Parental alienation and the unregulated experts shattering children’s lives | Family law

Amanda wept as she recalled her children being removed from her home several years ago – her youngest clinging to her as they were dragged away screaming. They were frightened. After all, they had made their feelings clear: “We want to stay with Mummy. We love Daddy but he scares us.” Yet their wishes were attributed to their mother’s “brainwashing”.

The cracks in Amanda’s relationship appeared years earlier. Her husband persuaded her to give up work. “He would shout at me and demand sex. I became isolated as a full-time mum and became depressed, my creativity was gone,” she said.

She said he became violent and she found the courage to leave. There was a shared arrangement over the children. But after they complained about their father’s angry outbursts, she said, a “parental alienation” expert found her to have psychological issues. She had turned the children against their father, it was claimed.

Meanwhile, she said, her evidence of his violence was discounted. Her children were transferred to live with their father and all contact was cut with immediate effect. Months later, she was allowed two hours of supervised contact once a fortnight.

The Observer is aware of a number of cases in which mothers, and sometimes fathers, have lost custody of their children after being accused of “parental alienation” (PA) – meaning a child is manifesting unjustified hostility towards one parent as the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.

The concept stems from the theory of “parental alienation syndrome” coined in the 1980s by US child psychiatrist Richard Gardner. The “syndrome” went on to be largely rejected. But the idea of parental alienation as a pattern of behaviour gained traction and has become complex legal territory in English and Welsh family courts. Julie Doughty, a law lecturer at Cardiff University, notes in a 2018 study: “The argument appears to have created confusion in attaching an unnecessary label to the very rare instances of a parent instilling false beliefs in a child, which is a form of emotional abuse. While such extreme cases are rare, they clearly fall within definitions of significant harm in statutory guidance.”

Victims’ commissioner Claire Waxman: ‘There is no way of getting your children back unless you admit you have alienated them.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The family lawyer Jenny Beck QC said: “There are arguments about whether it is even a concept, or if it is used as a counter-allegation to domestic abuse. There are rows about how to hear the child’s voice and about experts and their qualifications – and there is deep concern about unregulated experts who have an economic interest in both diagnosis and therapeutic intervention.”

When a finding of alienation is made, a PA expert can recommend all contact is cut with the “alienating” parent while therapy is undertaken. They can be prevented from seeing or speaking to their children for several months.

“Resumed contact can depend on the success of therapy recommended by the expert, mandated by the court and either paid for by the parent themselves or another source,” said Dr Adrienne Barnett, senior lecturer in law at Brunel University, London. “In cases where the court instructs the ‘alienating’ parent to foot the bill, they can find themselves held to ransom – either pay up or risk losing their children indefinitely.”

In particular, there has been growing anxiety about the potential conflict of interest presented where an expert could be financially incentivised to make a finding of PA in a system that allows them to recommend their own therapy or that of colleagues. The Family Justice Council has just published a memo about expert witnesses in cases where there are allegations of alienating behaviour and conflicts of interest. It points to guidance updated last month to include a new stipulation that the court should be alert to “when a psychologist expert recommends an intervention or therapy that they or an associate would benefit financially from delivering”.

Dr Jaime Craig, lead author of the guidance and a consultant clinical psychologist who has been an expert in the family courts for 20 years, said: “There has been longstanding worry about inappropriately qualified psychologists giving evidence in sensitive cases involving children. We wouldn’t let a psychologist who wasn’t regulated by the HCPC [Health and Care Professions Council] work in the NHS or in the forensic services, and the assessments being made in the family court are no less complex.

“If anything, the decisions being made have a greater impact on children’s lives.”

An expert report can cost as much as £10,000, but the costs of therapeutic interventions can run into tens of thousands of pounds. This is in addition to legal fees, which can prove crippling to parents embroiled in drawn-out litigation.

“Several mothers reported they had lost their homes and life savings during lengthy court battles that ultimately resulted in the removal of their children,” said Natalie Page of the Survivor Family Network.

Worryingly, some of these women also claimed to be victims of domestic or emotional abuse by a former partner that, on occasions, had been recognised by the court.

