This post is about a case called : B (A 14 Year Old Boy), Re [2017] EWFC B28 (11 May 2017), a decision of His Honour Judge Simon Wood recently published.

It is a very sad case. B has not seen his father since 2011, and the case revolved around what further steps could or should be taken to change that, and whether or not it was now time to draw a line under the court case and make an order that the litigation should stop. There had been some recent delay in the court dealing with matters due it seems to difficulties getting the right people to court on the right day. But this was the sixth application by the father for orders about his son since 2009, when by our reckoning B would have been about 6. Contact had initially been ordered but stopped after an incident in 2011 (the details of which were hotly disputed). It had never got back on track.

The father’s case was that the mother had deliberately alienated B from him. This amounted to abusive behaviour, and it had been allowed to happen and to progress under the noses of professionals due to their incompetence. He wanted the court to consider

“inflicting short term distress on B by forcing the issue on him contrary to his apparent wishes and feelings and he specifically invites either the joint approach by him and the mother to a reintroduction, subject to a recital or order that a change of residence be the next step, or a psychological assessment by a suitably qualified psychologist in respect of B.”

And he wanted findings about the alienation of B by his mother. He was assisted by a McKenzie friend, who the judge said had indeed been very helpful.

On the other side of the field, was the mother, whose denied that she had alienated B. She said that

…what the father has consistently failed to acknowledge is his own part in the reluctance of B and his older brother, to whom I will come, to see him, instead focussing his barely concealed anger towards her that he is incapable of setting aside or using the litigation to harass her and her new husband. In his behaviour he thereby fails to demonstrate either empathy or insight into the impact that it has had on her and her sons.

The mother sought an order under s91(14) Children Act 1989 imposing an additional barrier to further applications – that the father would first have to apply to the court for permission to apply.

The Guardian didn’t think that this was a case of alienation and she gave some pretty clear and compelling reasons why that was so.

The judge heard the evidence of all involved but ultimately agreed with the Guardian and the mother : this was not a case of alienation.

The above little summary of the case is pretty typical of many of the more private law cases. Some are clear cut, in others less so. But it is often said by a parent whose children are refusing (or said to be refusing) contact that the reason is alienation – that it is something being done or not done by the other parent.

The terms parental alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome are often thrown about in cases of this sort. They are not always used with great care or precision. The word alienation occurs 27 times in this judgment, the phrase parental alienation syndrome three times. What the judge says is this (his comments come in the context of the father criticising the Guardian for not being sufficiently up to speed on PAS) :

…It is true that the psychological concept of parental alienation syndrome has been controversial and not universally accepted by psychologists and courts have been cautious over the years in their use of language that would suggest it has amounted to a psychological syndrome. What the court does not accept is that it, or family court advisors, children’s guardians or other professionals concerned with the welfare of children of separated parents, is not familiar with the concept that abusive parents can and do alienate children from their absent parent.

The whole basis of the judgment in Re C [[2011] EWCA Civ 521] was the jurisprudence that underlines the concept that welfare of children demands a relationship with an absent parent absent cogent reasons for not promoting it: that embraces a wide range of reasons that are regularly advanced for not permitting such a relationship that the court can and must investigate. This court has considerable experience of such cases, has seen many that, sadly, have passed from the private law arena to the public law forum and has resulted in public law orders being made, including taking children into foster care to remove them from an abusive parent until such time as they can move to a non abusive parent. In considering such cases the court is always helped by professionals. Where alienation is possible, almost invariably, a children’s guardian is appointed because of the intractable nature of the dispute, the implacable opposition of the residential parent and the necessity for the child’s interests – including but not limited to hearing their voice – to be represented independently of both parents.

…I accept that [G] has a great deal of experience of this particular pernicious form of child abuse.

So the judge is saying – look, I get it. We know alienation is a thing. But please can we not get hung up on the jargon?

HHJ Wood is correct in saying that the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome i.e. a medical / psychiatric condition suffered by a child as a result of parental behaviour has been and remains controversial. There has been a lengthy debate in psychiatric circles for years about whether PAS should be added to the Diagnostic Manual of psychiatric disorders and thereby officially recognised as an illness requiring treatment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Volume 5 (DSM-5) was published in around 2014.

Those who hold that PAS is a thing generally describe it along these lines :

PA is a mental condition in which a child, usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce, allies himself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alien- ated parent) without legitimate justification. PA features abnormal, maladaptive behavior (refusal to have a relationship with a loving parent) that is driven by an abnormal mental state (the false belief that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or unworthy of love).

