Saturday 30 December 2017

Assessing the corporate mindset behind CAFCASS and Parental Alienation

On the CAFCASS blog here is an article by CEO Anthony Douglas about new ways CAFCASS will be approaching parental alienation. The first paragraph goes: 

“Recently in public we have been talking about the negative impact of parental alienation on children. I am glad we have brought this pernicious issue to the surface more. Many of our private law cases feature alienating behaviours in some form. They can cause significant emotional harm to children. However, I am worried that public debates can easily over-simplify a complex issue. Alienation is one type of adult behaviour which causes adverse childhood experiences. At worst it is emotionally violent. This is why I have suggested that alienation is a form of child abuse. It can have as devastating an impact as physical abuse and can lead directly to child or adolescent mental health problems and other impacts like disturbances to learning, such as not being able to concentrate in class.”

To the untrained eye, it is a well-worded introduction. There are references to the acceptance of parental alienation as a negative child impact, adverse experiences, perniciousness, it being as bad as physical abuse, and use of the key word ‘significant’ when referring to harm. Some nice buzzwords and so far, so good. But reading a little deeper into the introductory narrative, we can see some watering down too. Because in order to maintain CAFCASS’s role as gatekeepers of the work associated with parental alienation, deflection of the issue to areas where it does not belong is necessary, and that deflection can only happen once the dilution of the effects and damage of parental alienation is achieved. 

Douglas has to try to skilfully narrate parental alienation from a medical and clinical issue into one he can claim his operators supposedly have knowledge and experience in – ‘family conflict.’ It’s where Anthony Douglas as head of CAFCASS has to go if he is to avoid radical restructure and retraining of CAFCASS, or simply admitting that CAFCASS is as unfit for purpose as ever, despite the ‘improving’ status from inspections of irrelevant performance measures by OFSTED. 

Parental alienation is not a ‘High Conflict’ problem. It is a mental health issue with two legs: parental mental health and child mental health. Only once the dual mental health aspect of any case is dealt with and that risk to the child evaluated can any apparent ‘conflict’ be fairly understood and assessed. Another challenge is to ascertain the truth of any allegations by forensically investigating them. This needs doing for several reasons: allegations that are genuine need to be reliably separated from those that aren’t. Allegations that are genuine but have no bearing on the relationship between either of the parents and the child going forwards can be considered but not seriously affect progress – swift progress can still be achieved, albeit perhaps with built in measures. Allegations that are genuine and an authentic threat to a child require those cases to be routed down effective intervention routes led by forensic and clinical psychologists so whatever threat is assumed can be investigated and dealt with, then the interests of the child furthered by sensitive reunification with a better informed parent. 

Promoting secure attachments should be a CAFCASS aim, as part of any state agency’s remit to promote public health; not destroying attachments. Forensic research shows the number of cases where parental risk is so serious that no child contact should happen is very rare indeed, far less than the number of cases where that outcome is currently recommended by CAFCASS and delivered by the courts. 

Douglas knows he has to accept there is a mental health issue with parental alienation but does not want to venture too far into that territory. His claim that parental alienation is as damaging as physical abuse lines up with para 21 of the Court of Appeal’s verdict in W (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 772. Douglas can’t really disagree with the Lord Justices. However, CAFCASS should be influenced not merely by legal authority but by sincerely and competently absorbing and putting into policy the best practices derived from skilled, clinical and psychotherapeutic practitioners who deal hands-on with alienated children. The modern and better-informed view from those rather more qualified experts is that parental alienation encompasses behaviours associated with pathological parenting, and as such, is more damaging to children than physical abuse. The Lord Justices, and Douglas, are out of date, their respective wisdom and status notwithstanding. 