The victims’ commissioner for London, Claire Waxman, has written to the head of the court, the president of the Family Division, raising concerns about experts who are not regulated and therefore cannot be held to account. In a seven-page briefing, seen by the Observer, she provided a list of experts used by the courts who had been raised in her casework. Subsequently, the Family Procedure Rules Committee concluded that the current rules – which allow unregulated experts to be appointed at the court’s discretion – were sufficient, but that there should be more training for judges.

Not all experts who are involved in these cases are unregulated. But Waxman argues current processes are insufficient to prevent recommendations from experts who “mislead about their credentials, are affiliated to lobby organisations and have a history of complaints against them”.

Her concerns are shared by the Association of Clinical Psychologists, which published a statement warning that mothers were having their children removed by “psychologists without the necessary qualifications”.

It says that only psychologists holding one of nine protected titles – and therefore regulated by the HCPC – should be making diagnoses and therapeutic recommendations.

Waxman does not deny that children are weaponised in acrimonious separations and that this behaviour is harmful.

However, she said: “In some extreme cases, children have disclosed very serious abuse and were told by experts and judges they haven’t been abused but rather have been ‘alienated’ by the parent they deem to be safe. That is potentially hugely dangerous for those children, who are at risk of being removed from their protective parent.”

An illustration of a man and a woman staring at each other in profile with the scales of justice in between them such as the two containers of the scale form the eye of each face. A child in the foreground looks at them both
Psychologists warn claims of ‘parental alienation’ can be used to neutralise otherwise credible allegations of domestic abuse. Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Observer

A report by the Ministry of Justice in 2020 found: “Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.”

The same report notes that the Family Law Bar Association raised the challenges posed by the small number of cases in which the court is satisfied that children have been emotionally abused by a parent who has made false allegations of abuse against the other parent.

However, it added, “these cases are indeed small in number in comparison to the large number of cases where mothers … fear false allegations of parental alienation”.

It is mandatory for all family judges and magistrates to complete training in domestic abuse. Updated digital training was launched in October last year and new live training sessions that address the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 were launched in April.

The barrister Charlotte Proudman says that parental alienation has become a “go-to tactic” used by alleged or found perpetrators of domestic abuse.

“In some cases they call on a PA expert to assess the family dynamics before there is even a hearing to determine whether allegations of abuse are legitimate,” she said. “Once PA is found, any suggestion of domestic abuse is downplayed and it is very hard to turn a case around. I’ve seen a couple of cases where a mother has never seen their child again and must wait until they are 18.”

But Beverley Watkins, a family law solicitor based in Bristol, said allegations of parental alienation were not uncritically accepted by the courts, which were becoming increasingly alive to its misuse. “A large part of my caseload involves domestic violence cases, representing mothers, and the father will often raise parental alienation, but generally speaking the courts are very hesitant to accept such claims,” she said.

Now Waxman is calling for a review of how experts are appointed. “We need systems to ensure they have relevant qualifications and where we have identified experts as problematic we need a review of all their cases.”

The children’s charity the NSPCC gave evidence to a House of Lords committee, published in May, stating that the credence given to claims of parental alienation resulted in “claims of domestic or other abuse being dismissed or minimised”. It added: “The NSPCC does not believe there is sufficient evidence to support the concept of parental alienation.”

Formal photographic portrait of Hannah Jones
Hannah Jones: ‘Anyone selling therapy to treat parental alienation is doing so without any evidence base.’ Photograph: Handout

However, proponents of parental alienation say it is so widespread that tens of thousands of UK parents are victims.

Asked about the issues of unregulated experts and the interplay of allegations between domestic abuse and parental alienation, the organisation Parental Alienation UK said: “We welcome any reasonable rigour that is introduced into the court process regarding experts in proceedings involving children. That can only be to the benefit of those involved, especially the children.” A spokesperson added: “Parental alienation is not a ‘gender issue’. It affects thousands of safe and loving mothers as well as fathers. We work alongside many affected mothers. It is preventing harm to the child that is paramount.”

Bob Greig, co-founder of Only Dads, said the debate was becoming increasingly toxic because the term parental alienation was being misunderstood. “It has become a buzz term, and what is described in the many messages I get is not anything like the way it is described in court. Many men use it when what they mean is they have a horrible ex who is trying to frustrate contact. A loving father might have a legitimate grievance with the amount of contact they have, and that may be the subject of bitter dispute, but that’s not parental alienation.”

