child due to the fact that what the child states may not be in his/her best interest and is often based on prejudice, bias and a process of alienation (Lowenstein, 2005a-j). The alienation process occurs over time between divorced parents who experienced severe or pathological parental conflicts. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists working as parent co-ordinators have found the work extremely challenging since parents take stands that go counter to one another, especially in high conflict divorce (Boyan & Termini, 2005).
Mediation as an Alternative to Litigation
There has been in practice the view based on the importance of mediation rather than litigation. This however, is not always feasible since parents, through the mediation process, hope to gain what they believe to be their own right. Mediators can only do so much to seek the co-operation of parents who may be extremely distant or opposite in their viewpoints. In the end they will require the court to support their efforts (Lowenstein, 2005a-j). As an alternative to litigation mediation has been used to resolve conflicts in a co-operative manner to reflect the best interests of all the parties. This is easier said than done as already mentioned (Bartholomae et al., 2003; Bailey & Robbins, 2005). Parents will always seek to get the mediator to take sides. When the mediator resists this, one or both parents will turn against the mediator.
Another reason for relying heavily on mediation processes is that family disputes are the bane of overburdened court systems, especially in child access issues, and consume a disproportionate share of court resources. Consequently, family mediation has become a viable method of helping to resolve disputes and mental health professionals are increasingly called upon to mediate child access and support disagreements (Ortega et al., 2004). As already mentioned children have a need to be involved in this process but in the most sensitive way possible.
This is because mediation, at least in a large part, must be child focused. Hence, while children should be consulted when decisions about their welfare are being made it is vital to look deeper into the decisions and feelings of children before including what they say or feel as being as meaningful as it appears to be. This is due to the fact that many children are seeking security with usually the custodial parent, and are in many cases willing to reject the non-resident parent for no good reason (McIntosh et al., 2004). The child thus taking the side of one parent at the expense of the other is wrong. The excluded or ‘side-lined’ parent feels he/she is being treated unjustly. The child cannot in the short or long-term benefit form this state of affairs.
Problems of Mediation
It has already been suggested that mediation is not a perfect way of dealing with the problem of conflict between parents involving children. As pointed out by Lowenstein (2005a-j) without the support of the court, when there is implacable, irrational hostility between the parents, the mediation process often is a meaningless activity. This is because children are almost always caught in the triangle of their parent’s fights. This ‘war’ may either be open or made insidious such as when parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome is present (Goncalves & de Vincenzi, 2003). Other family members and even strangers become embroiled in the conflict. A study by Sbarra & Emery (2005) re-evaluated the long-term effects of divorce mediation on adults’ psychological adjustment and investigated the relations among co-parenting custody conflicts. This revealed that fathers and parents who mediated their custody disputes reported significantly more non acceptance based on a 12 year follow-up assessment.
Education and Counselling
Another approach has been used often combined with the mediation process. This is education and counselling of parents who have found it difficult to avoid their conflict continuing especially in relation to their children. Attendance at divorce education classes were found to be associated with whether a subject will return to court of not. Those who attended were less likely to return to court and litigation (Criddle et al., 2003).
There have been substantial changes in scientific and public perspectives regarding children’s adjustment to divorce in the United States. Decades of divorce research have created a more complex and nuanced understanding of how divorce impacts on children and adolescents. The stressors and risks which divorce presents for children, the resiliency demonstrated by the majority of children, and protective factors which are associated with better judgement following divorce are described by Kelly (2003b). A distinction is drawn between painful memories and psychopathology. It is therefore felt that educating divorced parents about known risk factors for their children acts as a protective measure to enhance their children’s long-term adjustment.
Family advocates and family counsellors represent the best interests of children in divorce actions (Scherrer & Louw, 2004). Regardless of how the divorce occurs, it is important to note that there are hurt parties in need of healing. Mediation and divorce education lend themselves to reduce the pain and anguish being experienced in some cases. It is only when the parents are free from the trauma associated with divorce that they may serve as a positive influence on their children (Taylor, 2004). Only by helping parents to move from entrenched disputes towards a more constructive co-parenting relationship will the best interest of the children be served (McIntosh & Deacon-Wood, 2003).
What if the custodial parent refuses to co-operate with child contact decisions?
