Today, a disturbing case where a victim of multiple rapes was ordered by a judge to pay her rapist’s bills was revealed by @YahooNewsUK. Society must send a clear message to judges that rape victims should never be ordered to financially subsidise their rapists. Rather than protecting the victim, the court is abusing them all over again – and allowing the abuser’s financial control to continue.
This case was in the family court, where abusers, rapists, paedophiles, and murderers can apply for child contact. Most people agree that a rapist should forfeit any rights to parental responsibility when they rape their child’s mother. Instead, the courts tell the child that they must “forgive” their rapist father and have a relationship with them, damaging their mental health. Perversely, the victims are the only ones getting a sentence in this family court crime scene.
For a mother forced into co-parenting with a father capable of harm such as violence, abuse and rape, this is the beginning of a genuinely dystopian nightmare. Victims cannot recover from deeply traumatic experiences whilst being exposed to the source of the trauma. Abusive patterns are not cured at separation, and they continue for years after the relationship has ended. Abusive partners ARE abusive parents.
The family court ordered a rape victim to help her rapist pay his contact centre costs to add insult to serious injury. Around 99% of rapists walk free. Victims are sentenced to decades of re-traumatisation through co-parenting arrangements. As if this isn’t bad enough, the state may order you to pay your rapists bills. Change is long overdue. #MothersRights #thecourtsaid
‘When one husband and father beats his wife or child, it is inter-personal violence; when a million do so, it is structural violence.’ Adapted from Johan Galtung.
The COVID-19 pandemic obliged us to reassess what is important, be it loved ones, health, or life itself. Meanwhile, lockdowns were irksome but the privileged were safe at home. Not so, for the millions of women and children exposed to domestic abuse.
What image does this conjure? Housewives with black eyes? And the abuser? A brute that can never belong in our own nice circle? We are good at such self-delusion. In reality, we would probably not recognise such a monster even if he stared us in the eye. Meanwhile, we assert loftily that vulnerable mothers and children could just pack their bags and leave. Besides, they are protected by police and family courts because they have all the rights, don’t they?
The reality is much more sinister. For most women, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time – when they are most likely to be killed. Or, they must risk the alternative: going from the domestic frying pan into the fire of a family court.
Domestic abuse frequently worsens when the relationship between the mother and father ends. Abusive fathers may seek vengeance and use family courtrooms to continue abuse by legally manoeuvring against mothers to deprive them of living or contact with their children.
When abused parents (usually mothers) and children enter private family court proceedings and disclose abuse against her or her child(ren), they plead for stopping or limiting contact with the father. To counter this, court professionals and abusers often invoke the ‘parental alienation’ argument. Here, the mother is accused of making false abuse claims and seeking to remove the father for no good reason. She is also counter- accused as a liar and fantasist, ‘mentally unstable’, and worse. In short, she gets painted as an unfit mother whose children should be removed from her.
The nightmare is worse for mothers and children from disadvantaged economic or ethnic backgrounds or those with a disability, or living in rural areas. Such structural disadvantage is magnified when lawyers and professionals tasked with safeguarding families dismiss medical evidence of abuse, by arguing that this just “gets in the way” of contact.
The tragic irony is that it is worse to accuse than to abuse because many judges, attorneys, and psychologists believe in the notion of ‘parental alienation’ as explaining most abuse allegations. The perverse consequence of this is that evidence of real abuse is discredited even before it is properly investigated. Thus, family courts write-off many genuine safeguarding concerns. For example, if children disclose abuse, the professionals tend to rebut by asking “who put you up to say that?”, and not “how do we keep you safe?”
So what is parental alienation? It was developed by the late Dr. Richard Gardner, an American child psychiatrist, who stated that ‘children are naturally sexual and may initiate sexual encounters to seduce an adult.’ His non-peer reviewed theory posited that alienating behaviour occurs when one parent misuses their influence to turn a child against a previously-loved other parent. There is no agreed definition of ‘alienating behaviours’, even among its advocates. It has also been debunked by the World Health Organization and the European Association for Psychotherapy, who warn of the risk of using such junk pseudo-science “allowing for violence against children and their mothers to remain undetected, and/or contested”.
Unfortunately, and perhaps because science was late onto the scene, the harm has been well and truly done in terms of false, gendered biases that have become deeply-entrenched in juridical beliefs around ‘alienating mothers’. A large study concluded that ‘alienation trumps abuse’ in court proceedings. Worse, it doubles the risk of a child being removed completely from a protective mother and placed permanently with the abusive father.
This is dangerous because it minimises and silences genuine safeguarding concerns that need to be investigated away from the discredited theory of alienation, misuse of which is responsible for the majority of abused children and mothers going unheard. Put simply, when the phrase ‘alienation’ is deployed, it has gendered impact. Mothers, much more than fathers, are disbelieved by judges.
The problem is linked to money and corruption: so-called ‘alienation experts’ manipulate uninformed mothers and fathers to adopt ‘parental alienation’ as litigation tactics, knowing that this means getting paid to provide arguments in court. They are not cheap and together with other legal fees, the scam costs thousands to mothers, fathers and the state.
A linked financial dimension is particularly disturbing. This is the multi-million ‘care’ industry including children’s homes (some of whom are the setting of many historic or recent abuse scandals) that take away children from parents in poverty or other socially-disadvantaged circumstances.
‘Alienation’ is the legitimised and institutionalised trump card to diminish and silence abuse allegations in family courts everywhere, ranging from the US to Canada, England, Australia, Spain, and New Zealand. For mothers, it can mean the loss of all hope to protect their children from continued paternal abuse while also risking losing contact themselves with their offspring. Inevitably, mothers are obliged to prioritise their legal obligatory duty to enable continued contact between child and abusive father, over ensuring safeguarding a dangerously-vulnerable minor. That is how post-separation abuse gets perpetrated by child-contact arrangements.
Also, thereby, a lucrative global industry of ‘alienation experts’ keeps the gravy train rolling with judges and court professionals treating them as objective experts rather than as financially-motivated self-interested parties. The pseudo-science of alienation has tragically captured the justice system, as one of many mothers states: “Real evidence was just turned away, time and time again […] I was seen as an alienating mother”.
