Dillon Roberts entered the Scottish family court system a healthy ten-month-old baby. The court would make important decisions dictating how Dillon’s childhood would unfold. Dillon left the system fifteen years later, psychologically harmed and suicidal. He was abused during child contact and emotionally harmed by the court process itself. Dillon’s story is not uncommon – so why are the family court’s getting it so wrong for so many children?
Dillon’s mother fled from a coercively controlling, violent relationship. She had no intention to cut Dillon’s father out his child’s life, but she craved any contact to be emotionally and physically safe. The family courts awarded her residence and put some safety measures in place in the contact order, but her ex repeatedly raised court action and soon the contact arrangements were no different from those handed down in a non-domestic abuse case.
The family courts set Dillon’s mother an impossible task; to communicate and co-parent with her dangerous ex encouragingly. He didn’t hide his glee as he vengefully plotted to make her pay for the crime of escaping his grasp in the middle of the night. A dark cloud loomed as she realised Dillon was no longer going to have the peaceful, healthy and safe childhood for which she had hoped and dreamed.
The ideological revolution within the family courts has long been a serious cause for concern. When the best interests of the child get considered in domestic abuse cases, contact with a parent who has been psychologically, physically or sexually abusive often gets prioritised over the child’s safety. To achieve the preferred outcome of the family courts, evidence of egregious abuse must disappear. Perversely and cruelly, the family courts now do not just victim-blame, they victim-persecute, and the child consequently suffers through the contact or custody arrangements until they are set free from the system. Parental alienation has become a powerful weapon of choice to diminish and conceal evidence of abuse. It also has the power to reverse the victim and offender; a mother could then get punished in the family courts for raising concerns of abuse; this in itself deemed an act of alienation.
As Dillon grew older and his affections for his abusive father waned, he asked his mother to take action in the court and allow him to choose if and when he went for contact. Dillon’s mother knew this day would come; the family courts had repeatedly ignored her pleas and failed to recognise the pattern of coercive control and protect Dillon from harm. It was only a matter of time before he resisted and rejected his father. A month after fleeing a terrifying ordeal during contact, Dillon started locking his bedroom door and cutting himself with a knife. He ferociously banged his head off walls, punched doors and lashed out. His schoolwork and relationships suffered enormously; eventually, he started to threaten suicide.
Dillon’s mother again raised her concerns with the family court and pleaded for protection for him. Still, the judge persisted in labelling the case an ‘intractable contact dispute’ and sent a welfare reporter to take Dillon’s views, however, the welfare reporter manipulated his views and translated them to fit the courts preferred narrative; The family courts blamed Dillon’s mother for the child’s rejection of his father. The judge ordered an urgent reunification and failed to investigate the evidence of abuse.
Dillon was under insurmountable pressure to comply with the court’s and his father’s demands, now intertwined. If Dillon’s mother failed to send Dillon to the reunification, she risked a charge of contempt of court and jail. The pressure put on Dillon by the courts emotionally overwhelmed him; he vomited almost daily, and his mental health spiralled downwards. Dillon was terrified; he had bravely opened and provided a detailed account of his father’s abusive behaviour, and now he feared the repercussions for doing so.
Those in the family court system who deny and ignore family violence, prefer to call these families ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome families’. These court reporters work outside the industry-standard guidelines and use strict and authoritarian methods; they coerce, punish and compel. They override the voice of the child, and their approach can cause long term psychological harm. By instructing these ‘experts’ in complex domestic abuse cases (most cases in the family courts), the family courts are betraying children like Dillon. When parental alienation gets raised in the context of domestic abuse, the root source of the child’s fear is not explored.
When the court forces a victim of domestic abuse to co-parent with an abusive ex, the child’s experience in the family court becomes an adverse one. Babies have their connection abruptly severed with breastfeeding mothers, so lengthy contact can take place. Children kick, scream, hide and run when contact dates come around; they bed wet and suffer from night terrors. Children get deprived the opportunity to heal from the abuse they have already been subjected to, and are sent back into contact where the parental child abuse will continue and, in some cases, intensify. During unsafe contact, children get touched inappropriately, burned by cigarettes, beaten, threatened, degraded, neglected, and violated. Children are forced into situations by the family courts where they must develop survival mechanisms, and this causes long term harm. Seeking professional help for a child’s suffering outside the family court system is also declared an act of alienation; the cruelty of the family court culture becomes apparent. Many children are getting murdered as a result.
Abundant research exists on childrens’ experiences of family violence and even on post-separation coercive control, yet the family courts continue to ignore it. They stubbornly refuse to accept that contact with an abusive parent is not beneficial to a child and is, in fact, traumatic.
Dillon Roberts had not been diagnosed with Parental Alienation Syndrome and his court reporter was not a parental alienation ‘expert’. Dillon’s court reporter was a lawyer. It is not just individual views that must change in the family court system; it is the entire culture of the system that must change.
Recent research published by Edinburgh University showed how the manipulation and exclusion of the views of the child by adults, namely child welfare reporters and judges, adversely affected the participation rights of the child in the court process. They reported on the court’s construction of children as inherently ‘vulnerable’ and said,
“These constructs produce an epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007) that ignores their own accounts of their lives. This is a harm in its own right, but it also potentially raises children’s risks by excluding them from decisions about their own lives. This has become more apparent in recent years, as research and advocacy have led to a gradual (and sometimes reluctant) recognition that children are affected by domestic abuse.”
Historically in institutions, children were seen and not heard, and this allowed many in a position of power to abuse that power. A controlling parent bulldozes through life putting their deep-rooted, distorted beliefs of right and wrong before the human rights of others and paying no attention to the wake of tragedy and despair they leave behind. The family courts do the same.
Thankfully, there is a wind of change and institutions must now fall in line with the moral sense of the community. The resistance from those who abuse their power is strong, particularly in the family courts; however those fighting for children’s human rights are a mighty force, and they and children like Dillon, will continue to speak out until their voices get heard and justice prevails.
If your child has had their views ‘translated, not transmitted’, and has been put at risk in the family courts, please fill in this quick and easy survey as we continue our campaign for change. Thank you, Rachel.