If a custodial parent refuses to co-operate with the child contact decisions as set out by a Court what can be done about this? Are punitive measures carried out sufficiently by the Court? We will begin with a typical case illustration before turning to the choices that the Court has, and an Expert Witnesses’ views, on how to deal with such a situation.
Mrs Y had for some years been resolute in not granting contact between her two children and their father despite the Court ruling to grant such contact. As an Expert Witness dealing with such matters by providing expert evidence and advice to the Court, one is often faced with such controversial matters which have to be sorted out by the Judiciary. Psychological experts are not permitted to make decisions such as: 1) punitive measures to make Mrs Y co-operate with the Court ruling of granting contact to a father; 2) removing the children into care for a time or recommending this in order to treat the indoctrination such children have received from the custodial parent against the now absent parent; 3) deciding to fine or imprison the non co-operative parent and/or changing the residence of children to reside with the non custodial parent or members of his/her family. This is the role of the Judiciary and not the Expert Witness.
(Most parents who fail to co-operate with court rulings on contact arrangements are mothers, but 20% or so are fathers. Furthermore custodial parents frequently indoctrinate or brainwash children against having good contact with an absent parent usually the father).
Mrs Y always thought she had a reason for putting off contact arrangements. Some of the ploys used were:
The children did not want to see their father or have anything to do with him. ( In this case Mrs Y had worked hard to turn the children against the father. It must also be said that the children witnessed some upsetting scenes of threats by the father against the mother and possibly physical domestic violence on both sides.)
The mother, Mrs Y, claimed that she had to work and could not comply with either contact arrangements or mediation recommended by the Court. (This was only admitted following the Court decision allowing contact and when arrangements were being made for mediation and contact visits to be arranged and monitored.)
Mrs Y also claimed that the children would not want to attend contact sessions because they would miss school and/or needed to do their homework, or be out with their friends.
When mediation was arranged Mrs Y also tried to put obstacles in the way of attending at the times specified due to excuses such as: having to work, too short notice to arrange the meeting, the children needed to be at school etc.
(Those who seek control of children over contact with the absent parent will frequently use any excuse or reason why children should have as little contact as possible, or no contact at all, with the absent parent, claiming that this is the wish of the children. One can only say this is at best taking unfair advantage of the position of being a custodial parent, and at worst, a form of emotional abuse since the custodial parent has created the situation where the children want little or no contact with the absent parent,( usually the father). Had such children been required for medical or dental treatment there would have been no question about them attending for this.)
What can or should be done?
Depending on the Judiciary involved and the Court, the Court will often differ considerably in the decisions reached. Many will speak of having sympathy with the non-custodial parent and yet consider it of paramount importance that the child’s alleged decision or will to have limited or no contact with the absent parent, must be adhered to.
This, in the view of the expert advising, is misjudging the situation and creating an injustice. It is in the best interest of children to have good contact with both parents, especially when in the past they had had a good and warm relationship with both parents.
Judges must be aware and understand why a child will not wish to have good contact with a now absent parent, especially when the absent parent had a warm relationship with the child in the past. The Judiciary needs to explore, or have explored for them by an Expert Witness, why the child’s view of the absent parent has changed!
It has already been pointed out that children can be manipulated, especially younger children by a determined custodial parent, whether it is father or mother, who has “implacable hostility” towards the now absent parent. If that is the actual case then the expert witness must point this out to the Judiciary. There are of course exceptions such as when the non-resident parent has not been the best of parents and has perhaps indulged in sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. This certainly can lead to a change of heart of feelings towards the absent parent if in fact it occurred.
Influencing children against another parent is a form of emotional abuse which should not be tolerated and which should not go unpunished. It must be stated that the abuse of a child’s mind or way of thinking needs urgent intervention. What are the alternatives or actions that the Court could take under such circumstances, and that are in the best interest, both short and long term, of the child caught up in such a disharmony? The best course of action is that what must happen needs to be in stages of increasing severity.
An expert witnesses’ view
Such children need to be treated by a competent professional in order to remove such negative attitudes and behaviours towards the absent parent.
If this is unsuccessful, then the home environment and the influence of the custodial parent is still “poisoning” the child’s mind and undermining the efforts of the independent professional expert and the courts in seeking to develop good contact with an absent parent.
