‘Parental alienation’: Child abuse, or a pseudoscientific tool to silence domestic violence victims?

It is not recognised as a mental disorder by the WHO, but the concept of ‘PA’ is being used increasingly in custody disputes before the family law courts

“Parental alienation” – where one parent intentionally turns their children against the other parent to destroy their relationship – is a highly emotive and rancorously contested theory.

To those who believe in the concept, it is serious form of child abuse. To the sceptics, it is a pseudoscientific tool used to silence women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Whatever one’s view, parental alienation (PA) is gaining traction as a legal concept – being invoked mainly, but far from exclusively, by fathers accusing mothers, increasingly in custody disputes before the family law courts – here and across the globe.

Groups such as the Family Therapists Association of Ireland welcome increasing awareness of what they say is a treatable mental disorder, both for the mother and the child. Its chairman, Dublin-based family therapist Professor Jim Sheehan, describes it as a “unique form of family violence” that can cause as much long-term damage as child sex abuse which should be included in the State’s domestic violence strategy.


‘You have children not being believed, the mother being branded as abusive and children removed, against their expressed wishes, from their preferred parent and into the custody of abusers’

Others such as Sarah Benson, chief executive of Women’s Aid, describe its increasing use in disputes involving domestic abuse and coercive control as “extremely worrying. The vista of what can happen with this is appalling.”

Cliona Sadlier, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network, says mothers enduring ongoing abuse post-separation are being accused of PA when they seek to limit or stop contact between their abuser and their children.

Mary Louise Lynch, founder and co-ordinator of Survivors Informing Services and Institutions (Sisi) said: “You have children not being believed, the mother being branded as abusive and children removed, against their expressed wishes, from their preferred parent and into the custody of abusers.”

Grevio, the Council of Europe body overseeing implementation of the Istanbul Convention, concluded in a report published in June: “It is now clear the minimisation of domestic violence within family court processes is closely linked to an increasing use of the concept of parental alienation to undermine the views of child victims of domestic violence.”

‘Urgent attention’

Just in the past week the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) described the use of PA in custody disputes where domestic violence is raised as a topic requiring “urgent attention”. In a lengthy call-out for submissions on the issue, it said: “A very powerful bias, shared by many welfare and judicial systems, is that the right of a father to maintain contact with his children should override any other consideration... even if the father has been abusive towards the mother or the child”.

On Saturday, Bernard Durkan TD, who is supporting a mother affected by this, will be among speakers at a protest outside Leinster House calling for a ban on the use of PA in family law cases, regulation of family court experts, oversight and monitoring, including data collection, of family law proceedings.

But what is PA? Prof Sheehan said it was crucial to distinguish “alienation”, where a child has no good reason to reject a parent, from “estrangement”, where a child has good reason, such as prior abuse or neglect.

'For children in this environment of everything being a row, being difficult, so negative, in some instances they simply want to step off and say, I just don’t want to do any of this. I just want to stay in my room'

Five factors had to be present to diagnose PA, he explained. These are: the child is resisting contact and there is no contact; there was a prior positive relationship with that parent; the parent was not abusive or neglectful; there are alienating behaviours by the primary carer parent; there are particular behaviours by the child and a “total absence of guilt” on the part of the child.

He said both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) “have given recognition to the problem of parental alienation for some years”. Both organisations, however, told The Irish Times that they do not recognise PA as a mental disorder. “Parental alienation is neither a disease nor a health condition. This term is used in judicial contexts,” said the WHO.

Nuala Jackson SC, former chairwoman of the Family Lawyers Association, says she was “uncomfortable” with reaching the conclusion of PA where a child may have quite simple reasons for not wanting to spend time with a parent in midst of a traumatic family breakdown.

“For these children in this environment of everything being a row, being difficult, so negative, in some instances they simply want to step off and say, ‘I just don’t want to do any of this. I just want to stay in my room, in my house and play Xbox.’ Your home is your sanctuary is and if you decide you want to step off, that’s where you want to be. You can’t discount that, but that might not be a good enough reason for some.”

On the other hand Benson and others agree “there absolutely can be behaviours by parents that pull children in and manipulate them and pull them away from the other parents. No one is saying this doesn’t happen.”

Numerous emails

In recent days, The Irish Times has received numerous emails from fathers and mothers who have been excluded from their children’s lives and see themselves as alienated. They feel let down by court experts, devastated at ongoing delays and that the courts have failed them and their children. Some of them describe the system as “broken”.

In the context of domestic abuse, however, application of the PA concept risked further endangering women and children, said Benson.

Over several months The Irish Times has met six mothers who have experienced domestic abuse by their former partners – verified in one case by a criminal conviction and by domestic violence support workers in others.

They all either lost custody of their children or were ordered to share custody, having been accused of PA either by their ex, by court experts, or both after raising the abuse during the custody dispute.

In cases like theirs before the courts, judges will order an expert report on the best interests of the child, under either Section 47 of the Family Law Act 1995, or Section 32 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. These are conducted by court-appointed experts who could be clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, social care workers, psychotherapists, or, family therapists.

Most work privately, charging from €2,000 for a basic report to, in rare cases, up to €9,000 for the reports which must be paid for by the parents. Though individuals may belong to professional associations with codes of practice, none of these professions is regulated by the health and social-care professional regulatory body Coru. Nor are the titles protected. In other words, anyone can call themselves a psychologist, a social care-worker or psychotherapist.

There is no panel of Section 32 or Section 47 expert reporters; no publicly accessible list of their qualifications, and no one, including the Courts Service, knows how many are providing these reports. There is no data on how many s32 or s47 reports are ordered or conducted annually. Parents generally don’t get copies of the reports and there is no mechanism to appeal them.

