Questions over use of ‘psychological experts’ in parental alienation cases | Family law

Mothers are having their children taken away by court-appointed “psychological experts” who are unregulated and do not have the necessary qualifications, the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK has warned.

The only psychologists subject to statutory regulation in the UK are those registered with the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC), although experts who do not qualify for registration can still be appointed, within the legal framework, at the discretion of the courts. However there are increasing concerns that some experts who fall into this category are making life-changing decisions about families and young children based on what the ACP-UK has described as “inappropriate diagnoses”.

Now an investigation by the Observer raises questions about what the chair of the organisation has described as a “scandal taking place behind closed doors” in which some parents in England and Wales – more often, but not always, mothers – with no previous bad record are being stripped of all contact with their children, having been accused of “parental alienation” or PA.

Details of these cases are rarely made public owing to strict rules about reporting on family court proceedings, although steps are being taken to improve transparency in the family courts.

There is no legal definition of parental alienation, which has become a hotly disputed term. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service describe it as the “unjustified resistance or hostility from a child towards one parent as a result of psychological manipulation by the other”. Proponents of PA say it is a widespread problem and a form of child abuse. But critics claim that in some instances it is being used as a litigation tool or trump card to silence allegations of domestic abuse.

They are particularly concerned about unregulated experts who specialise in PA and are being appointed by the courts in what are often acrimonious and costly private family proceedings about child contact arrangements. “These cases are extremely complex and what is going on is one of the most scandalous things I’ve ever come across,” said Prof Mike Wang, chair of the ACP-UK board of directors.

Prof Mike Wang, chair of the ACP-UK board of directors.
Prof Mike Wang, chair of the ACP-UK board of directors.

In an interview with the Observer, he said: “The organisation is aware of unregulated experts making findings of so-called parental alienation and doing tremendous harm. I’ve seen children taken away by the force of the state on the basis of PA.

“But what the public needs to know is that there is an international consensus that the evidence-base on parental alienation is not sufficiently robust to be making decisions about child-contact arrangements.”

Not all of those who call themselves “PA experts” or who are involved in parental alienation cases are unregulated. But Wang says: “What I take issue with is a cohort of experts who I believe are making excessive claims about their qualifications while operating under vague or spurious titles which are not protected and could be misleading about the level or breadth of their experience.”

To register with the HCPC, psychologists must be qualified to hold one of nine designated titles protected by law, such as forensic psychologist or clinical psychologist. “My view is the family courts should only appoint regulated experts,” says Wang, who is campaigning for legislation to have the title psychologist protected.

Joint guidelines by the Family Justice Council and the British Psychological Society state the courts should “expect that all psychologists based in the UK providing evidence in the family proceedings are regulated by the HCPC and/or … have chartered membership with the BPS”.

The guidelines were updated in May and include a new line that says “a lack of understanding and awareness has led to the use of various titles in the family court system. Such titles have no specific meaning, nor are they protected or regulated by the HCPC.” They include “child psychologist” and “assessment psychologist”. The ACP-UK first warned about unregulated experts who could result in “harm to the public” in a statement published in December. It states that only a practitioner psychologist registered with the HCPC, such as a clinical psychologist, can give a diagnosis or make recommendations about therapeutic interventions, adding: “The ACP-UK is aware of several cases in which ‘psychological experts’ who are not HCPC registered have suggested inappropriate diagnoses and made recommendations for children to be removed from their mothers …”

Separately, the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, issued a memorandum last October, Experts in the Family Courts. It noted “pseudo-science which is not based on any established body of knowledge will be inadmissible in the family court”.

McFarlane referred back to the memo in a speech the same month: “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 the relevant expertise.”

According to the ACP-UK, an academic psychologist who is unregulated may be useful to the court to consider specific matters within their area of expertise, but should not be used to assess individuals, make diagnoses or be asked to recommend therapy. When there are allegations of alienation, a PA expert may advise the court that the child or children be removed from the “alienating” parent until that parent has undergone a course of costly therapy, sometimes monitored by that expert.

Wang says: “We are concerned there are a group of individuals making referrals to their own preferred therapists with whom they work. We know these people are charging thousands of pounds to vulnerable parents who are left to foot the bill.”

There have been wider concerns about this issue. Last month the Family Justice Council issued interim guidance on expert witnesses in cases where there are allegations of alienating behaviours and conflicts of interest. It states: “The court should be extremely cautious when asked to consider assessment and treatment packages offered by the same or linked providers.”

The Family Justice Council recently established the working group Responding to Allegations of Alienating Behaviours.

A spokesperson for the judiciary said it was mandatory for all judges to complete training in domestic abuse. They added: “The welfare of the child is paramount and remains at the heart of family court proceedings. Every day family judges deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters.”

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.”