The perpetrator of such insidious undermining needs to be warned as to what will happen if the child, and the influences against contact, continue, and what sanction(s) will be applied. This can only be prevented when the custodial parent co-operates fully and encourages the child to have good contact with the absent parent. Sanctions are rarely put into practice and are usually stated as being a fine or a custodial sentence. However, I would like to suggest that some form of community services could also be put forward as a sanction to be used against those who default and hold out against the Court decision.
If this does not happen then the child may have to be removed from the emotional abuse carried out by the custodial parent and receive treatment for as long as necessary in:
A neutral setting or with a neutral relative.
Be taken temporarily into the care of the Local Authority.
Reside with the absent non-resident parent.
Contact with the former emotionally abusing parent can be resumed once the child has accepted that he/she has two parents and has the love of both parents, as well as feeling love and respect for both parents.
Once the insidious influences of the emotionally abusing parent have been reversed the child can once again have contact with the now non-resident (formerly resident) parent since the emotional abusing has ceased. It is important that both parents speak well of the other, (especially the custodial parent) and encourage contact.
I t is hoped that more and more members of the Judiciary will follow a plan such as the one outlined here. This will help family court decisions to be respected, which they are often not at the present time. Instead they are viewed as unfair and unjust. The Judiciary will be viewed as being “even handed” and this will also be in the best interest of children caught up in the disharmony and hostility between parents in conflict. It will also make the work of Expert Witnesses such as myself more gratifying.
Can the Role of the Judiciary in Family Courts be Improved?
As an expert witness I am frequently asked to give an opinion to help the court resolve child contact issues in family courts. This advice is based on what I feel is in the best interest of children now and in the future, to achieve justice for both parents in their struggle for contact with their children. The Judiciary are faced with many problems in making decisions in relation to contact disputes and often the alienated parent feels that the decision reached is unfair. Some form of a solution needs to be found to help toward a more fair decision being found to solve this difficult problem.
It is, and has always been, my basic principle to provide the opportunity of both parents playing a role in the child’s life. This I feel is in the best interest of the child, and is always preferred, providing neither parent is an abuser sexually, physically or emotionally.
The Judiciary is faced with the problem of making the best possible decisions in often very complicated and emotional cases. This decision is principally based on considering what is in the best interest of the child at the time when the case comes to court. Judges are often fully aware of the harm that has been done by the ploys used by the custodial parent to prevent access and contact between the child and a former loving parent. In reaching a decision, Judges need to weigh up the short and long term consequences of any action they recommend and there are rarely ever perfect solutions. This frequently leads to a judicial dilemma in seeking to resolve the issue of no contact with an absent parent because a child has been indoctrinated by the custodial parent against the absent parent.
As an expert witness involved in such cases I would like to present a possible solution or remedy, to cases where a child refuses contact with a former loving parent via a therapeutic intervention. This would appear to be the best route forward and is in the best interest of the child. It removes the child from having to take sides or to make decisions which no child should ever have to make.
B. The problem
There has been much criticism levelled at the Judiciary in Family Courts most especially in the area of disputed contact issues and the decisions made. The Judiciary’s basic principle is again very similar to that of myself “what is in the best interest of the child”. Warring parents are the most prominent hindrance to Judges seeking to make the best decisions which benefit the child/children. The view that the child will in future seek out the absent parent against whom the child has been alienated is untrue.
Acrimonious divorce or separation are the principle causes of the lack of contact facing the non custodial parent. Many fathers and mothers eventually give up seeking contact with a child due to the implacable hostility to such contact by the custodial parent. The animosity, for whatever reason, which the custodial parent feels towards the now absent parent borders at times on a mental illness. The main symptoms are paranoid ideations, and extreme hostility towards the now non resident parent. The family of the absent parent are often included in this hostility.
While one is aware of the causes and consequences of contact issue disputes, making the right decisions is often extremely difficult for the Judiciary. The child in these cases is the main casualty, especially when that child has had in the past a warm loving relationship with the now absent parent. As a result of that parent’s absence, the child is frequently bombarded with negative statements and recollections via the custodial parent who seeks to ally the child with him/herself. The objective is to forget or castigate the absent parent. Let me illustrate this by an actual case sufficiently altered so as not to reveal its authenticity. As an expert witness, this is but one of the many cases in which I have been involved and also similar to ones in which I have not been involved for various reasons. The reason for not being involved is due to my basic principle that I believe that both parents have a role to play in guiding their child and being involved in their care.