Children who suffer physical abuse are considered at lesser overall risk because statistically, they can be identified and helped quicker, not least because the state takes physical abuse more seriously. When child protection professionals, and CAFCASS, see parental alienation, they often shrug their shoulders and walk away. Children’s exposure to physical abuse can be less, interventions can be less expensive and children’s recovery easier than from abuse inflicted by pathological parenting. There are medical treatments all the way for physically abused children; from treating wounds to diagnosing and treating traumatic stress disorders rooted in actual or perceived risk of personal injury. Not so for alienated children or other victims of pathological parenting, despite what can be the more invasive form of abuse they suffer. Take, for instance, the following statement from expert child psychologist Dr Burkhard who compared PAS children to other abused and traumatised kids she treats on a regular basis: 

“This other group of children have been raped, burned, beaten, sexually abused, and victims of crime. If they are in the newspapers, the children are likely to wind up in this office because we specialize in traumatized children. And yet, they don’t hold a candle in terms of symptoms and prognosis to the PAS children. PAS kids are a mess.”  (In Dr Linda Kase (2012): The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Family Therapy and Collaborative Systems Approach to Amelioration, p 212.)

Compare that quote and its implications to the minimal acceptance of mental health damage quoted by Douglas when he says parental alienation can: “lead directly to child or adolescent mental health problems and other impacts like disturbances to learning, such as not being able to concentrate in class.” In short, the effects of parental alienation are here downgraded so lower-tier professionals can deal with the issue within currently available supports. 

This image of Douglas’s contrasts with reality. The real picture is that where any of the associated parental behaviours of parental alienation are even potentially apparent, it is an issue already crossing the section 31 Children Act 1989 threshold of significant harm and requiring skilled assessment under child protection business, which is not necessarily CAFCASS territory. Perhaps that’s why the rest of Douglas’s article takes the reader on a rather inventive trip. I use the word ‘trip’ because it has three meanings: one, a short journey, especially for pleasure, in this case leading us away from the problem to where Douglas wants us to think it is. Two, a trip is also a stumble over something, and Douglas just cannot seem to address this obstacle coherently. Three, a trip is a state of mind induced by psychoactive substances, where altered brain activity can produce some interesting visions and insights. Reading on in the article reveals Douglas has some perspectives that are certainly not drawn from a straightforward application of the clinical literature. 

In his paragraph two, Douglas leads where he wants the reader to go and stay: family conflict territory. He says: “In a high conflict post-separation family, every transaction within families starts from a premise of conflict. A simple neutral remark causes offence. A small and relatively insignificant action is misinterpreted as hostile. The post-separation environment can be deeply toxic, even if contact is occasional. That level of toxicity means that an exchange or transaction lasting seconds can cause days, weeks or months of heartache.” These would be wise words in the appropriate forum. Yes, energies are high in separating families but nowhere in the clinical literature on parental alienation will you find that separation toxicity causes parental alienation. Many families have the presence of mind to control behaviours despite natural anxieties and caustic emotions associated with separation and children. The feelings are not always rooted in hostility, but the associated dysregulation of a human neuro-biological attachment system pruned by evolution to dispense toxic neurochemistry and intense emotional reactivity when it perceives a threat to the attachment system’s balance. Family separation upsets attachments and causes intense distress. That’s where Douglas should focus as the likely cause of stress, not always on ‘high conflict.’ 

Myopic focus on ‘parental hostility’ ignores key facts. For instance, some genuinely high conflict parents still do not alienate their children. Parental alienation can result from a temporary or chronic response by a parent to separation, but that response would be caused by naivety, or compromised mental health, or both. That again is where Douglas needs to focus. But even mental health disorder during separation may not cause alienation; some mentally ill people have the insight to understand their thoughts and feelings should not dictate their behaviour. And then we have the strategic alienator, the one who is quite sane but calculated, aware of the risks to their children but weighing up the benefits of winning the legal battle, and using alienation as a well-proven legal strategy, all cloaked behind the smoke and mirrors of allegations and purported ‘parental conflict,’ not least because they know very well their case will be avidly asserted by lawyers, assessed by unqualified and indoctrinated social workers unwilling or incapable of discriminating between or separating out supposed issues of ‘conflict’ from parental alienation, and soaked up by judges. Top of the risk factor is the narcissistic alienator who is unaware or cares little or nothing for the effect of their behaviours upon others, and may even take satisfaction in them. Some are exceptionally skilled at triangulating children and child professionals into their campaign against a targeted parent. There are different potential scenarios and, without mental health screening, especially in a proactive sense where children are concerned, no court welfare advisor will know what they are really dealing with. 

