Coping with the Parental Alienation Syndrome
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What the authorities say
The various government authorities do not dismiss PAS out of hand. Here are some replies.
The Home Office
Letter dated 29th October 1993
EMOTIONAL CHILD ABUSE
Thank you for your letters and enclosures of 30 September and 8 October. 1 am sorry that you have not received an earlier reply.
As you rightly say, although not known by a common term, the phenomenon you describe is already familiar to a wide range of practitioners within the family justice system. I am not though convinced that it is either necessary or appropriate for the court welfare service to attempt to Impose on the courts a single definition of what obviously a complex matter. The fresh guidance which will emerge from our current work preparing national standards for the probation service will touch on the overall task of speaking with children, but I do not envisage that it will refer in terms to “parental alienation syndrome”. Court welfare officers exercise a considerable degree of discretion in their work with families and are already fully aware of the dangers inherent in accepting children’s statements at face value and of the possibility of parents manipulating children to their own ends.
Although we would be interested in the results of any further research into emotional child abuse, I am afraid that we are not able to offer any financial assistance for this project.
Letter of 24th November 1993
PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME
Thank you for your letters of 3 and 30 November.
I must take Issue with your assertion that the Home Office is not aware of the patterns of behavior which you describe as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and Sexual Allegations in Divorce (SAID) and that this apparent failure is a contributory factor in the creation of fatherless families.
The Home Office Is well aware, as are court welfare officers, that, in matters concerning the welfare and upbringing of children brought before the courts, unfounded allegations of sexual abuse may be made by one parent for the purpose of discrediting the other.
As I said in my letter of 29 October, both the Home Office and the court welfare service are also aware of the fact that parents may seek to manipulate their children and encourage them to make statements designed to lessen the chances of the absent parent being granted contact with the child. Where an officer suspects that such coaching or manipulation has taken place, he or she will take this into account when preparing the welfare report and ensure that it is brought to the court's attention.
The most important point is surely not that a particular name or definition be given to the phenomenon but that court welfare officers are alert to the possibilities of such manipulation taking place and are able to recognise it when it occurs.
In working with couples court welfare officers do their utmost to remind parties to proceedings of their continuing parental responsibility and far from helping to create fatherless families, encourage parents to work together in the best interests of the child.
Out of interest to get a reply I contacted the Home Office on the matter of Stalking. My interest was to see if Stalking was defined as a form of ‘emotional abuse’. The reply of 19th April 1996 was:
Thank you for your letter of April 7 about stalking to which the Home Secretary has asked me to reply.
The Government recognises the threat stalkers pose and the devastating effect it can have on the lives of their victims. It can be extremely frightening for someone to be the unwilling object of another’s attention, particularly if this behavior becomes offensive or threatening. As you aware, it has been suggested in response to this that stalking should be made a specific criminal offence.
We know that stalking is recognised as a criminal offence in Canada, most states in the US, and several in Australia, although in some cases the new laws they have introduced deal with stalking activities which are already offences in the United Kingdom. The Government it has recently completed an examination of the anti-stalking laws passed in these countries and is currently looking at the existing criminal law and civil remedies available in the UK as part of a review to determine whether workable he and effective legislation to combat stalkers can be introduced here.
If a criminal law against stalking is to be introduced then its definition, as with all offences, will need careful consideration. Stalking does not apply to a particular action; or kind of action, which can easily be described in legal terms and prohibited; instead, it describes an obsession on the part of one person with another, unwilling person, which may manifest itself.. in various ways, ranging from the trivial to the violent.
If stalking was to be made a criminal offence then an important element of assessing cases of stalking might, I imagine, be the level of harassment, fear or distress inflicted on the victim and of course it might not be necessary to prove that a physical assault took place to secure a conviction.
There have, in fact, been recent successful convictions against stalkers under the existing criminal law on charges, under the Offences against the Person Act, of causing grievous or actual bodily harm as a result of the psychological distress inflicted on the victims. These cases represent an important and useful application of the criminal law in dealing with stalking behavior although the offences of GBH or ABH cannot be applied to all cases of stalking and we understand that it is important to be able to take action against a stalker before his behavior causes such severe harm to his victim.