Mrs X won custody of child Y after an acrimonious divorce. She was eager to eliminate her former partner in the life of Y. She intended eventually to have another partner and let that partner be the father figure in the child’s life. She refused all contact between the absent parent Z and the child aged 10, who had in the past had a loving relationship with the now absent parent Z. The absent parent and the child were affectionate towards one another and generally enjoyed each other’s company. Over time, the child was influenced totally by the custodial parent. The child eventually said that she no longer wished to see the other parent Z, believing what she was told about that parent. She simply could not, or would not be allowed, to remember the past wonderful days with parent Z. The good caring parent Z had been expunged in Y’s mind.
The expert witness in the case expressed much sympathy for the absent parent who had failed, despite great efforts and numerous court appearances, to have regular contact with a once loving child. The court threatened sanctions against the custodial parent if she did not co-operate with the ruling of the court in relation to the child having contact with the now absent parent. What the court did not do was to carry out the sanctions against the custodial parent who now claimed that it was not herself that was causing the problem but the fact that the child Y did no wish to have any further contact with the now absent parent Z. It does not take an Einstein’s reasoning to understand why Y responded in that manner.
C. The Judicial dilemma
The latter illustration shows the problem faced by the Judiciary in seeking to make decisions which are primarily in the best interest of the child. Many Judges consider there to be great difficulties involved in changing the mindset of the child. This is despite the fact that the Judiciary acknowledges how this mindset came about in the child.
Frequently the Judiciary is faced with the terrible dilemma of knowing who the guilty party is in the process of the alienation scenario but are unable or unwilling to do what is normally the case in courts of justice…..punish the perpetrator. This is due to the fact that by punishing the perpetrator, who has carried out the disreputable and unfair act of turning the child against a parent, and who is also the custodial parent, it is the child that ultimately becomes the main victim.
The advice given by at least one psychological expert witness is to remove the child from the emotionally abusive influences of the alienating parent. Few Judges heed this advice. They consider such actions not to be in the best interest of the child. This is because the child is unaware how the implacable hostility of the custodial parent has succeeded in destroying the child’s love for the now absent parent and turning it into hostility toward that parent.
What numerous Judges do is to find a “fine line” and “balanced position”. They are aware of how an innocent child has been manipulated by a hostile custodial parent. They also consider the harm they will do by incarcerating the custodial parent for failing to abide by contact arrangements. Judges are also aware of the harm they may do by removing the child from a loving but emotionally abusing parent. Judges rarely, if ever, remove the child from such a parent and place that child with the abused non custodial parent. This however, is necessary in order to seek to renew the relationship with the absent parent who has been alienated and demeaned via the implacably hostile custodial parent. It is also to stop the child being further emotionally abused.
Judges therefore sometimes make decisions on the basis of ‘here and now’ evidence. The facts as they exist often are: 1) the child has been manipulated to the point where the child rejects the now absent parent; 2) the Judge will tend to comply with the wishes of the child, despite knowing why the child has refused contact with a former loving parent; 3) Judges are aware of the difficulties of removing the child from the custodial parent against the wishes of the child; 4) they consider that this is likely to be detrimental to the child who has now only one parent with whom a strong, if not, total bond exists. The result is the child remains with the custodial parent while the absent parent has no contact. The longer this situation exists the more detrimental it is to maintain any future contact with the absent parent. It is also often of detriment to the child.
D. The advice of an psychological expert witness to the Judiciary
In cases of implacable hostility leading to a contact dispute between a custodial and non custodial parent, what is most beneficial to the child is of primary importance. On this both the Judiciary and the psychological expert witness are in total agreement. While the Judiciary will consider what is at the current time in the best interest of the child, the psychological expert is concerned with the long term implications of the child having no contact with an absent loving parent.
It must be added that when there has been a refusal of contact with the absent parent, this is through no fault of that rejected parent. The child had a good relationship in the past with the now absent parent. The child’s decision not to have contact with the absent parent is due to a process of harmful influence. Such influence can only have become via the custodial parent and/or the custodial parent’s family. This has caused considerable harm to the child and may be considered at least an abuse of power of the custodial parent and emotional abuse towards the child.