So Douglas’s statement in his para 3, to any knowledgeable person, is a bit chilling:  “It is our role to make sense of what has been happening in terms of its child impact and to differentiate between alienating behaviours on the one hand and when rejection of a parent by a child is more understandable due to the child being genuinely scared or deeply apprehensive about contact.” It seems CAFCASS has upgraded itself without any change in training or qualification, and appropriated the roles of experts despite court rules expressly stating they are not in FPR 25.2(1):   “‘expert’ means a person who provides expert evidence for use in family proceedings. section 13(8) of the 2014 Act expressly  refers to evidence that is not expert evidence. For example, evidence given by a children's guardian is not expert evidence.”

What Douglas appears to be saying here is that a child who is genuinely scared of a targeted parent or deeply apprehensive about 'contact' with them is not alienated. This is a gross misrepresentation: some seriously alienated children are terrified of what Douglas rather disrespectfully terms as 'contact' to the targeted parent because they have to be protectively separated from an alienator to have a realistic chance to overcome the phobia induced into them by the alienator, and be assured they will not suffer revenge behaviours if they reunite with targeted parents. If this is the shallow intellect and lack of clinical input of the new High Conflict Pathway, it is nothing more than continuing current stupidity and cruelty under a new banner. It's another nod and a wink to pathological parents. 

A parent does not, however, have to be mentally unwell to be an alienator or to engage in any other form of pathological parenting. Harsh parenting may be a choice: nature, for instance, equips us with the ability to engage in harmful but protective behaviour if it helps shield children from more serious threats. Social policy also guides behaviours in post-separation: policy dictates that only one of two parents upon separation will have the children and control over the associated physical, psychological, attachment, welfare, housing and financial benefits. It is aberrant thinking to use children to pursue these resources, but it is not necessarily pathological. However, the lack of parental pathology does not mean there is no mental health problem; there is, down the second mental health leg. The central cause of concern remains: does the behaviour of the parent risk the induction or continuation of pathology or distress in any child? If it does, the child is being subjected to pathological parenting. 

Douglas needs to get something absolutely clear about parental alienation: it is not due to the interactions between parents but between parents and children. It results from na├»ve, active or obsessed pathological parenting, happens independently of all other dynamics and must be treated as a specific threat. Parental alienation can happen in the complete absence of parental conflict. Douglas goes the other way, claiming it does not happen in isolation. Well, Douglas, in this appraisal, is again wholly wrong. He is constructing a whole new world, tripping way outside of established psychological principles. When choosing to use the word ‘isolation’ to further his trajectory, he has really tripped up. Isolation is a major word in parental alienation: children are easier to manipulate and induce with disorder once isolated, and parental alienation is easier to identify and deal with once it is isolated from other factors. The other factors that may seem apparent could dissolve away once the presence of pathological parenting is evaluated. It comes first unless there is material evidence of risk elsewhere. Generalising, stereotyping and smearing both parents as people who are alienating their children due to how they are handling separated family issues seems no more than a ruse to mislead the reader by framing parental alienation as a dispute between parents and keeping jurisdictions as they are. Let’s take a look at why Douglas might want to do that.  