I cannot really comment on how far the introduction of an offence of stalking would affect the approach to “Parental Alienation” you have described Issues related to the law and policy on separation and divorce are the responsibility of the the Lord Chancellor’s Department and, more particularly, its Family Policy Division on 0171 210 8700, rather than the Home Office.
The italics are my own. These comments seem to apply to PAS as an offence, and since Stalking has become a crime recognised by law, there is a case for PAS being recognised in a similar way. There is also the law against the ‘Incitement to hatred’, which might well fit into PAS.
The Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD)
The recently formed CAFCASS was created by the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000 with the intent to provide advice to the courts about the wellbeing of children and their families.
It is answerable to the LCD, and replaces the Family Court Welfare Service. The previous Family Court Welfare Officers are now Court Reporters. They might well be the same people with the same attitudes, and the same lack of knowledge and experience of Family law and psychology, but hopefully this will change with time.
A reply dated 10th October 1995 on whether the LCD recognised PAS brought the response:
Thank you for your letter of 22 August 1995, concerning the recognition of Parental Alienation Syndrome.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is not defined in your letter. However, this term is known to be used in the USA to refer to children who following the divorce or separation of their parents become alienated from the parent with whom they do not reside. This is said to be caused by indoctrination from the parent who cares for the children.
It may help you if I explain that in deciding the measures appropriate to deal with the care and upbringing of the child, the courts in England and Wales are required at all times to put the welfare of the child first. The Children Act 1989 seeks to strike a balance between the need to ensure the child’s views are taken into account, and the risk of casting on him or her, the burden of resolving problems caused by parents, or requiring the child to choose between them. The Act also allows the child, with the courts permission to seek an order about his or her own future, and the child may be joined as a party if the court thinks it appropriate, even if the child does not seek an order.
The courts are aware of the possibility of influence, and whether or not the child is party to the proceedings, the court is empowered to order a welfare report and to ensure that it covers the child’s wishes and feelings. The court welfare officers are carefully selected and trained for their particular work. They are trained to be aware of bias and are committed to avoid it. Therefore while welfare officers have regard to wishes and feelings of children, they are nonetheless aware of they danger inherent in accepting statements at face value, and the possibility of parents manipulating children to their own ends. Where an officer even suspects, even after seeing the child alone, that coaching or manipulation has taken place, he
or she will take it into account when preparing the welfare report and ensure that it is brought to the attention of the court. In addition the court will, of course consider any evidence put forward by either party to the proceedings The decision reached, however, is a matter for the judge, taking into account all the relevant circumstances of the case.
NOTE: the italics in the above letter are my own.
Letter dated 1 November 1996 from the LCD
Thank you for your further letters of 14 and 19 September, and of 1 October concerning the alienation of children against the non-resident parent by the parent with care of the children.. You ask this whether this matter, which you refer to as Parental Alienation Syndrome, is recognised by the Lord Chancellor’s Department.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is defined, in your submission, as the systematic denigration of one parent by another with the intent of alienating the child against the other parent, with the purpose of gaining custody (now residence) of the child to the exclusion of the child’s father.
The courts are aware of the possible influence that the caring parent could have over the child. This type of behaviour is sometimes referred to as coaching or manipulation. The particular name or definition is of lesser importance than the fact that in any proceeding concerning the child, the court will take into consideration the possibility that such conduct may have taken place. In addition, the court will, of course consider any evidence put forward by either party to the proceedings. The decision reached, however, is a matter for the judge, taking into account all the relevant circumstances of the case.
In your letter you also raise the issue of “stalking” and ask whether it is regarded as a form of emotional abuse. It is difficult to make an outright comparison of “stalking” with the influence which a parent with residence may exert on a child in his or her care. Both present problems of legal definition. The Home Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department issued a Consultation Paper on stalking issued last July; 1 enclose a copy.