We should never forget that there was a good relationship between the child and the absent parent in the past. Instead of encouraging this to continue, the custodial parent has undermined this in subtle and direct ways by disregarding the former partner and thereby reducing or eliminating good contact. Is this in the best interest of the child? On the contrary, it is in the very worst interest, with short as well as long term damage resulting from such abuse.
The Judiciary is likely to be aware of this, but as already stated, the child’s refusal to have contact with the absent parent puts the Judiciary in a conflict situation. The question asked is: “What is more damaging to the child? Is it to accept the child’s desire not to have contact because such contact has been undermined and the absent parent has been discredited or should or could contact be forced upon the child?
Even psychological experts differ in their viewpoint when this occurs. Some will concur with the Judiciary, and their decision considering it more harmful to the child to disturb the good relationship the child has with the custodial parent despite the fact that this is based on emotional abuse. Other experts, of which I am one, who are in the minority, consider the harm done to a child by accepting the ‘status quo’ is most damaging to the child, in that the child has little or no contact with the absent parent. On the whole, the Judiciary prefers the view of psychological experts who seek not to disturb the relationship between the custodial parent and the child, by punishing the custodial parent or removing the child from that parent.
It is the view of the current psychologist that there is a better course of action open, once numerous legal ways have been tried and have failed, to establish good contact between the child and the now non custodial parent. A middle approach is possible which could well have positive results. This consists of removing the child/children from the continuing emotional abuse promoted by the custodial parent based on the implacable hostility towards a former partner.
The child needs to be moved into care into a “neutral environment”. Here the negative influences and hence the emotional abuse can no longer continue. It provides the opportunity for all parties, including the child, to receive therapeutic input which is both positive and constructive. Initially there needs to be a warning to the custodial parent that this is being considered, unless that custodial parent actually encourages or insists that the child will participate with structured and regular contact with the now absent parent.
Should this fail to be achieved, the removal of the child is imperative and for as long as necessary, until all parties realise and act in accordance with what is truly in the best interest of the child/children – this is to have good contact with both parents. Both parents should encourage this and work towards this end.
In the interim, the parents in the therapeutic environment can be seen separately and ultimately together if possible in order to establish a working relationship which can encourage contact with both parents. This is indeed in the best interest of the child. This should be carried out via Social Workers and involve CAFCASS as well as a Clinical Psychologist who is in overall charge and who understands the problems, and has the therapeutic skills to overcome the negative influences and truly establish what is in the best interest of the child i.e. to have good contact with both parents. Meetings between parent and child should be observed and supervised by staff. A written record should be provided and presented to the court.
In order for this to be achieved, the child and the custodial parent must accept what is being done and for how long this may be necessary. The animosity of the custodial and non custodial parents must give way to active co-operation and co-operation in the adhering to the decision of the Family Court over the arrangements of contact times. This again is in the best interest of the child.
Either parent who fails to co-operate or is seeking to continue with the emotional abuse should be removed from contact with the child until this ceases. At the same time, the non abusing parent should have good contact with the child in the “neutral environment”. In this way the previously warm relationship with the now absent parent can be rebuilt. This again is in the best interest of the child which is our main concern.
This approach in contact disputes, is fair, just and therapeutic as well as possible. It does not give in to the status quo of no or poor contact with an absent parent. It also prevents further emotional abuse of the child by the custodial parent, and is best for the child both in the short and the long term.
Is the parent fit to parent a child?
One cannot help be aware of the importance of the necessity of good parenting especially when there are suspicions of the opposite, that is, that the child is being abused in some way. This could be one or both parents carrying out the abuse. The abuse can be in the form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, as well as neglect.
It is also important to follow the best course of action once it has been established what kind of abuse has been proven to have occurred. There are at least three approaches that can be taken and these can be combined: 1) the immediate removal of the child from the proven abusing environment; 2) promoting better parenting skills while the child remains with parents combined with monitoring the home in the hope for changes in parenting skills; 3) removing the child from the proven abusive environment and attempting to educate, train or treat the parents to improve their parenting skills. The children can then be returned once it is felt that the parents are indeed able to parent effectively and without practicing any form of abuse. Two objective questions will therefore follow: 1) How can we assess whether a parent is fit to parent? 2) If a parent if not fit to parent what can or should be done?
