Chloe* says she will never fully recover from the day her daughter was taken from her following a family court order.
“Someone slept in my house because I couldn’t be left on my own,” she recalls. “I lost nearly two stone. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep. It was horrific.” Hitting rock bottom, Chloe made an attempt on her own life.
Chloe says evidence that she’d been a bad mother was non-existent, and contact between her daughter and her daughter's father had run smoothly for years. But when her child revealed she was “scared of daddy” and refused to spend time with him, Chloe’s ex-partner took legal action.
Therapists were brought in to assess the family; attempts to force the girl to see her father, a process Chloe describes as “child abuse”, failed repeatedly. Then the court ruled that all contact between mother and child should stop for at least 90 days. “They said I’d ‘alienated’ her,” Chloe explains.
The story may sound extreme, but it is far from rare.
Tip of the iceberg
Official data is sparse about the outcomes of private law children’s cases – those where private individuals try to resolve a dispute in family court without local authority involvement.
But there has been growing alarm at the apparent increase in the number of removals or custody transfers against the wishes of children, particularly where there have been abuse allegations.
Dr Adrienne Barnett, a non-practising barrister and reader of law at Brunel University London, explains: “Up until 2014 the removals of children from their primary carers did happen in private law cases but were extremely rare.
“However, in recent years the small proportion of published judgments indicate an increase – and we know those are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Barnett is regularly contacted by mothers who describe themselves as victims of domestic abuse and have had their children removed due to allegations of “parental alienation”.
Parental alienation is commonly described as a child’s unjustified hostility or rejection of one parent for no reason other than that they have been manipulated – whether consciously or not – by the other parent.
The concept stems from the theory of parental alienation syndrome. That was introduced by the American psychiatrist Richard Gardner and broadly interpreted as a means of refuting mothers’ claims of child abuse. The notion of a “syndrome” became widely discredited but the concept of parental alienation as a pattern of behaviour has gained traction in courtrooms worldwide.
In the last year, MPs, women’s rights groups, academics and organisations such as the United Nations have raised alarm about the use of parental alienation as a litigation tool to counter claims of domestic or sexual abuse.
Concerns have been raised about professional acceptance of the concept and the quality of experts used by the courts in parental alienation cases. There is also a culture within the family court system that seemingly results in the minimisation of abuse allegations by children and their parents.
Proponents of the theory believe parental alienation is a widespread form of child abuse and have launched a petition in response to a UN report calling for a ban of its use amid claims of bias.
Drive for transparency
In the forthcoming weeks and months, TBIJ will dig deeper into the issue and examine how the family courts are handling allegations of abuse in private law cases.
Most of these hearings take place behind closed doors. That means public awareness of private law proceedings is limited to the small number of published judgments – or what is documented by journalists who have successfully got the strict reporting restrictions that apply to family cases lifted.
But, in May, private law cases were brought under a family court reporting pilot that has been running in three key locations in England and Wales since January in a drive to improve transparency.
For the first time, journalists are allowed to report what they observe in these high conflict cases about child contact as long as the families remain anonymous.
Crucially, parents whose cases fall under the pilot can give interviews to journalists. That upends the current rules, which could have meant those talking about their case publicly could be found in contempt of court.
TBIJ will use the improved access to family courts in Leeds, Carlisle and Cardiff – as well as analysing cases beyond the pilot – to better understand how decisions are being reached in some of the most contentious cases brought before judges.
Jess Phillips, shadow minister for domestic violence, believes increased scrutiny of the family courts is vital to protect the safety of children.
The Labour MP tells TBIJ: “The situation is so poor at the moment in the courts that we have completely unregulated people giving evidence on behalf of abusers and the courts, and the government feels completely comfortable about it.
“I’ve met women who have been beaten, raped and imprisoned and whose abusers got access to their children – sometimes full custody – by making women so scared to speak up in case these ‘experts’ accused her of ‘alienating’ behaviour. Put simply, children are unsafe if the status quo continues.”
Phillips believes the public needs to be more aware of how parental alienation cases are playing out in family courts. “I have an inbox from around the country with hundreds of cases and in my own constituency, I am involved in three live cases at present,” she adds. “This is always the case – it’s not a small issue.”
Three years ago the government published a report that revealed evidence of a “pro-contact culture” within family courts. That culture has arisen as the result of a law that says having a relationship with both parents is in the best interests of children. The report, however, found the courts place undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent. This results in the systemic minimisation and disbelief of allegations of domestic abuse and child sexual abuse.
In November 2020, the Ministry of Justice launched a review of the “presumption of parental involvement”, but the findings are yet to be published.
Those who advocate for survivors of abuse say the government’s progress has been disgracefully slow.
Claire Waxman, London’s victims’ commissioner, says: “We have a situation now which is so embedded that anyone who alleges domestic abuse or says their children have disclosed abuse is met with a counter allegation of parental alienation.
“We knew about this worrying issue three years ago, but we have seen a shocking rise in the last two years of victims contacting us to share their awful experiences, and we are frustrated the government has sat on this and done nothing.”