(taken from Parental Alienation, DSM-5, and ICD-11: Response to Critics; J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 41:98–104, 2013; William Bernet, MD, and Amy J. L. Baker, PhD)

But it is worth remembering that the word “alienation” has an ordinary everyday meaning too :

  • …the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved: unemployment may generate a sense of political alienation.
  • loss or lack of sympathy; estrangement: public alienation from bureaucracy. 
  • (in Marxist theory) a condition of workers in a capitalist economy, resulting from a lack of identity with the products of their labor and a sense of being controlled or exploited….

There are lots of children (and adults) who are alienated from a parent in the sense of being estranged from them. This is sad but a normal feature of life – families fall out, sometimes for the long term. The distinction between alienation as used in its ordinary sense, and Alienation with a capital A (or with a Syndrome label) is that the estrangement is enforced by the child (saying NO), and it is irrational or not based on any legitimate justification.

Some experts do subscribe to the theory of PAS and these will often recommend firm, swift action where irrational alienation is identified (rip the plaster – change of residence etc). Other experts take a somewhat more nuanced approach, weighing the possible short and long term psychological / emotional benefits / harm of a particular course of action and focusing energies on helping parents to change themselves rather than on changing the child’s physical circumstances.

It would be easy to spot “Parental Alienation” if all cases involved one “good” and one “bad” parent. But life is not so straightforward and usually both parents are flawed in their own way, and each contributes to a situation to some degree or other. It isn’t always easy to clearly identify WHY a child may be saying “No” and sometimes it may be a toxic mix of different things – including the fact that it is just too emotionally impossible for a child to live in two worlds and to travel between them, so they have to cut one off. Add to that the fact that from the perspective of a child a little thing can become blown up into a very big thing indeed, and you can see that identifying the fact that a child is alienated is only the start of the job. Working out how to fix that is the tricky bit.

Anyway, back to this case.

The father had read up on PAS and had been to a lot of seminars. He was involved with FNF. He said CAFCASS were corrupt and their reports were rubbish. The judge made specific allowance for the fact that things were very emotionally charged and that this might affect the way they presented in court.

But having heard the father’s evidence and how he presented his case the judge noted the father’s “sense of absolute rectitude in his position” (that is he was completely convinced he was right and that anyone who disagrees with him must be wrong) and a “stone cold certainty that he was not to blame for anything”. The father maintained the position “with granite like certainty that B has been alienated”.

The judge said the father thought that “the only person at fault here is the mother and, of course, if she has alienated the children that could be entirely consistent. But” he said, “It is rare in relationship breakdowns for there only to be one person to blame.”

The Guardian four reasons why she didn’t think there had been alienation (in the sense of alienation as a result of the mother’s behaviour):

(i) she had been given completely free access to B (and A) by M. There had been no attempt to restrict that access in any way by, for example, placing terms and conditions around it. There was no influencing of dates, times or venues. She actually received the boys’ mobile telephone numbers so they could text her and make their own arrangements to meet her directly. As a consequence she had done just that and had taken B out for a drink and a chat, enabling them to meet in the most natural surroundings, away from M, as possible. That contrasted with her experience of alienated children with whom she has struggled to communicate directly at all;(ii) Mother did not to her convey an attitude whereby she was seeking to denigrate the father. There was none of the usual attitude, face pulling, negativity, nothing done to influence either boy. Her experience was of parents who seek to try to counter or pre-empt arguments by the production of reams of documentation. There had been none of that. The mother had simply presented as resigned to the court having to look at it all again;

(iii) Having thus had this unrestricted access to B, he did not present as an alienated child. There was no anxiety around him meeting her. He had no parent to look to before answering questions and he did not even do that when he was with A, who was present at the first meeting at B’s request. He gave no sense of needing or seeking permission of somebody else to speak;

(iii) Even now, as with FCA and then CG1, B is able to recount positive things about his father and the contact he had with him. She said he presented as quiet but thoughtful, relaxed and chatty. His demeanour did change when the subject of his father was raised. Nevertheless he was able to describe some happy memories of his younger childhood, but he also recalled disagreements and animosity that existed between his parents and extended family members and what is now his anger is extended to the continued litigation as well as a letter that the father sent to A…

The expert in the case Dr Kawalek (a psychologist) who had reported in 2012 had observed then that :

[F] seems to have a broad focus for his frustration and anger without fully recognising his own contributions to the present position. He sees himself as an innocent party who stands amongst a vast number of other fathers who have not received justice.