These are the two questions that will hopefully be answered by what follows. The information is based on the more recent research literature and the personal experiences of the author, who has acted as an expert witness in many cases of alleged child abuse over the past 35 years. Sometimes custody is in dispute especially when parents are not able to agree on contact between the child/children and the now absent parent following an acrimonious divorce or separation.
How can we assess whether a parent is fit to parent?
In what follows two illustrations of child abuse will be cited where a child should be removed from an abusing parent(s) and where this is not necessary. It must however be noted that a great deal of care must be taken not to overreact when a child has been injured through no fault of the caring parents. The second reason for removing a child from the custodial parent occurs when there is a contact dispute over the child after an acrimonious separation or divorce between the parents.
Where there is evidence of possible abuse by parents towards children, a full investigation must be carried out as soon as possible involving the child, the parents and the home. It is especially important to assess parental attitudes as well as personality and behaviour in respect to their manner of child rearing (Billick & Jackson, 2007; Jackson et al., 1999). Parents with a lack of empathy suffer frequently suffer from psychopathy and are a particular threat to children and need to be identified.
The use of interviews of parents should never be used as the sole procedure. This has certain deficits for judging parental responsibility and capability if it is used on its own. Combined with interviews of psychological tests both cognitive and personality testing need to be used by well qualified and experienced clinical, forensic psychologists. Whenever possible both parents should be involved in rearing children in the form of joint parenting. In order for this to work, parents need to co-operate and do what is in the best interest of their children rather than their own needs.
What is in the best interest of the child in the short term should also be in the best interest of the child in the long term and should be of the greatest importance when decisions are made. There is however, some uncertainty in complex custody disputes which parent is likely to be the one who should have custody of a child. This is especially the case when the divorce or separation has been acrimonious. It is under such circumstances that signs of emotional abuse frequently occur, although it can also occur in intact families.
The signs of such abuse are easy to identify when they are physical abuse or neglect and visible injuries are caused to children. Sexual abuse is more difficult to diagnose and even more difficult is emotional abuse. Sexual abuse can frequently be incorrect with allegations made for ulterior motives by an implacably hostile parent against the absent or non-resident parent. Sexual abuse is insidious and sometimes, but not always, associated with other abusive behaviour. Emotional abuse is difficult to detect and is usually in form of manipulation of the child’s mind, or threats of severe punitive action by parents leading to fear of insecurity in the child. In this way the child can be made to think and say virtually anything or accuse anyone of anything merely to keep on the good side of the custodial parent.
In the case of divorce or separation of the parents, children can cope better when both parents are in agreement about contact between the absent parent and the child. They need continued contact of both parents, with both parents maintaining a relatively friendly and cooperative relationship towards one another. This provides the necessary security for children. Children gradually learn to accept the fact that their parents no longer love one another, a fact of which they have been made only to aware, for some time, but that both parents each still love their children despite the split up.
Those who are meant to evaluate parents and their capacity for providing appropriate care of children need to be experts in carrying out psychological assessments. They need to be able to identify parents who lack the capacity, such as empathy, to rear their children appropriately and with care. Parents need also to be good role models with whom children can easily identify and benefit from such identification. What unfortunately is the case is that children tend on the whole to identify with parents be they good or poor role models. Psychologists need to evaluate whether a parent suffers from antisocial behavior such as psychopathy or severe mental illness such as schizophrenia which would handicap that parent in playing an effective role in caring for children.
Low intelligence of a parent is sometimes used in combination with an injury to a child for removing that child into care. This could be an over-reaction. Many children born of parents of low intelligence, or limited intelligence, are good parents. It should also be noted that many children have accidents due to over-activity of the child rather than due to parental neglect. A careful assessment of such incidents is imperative.
Vulnerable children prone to injuries need to be provided with an especially high level of care, but even with this, it must be recognized that all children are prone to have accidents from time to time. In the case of hyperactive children, the chances of the child being hurt increases. Let me illustrate this point from an actual case.