CAFCASS and the courts have it so much more their own way when they claim to be sorting out ‘disputes’ rather than meddling in clinical issues. So what CAFCASS does in cases that I have seen is mix two different concepts together: parental alienation and estrangement. We all know that arguments between parents can stress children so much that they cannot cognitively or physically cope with the distress, so make perverse choices to help them cope. One extreme coping mechanism is to reject a parent. Children who are not subjected to psychologically controlling, alienation behaviours and strategies but nonetheless reject one parent against another are not alienated but estranged, which is a different diagnosis and treatment route. These children are in just as much need of help as alienated children. There may still be other aspects of clinical concern but the supposition of the child having independently taken sides is no reason to abandon them, as CAFCASS often does. There is still a damaging dysregulation in attachment neurology, the effects of a compromised belief system and the adverse consequences of a child not having meaningful relations to all parents. But CAFCASS has even labelled children who are obviously alienated as estranged in order to abandon them. The perverse thinking here is that the child is framed to have voluntarily made their choice, so the courts have a duty to respect such choices in law. So by claiming every case of alienation is one of parental hostility, the CAFCASS operative at Family Court Advisor or Guardian level always has a card up their sleeve to deploy when the going gets too tough:  they can claim ‘hostility’ led to the outcome of a child’s voluntary and cogent rejection of a parent, and close the case based on ‘wishes and feelings,’ rather than apply better qualified resources and effective interventions. Up until that point, professionals such as lawyers, social workers and judges can play the case along and generate work for several hearings to their maximum individual and corporate interest, and when their case management fails, they can simply ditch the case and legitimise the abandonment of a child with a twist of evidential spoiling,selective attention and dirty words. Those of us who have seen how the court's professionals work have seen this so often it cannot but be deliberate, and an indication of how CAFCASS are really trained. 

Further on in Douglas’s article we get some radical new perspectives and terminology. He says that in the high conflict family (yes, still there), "everybody is victimised," so much so that “Poly-victimisation rules.” Huh? So, as a psychology researcher, I went looking for peer reviewed articles linking poly-victimisation (it does exist as a psychological concept: it’s defined as “exposure to multiple forms of victimisation” (Le et al, 2016) ) to parental alienation. But the articles I found do not use the term as Douglas does, applying to a whole family; it is used by experts to describe the infliction and effect of multiple forms of victimisation on an individual. Most poly-victimisation studies focus on collating data from individual children and are quite robust, using methodologies that survive peer review. Now, if Douglas were to use the word polyvictimisation to describe the effect of multiple behaviours and strategies on a vulnerable or alienated child, we could give him a gold star. But instead, he is using the word, taking it out of intended context, and misrepresenting the concept by drawing focus away from the child and generalising it to the family. Which is a shame, because in their 2016 study, Le et al conclude: “Overall, the results revealed that poly-victimisation was associated with increased involvement in health risk behaviours, poorer mental health and increased risks of suicidal ideas among ….adolescents.” 

In an earlier study, Chamberlain et al (2012) conclude: “This first study documenting polyvictimization in a child welfare sample outlines that practitioners should inquire about a wide range of victimization experiences. Focusing intervention on a single form of victimization (maltreatment) does not address the specific service needs of children chronically victimized and fails to address their high risk of victimization.” So, the lesson to be drawn from the experts who really know about polyvictimisation is that no assessment should overly focus on single causes, such as  parental conflict, and delving no deeper in many cases assessed by CAFCASS fails to identify other sources of significant harm. There's also, in psychology, a concept called fundamental attribution error, where causation for behaviour is attributed to individual characteristics and attitudes rather than situational demands on that individual. Douglas has invented the characteristics and attitudes, labelled parents with them, and ignored the effect of situational demands on children as explanative towards how and why a child becomes and stays alienated. I could even suggest that Douglas’s shoots himself in the foot with his own choice of words, because by failing to adequately address parental alienation, misrepresenting concepts and false attribution, CAFCASS significantly contributes to child polyvictimisation. 

