Last week, I sat in a small invited audience at a Family Law Seminar in the House of Commons, entitled "Managing Cases of Children Resistant to Parental Contact & Alienated Children – International & UK Experiences". It was refreshing to hear this important issue being so openly acknowledged and debated. Having recently conducted an initial literature review for my own research, the paucity of British research is dismaying.
High Court Judge Sir Paul Coleridge's strident assertion that Parental Alienation is now at least acknowledged by the judiciary was welcome. This seemed to be corroborated by Professor Nick Bala's research which identified 43 cases of alleged alienation during the period 2000-2011. But - 43 cases in 11 years? I think I personally know of more alleged parental alienation cases. I'm presuming here, having looked at Professor Bala's search strategy, that these are judgements made public in the higher courts: judgements typically arrived at after many, many years of legal proceedings. The tired phrase "tip of the iceberg" jumps to mind. Quite simply we do not know the scale of Parental Alienation or "intractable contact disputes", the term which seems favoured by the judiciary. We do not know because judgements and proceedings in the family courts - those courts where parents daily submit their C1 to seek contact or residence or judgement on a specific issue - remain unpublished and undisclosed. There is no analysis of the cases; no public record of the judgement; no accountability. As for these courts’ acknowledgement of Parental Alienation - your guess is as good as Sir Paul's assertion. We are left with anecdotal evidence of many disheartened and distressed parents - the majority of whom would suggest that you raise the spectre of Parental Alienation at your peril. The reality, in the country as a whole, is that Parental Alienation is barely acknowledged, minimally understood, and frequently disregarded. Let's just name this disease - at least we can then start investigating remedies.
Thankfully, Karen Woodall is not idly sitting by waiting for the debate on whether or not Parental Alienation exists to be resolved. I was deeply heartened by Karen's presentation of the work she is piloting at the Centre for Separated Families. In agreement with everyone at the seminar, Karen acknowledged the complexity of the cases she is working with. But just because something is complex, this is no reason for failing to address it. In far too many cases the courts err on the side of caution - cease contact pending further investigations thus contributing to the alienation process. Karen's work begins with a thorough exploration of the complex factors in each case, a differentiated approach based on the findings and crucially - immediately restoring direct contact. As someone who has worked with children and young people for the past 15 years, it was reassuring to witness someone who truly understands children, their psychological development and the defences they employ to manage their emotional distress. I struggle to understand why everyone who works with young people in these traumatic cases is not required to have the same level of understanding. Attachment theory is just that - a theory, which has its uses and applications, but also fails to explain much more. Karen's approach smacks of common sense. The sooner it is researched and validated, disseminated and made more widely available, the better – a real hope at last for children and conflicting families.
All in all, I found the seminar to be informative, thought provoking and encouraging. But please, please, please - this needs to be out there, in the open, researched, debated. Parental Alienation: name it; understand it; deal with it.