The use of parental alienation as a litigation tool has been repeatedly raised in parliament in recent months, including during a debate in March when Labour MPs called for an urgent inquiry into the problem of unregulated experts.
Phillips and the MP Alex Cunningham reported that mothers trying to protect their children from abusive partners were being accused of alienation by court-appointed experts with few formal qualifications and a vested financial interest in finding “alienation”.
Meanwhile, the MP Taiwo Owatemi, who had tabled the debate, called for urgent reforms to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), which was set up to be the voice of the child in family cases.
“Not only are utterly unqualified individuals being allowed to testify as supposed experts in these cases, Cafcass too has overseen a rise in such allegations,” Owatemi said.
In her case, Chloe was told she would have to undergo expensive therapy mandated by the court if she was to have a chance of seeing her daughter again.
“I had forced therapy as part of the 90-day process where I was told I had to change my ways,” she says. “I felt like I was powerless and had no voice. One of the experts knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but they were on the gravy train.”
Eventually, she got her daughter back but only after spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on therapy and legal bills. With every penny of her savings drained, she had to remortgage her home.
Amplifying children’s voices in parliament
The issue of “parental alienation” will feature high on the agenda of a new child centric family courts all-party parliamentary group (APPG) that will be chaired by Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence.
“It will focus on the voice of the child in proceedings where parental alienation has been raised,” explains Natalie Page, the APPG’s secretary and director of Survivor Family Network.
Page described the concept as the ultimate courtroom weapon because it frames allegations of domestic abuse as symptoms of a disorder. “Abusers use parental alienation theory with great effect with the family court becoming a perpetrators’ playground,” she tells TBIJ.
Members of the newly formed group include Labour MP Rosie Duffield and Conservative MP Kate Kniveton, who has first-hand experience of the family courts.
In 2021, Kniveton waived her right to anonymity so it could be reported that a family court judge had found she had been repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by her ex-husband, former MP Andrew Griffiths.
“As an MP, I am in the position of being able to speak out and campaign for others who don’t have a voice,” she tells TBIJ. “Publicising the details of my case has helped many others trying to find their way through the emotional and financial trauma of such legal proceedings.”
Kniveton said the APPG was an opportunity to tackle issues of concern, including parents attempting to protect their children from abuse being accused of parental alienation.
“This can have a devastating effect of the child being removed from a loving parent and handed over to the abuser – an outcome that can have catastrophic consequences,” she says.
Not all mothers found to have alienated their children can afford the therapy. Some have been cut off from their children for years as a result.
Labour MP Anna McMorrin said a “national scandal” was happening in the family courts during a House of Commons debate on the victims and prisoners bill in June. This part of the justice system continues to “breed a culture that promotes contact with those who have been accused of abuse”, she said.
“Survivors of domestic or coercive abuse are facing counter-allegations of parental alienation as a stock response to their own abuse allegations. Courts have continued to instruct unregulated experts who are connected with the parental alienation lobby and who are known for dismissing domestic abuse victims.”
Unsafe decisions are made as a result, with sometimes catastrophic consequences for children, said McMorrin who added that the situation was now “critical”.
And in May, the Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney told parliament: “The continued reliance on self-declared experts to provide evidence in family courts is placing thousands of children and vulnerable women at risk, with allegations of parental alienation closely linked to cases of domestic abuse and coercive control. I have heard first hand from constituents just how dangerous this can be.”
Olney highlighted the UN report that condemned parental alienation as a “discredited and unscientific pseudo-concept” used to undermine mothers trying to protect their children from abuse.
The report recommended that states should legislate to prohibit the use of parental alienation and related experts in courts.
Meanwhile, in a landmark judgment known as “Re C”, Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of family division in England and Wales, said that while there was a “need for rigour” when instructing psychologists to give expert evidence, tighter regulation was a matter for parliament.
But MPs pushing for change face a stalemate with the Ministry of Justice, which insists it is up to the judiciary to reject inappropriate experts.
Jaime Craig, a consultant clinical psychologist who has helped produce guidance for the Family Justice Council, says: “The ping pong backwards and forwards – whether the matter of regulation is for the judiciary or the government – leaves us in limbo with nobody taking responsibility for protecting the public.
“Both sides are passing the buck and, meanwhile, the courts can and will still choose to appoint psychologists without the necessary qualifications.”
Some identifying features have been changed to protect contributors to this piece
If you have been affected by the issues in this article and want to share your experiences, please contact [email protected] and put Family Court Files in the subject line
Help is available
Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on freephone 116 123 or by email at [email protected]
Refuge supports women and children against domestic violence. You can access resources online or call the free 24-Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247
Contact a support worker or a survivor online here
Reporter: Hannah Summers
Bureau Local Editor: Gareth Davies
Editor: Meirion Jones
Production: Emily Goddard
Fact Checker: Natalie Bloomer
Illustration: Chanelle Nibbelink
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