It will be seen that the judge concluded on the evidence that he heard that the father remained “Frozen” in this position.

The court investigated the “seminal” incident in 2011, which had ultimately led to the boys stopping going to see their father (broadly speaking it involved the father leaving the children alone whilst he went to a football match, and they had not reacted well to this) and concluded that the father had downplayed it.

The minimisation of his role on 5th February 2011 and the blame placed on the mother is nowhere better summarised by F when… he said: “We had a little disagreement on something and she stopped contact.”

The incident itself was (as found by the judge) a serious one, but it had become A Big Thing as a result of the father’s failure to acknowledge the significance of it for the boys.

Finally, the judge sets out the details of a letter sent by the father to A the now adult son :

I need mention one more piece of evidence that the court has had to consider. When A wrote to his father to explain that he had changed his name it resulted in two letters to A from his father. I have been shown the second one, which is in the bundle. I am not going to read it out. It runs to a side and a half of typed single spaced A4. Expressing his upset at A’s decision, which was entirely understandable, it goes on at length to explain that he is not angry with A because A’s action is that of an alienated person who is suffering from parental alienation syndrome and he, A, is a victim of the most severe kind of emotional abuse deliberately and maliciously carried out. It goes on to warn A that, when the realisation dawns as to what has happened to him, he will have a lifetime of guilt to suffer. He also points out that he uses the letter that A wrote to show to other fathers, judges and social workers as a warning to prevent others from being abused as A’s mother has abused him. He also adds that it will assist him in obtaining compensation from CAFCASS as well as being able to see B.

Asked about A’s response, the mother and the guardian confirmed that he was angry, “patronising”, the word this now undergraduate used himself. Not just that, so is B, who A showed, or at least spoke to him about, the letter. Asked about the wisdom of sending the letter the father’s response was defiant:

“He is 18. He is a man and he had told me he did not want to see me.” He went on:”I am quite entitled to tell him he has been alienated.”He went on to say that he did not think that it was:

“a bad letter. It just says I think your mam has alienated you against us. It was appropriate. I have studied alienation for five years and know a lot about it.”Remarkably, it seemed to the court, it did not occur to him that he might show the letter or al least talk to B about it. Of course, and he stressed this, the application is for B and not for A, “I am making this application to stop B going the same way.” which is not, in the court’s judgment, a sufficient justification for what he did with such little thought.

The sending of this letter and the father’s reaction to challenge about it seem to have really sealed the father’s fate here :

There were other matters that emerged but I think I have covered sufficient ground for the court to accept with really no qualification the guardian’s view that the father has not moved on at all since 2012 when Mr Kawalek reported. Each of the factors I have highlighted are present and the letter is in many ways the final straw:

(i) it has the effect of dragging A directly back into the dispute, seemingly without any insight as to the effect that it might have on B in the context of a contact application;(ii) it blames the mother in direct terms for having so grievously abused him;

(iii) it fails to recognise that he might have done anything wrong himself; and

(iv) it fails to have regard for any feelings that A might have. It points to a complete lack of empathy and insight.

In the court’s judgment the father spoke the truth when he volunteered to Mrs Callaghan:

“The letter was important for me to get it off me chest.”

In other words the letter was all about him: it was not about A at all.

The judge concluded that

I am quite satisfied that B and A are not alienated children. They are victims of an acrimonious separation in which I have no doubt that each parent played a part.

Again, he is using alienated in its quasi-technical sense – they have not been alienated by their mother’s abusive actions. He goes on :

Whatever part the mother had in the historic dispute, which I have not sought to try save for the February 2011 incident where her response was an appropriate one on all the evidence, I am satisfied that she did not alienate either boy and that she has plainly moved on. Whilst both boys enjoyed their time with their father it is clear to this court that it was conditional enjoyment and that the father’s behaviour and relentless negativity towards the mother, as well as the other things they reported, took its toll.

Father, by contrast, has not moved on. He is stuck in the same place that he was in 2011/2012 and sadly appears to lack any insight into the harm that he has thereby done, and continues to do, by writing a letter such as that to which I have referred. He is as utterly obsessed with placing the blame on the mother as he is resolute that he is a wholly innocent victim.

So this is a very sad case of a father being unable to recognise that it was primarily his own actions that were blocking his relationship with his children. In layman’s terms the father was right that they were alienated, he’d just got the wrong parent.

Feature pic : masks by Get Down on Flickr – creative commons licence. Thanks!