You also raise issue about the impartiality of Court Welfare Officers and the standards which they apply in the exercise of their duties to the courts in family proceedings. I enclose a Home Office booklet, which set out national standards for the probation service in relation to family court welfare work. You will appreciate that these are subject to periodic review You may send any comments to, or raise any relevant questions direct with, the Home Office, which is the Department responsible for the court welfare service.
Turning to the news articles concerning the suspension by the USA judiciary of a father’s maintenance payments to his daughter who had expressed hatred towards him and had rejected him as her father, you ask whether on similar facts a court in England and Wales would make a similar decision. The payment of maintenance is an important means whereby both parents meet their financial responsibilities to their children. The meeting of this obligation is not dependent on contact taking place, nor on the relationship between the parent and the child concerned. The decision in any individual case, however, is a matter entirely for the judge in the light of the facts and circumstances of the particular case. Neither the Lord Chancellor nor any of his officials can comment on a such a matter.
You say that there is general dissatisfaction among users with the service provided by the family court system. I would recommend that you write to the Chief Executive of the Court Service, Southside, 105 Victoria Street London SWlE 6QT, with details of any specific concerns you may wish to raise.
You also suggest that the court system discriminates against fathers in that the courts fail to act against mothers who breach contact orders. As I have explained, the enforcement of contact, where the resident parent frustrates or refuses to comply with an order of the court, is one of the most sensitive and difficult decisions which a court may have to confront. I can assure you that there is no question of there being a fixed policy of discrimination against one parent in favour of the other, The courts are required to apply the law impartially and without bias. There is every confidence that they do so at present, and will continue to do so
While the court will not seek to avoid making an order simply because a parent has indicated that he or she will not comply with that order, the court must consider whether the imprisonment of the person who is caring for the child is in the best interest of the child concerned, and the likelihood that it could turn the child against the parent who has induced the imprisonment of the caring parent.
The courts do all they can, often with the help of other professionals such as social workers, to make both parties understand that they should not act in their own interests, but that of the children. Ultimately, failure to comply with a contact order can amount to contempt of court, for which the penalty can be committal to prison. Understandably, this is a weapon of last resort which is likely to aggravate hostility between the parties. The court must consider whether the imprisonment of the person who is caring for the child is in the best interests of the child concerned, and the likelihood that it could turn the child against the parent who has induced the imprisonment of the caring parent. For these reasons the courts will rarely hold that the imprisonment of the person with care of the child is in the child’s best interests. There are, however, cases where they have done so, e.g. in the recent case of Z v Z (Refusal of Contact:
Committal)  1 FOR 538, in which a mother who refused to comply with a contact order, which included a penal clause, was committed to prison for contempt. A similar committal was more recently made by His Honour Judge Poulton at Canterbury Combined Court and upheld by the Court of Appeal on 11 October.
Separate figures are not available for the cost of contact or enforcement proceedings by fathers in the Family Proceedings Courts.
I hope this will reassure you that the present system does adequately safeguard the position of fathers who want to continue contact with their children after separation or divorce from the mother.
NOTE: The obvious complacency and lack of experience is typical of the system
Letter dated 17th August 1998 from the LCD
I am replying to your letter to the Prime Minister of 26 June about contact orders and parental alienation syndrome. The issues you raise are the responsibility of this Department.
You say that, as it is not in the best interests of a child to punish his mother when she has flouted a contact order, this, in turn makes the contact order worthless. Understandably, sending a mother to prison should be, and is, regarded as a last resort. The child’s best interests require that the court gives careful consideration to the consequences for the child of imprisoning the parent with care of that child, and the further aggravation which this may cause to the relationship between the parents. It is for this reason that the courts are hesitant to order the imprisonment of the person with care of the child. There are, however, cases where they have done so, including a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal.
You also express concern tat the Government refuses to recognise parental alienation syndrome. This term is apparently used in the USA to refer to children who, following the divorce or separation of their parents, become alienated from the parent with whom they do not reside. This is said to be caused by indoctrination from the parent who cares for the children.