An illustration of an injured child and an over reaction
Mr X (grandfather) and Mrs Y (grandmother) and Miss Z (mother) came from the North of England and requested me to help them deal with the fact that the child of the mother had been placed in care by the Local Authority. The child was removed from the home when the child was three years of age and suffered from a concussion from falling backwards while in the care of the grandmother Mrs Y. There were no other injuries reported in the past. Both mother and grandmother were mentally subnormal but Mr X, the grandfather was of above average intelligence. They all lived together in the same house. Miss Z was an unmarried mother who had been made pregnant initially and the pregnancy was terminated. She then became pregnant again with the current child who had been placed in care. Following the injury, the Social Services placed the child in care and a report from an educational psychologist considered the child was “in an unsafe environment” being in the care of X, Y, & Z, and should be removed from the home. The child was sent to foster parents. Grandparents and mother requested the child to be returned to them as they felt they had neither abused nor neglected the child. They felt the children had been removed unfairly merely because the child had had an accident. They felt that they had been unjustly treated in removing the child on the basis of possibly one accident and injury and also on the basis of the low intelligence of the mother and grandmother.
As the psychologist, I recommended they go to court with their Solicitor and request a second opinion. This the Judge granted and I was able to carry out an assessment of all the parties concerned. Both mother and grandmother were indeed of relatively low intelligence but capable of providing good care for the child, especially as they had the support of the grandfather who was of above average intelligence and living at home with his family. I further recommended that a Social Worker be appointed to monitor the situation at home, after both mother and grandmother received parenting skill sessions. A two year follow-up revealed that no further accidents had occurred and there was no abuse of any kind of the child as noted by regular visits by Social Services.
The initial removal of the child from the family was hasty and premature, since it was an acceptable home on the basis of care being provided and one accident or injury should not have been viewed as child abuse or neglect by the Social Service Department. The mother and grandmother were being penalized for having a relatively low IQ. There are many good mothers and fathers with relatively low intelligence who make good parents.
In defence of Social Services it must be said that their action of removing the child was based on some high profile cases where serious abuse had indeed occurred leading to serious injuries and even the death of a child. It was the view of the Social Services supported by an Educational Psychologist rather than a Clinical or Forensic Psychologist that it was better to act with caution by removing the child from the care of this family. They felt as it turned out wrongly that the child would continue to suffer from accidents and neglect if he were to remain with the family. It was for this reason that the current psychologist provided a second opinion and put in place certain safeguards such as: 1) parenting skill training for the whole family; 2) a period of monitoring of the family and the child, by Social Services carrying out unannounced visits.
It must be acknowledged that removing a child from a good home is also a form of abuse of the child as well as the family. Judgments as to whether to remove a child suspected of having been neglected or abused sexually, physically or emotionally, need to be done with the greatest of care. This is especially the case for a very young and vulnerable child. It may be the case that sexual abuse has occurred from time to time and there is consistent evidence of physical, emotional neglect. Here there are certainly grounds for removing a child to a place of safety.
Contact disputes with parents suffering from implacable hostility towards one another
Contact disputes, where either parent alienates a child against the absent parent, require very special attention. Some parents, usually the custodial parent, will make certain allegations against the absent parent. This may include that that person is a sexual abuser, in order to prevent contact from being made by that parent. This is a form of emotional abuse where action must be taken, not against the alleged wrongly accused perpetrator of sexual abuse, but against that parent who makes false these allegations.
This may include such punishment as fines, child placed in care with the non resident parent, or imprisoning the parent making such abusive false allegations. This would certainly be in the best interest of the child in the long term. The child’s long and short term needs are of paramount importance and not the gender of the parent receiving residence (Billick & Ciric, 2003). “Protracted and acrimonious child custody litigation is rarely in the child’s best interest” (Billick & Jackson, 2007).The role of the clinical/forensic psychologist is important not so much to gain relevant, if not vital information via in-depth interviews, but through the use of cognitive and personality testing. History of past events may provide information of the alleged development of individuals but this tends to be selective in what the person seeks or is willing to reveal about their past as well as their present behaviour. Standardised tests, providing they have validity scales, sometimes called “Lie Scales”, can provide information by comparing the individuals with norms. Such normative inventories with standardised testing based on age, gender, and other aspects can then be compared with the historical information about such parents. This information can be obtained from schools, work reports and medical reports. It is also important to obtain statements from relevant witnesses who have seen the behaviour of such parents towards their children. Here may be included other family members, neighbours etc.
Hence a total picture should emerge as to the individual’s positive and negative traits. Then a judgement can be made as to the suitability of a parent being adequate or inadequate in the care being provided for their child/children. What is in the best interest of the child should always be the criterion as to whom is best to care for that child. This in turn must be based on what the child needs in the long term rather than what the child wants. The child will often want what is not in his/her best interest. Children ideally need a secure environment being cared for by two loving parents. When the parental union ends, such security could be destroyed when there is serious acrimony between the parents and when this leads, as it often does, to parents using a child against the other parent. This will influence very much what the child wants or claims to want.