Often, mothers who are themselves victims of psychological abuse, unknowingly adopt the term ‘alienating’, playing directly into the hands of so-called experts. The court responds, ‘’ah, so there is alienation, we will appoint an alienation expert’’. The mother is then unwittingly trapped into her child being assessed by an ‘alienation expert’ who is often entrenched in false evidence bases and gendered ideologies of mothers as manipulative/hysterical.
While there is increased awareness and attempts to crackdown on bogus, non-regulated psychologists in England, at least, the problem is too deeply entrenched. Meanwhile, parental ‘alienation’ proponents and indeed, family courts are, chameleon-like, amending the language by adopting new terms such as ‘implacably hostile’ and ‘psychological splitting,’. These are new code for an ‘alienating parent’. Who does not know that in every family, a parent may bad-mouth another or a child may ‘take sides’ at some time or other in the daily rough and tumble of domestic life? And yet that could be used to deny abuse and mis-represented later in legal adversarial debate as ‘splitting’.
Possible remedies such as in The Council of Europe Istanbul Convention offer, as yet, little hope for mothers in, for example UK, that has not ratified it. Meanwhile, the Harm Report shows that courts in England and Wales are failing to even meet the Convention’s basic principle to secure the safety of victims while not destroying the lives of parents and children. Neither does this adhere to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 to achieve gender equality for women and girls, where structural, state- sanctioned violence such as this is neither measured nor monitored.
But what of the global picture? From France, to Australia, to America, and other countries noted previously, right back to the UK, parental alienation has become the go-to litigation strategy to counter claims of child and/or domestic abuse. In 2018, 60,000 American children were forced by courts into unsupervised contact with an abusive parent. But Spain, Italy and Scotland are prohibiting the use of this ‘Nazi theory’ in child custody cases, with Spain also allowing children to have their voice heard in legal proceedings.
The mental health impacts of family court proceedings for domestic /child abuse where alienation is used to silence it, actually re-traumatises victims. That has led to sensible calls for a system of independent domestic abuse advisors to support and guide victims through the justice system.
If a child was abused by any other adult such as a teacher, they would be arrested, prosecuted and perhaps jailed, apart from losing job and reputation. But a parental abuser can have continued licence to abuse, thanks to the flawed justice system that presumes the sanctity of contact at all costs.
The dangerous pseudo-science of ‘parental alienation’ must be consigned to the dustbin of history, as done with other evils such as burning witches or testicular transplants from executed prisoners.
The next time you tell someone who’s going through abuse to stop contact with the person who is harming them or ask them to report it – know that those things could now be part of a criminal offence.
The issues have arisen in the statutory guidance to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which is the document that tells agencies how to apply the new law. In an underhand move, the statutory guidance, the so-called ‘back door’ of the legislation, says parental alienation is potentially a criminal offence in England and Wales – despite the theory’s problematic, wide-scale misuse against abuse victims.
So how would the Domestic Abuse Act now deal with victims of abuse if they have children? Let us be clear. Domestic abuse is a catastrophic, intentional parenting failure. Children react to domestic abuse differently, but many will be fearful of the person who has harmed them or their family. This person is likely to be their other parent. This Act means that a child who wishes to limit contact with the parent who harmed them is expected to get their safe parent in trouble with the law because a child’s resistance to contact is viewed as alienation. How would that work out for child victims?
This scenario already plays out in the family court worldwide, in countries where it hasn’t yet been outlawed. In Italy and Spain, the theory is prohibited in children’s court cases. Victims of parental alienation theory misuse currently find themselves labelled abusers themselves, and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is now distorted to reflect that. Around 80% of abuse victims in court are accused of ‘alienation’ simply for expressing the need to limit a parent who has harmed. The vast majority of alienation claims are made against mothers reporting abuse. They often lose their children, a sentence in itself.
It’s concerning how this could play out in other places. When a child tells a teacher that they are being harmed, the school would be in the impossible position where they would have to persuade an unwilling child into the arms of their abuser, and be unable to say someone should change that. Why? Because attempting to limit a parent’s access, is listed as potentially illegal. This Act disastrously ranks abusers’ feelings above a child’s right to safety. The Act has been twisted to work against the very people it was created to protect. That they have done this to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, is truly amoral.
It is not uncommon to see cases where victims of rapists and paedophiles end up tortured in family court for years with claims of ‘alienation’. How can we protect children from the most dangerous in our society if we ensure their wishes and feelings are viewed as being bottom of the pile? “Even paedophiles and murderers get contact,” said one family court judge in a quote released by the #thecourtsaid campaign in 2019. The message from the government is that if you have children, it doesn’t matter what crime was committed against you, trying to stop or limit an abusive parents involvement is the greater crime. You will have to happily co-parent and never bring up a safeguarding concern, because it could ‘undermine’ their parenting. Is this an appropriate message for the government to communicate to families who are experiencing abuse?
Those who are forced to flee their homes, often with children, may end up in a refuge if they are fortunate enough to find a place. How would they keep the refuge address safe (along with many other vulnerable women) when forced into facilitating regular contact with the very person they had to flee? Think also about the terror for a child who is living the nightmare of having contact with someone who continues to abuse them. The Act recognises children as victims yet simultaneously tells them they cannot place limits on their perpetrator.
The sad fact is that abusive partners (of which there are many) often make abusive parents. Around 62% of domestic abusers harm their children directly, usually through child arrangements. According to the guidance, reporting ongoing concern, is also a potential crime.
Other items in the statutory guidance create dystopian parameters for victims. ‘Withholding affection’ is criminalised but crucially not contextualised. While it isn’t in dispute that abusive partners will often be horrible to be around, they often weaponise day-to-day affection as a tactic. However criminalising ‘withholding affection’ conversely also provides a scripted defence for someone accused of sexual assault. How many times has a sexually abusive partner said, ‘if you just gave me more sex’, things would be better – that they wouldn’t need to be ‘desperate’ and ‘pushy’ and ‘going too far’ all the time if you just put out more? In court, this will mean that ‘withholding affection’ is likely to evolve into a ‘frigid defence’ to sexual assault – because rejecting an abusive partner’s advances, and therefore ‘withholding affection’ could be considered equally damaging, even criminal.