The phenomenon described as parental alienation syndrome is one of the many types of relationship difficulty that emerge in the aftermath of divorce and separation. Such difficulties do need to be taken into account when courts assess the range of factors that may affect the welfare of children following separation of their parents. It does not, however, constitute a discrete problem with a single solution and such parental behaviour will need to be considered alongside many other factors. It is difficult to envisage that ‘official’ recognition of the term would make a difference, as it is only one of many problems that can emerge between parents in this situation.
NOTE: The italics are mine. The denial of a need to recognise the term PAS is inconsistent with the making of laws to recognise Stalking, Harassment, Prejudice, etc, all of which are forms of emotional abuse.
Letter from the LCD dated 22nd September 1998
PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME
Thank you for your letter of 11 September 1998, addressed to Mrs B. I have attempted to clarify only those issues where it appears appropriate to do so.
You have asked for clarification about the reference to imprisonment. Wilful breach of a contact order can amount to contempt of court, for which the penalty can be the imprisonment of the person in breach. Wilful breach of other court orders made under the Children Act may also amount to contempt of court.
A fine is an alternative to a term of imprisonment for contempt. Before a court imposed a fine, the court would have regard to all the circumstances of the contemnor, including his or her financial circumstances. I have no information whether fines have been imposed.
It is not appropriate for me to give or deny permission to publish the letter signed by Mrs B.
I understand that neither the international classification system, published by the World Health Organisation, (the ICD-10 multiaxial classification of mental and behavioural disorders in children and adolescents), nor the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, (DSM-IV - the United States manual) contain a reference to ‘parental alienation syndrome
Family courts are very much aware that some parents with care do try unfairly to influence their children against the non-resident parent and I think there would be considerable sympathy for nonresident parents who are rejected by their children as a result of such unfair influence. It is clearly wrong for any parent to allow his or her animosity towards the other parent to manifest itself in this way. The fact that it happens perhaps is an indicator of the very poor relationship between the parents, which, perhaps, is the root of the problem. Whether a child has been influenced is, of course, a matter of evidence for the courts. It is open to the court to seek reports from court welfare officers and expert evidence, for example, from psychiatrists and psychologists that can assist the court at arriving a full understanding of the issues between the parties.
NOTE: Italics are my own. The denial of PAS because it is not in the relevant manuals, yet at the same time agreeing the behaviour pattern is common and known to courts amounts to saying “We know it exists but we don’t intend to do anything about it”.
The latest LCD references to PAS are in their Consultation Paper issued in March 2001, and the report on this Paper published early 2002.
In the Consultation Paper (P.13 Para.2.23) it states:
“We have latterly been faced with the notion of “parental alienation syndrome” in which the children are said to be indoctrinated by parental strategies to take a hostile view of the absent parent. Drs. Sturge and Glaser do not consider this a helpful concept. They point out that it is not recognised in either the American classification of mental disorders (DSMIV) or the international classification of disorders (ICD10) It is also not generally recognised in our or allied child mental health specialities. They consider that the sort of problems that the title of this disorder is trying to address are better thought of as implacable hostility”
Though Drs Sturge and Glaser consider Implacable Hostility to be a better description of PAS behaviour, that fact that Implacable Hostility is not recognised in either of the above official sources of mental disorders, does not help much. It also overlooks the fact that a mother who goes to court and states “I am perfectly willing for the children to see the father but they do not wish to see him”. Is hardly going to be seen as ‘implacably hostile’.
A list of around 100 websites dealing with PAS was submitted to the LCD in a reply to the consultation paper. An offer around 700 replies from a two-year survey was not even acknowledged.
The final report stated (Page 18 Para.2.5).
“Families Need Fathers did not take issue with Dr Sturge and Dr Glaser over the issue of parental alienation syndrome…”
So it took the LCD a year to consider the issues of why contact does not work, and gives PAS two lines in a 140-page document.
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© 2002 Stan Hayward. All rights reserved.