In such cases, the controlling residential parent often attempts to denigrate the now absent parent until the child is no longer in the position to wish to have any contact with the absent father/mother. The child actually “needs” the absent parent but then states resolutely that they do not want contact with that absent parent. Here it should come down to not what the child wants, but rather what the child needs. This would be in the best interest of the child, and not what the child wants. This wanting, whatever the child decides can often be signs of having been emotionally abused or manipulated against an absent parent by the resident parent. This fact too can be established by an expert psychologist with knowledge in assessing a parent who practices alienation (Lowenstein, 2007).
The child’s own views need to be considered, though one must be certain about how these views were arrived at by the child. Hence a child, whatever their age who has had a good, warm and loving relationship with a parent is unlikely to change that opinion after the separation or divorce of his/her parents, unless there is good reason for this. The change must have occurred following the break-up of the parents relationship. There may have been frequent arguments and perhaps even violence between the parents which has led the child to feel that the absent parent can do the same to him/her, and may be worried about the safety of the custodial parent (usually the mother), and does not wish to have contact with the absent parent, for that reason. The reason for the change in opinion needs to be thoroughly investigated. It could be due to the influence of the custodial parent, practicing an abusive kind of influence and alienation procedure. It could also be due to, as previously mentioned, domestic violence, again endangering the perceived physical and emotional security of the child (Jaffe & Crooks, 2009).
The custodial parent should not have total control of the child. The custodial parent should have done everything possible to encourage good contact with the now absent parent. Otherwise that parent has taken advantage of the custody position to control and undermine the child’s previous good relationship with the absent parent. This, is a form of emotional abuse which cannot be tolerated. It should end, and should lead to the removal of the child if such influencing continues from such a custodial parent. If suitable, such a child could be placed with the victim of the abuse……i.e the absent parent, or into the care of a Local Authority while the abusing parent receives treatment. This child will also need treatment to remove the effects of the brainwashing he/she has received over a period of time.
Psychopathic parents with their likely lack of empathy, or parents with antisocial personality disorders (APD) are not likely to be suitable as good parents. They could well pose a danger to children and are likely to be a poor example or role model to children and hence children may identify and imitate the behaviour of such adults. Such parents are likely to abuse their children physically, sexually, or emotionally because they have such traits as being paranoid, narcissistic, histrionic, and often suffer from borderline personality disorders (BPD)(Reid, 2001).
Such individuals tend to make poor parents because of their lack of empathy and their selfish disregard for the rights of others. They are also likely to act impulsively, be unreliable, irresponsible, insincere, deceitful, and unable to benefit from experiences and being unable to feel any sense of guilt or remorse. They are also unable to feel real love. All these traits are not likely to result in good parenting!
If a parent is not fit to parent what can, and should be done?
There are degrees of not being a fit parent. Some parents can function adequately if provided with parenting skill training, while they continue to care for the child or when the child is removed until the training has been completed. This can be provided when the abuse or neglect has not been severe and where the parent welcomes and can be seen to benefit from such parenting skill training being provided. In the case of more severe physical or emotional abuse, the removal of the child would seem mandatory to prevent any further harming of the child or tragic consequences occurring. Following a psychological assessment of a parent or parents, further decisions can be reached to determine whether the parents are likely to benefit and wish to accept a parent training programme. Failure to accept such a programme would mean such a child would not be returned to these parents. The result of psychological testing will have been carried out using such tests as the MMPI and other tests to determine whether such parents suffer from a most worrying psychopathic personality deficit leading to lack of empathy. In that case such a parent/parents are unlikely to be suitable to rear their children.
In that case relatives such as grandparent (Strong et al., 2010) or other relatives may be sought to parent a child or the child may be taken into the care of the Local Authority and placed eventually with a foster parent. Later on, such children may be adopted by a suitable parent/ parents. This again must always be in the best interest of the child in question. In the past there has been a bias for only mothers to having custody rather than fathers. This should have, and has changed, with a gender bias having given place to which parent is likely to be best for the child (Billick & Jackson, 2007).
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