Where is this going for victims? Family court has already amended PD12J, the legal instrument providing judges with a set of standards on managing an abuse case, to reflect the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The establishment sends a clear message that our ability to say no to an abusive partner is eroded on every level.
Anyone who has ever been fearful of a partner or had one of those relationships where ending it early on felt like a narrow escape – imagine facing this reality had you not called time on it. Imagine being a parent whose child said they were dealing with abuse from their other parent, and you reported it. Imagine being effectively criminalised for acting protectively. Imagine having to make the toss-up between reporting a crime and risking arrest. In a sick twist, in the event of an arrest – guess who may take the children; the very person they reported. No one deserves to have their rights degraded in this way. No one should face punishment for protecting a child. Survivors in England and Wales need you to #chooserights for those who this will harm. Everyone has a responsibility to call on the government to remove parental alienation from the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.
The consultation closes on 14th September. Have your say and tell the government that you #chooserights for victims here
Channel 4 Dispatches groundbreaking film ‘Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered’ revealed never-before-seen footage of the state acting violently to children. This film is a testament to tenacious, boundary-pushing journalism. It’s difficult to forget the harrowing screams of children and mothers torn apart from each other. That the state can do this without just cause is a truth that needs to be widely known. The establishment deserves to feel a shockwave, because this film is a public wake-up call to a brutal reality.
These children lived in safe homes. The mothers had all been in family court, expressing concerns about the other parent’s conduct. Alleging parental alienation was the accused parent’s response to those safeguarding concerns. The film showed the most pressing risk to children’s welfare was not the stereotypical ‘alienating mother.’ A parent willing to go to any lengths in a trigger-happy system is the greater risk to children. It’s a psychologically violent plan to misuse the relatively rare phenomenon of parental alienation as a blanket response to evidence of safeguarding issues.
Significantly, true cases of parental alienation are sporadic, estimated to be prevalent in only a tiny proportion of court cases. The definition states that parental alienation is when a child rejects a parent due to manipulation by the other parent for no good reason. It’s deeply problematic when those who have harmed others with physical, emotional or sexual abuse can turn the tables just by alleging parental alienation. In a case where abuse was present, children are usually justified in limiting contact with an unsafe parent. It is a natural reaction to the trauma of experiencing abuse.
The film demonstrates how the family court reacts to families at risk of abuse. We see a mother tortured for years in court about parental alienation by a convicted paedophile who desires contact with his children. We see children who wish to live with their safe parent brutally extracted to live with an unsafe parent. The children express resistance; the system frames their opposition as ‘evidence of alienation.’ Children become voiceless and parents powerless, even when genuine and well-documented concerns exist about the other parent.
What the court failed to consider in all of these cases were the child’s communicated wishes and feelings. They neglected to take into account the abusive parent’s conduct. They heard a child’s fear and reluctance, and instead of saying, “we will keep you safe,” they said, “your mother put you up to this.” Abusers weaponizing parental alienation enforce the translation of children’s voices; consequently, their well-founded fears are point-blank dismissed as foul play from (usually) the mother.
Intense lobbying by men’s rights campaigns and a ring of unregulated experts have ensured that parental alienation has become a ‘trump card’ in court, even for peadophiles and murderers. For an abuser concealing their conduct, it appears to be the magic words. It creates a twisted power imbalance where the abuser can successfully deflect and then punish their victims, having the state act on their behalf.
Ideological pushers of parental alienation’s misuse claim it’s necessary to snatch children from their beds. They describe using a team of police officers because it reinforces the court’s and the father’s authority. They openly admit to using extreme force against children. The exploitation of this concept has not escaped the World Health Organization, which has removed it from the ICD-11 as ‘Its inclusion … will not contribute to valid or meaningful health statistics.’ The Families Need Fathers website asserts that the WHO has agreed to recognise it.The misuse of the concept is now standard, and enforced removals are on the rise.
The vast majority of the British public do not know their hard-earned taxes are funding these vicious extractions. For the most part, people trust the justice system. But the blame lies with the court. They accept unregulated, ideological expert opinion as gospel. They are happy to facilitate an abuser for many years despite knowing that an abusive parent may directly harm their children. Ultimately though, the blame lies with one person.
It’s striking to note that the father could have requested the court not to act with force against his children during all of these cases. At any point, due to these being private disputes, the father could have said: “Stop.” The court should recognise this as a psychologically violent strategy and act to prevent it. The justice system should be where the buck stops for abuse, not a vehicle for it to continue.
Dispatches Journalist Louise Tickle outlines how Freedom of Information requests had gone out to all UK police forces. Asked to determine how many children endure this radical state intervention, they declined to answer, citing cost. Anecdotally we know this practice has become more widespread. With children brutally forced into living with or spending time with an abuser while the institutions responsible conceal its prevalence, a government investigation is imperative. The public needs to know how far the justice system can go in a private dispute. Parents need to know what’s in store for their children if they enter the family court.
The world woke up to the dark reality of coercive control upon hearing Britney Spears’ testimony of abuse spanning over a decade, at the hands of her father and many others. She spoke of him controlling her every move, subjecting her to daily imposed restrictions and humiliations. She spoke of her father removing her possessions, cash and means of communication. He controlled her access to her children and ensured she had no fair chance at motherhood. He was aided and abetted by a questionable legal set-up called a Conservatorship, which the court has allowed for 13 years. Britney spoke of enduring threats, being scared, and feeling invisible, unheard. She described being effectively and legally enslaved and coercively abused for more than a decade. Mothers in family court found her heartbreaking testimony eerily familiar.
What most victims of coercive control also have in common with Britney Spears is that, like her, their social media may paint a very different picture. To the outside world, everything looks fine in their relationship. When yet another victim is murdered, the press will circulate a happy, smiling social media picture of the victim and the perpetrator. When local people are interviewed by the press about the tragedy, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll express puzzled disbelief at the tragedy, because he always was polite, or their social media looked happy.
