Earlier this week we published a number of tweets on the topic of Parental Alienation. Firstly, there was a rash of published judgments on the topic (in which alienation was established), to which we tweeted links (see here and here). And secondly, we tweeted a link to an academic article on the topic from the Journal of Gender Based Violence, but which had been made available for download without subscription :

This post tells you a bit more about that article and the sources it relies upon. For ease, the article can be downloaded in full here.

It is obvious from the article’s title that its contents are likely to be contentious :

‘I was punished for telling the truth’: how allegations of parental alienation are used to silence, sideline and disempower survivors of domestic abuse in family law proceedings

but then everything in this field is highly contentious. The article, by Jenny Birchall (Women’s Aid) and Shazia Choudhury (University of Oxford, formerly Queen Mary, University of London), itself makes clear that the title contention is based upon further analysis of the results of a survey carried out by the authors in 2018, and which we’ve written about before in the course of this blog post about a parliamentary debate during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill through Parliament : Domestic Abuse – Exaggeration is not required.

Some of the testimony of those who responded to the survey (of which we have more detail through this article than was available in 2018) is, or should be, of real concern to anyone working in or who is involved in family court proceedings. The interviewees and survey respondents describe in quite powerful terms their experiences of parental alienation being used against them in circumstances where they were simply trying to protect their children from an abusive partner and were being child led. If those accounts are taken at face value they are really problematic.

However, there are some limitations to how much we can extrapolate conclusions from the survey responses (we highlighted a number of these limitations back in 2018) :

  • The sample size was small (72 women were involved in total, 9 were interviewed).
  • The respondents were self selecting.
  • The structure of the survey did not enable verification of accounts.
  • The survey responses (or the write up) don’t distinguish between allegations of domestic abuse and proven domestic abuse.

That last point is perhaps the most important, and is illustrated in one of the quotes from an interviewee :

‘In the end I was saying to Cafcass – they said “if you admit that you told lies about him being violent, then we’ll see there’s some attrition*, you’re taking some responsibility” and I said “look, I’m an intelligent woman, it’s clear to you and me that I know what to say to play the game and get access to my child. The fact that I will not play it should speak volumes”. But they didn’t want to know. They wanted me to play the game and say “look, I messed it all up, I’m really sorry, I was trying to alienate my child”.’

*(sic – contrition?)

The respondents are described as ‘survivors’, and most if not all may well be just that. But it appears that in at least one instance (the one we’ve just quoted) the court must have determined that the allegations weren’t proved (or they had perhaps not been pursued, which amounts to the same thing from a legal point of view). What we don’t know is how many of other 71 were in the same position, and how many of them (for example) involved admitted or proved allegations of abuse where the court nonetheless proceeded on the basis that resistance to contact was unjustified i.e. alienation. Whilst there is no particular reason to think that survey respondents were intentionally inaccurate or inauthentic, to the extent that any of these accounts are from the perspective of mothers who have been found to have made allegations of domestic abuse which were not true – perhaps even fabricated – they are of limited utility in understanding what has gone on in their individual cases, because there is clearly another side to the story we don’t have. We need also to acknowledge that the system inevitably produces false negatives and false positives in a minority of cases – finding domestic abuse has not taken place when in fact it has. What we cannot tell from the article is when the decisions being discussed were made, and how many of those that were unproved or un-pursued in years gone by might be treated differently now, against the backdrop of enhanced awareness of domestic abuse following the Harm Report (To illustrate the fallibility of the system, one only has to think of the example of C v D [2020] EWFC 83, the retrial of the notorious decision of HHJ Tolson in  F v H (Fact-Finding) [2019] EWFC B80, where following an excoriating appeal judgment from Russell J, findings were made by Judd J, the second time around that the first judge had dismissed).

The authors of the article acknowledge (as they did in 2018) that the sample cannot be taken to be representative. Whilst these limitations don’t mean the findings are of no value, it does mean some circumspection is justifiable – and also points to areas for further valuable work in helping to understand the interplay between allegations of domestic abuse and parental alienation and where the problems really lie. It would be really useful if we could better understand how often scenarios like those described by the interviewees are happening AFTER FINDINGS of domestic abuse have been made, and how often they are happening after allegations have been abandoned or found not proved by the court.

The way we debate

We can’t but note the tone of many responses to our tweet linking to the article. Whilst our tweet contained no comment on its contents we received numerous vitriolic and highly critical responses suggesting that by merely sharing a link to the article we were in some way ‘taking sides’ or aligning ourselves inappropriately with a view on the topic, and that such alignment was inappropriate. We reject that.

One of the objectives of The Transparency Project is to promote public debate. We do that in part by sharing links to relevant information, and we do so widely, regardless of our personal individual views on the issues, subject only to legal restrictions (for example we cannot and will not re-share links to material which appears to be potentially defamatory, which can limit our ability to share information on this topic in particular, where emotions run high and people express themselves in highly emotive and highly personalised ways).

We have not seen any which actually engages with the detail of what is in the article or the accounts of those who contributed to the study.

Indeed, some of those commenting on our tweet, and criticising either the TP, the article authors or others who they thought might be in some way ‘behind’ the article appear not to have even read it. We also reject the suggestion that the mere involvement of particular names or organisations should mean we can’t talk about, think about or even link to relevant information about these issues. There is – or should be – space for respectful scepticism, enquiry and challenge of those who offer expertise and opinion on either side of this polarised area. There should also be room for people to shift positions or acknowledge complexity over time as they become more informed.

It seems appropriate to re-cycle some of what we said in our blog post in 2018 – in that post we were taking MP Jess Phillips to task for her use of language and statistics (drawn from the QM survey) in her speech to the House, but the principles apply just as much to anyone participating in what passes for debate on this topic :

…This is pretty combative language and is a good illustration of how polarised these two parallel public debates about two characterisations of the same issue (refusal of contact) have become…

We think that in order to have a meaningful public debate it is really important to be clear, calm and accurate when talking about such polarised and difficult issues. We do not think that either ‘side’ of this debate always manages this.

Sadly, not a lot has changed since 2018. Sensible discussion seems more impossible than ever when merely linking to an article in a journal provokes the sorts of responses we’ve seen this week, which include assuming bad faith, refusing to read what is criticised, and statements about the pointlessness talk to anything or anyone identified as ‘feminist’. What we can say is that we will continue to do our best to navigate this environment with balance, whatever is thrown at us.

Feature pic : masks by Get Down on Flickr – thank you!