The next word Douglas imports from a different paradigm is ‘omnidirectional,’ a term normally applied to a microphone or antennae recording signals from different angles, used by him here to explain the multiple sources of adverse influence within the post-separation family. Well, one of the worst forms of harm inflicted upon families and children is to mislead them into believing support agencies dealing with their problems are competent and will explain themselves in plain, appropriate language. 

Not only is this all not plain; it’s entirely unnecessary. The right words have long since been coined.

The peer-reviewed psychological literature on family separation scientifically investigates concepts and adequately explains them. It gives them appropriate labels, means of assessment, identification, diagnosis and treatment. Psychological science has dealt with parental alienation within clinical disorder and family systems models. Treatment routes assisting recovery from psychological controllers and pathological inducers were established and refined since the 1880s. Evolved variants of the same treatments are successfully applied by services such as the UK Family Separation Clinic.  If Douglas were serious, he would not be wasting time and public money forever experimenting with rhetorical ways for his organisation to seem credible and survive, but improving service quickly by contracting clinical experts who deal all the time with child attachment and psychological abuse trauma. Their packages have long since been in operation the world over, but have been blocked by the CAFCASS Board. What’s needed, and what CAFCASS should be doing, is contracting experts at public cost to assess cases in the early stages, and using their credentials where appropriate to persuade reluctant judges to direct more children benefit from the treatment routes. 

That’s what Douglas needs to focus on. He does not need to make stuff up and use weird words to misrepresent perfectly normal and well-researched scenarios. He does not need to suddenly come into the light and “suggest” that “alienation is a form of child abuse,” as if he is an authority on the subject, or his expressions make it any more abusive now than it ever was before.  If Douglas still, after all these years as CAFCASS CEO, finds this all as bewildering and complex as his article would have us believe, he has learnt little of any use for the children whose lives are handled by his organisation, and needs to change his sources of information. Unless, of course, the purpose of his article is to paint a different picture to what research provides us, and wants us to follow it. Why might Douglas want to do that? 

Well, consider this possible, alternative reality. Maintaining the illusion of hostility, in every case, gives CAFCASS and the courts control of every case to advance or dispose of at will. Under this vacuous but over-arching policy, any case can be assessed and dispensed with anyhow by applying any opinion and related outcome, regardless of the empirical literature, the facts of the case or the likely outcome for the child. Douglas is no fool: he has repeatedly survived where a CEO of any organisation who had to evidence progress or competence would have been booted out ignominiously by Board and shareholders. He is not confused or complexed at parental alienation at all, though if he is, it might be less bewildering and complex for him if he were to separate parental alienation and parental conflict, but dogma can be sticky. Sometimes, the only way to get rid of dogma from a corporation is to remove the persons infected, and infecting others. But instead, where performance lapses threaten CAFCASS, Douglas gets to reframe how that performance will be viewed and measured. Douglas might be partly or completely wrong, but what’s he got to worry about? After all, the institutional culture in the UK seems to be that reputations and jobs come before child welfare, so practice and narratives are tweaked to suit. 

And it is these influences that seem to be driving the mindset at the top end of the CAFCASS hierarchy where the ‘High Conflict Pathway’ is concerned, rather than CAFCASS simply contracting in an established and packaged solution. If this is the mindset behind the ‘High Conflict Pathway,’ then it is no more than a public relations exercise, a veil behind which CAFCASS will carry on as normal. 

But we’ll take a closer look yet before we make any more conclusions, in the hope we may be wrong.  The next article will investigate the narrative of the ‘High Conflict Pathway,’ plus the quality and application of literature quoted in support of the project. If things keep going the way they are, it seems unlikely CAFCASS will have an easy ride there either. 

To make sure you don’t miss the coming articles, subscribe in the box above. Have a great New Year’s Eve. 

Stuart Hontree

Author, Parental Alienation, Attachment and Corrupt Law



  1. It would be wonderful (and helpful towards children in particular) if Guardians ad Litem - ie CAfcass workers - stopped lying to the family courts to help Social Services 'win' care orders and stopped covering up incidents of abuse against children in care.

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