Victims know they won’t be believed and abusers know how to manipulate. They don’t have to work as hard at it though, when the court is helping them. Britney rightly levelled some of the responsibility for her situation towards the court during her 24 minute address (her statement in full is here). “I will be honest with you. I haven’t been back to court in a long time, because I don’t think I was heard on any level when I came to court the last time,” she said.
Britney spoke of her fear of saying no to her own assistants, due to the threat of repercussions. Victims of coercive control in family court who have legal representation are also told they must not speak of the abuse. All victims wonder why their own representation would reinforce this position. They ask “aren’t you supposed to be on my side?” After all, they have hired them.
Britney speaks like she is in a prison, and has been for a long time. Coercive control victims in family court with their abusers also talk like they’ve been doing a stint inside the big house. It is telling that victims use language more often associated with incarceration to refer to their time subjected to intense legal processes. “I’ve been ‘in’ for [insert number between 1-16] years,” they say. Some laugh nervously when they acknowledge it sounds like they have been jailed, until it sinks in. The range, depth and breadth of the impacts on victims dealing with an abuser being able to legally control their victims for decades, must be globally acknowledged. When mothers are using terms of reference like this to accurately describe their experiences as (allegedly) free women, it’s a symbol of a greater tragedy.
Victims in family court, like Britney, also cannot say no to having a coercive controller in their lives. It appears that by controlling Britney’s contact with her children, her father behaved like every other coercive controller out there who has access to children. Victims in family court know only too well this pattern, where an abuser will utilize any leverage they can, even if that happens to be their own children. “Anything that happened to me had to be approved by my dad”, Britney said. For mums in family court, they know that anything that happens to them has to be approved by their children’s father. They also know that the children are used as leverage to further the abuse.
Britney refers to her access with her children being also in the hands of her father. “When my kids went home to Louisiana – he was the one who approved it”, she said. Her father then made her time with her children reliant on her compliance with a range of bizarre interventions. Britney told the court “Over the two-week holiday, a lady came into my home for four hours a day, sat me down and did a psych test on me. It took forever. But I was I was told I had to”. All victims jump through all of the hoops they can, for their children. Abusers know our kids are our Achilles heel. That’s why Britney’s father made her contact with her kids dependent upon her compliance to his demands. In a family court abuse case, a mothers relationship with her children is often reliant on her compliance with an abuser too.
The victims in family court who have experienced coercive control also have court mandated psychological testing. The so-called experts are usually hand-picked by the abuser’s legal team, to conduct their investigations. They are often insufficiently qualified, or known for writing reports that demonstrate a biased, or even pre-determined outcome that will not even reference coercive control. If victims in family court refuse to comply, they run the risk of losing their children for ‘failure to engage’. In Britney’s case, her assessments also appear rigged. In family court, mothers term this frequently as a ‘complete stitch-up’.
The impact on Britney’s relationship with her children, is likely to be irreversible. For family court mums, the finite nature of childhood becomes a new terror. For every day families remain stuck in the dynamic it increases the certainty that their childhood will be an experience to recover from, and not to look fondly back upon.
But why would someone systematically wish to harm another person in this way? Ask a coercive controller why they do it, they will tell you a whole host of reasons, usually denigrating the victim. She was mental. Unfit mother. Crazy. A Madonna and a whore. Many people hold the slightly quieter negative view that victims are maybe a bit stupid, or perhaps just vulnerable. Coercive control knows no class or demographic. There is not one ‘type’ of victim. They might be professionals, leaders in their field. They might be world famous icons like Britney Spears. There’s nothing an abuser loves more, than to actively break someone down. For many abusers, taking down a ‘strong’ woman is even more enticing. One such abuser was asked why he continued to take his ex-wife to court to control her life, and when asked the question ‘doesn’t it take a special kind of bitterness to keep that up for a decade? Why do you do it?’ He laughed and chillingly replied, “because I love it”. Britney said of her father in her powerful testimony, that “he loved the control to hurt his own daughter.” Abusive men make terrible fathers.
Victims have to quickly come to terms with just how much a perpetrator will focus their entire life’s purpose, to own them and fight to keep ownership of them. How much they view their victims as a ‘non-person’, their feelings a ‘non-issue’, and treat them like nothing more than property. The court in all of these cases, is complicit in failing to address the underlying narrative of coercive control. In Britney’s case, the court has been doing her abusers (extremely elaborate) bidding for thirteen years. Many family court mums are also in the process for upwards of a decade. That this journey into coercive control is a long one, is an understatement.
“I don’t think how the state of California can have all this written in the court documents from the time I showed up and do absolutely nothing” Britney said in her address to the judge. But day in day out, in courtrooms all over the world, women reporting coercive control are completely ignored. Their concerns are side-lined, minimized or even actively covered up – and the risks and abusive patterns continue.
Britney referred to being gagged: “I’m told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.” Court is a credible and terrifying threat to any victim, because it can effectively state sanction the abuse to continue. It’ll also ensure you are not allowed to speak about it. You cannot refer to the people, the events or the processes, you have to just get on with the arrangements they impose, whilst trying to navigate the legal minefield until one blows up. The perpetrators who speak out (usually to protest their innocence and denigrate their victims simultaneously) face no consequences, whilst the victims that do, are punished. This imbalance of power was one that Britney clearly knew all too well.
Britney deserves to be able to tell her story, to own what has happened and to move on from it fully supported. Every victim of coercive control deserves this. She deserves to enjoy all of her human rights, including the right to not be subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment, and her right to family life. The right to own what is hers, to assert her agency. The right to buy a coffee and make some damn decisions. She deserves to be able to use the voice she has been blessed with, however she wants.
