The Minister for Justice has been urged to ban any reliance in the family law courts on the controversial concept of “parental alienation”.
At a protest outside the Dáil on Saturday, Mary-Louise Lynch, co-ordinator of SiSi, which advocates for women survivors of intimate abuse, said it is not enough to regulate “parental alienation” testimony.
Parental alienation is a “pseudoscience” which has been discredited internationally and it “must be stopped,” she said.
The term parental alienation syndrome was introduced in 1985 by a US child psychiatrist, Richard Gardener, to describe signs he believed were exhibited by children who have been alienated from one parent in child custody disputes through manipulation by the other parent.
There is no legal definition of parental alienation, which is sometimes used to describe inappropriate parenting but is portrayed by some proponents of the concept to be a mental illness requiring treatment. There is no data concerning how often it is cited in the Irish courts. In a recent detailed article on the subject in the Bar Review, barrister Lyndsey Keogh said there is no real agreement concerning its prevalence here but it appeared to be rare.
The Department of Justice, following a public consultation on the issue earlier this year, has commissioned research to inform government policy on parental alienation in the context of family law.
At Saturday’s protest, Ms Lynch said SiSi has interviewed 58 survivors of abuse and its research indicates that women and children subjected to domestic violence are “routinely accused of the discredited concept of ‘parental alienation’” when they resist contact with abusive fathers.
In some cases, criminal prosecutions against fathers for violence and abuse were not enough to stop custody being transferred to abusive men and some cases involved all contact between mothers and children being forcibly stopped, she said.
SiSi is concerned about judges using “unregulated ‘family experts’” to prepare reports to assist them in making decisions about custody and access to children, she said. “Our experience is that ‘parental alienation’ is used as a tactic to discredit and undermine victims and survivors of abuse.”
The In Camera rule - under which family law proceedings are held in private but may be reported on by the media - is “being used as an excuse to avoid scrutiny”, she said.
She and other speakers called for a number of reforms in the family courts system, including banning the use of ‘parental alienation’, regulation of those who provide expert evidence, and better oversight and monitoring, including collection of data of family law cases.
Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan, who also addressed the protest, said “something needs to be done soon” about the use of parental alienation in the family courts. The law must apply fairly to all and he was concerned about the psychological damage being done to children, he said.
Other speakers who addressed the protest included Social Democrats councillor for Offaly, Clare Claffey; Anne Clarke, CEO Offaly Domestic Violence Services and activist Fiona O’Leary.