Given the in-camera rule governing family law proceedings, the experiences of those in the system are notoriously difficult to research. Sisi is collating findings from a survey it conducted with over 50 mothers experiencing domestic abuse and the family-law courts.

‘Not believed’

It reported that some assessors downplayed or dismissed as “irrelevant” the experience of domestic violence. More than half of the mothers said the abuse was “not believed” or was “raised but dropped” during custody disputes. The courts “don’t seem to want to know how much it’s affected the kids”, said one mother.

Women’s Aid, in a submission to the Department of Justice in June, said: “There is a lack of understanding among family law professionals that separation often does not end the abuse. In fact, the risk of domestic violence increases with separation.”

Family law solicitor John Connellan, who is examining the Sisi data, said it was remarkable in his experience of the cases that he has seen how in “all of the assessments domestic violence is always put in a historical context. It is seen as something that happened in the past. ‘This man was a rapist but that’s something in the past.’”

Mothers told The Irish Times their children’s expressed experiences of abuse and reluctance to see their father were dismissed as “irrational”. In one case, the same District Court judge who had granted a mother a protection order against her former partner and had imposed a jail sentence on him for assaulting her in front of their primary-school age child, earlier this year awarded majority custody to same man.

She breaks down describing having to send for the child at her parents’ home and the child screaming: ‘No, the judge is wrong, the judge is wrong,’ as they were taken from the court with the father

In a s32 report, she was described as “manipulative” and “narcissistic”. The assessor recommended therapy for her and if she “did not do well” the child should spend more time with the father. The child continued to resist contact and she was accused of “frustrating access”. At 6.30pm, at the end of a long court list, the judge ordered her to “produce” her child in court.

She breaks down describing having to send for the child at her parents’ home and the child screaming: “No, the judge is wrong, the judge is wrong,” as they were taken from the court with the father.

Asked about such cases, where a child’s voice is disregarded, family therapist Brian O’Sullivan says: “Children frequently want things that are not good for them in the long term... It’s not about dismissing the child’s voice. The challenge is that when that voice is subjected to undue influence and coercive control, that we now can’t be certain that what the child is saying is, one, what the child wants and, two, what’s actually in best interests of the child.”

It’s an approach that makes many uneasy, particularly when the “cure” is to forcibly remove the child from their preferred parent. While such an intervention can be hugely traumatic for a child – and the mother – O’Sullivan is adamant where a parent has failed to ensure court-ordered access for the other parent: “If we are interested in optimising outcomes for the child we now need to externally motivate behaviour change in that parent.” This can mean a custody-transfer to the parent for 90 days and all contact with their preferred parent stopped.

‘Appropriate training’

Crucial, say all involved in these cases, is that when mothers say they and their child were abused, those experts who wield enormous power at a vulnerable time in their lives have the skills to recognise the dynamics of post-separation abuse and coercive control.

“It’s really important that this area is properly resourced so that there is appropriate training for all professionals that are coming into contact with domestic violence,” says Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, Ireland’s representative on Grevio. “They must have the most up-to-date training in conducting proper risk assessments where a mother and children are at risk of further exposure. And the training must not be a once-off or online. It has to be in-person and ongoing.”

The Irish Psychological Society, aware that the quality of assessors’ reports for the courts can vary wildly, is drawing up guidelines on writing them which it hopes will be ready “early in the new year”.

Coru has “undertaken a substantial programme of work to develop a regulatory framework” to regulate psychologists. “The professions of counsellor, social-care worker and psychotherapist are also designated for regulation” and Coru is “aware of the public safety” concerns about their ongoing non-regulation, a spokeswoman said.

The Department of Justice recently completed a public consultation on the “complex issue” of PA. Independent research it commissioned has been finalised. These would “create a deeper understanding of the issue, and inform the Department’s consideration of policy and law in this area,” said a spokesman.

One mother’s story

Shortly after siblings Amy and Emily – not their real names – were court-ordered into the custody of their father, a social worker asked them to write down any worries. “I’m worried about where I live,” writes one. “I worry about mammy and how she is and I wonder will I ever get to go home.”

The girls have not seen their mother Ruth (not her real name), now in her 40s, since the spring. Ruth says that in a Section 47 report by a family therapist, she was described as “dangerous” to the girls and they were described as “alienated” from the father.

Ruth says for years until he left the family home, her former husband monitored her movements and her mobile phone bills; degraded and shouted at her, and was physically violent. On occasions he would not come home for weeks at a time. When he assaulted one of the older children (now 20), she sought legal advice.

The 20-year-old recounted the assault, which is being investigated by gardaí, to The Irish Times and said they “never” wanted to see their father again.

In a letter to the family court, Ruth’s domestic violence support worker says she has been subjected to domestic violence and coercive control for over a decade and “now suffers from post-separation abuse”.

Earlier this year, amid ongoing resistance by the girls to contact, the assessor said that although Ruth was complying with the access order, she was not complying with “the spirit” of it. The judge ordered a transfer to the father, and that he pick them up from school.

A referral to Tusla by the school principal, seen by The Irish Times, says: “The children were in a very distressed state. They were refusing to go with [their father]. Tears were running down their face. The teacher had to calm them down to help them breathe. The children kept repeating that they wanted to go home and they wanted to see their mammy.”

The court order says Ruth should have a 15-minute call a week with her daughters. She does not always get this. In one she recorded a months ago, Amy is sobbing. She says: “I want to come home now. I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Ruth replies. Amy continues: “And no matter how many times I say it, no one, no one will let me.”