As for the depth and degree of the damage done to Britney – we will likely never know the true extent. However any victim of coercive control will have an insight better than most people. Hearing Britney Spears taking a stand to salvage her life and protect her future from her own father was heartbreaking. That a successful 39 year old woman has to ask a judge to allow her to make an adult decision, is abhorrent. Despite the realization of this awful case and it’s Gilead-worthy parallels, all victims listening to her testimony would have recognized in mirror image the deep hope and faith that keeps you going, when you have no other choice. Her desire to reclaim her body and mind, drawing a great big circle of ‘NO’ around her, was palpable. Britney said to the judge:
In September 2020, a letter emerged from Dubravka Šimonović, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, and Elizabeth Broderick, UN President/Rapporteur of the working group on discrimination against women and girls, detailing the removal of a child from her mother, ordered in Bizkaia, Spain. The 8-year-old girl had been snatched by a team of police, private security agents and social workers.
Anyone who has witnessed a police removal of a child from their home will be aware this type of removal is conducted with similar tactics as police raids. Except in children’s cases, they are not apprehending dangerous criminals, they are removing children from their parents, usually on the order of a family court judge. During a ‘raid-style’ removal, the police’s preferred tactic is to take children from their beds. This is to ensure a child is sleepy and disorientated, in the hope of decreased resistance. Those who have witnessed these brutal removals will know that even confused and tired children will resist it with every fibre of their being. Many children in this situation will do anything to escape it. Because being a child outnumbered by around 8 uniformed (sometimes armed) officers is horrifically frightening.
Police act on these types of family court orders in relation to children in the same way all over the world, including the UK. During these terrifying raid-style removals, the child will often make a desperate attempt at escape, even if that is through a third-floor window, or by hurling themselves down a flight of stairs. Imagine being a child faced with that immediate, traumatic threat to life, occurring whilst you sleep in your bed. Now imagine being a child being subjected to that on the request of your own father.
Dubravka Šimonović’s letter describes the impossible predicament of Mrs Costumero and her 8-year-old daughter. Accused of manipulation by the father, an alleged domestic abuser, she had felt the full force of the state’s disproportionate reaction to the parental alienation dog whistle. It’s well known that the common defence used by those accused of domestic abuse or child abuse is parental alienation. The narrative is uniformly misused in courtrooms around the globe, by abusers who wish to manipulate those investigating allegations of abuse. It is a fully loaded response. Šimonović states in her plea to the UN, that the child was also subject to suspected physical abuse at the hands of her father. She details that three abuse referrals had been made to the Cruces hospital in Bizkaia for injuries the child had sustained whilst in her father’s care.
This case led to Spain prohibiting the use of unscientific theory in children’s cases recently, effectively banning parental alienation as a defence. Spain heard how judicial and social work decisions and interpretation of legislation were clouded by prejudices and stereotypes. This poor understanding is replicated globally and has led to an explosion in the use of misogynistic narratives like parental alienation; otherwise known as ‘malevolent mother syndrome’ or ‘implacable hostility’ in custody disputes, with chilling outcomes for children.
Italy’s highest court followed suit in rebutting it, recently ruling that “manipulation cannot be scientifically proven and therefore the representation of children’s will as manipulated does not fall into any legal category”. The judge had homed in on the methods used by parental alienation proponents in the judgement. The theory was dubbed ‘Nazi Theory’ because it is more concerned with the “perpetrator type” which is a legal term that refers to a theory that emerged in 1940’s Nazi Germany and is based on the idea that one is not so much concerned with the act itself, rather how the person can be punished for the act. In this particular case, the mother was not punished by the Venetian court because she was an inadequate mother or an unsafe parent, but because of prejudice and hostility against women that parental alienation theory so uniquely plays into. This is the narrative that views all mothers with hostile suspicion, and ensures children’s disclosures of abuse are taken with a pinch of salt, or entirely ignored – before placing the victims with the perpetrator.
Lawyer Voltaggio pointed out in this Italian article about the case that “the mother, to put it more clearly, could not see her daughter for months without committing a crime, only because she was a woman who was not very subservient to CTU and the judiciary”. The state treated her unjustly and they punished her dissent, rather than addressing the injustice that allowed this to happen.
In recent years, a vast network of those with a stake in the parental alienation industry have been lobbying and creating an ever-expanding list of possible crimes that (primarily) mothers may be punished for. These crimes include a flicker of a facial micro-expression, or not being utterly enthralled by your ex-partners parenting. If there is evidence or children’s disclosures of abuse, they assert this is evidence of alienation. They routinely advocate forceful and draconian methods such as the raid-style removal of children to demonstrate the courts and (usually) the father’s authority. This is how a safe mother most often loses the children to an abusive father, through no fault of her own. They shamelessly target those talking about domestic abuse, because their livelihood depends on abuse allegations being twisted using this theory. This network, whilst ruining countless lives, has spawned a multi-million-dollar industry. It relies on victims continued subjugation.
International developments like these progressive and well thought through judgements from Spain and Italy must be learnt from elsewhere. Currently in Ireland, it’s emerged that the family court, who preside over approximately 12,000 family court cases a year, have no idea how many sexually abused children have been forced to live with or have contact with the perpetrator of their abuse. Despite these shocking admissions about the Irish family court’s safety record, the Irish parental alienation lobby have nevertheless managed to unanimously establish formal recognition of the discredited theory within Ireland’s councils.
In England and Wales, similar gains have been made by the lobby, putting the UK’s children very much at risk. The notion of this weaponised ‘Nazi Theory’ has been firmly and atrociously embedded in the last document it should have been; our Domestic Abuse Act.
Special thanks goes to Centre for Social Injustice for the translation of the Special Rapporteur’s joint letter. Follow CSI on Twitter @Punishthepoor. The Centre for Social Injustice critically disseminates financial and ideological driven policies that harm women and children.
We expect every report of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) to be treated seriously from the point of disclosure, every victim to be treated with dignity, and every investigation and every prosecution to be conducted thoroughly and professionally.