Hannah Jones, a chartered forensic psychologist who has been appointed in the family courts as an expert since 2014, said: “True alienation of a parent where that parent is entirely unproblematic is rare enough that it does not need its own concept.”

In 2020, the World Health Organization dropped the term from its index of diseases, saying: “There are no evidence-based healthcare interventions specifically for parental alienation”.

Jones said: “ Anyone selling therapy to treat PA is doing so without any evidence base.”

She said when alienation is found as a form of brainwashing, children are not trusted as messengers of their own experience and there is a risk that claims of abuse can be chalked up as a product of “alienating” behaviour.

Hayley, from the north of England, said she did not feel listened to after her father was accused of PA. “My birth mum was controlling and had abusive tendencies,” she explained. “When I said aged 13 that I wanted to live full-time with my dad he made an application to the court. However, she alleged he was manipulating me and alienating me against her.

“I said this was a lie but, at first, I wasn’t believed. I felt like the court took my mother’s side. Her lawyers said it [the application] was my dad’s idea and not what I really wanted.”

Eventually it was ruled she could live with her father full-time, although assessments were not undertaken by a designated “PA expert”. Had they been, the outcome might have been different.

The options for a parent who believes they have been wrongly accused of alienation are limited and costly. “There is no way of getting your children back unless you admit you have alienated them,” said Waxman. “Not wanting to do the therapy is seen as resisting.”

When an expert is proposed, all parties in a case have an opportunity to comment on whether they oppose the expert and make representations to the court, says the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). The service, which says it does not instruct experts or make recommendations to the court, added: “It is the responsibility of the court dealing with any given case to satisfy itself that a proposed expert is suitably qualified to deal with the matters they are instructed to report to the court on, regardless of who has proposed the instruction.”

In October, the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, issued a memo on court-appointed experts stating that “pseudo-science” would be “inadmissible” in court. In a speech the same month, he said: “Where the issue of parental alienation is raised and it is suggested to the court that an expert should be instructed, the court must be careful only to authorise such instruction where the individual expert has relevant expertise.”

There is little research in the UK into the types of therapies and interventions prescribed to “treat” alienation or their success rates, and, according to the 2018 Cardiff study, the evidence base for parental alienation is “very limited because of a lack of robust empirical studies”. Critics claim the therapies being prescribed are not based on evidence and can prove harmful to victims of abuse.

The Observer has attended a number of hearings where parental alienation has been a key feature but, due to reporting restrictions, is unable to publish details of them. In some recent published judgments, names of experts have been redacted, prompting concerns about transparency.

One judge blocked the media from naming an expert after a woman in a private court dispute in Croydon in October complained about a psychologist appointed to her case, arguing the expert was not regulated. District Judge Delia Coonan ruled in her favour and appointed a different expert – but blocked the media from naming the original “Expert X”. Coonan did not criticise the expert and said her decision to appoint another professional was “pragmatic”.

In a published judgment, Brian Farmer, a journalist who applied for permission to name the expert, is quoted as saying: “If a parent has any concerns about X they ought to be able to read about your decision. Most parents assume that all experts are regulated and will be surprised by your decision.” He added: “Reports by experts such as X can be the basis for decisions that children should leave home … If they’re paid to provide expert reports which can change people’s lives shouldn’t they also be accountable to the public?”

In January 2014, the then president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, issued guidance stating: “Public authorities and expert witnesses should be named in the judgment approved for publication, unless there are compelling reasons why they should not be.”

McFarlane recently signalled a shift in culture towards increased transparency in the family court, and there is a consultation process on a number of planned rule changes. A spokesperson for the judiciary said: “The need for increased transparency must always be balanced against the need to protect the privacy of vulnerable children and families. The welfare of the child is paramount and remains at the heart of family court proceedings.”

It is proposed that, in future, journalists will have more freedom to report the details of family court cases so long as children’s identities are protected. Under the changes, parents would also have increased rights to speak more openly.

For mothers such as Amanda, the changes can’t come soon enough. “My children want to come home,” she said. “People ask how I am but I don’t know how to respond. I just hide away.”

Some names have been changed to protect identities