Well-intentioned governments have a plan to tackle domestic abuse. The Scottish Government understand that Violence Against Women and Girls is a fundamental violation of human rights and the country is steadfast in resigning domestic abuse to the history books. Scotland plans to embrace equality, tackle and prosecute perpetrators and use early intervention to prevent and eradicate the shameful plague on our citizens, economy, health services and criminal justice system. Scotland understands coercive control and the deep-rooted beliefs and values held by abusers. It is implementing swift and radical legislation to uphold the human rights of women and children subjected to harm. Legislation is proving to be effective, with an 84% conviction rate reported for the new Coercive Control offence, a number which is expected to rise. (National Statistics, Crime & Justice, 2019-2020).
Scotland’s vision is clear, but there is a significant obstacle blocking the path to the kind and safe country Scotland aspires to be. When women and children report and disclose mental and physical violence in the family courts, the court’s response is to blame, punish and silence them. The vulnerable get subjected to an often horrifying and lengthy ordeal. There is no dignity, only disparagement, for the family courts thoroughly scrutinise the victim’s behaviour, not the perpetrators. Raising violence in the family courts can be a frightening experience for women and children. The family courts are an institution that prioritises child contact over child safety, and they are often strict and authoritarian in their approach.
Psychological and violent abusers get absolved overnight when they enter the civil court process. Mother-blaming non-scientific theories are routinely used in family courts. They give the appearance of mutual conflict, conceal cruel behaviour and render controlling and dangerous parents unimpeachable. Horrific incidents get moved to a box labelled historic and perpetrators are considered good enough parents worthy of not just a second chance, but a third and fourth – for the pattern of cruel and harmful behaviour continues over the years of court-ordered co-parenting. The judiciary routinely turns a blind eye to the harm.
There are several access to justice barriers in the family courts for women and children who experience mental and physical violence. When the blame and burden of domestic abuse is shifted onto women and children they are sentenced to years of further suffering which does extraordinary short and long term damage. Raise claims of abusive behaviour and the ‘parental alienation’ card is played, shutting down efforts to report and disclose; mothers get labelled vengeful and hostile, and children get labelled influenced or manipulated. There is no fair and accessible complaints process – if complaints are raised, women and children get punished further and the ‘privilege’ card is played; the secrecy surrounding court reports and judgements only further emboldens those who abuse their power.
By failing to address domestic abuse appropriately, the family courts are impeding Governments’ efforts to tackle all forms of Violence Against Women and Girls and perpetuating the debilitating cycles of abuse. Governments committed to ratifying the Istanbul Convention must pay close attention to the practices in the family courts. While mandatory training in domestic abuse is essential, it does not address the root cause of the family court’s refusal to respect the human rights of women and children and protect them from harm. Individuals deep-rooted beliefs and values are at the heart of the cruelty, and they must get tackled swiftly and head-on.
The Spanish Government has recently taken firm action by outlawing the use of mother-blaming non-scientific theories that silence the child’s voice, such as parental alienation. GREVIO, the human rights body mandated to monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, has urged the Italian authorities to ammend legislation to,
explicitly recognise the need to take into account incidents of violence
investigate any report of violence
ensure that only those professionals who are attuned to the issue of violence against women can be appointed by courts to provide advice on issues of custody and visitation in situations of violence against women
ban the use by court-appointed experts, social workers and courts of concepts related to “parental alienation”, as well as any other approach or principle, such as the “friendly parent provision”
Many judges and legal and mental health practitioners in the family court system stubbornly refuse to acknowledge and show remorse for the harm the family courts do to women and children. The family court’s approach directly clashes with Scotland’s plans to tackle domestic abuse, prevent harm and protect its citizens. Well-intentioned governments must now follow Spain and legislate to end the harm. They must outlaw the use of mother blaming theories in the family courts, and they must remove the presumption of contact that exists. They must bring transparency and openness to the family court system and root out professional misconduct once and for all.
Victims of controlling and violent perpetrators seek freedom and safety; they seek the opportunity to move forward with their lives and heal. Children deserve to grow up as free-thinking individuals in a safe environment. If the family courts refuse to set women and children free, then the Government must.
The landmark Domestic Abuse Bill has been lauded as ‘ground-breaking’ legislation as it has been making it’s way through the Parliamentary process. The Lords added some much needed amendments to ensure the legislation worked for victims, like mandatory judicial training and a serial perpetrators register, amongst others. The Bill was truly taking shape to be a giant leap forward for victims. Until it arrived in the House of Commons on 15th April 2021, and everything good in the Bill, was callously rejected.
A Conservative vote saw these vital amendments cast aside. The Tories almost unanimously turned their back on victims.
Those who have survived domestic abuse, only to end up further victimised in the family court were already vastly under-represented in this Bill. Without these vital amendments to improve the landscape for those in court, victims are left unprotected.
The amendments gave everyone hope that the buck might stop, where the buck should stop – within the justice system. With the Tories blocking progress, hope became a new terror.
Judicial independence and judicial discretion are concepts that becomes the mantra for impeding progress, with the Tories at the helm. Our justice system does not reflect the reality endured by it’s users, despite it’s users being one of their key accountability groups. The government turns it’s back, prioritising judicial discretion over victims safety. In other words, they have total discretion to act against the very people they should be protecting. The family court remains ‘business as usual’.
This government previously refused to act to correct injustice they had admitted to, the campaign for recourse was met with an impenetrable brick wall, that was called judicial independence. They said they could do nothing for children ordered into unsafe arrangements by the state.
During the recent appeals before the President of the Family Division, the level of the systems ignorance was scrutinised. Time and again, the judiciary is publicly under fire for outdated attitudes towards violence against women in particular. More often, these nasty biases and misconceptions about abuse, plays out in the justice system, as it does in society; frequently, and behind closed doors.
COVID saw sky-rocketing rates of domestic abuse. This wave of victims will be seeking protection from the state, where insufficient protection exists. A year on from the Harm Report, no visible change has been detected. Gathering dust on a desk somewhere in the Ministry of Justice, the promise of reform looks hollow. The same people tasked with implementing the changes to family justice, are the same people who rejected the crucial Bill amendments.
Meanwhile, victims face the bleak prospect of entering into a system for protection when they need it most, fearing what they will find. They may be told that domestic abuse doesn’t matter, that contact is more important. They may be told that their children’s right to safety is outweighed by an abusive parents desire for contact. The children find their lives and living arrangements reduced to percentages and ratios, like they are objects and not people.
Mothers frequently find the level of disbelief from those in the family court, that abuse even occurs, disconcerting. It is at odds with society, the rates of women experiencing domestic abuse are 1 in 3 – yet if you ask the justice system, this will be vastly downplayed. If you ask a mother who has been on the receiving end of the blunt tool of family justice, she will tell you they couldn’t give a damn. “I give contact to peadophiles and murderers, so domestic abuse isn’t that bad” one judge went as far to say. It is a morally defunct system when the yardstick for assessing a safe parent is merely the presence of shared DNA. Children are more than merely a product of two genetic stamps which must be divided in divorce.
It is about rights and not responsibilities or accountability in the family court. Currently, perpetrators have the rights, victims have the responsibilities and the government just reneged on one of the biggest steps towards accountability; training. No one can create a culture change without training. The justice system has demonstrated it’s position of ignorance, yet evaded it being effectively addressed.
The deficiencies in the system are vast and cannot be addressed in a vacuum. It is unlikely that the judiciary will adequately and voluntarily move forward without the compelling nature of mandatory legislature. They have discretion and independence to act against it’s own stakeholders; the public. They have been gifted impunity.
The Tories have catastrophically let down survivors of abuse, in particular women and children. When they rejected crucial amendments that would drag the judiciary into the twenty-first century, they impeded progress. Denying the need of legislation to protect those who need it most shows that when they are presented with an opportunity of a generation to make a difference, they resist it. It’s legacy will be inherited by those they purported to protect.
The submission we give does not relate to petitioners particular court case but addresses their petition. Family court involvement can be extremely distressing for parents, children and grandparents. We agree generally speaking that there must be more regulation and accountability in the system. However, it is crucial that the parties who, in line with academic research, have abused their power and acted outwith the remit of their appointment get regulated, not the parties who work tirelessly to protect the vulnerable from harm.
We base our submission on the lived experience of survivors of domestic violence in Scotland whose children are experiencing unsafe family court contact arrangements. We support the Government’s progressive legislation which will help give children a voice in family court proceedings and advance their human rights. Victims of egregious domestic violence have consistently reported that when raising allegations of harmful and abusive behaviour in the family courts, they face counter-allegations of parental alienation. This non-scientific theory has the power to confuse matters, and it has the power to silence the vulnerable when applied in child contact and custody disputes that involve domestic abuse.
Research published in Scotland in 2020 by the University of Edinburgh details how children’s participation rights are adversely affected when domestic abuse victims face accusations of ‘manipulation’. (Dr Fiona Morrison, Professor Kay Tisdall, Professor Jane Callaghan). While no one can doubt that false allegations occur in harrowing circumstances, academic research shows that false allegations of domestic abuse are rare. (Ministry of Justice Harm Report 2020, Literature Review).
An abundance of recent academic research shows that allegations of parental alienation in domestic abuse cases are incredibly harmful. (Professor Joan Meier, Dr Adrienne Barnett, Dr Julie Doughty, Dr Joyanna Silberg, Professor Simon Lapierre, Zoe Rathus AM, Gloria Casas Villa). The majority of cases in the family courts are domestic abuse cases. The application of the theory by family courts obscures the elements of risk thus paving the way for contact to take place. When children are silenced and forced into unsafe contact against their will, it further traumatises vulnerable children.
Therefore, the concept of parental alienation is dangerous when considering any legislation intent on protecting the vulnerable from harm, such as the Children Scotland Act 2020. Proponents of the theory now claim it to be coercive control and a specific form of domestic abuse; this should raise a red flag when considering legislation to advance children’s rights. A good understanding of perpetrators’ tactics is vital when considering legislation for this Act. Consultation with domestic abuse experts such as Women’s Aid is essential on anything purported to be coercive control and a form of domestic abuse.
We must commend non-statutory child advocates for the important work they do in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. We support the Child Advocacy Services provision in the Children Scotland Act 2020, which will help give children a voice in family court proceedings. It is imperative that Child Advocates from the legal profession, like Child Welfare Reporters (CWR’s), must be regulated and held accountable. Victims of court reporter’s misconduct have told us they currently face difficulties when making a complaint. Legal professionals who offer services of CWR also offer Child Advocacy Services.
When acting in a family court role, the route to complain about a legal professional’s conduct is through the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC). (Guide to Child Welfare Reports, 2016). When victims of misconduct raise a complaint with the SLCC, obstacles arise due to the report’s status – the report is considered evidence to the court and therefore privileged. The role of CWR can result in the SLCC applying the rules differently when deciding if a complaint is eligible. This can lead to an expensive appeal in the Court of Session, which can lengthen the complaints process for already vulnerable users and result in a barrier to justice for those harmed, thus harming them further. The Government must note this when considering regulation of Child Advocates.
Any regulation should provide a simple, and cost-effective path to justice for users of the family courts who experience misconduct. Transparency and accountability are necessary and will help restore the user’s confidence in the family justice system; however, the Government must target the regulation towards the professionals in the system who have, in academic research, shown to harm the users of the system. Targeting the regulation will help uphold parents’ human rights to a fair trial, children’s human rights to a voice, and their rights to be protected from mental and physical violence. Transparency and accountability will help make the process fairer and keep children safe from harm.
Professor Joan Meier’s groundbreaking study was published in 2020, showing the outcomes of family court cases involving parental alienation and how it affects custody. Her study firmly shone the spotlight on the catastrophic gender-specific harm the theory of parental alienation does and, in particular, the harm it does to child victims of physical and sexual abuse.
As the research of Professor Meier and Dr Barnett hit the headlines, and governments and judges started to take notice, the parental alienation lobby continued to launch missiles, generally in the direction of domestic abuse victims, charities, services, and academics. The façade started to crumble.
Harman & Lorandos released a spurious study to challenge and ‘replicate’ Professor Meier’s study, which many parental alienation proponents unprofessionally critiqued. In Karen Woodall’s blog Professor Meier’s study was labelled misleading, confusing, unsupported, untrustworthy, unreliable, a woozle, intent on manipulating readers and attempting to shift the narrative away from the alienated child. Others labelled Professor Meiers study badly done, shoddy, low-rent, proceedurally flawed and full of false assumptions. The behaviour and tactics of the parental alienation ‘experts’ and proponents did not fall far from that of the domestic violence perpetrator who cross-claims parental alienation in the courtroom.
Professor Meier has issued a rebuttal to the Harman & Lorandos challenge which can be read below. Those who benefit ideologically and financially from the status quo in the family courts were never going to self-reflect on, accept, or apologise for, the catastrophic harm they have done to women and children globally. The backlash is intense and it is vicious, but the will to end the harm to women and children in the family courts, globally, is steadfast.
MEIER ET AL. BRIEF REBUTTAL OF HARMAN/LORANDOS PAPER
Joan Meier, Sean Dickson, Chris O’Sullivan & Leora Rosen
Jan. 21, 2021
MEIER ET AL FCO STUDY METHODOLOGY WAS THOROUGH AND CONSCIENTIOUS.
The Family Court Outcomes Study was subjected to peer review before federal funding was approved. Our methods are thoroughly documented in the DOJ’s Archives and in regularly required reports to DOJ. In contrast, H/L’s study had no pre-review. Posting on an Open Science website is frankly irrelevant to quality, and failed to identify a multitude of serious flaws in their dataset, coding and analyses.
a. H/L appear ignorant of federally funded research procedures and treated our final study report as though it was a scholarly paper; in fact it met particular federal requirements. For no known reason they did not review the published article describing the FCO study.
FCO’s dataset and codings are both transparent and meticulously objective. Contrary to H/L’s assertion, rather than “cherry-picking” our comprehensive 11-line search string ensured we identified all relevant cases within the most recent ten-year period. Our search produced 15,000 cases, which were triaged down to 4388 cases that met our criteria (parental alienation and/or abuse allegations between private custody litigants). Coding was thorough, careful, objective, and repeatedly double-checked, and intelligent explanations for our codes, dataset, and categories are detailed in the Study documentation. In contrast, H/Loffer no explanations for their frankly bizarre choices of codings and analyses (see below).
H/L declined to use our comprehensive search string (stating it was too big) and just collected cases (appellate only) involving parental alienation, using only simple search terms. H/L’s search went back 34 years (while using a far narrower search string), meaning their data include changing practices in courts since 1984.Rather than screening out cases that confound the core questions about impact of abuse or alienation claims, such as child welfare/state cases and neglect claims (neither reflective of private custody), they created a “fruit salad” dataset – containing such varying types of cases and issues that it is impossible to know whether their outcomes were driven by alienation, abuse or any number of other significant factors they mixed into their dataset.
H/L appear to have misunderstood that they did not and could not “test” our study by only collecting alienation cases. The FCO Study has both alienation and non-alienation cases, which allowed us to analyze the impact of the alienation defense. They may have mixed up our final study with our published pilot study (which only analyzed alienation cases).
H/L’s own study conclusions are deeply flawed and likely wrong, for numerous reasons. Here are a few:
a. They use contradictory and gender-biased codings and analyses. For instance, they treat men’s losses of visitation as equivalent to women’s losses of custody. A series of additional coding/analytic inconsistencies combine to create a gender-biased and incorrect analysis of “custody losses.”
b. Their analyses of “founded alienation” actually prioritizesevaluators’ opinions over judges’ opinions about whether alienation is true; it treats even those cases where judges disagreed with the evaluator as “founded” alienation.
c. Their empirical analyses conflate appellate and trial court opinions, without accounting for the obvious differences in posture, determination, and meaning.
d. Their conclusion that, contrary to the FCO Study’s finding, GALs and Evaluators do not tilt outcomes, is intrinsically defective. First, for no apparent reason they analyzed only cases where the neutral professional found alienation. Second, without comparing these to cases without GALs/Evaluators, as the FCO Study does, they cannot draw this conclusion.
e. They misinterpret statistical significance from their own regressions, stating outcomes are significant when they are not.
Two of H/L’s findings actually converge with ours:First, while their own anti-woman rhetoric may have confused them, their finding that mothers’ abuse allegations are considered false more often than fathers’ is consistent with ours (and with their own hypothesis, which they incorrectly state was not supported).Second, their finding that credited alienation trumps credited abuse for both genders was an explicit finding in the FCO Study. They falsely state that it contradicts the latter. These findings also support the abuse field’s critiques of family courts, regarding giving known abusers unfettered access to children and of PA claims being an effective strategy for abusive fathers. H/L refused to acknowledge these convergences, even when one was pointed out.
Whose study is infected by confirmation bias? Meier is an academic and the rest of the team consists of established social scientists; we do not stretch or distort the evidence. In fact, we coded and analyzed everything as conservatively as possible to ensure that no bias to support our hypotheses crept in. Lorandos’s attack on Meier’s research “credibility” (in webinar) because she is a domestic violence lawyer or cites to those who report family court problems is, to put it kindly, laughable. He himself is a notorious parental alienation lawyer who specializes in defending against “false claims” of sexual abuse. He repeatedly sued a highly regarded child sexual abuse clinic. He has been sanctioned for unethical conduct as a lawyer and psychologist and is known for leveling ad hominem attacks on female abuse scholars. For her part, Harman has acknowledged that her own interest in parental alienation stems from personal experience. (Documentation of these statements is available.)
a. The objectivity of the FCO Study is supported by the Study’s inclusion of two findings that support alienation proponents’ positions, stemming from recognition that alienation claims are brought by mothers against fathers in a significant minority of cases. These are:
– That when a court deems a parent an alienator mothers and fathers lose custody at comparable rates (71%) – as noted above; and
– That when alienation is alleged and abuse is not alleged, outcomes appear to be roughly gender-equal.
In contrast to the FCO Study’s even-handed presentation of findings, H/L decline to recognize that any of their findings are similar to the FCO Study or consistent with the abuse field’s concerns. In this, as in many other things, they are a “pot calling the kettle black.”