Family Court Files: child removed from mother after ‘punitive’ recommendation

A mother who was found to have made an “entirely false allegation” about her child’s father has had her daughter removed from her care following a high court ruling.

The woman will initially have only supervised contact with her child, who will be transferred to live with her father against the girl’s wishes. The decision follows adverse findings about the mother’s attitude towards him and the impact of that on the girl of secondary school age.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism was given permission to report after attending proceedings over five days in October as part of an investigation into family courts in England and Wales.

Three experts gave evidence in the case, which involved a contentious history between two parents who have never lived together and struggled to agree on arrangements for their daughter over many years.

They included Karen Woodall, a psychotherapist who is not registered with any regulatory body and who the mother had tried unsuccessfully to have removed from her case.

Woodall recommended the girl should only have “very restricted supervised contact” with the mother and that the daughter should continue with “therapeutic work”, to be overseen by her.

In a document filed to the court, the mother claimed Woodall’s recommendation was “punitive to the extreme” and the proposed transfer of residency was “motivated by money”.

But, giving evidence, the psychotherapist said she had already thought the child needed a change and her recommendation followed “serious safeguarding concerns”.

Woodall’s recommendations were supported by a regulated clinical psychologist, Hessel Willemsen. Mr Justice Keehan said he had “no doubt” in accepting her advice that there needed to be a “fundamental shift in the living arrangements” for the girl, referred to as “A”.

Explained: Experts in the family courts

Experts can be appointed by the family courts to provide relevant scientific information or professional opinion that helps inform the judge’s decision.

There has been much debate in recent years about the use of court-appointed experts who give psychological evidence and are not registered with any regulatory body. MPs have raised concerns about the use of unregulated experts in the family courts.

And in a landmark judgment known as Re C, the president of the family division Sir Andrew McFarlane was tasked with examining in the public interest the “appropriateness or otherwise of instructing unregulated psychologists as experts in family proceedings concerning children.”

Family Justice Council guidance says courts should expect all UK-based practitioner psychologists providing evidence in family proceedings to be regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council.

It remains at the discretion of the court to appoint individuals who are not eligible for registration with the HCPC – or if they are academics, eligible for chartered membership with the British Psychological Society.

According to the guidance, “it should be made clear in orders and letters of instruction that these individuals are not being appointed as psychologist experts but under the auspices of other professional frameworks eg. independent social worker with additional psychological qualifications or psychotherapists.”

In the Re C judgment McFarlane said: “Where a proposed psychological expert is unregistered, the court should be on notice to the need to look more carefully at the underlying evidence of appropriate expertise.”

Highly critical

In a judgment on 27 October, Keehan criticised the mother, who he found “made an entirely false allegation” about the father after alluding to him having a sexual interest in his daughter.

He also criticised the guardian – appointed to represent the child’s best interests – who had advised there should be a “50/50” living arrangement between the parents rather than a transfer of residence.

Keehan said the guardian’s analysis had been “woeful” and that he would put their evidence and recommendations to one side.

All three experts agreed on the family dynamics but differed in their welfare recommendations for the girl. Clinical psychologists Alison Conning and Willemsen agreed the mother had caused her child psychological harm due to her “negative view of the father”.

While Conning also advised that living arrangements should be shared equally between the parents, Willemsen agreed with Woodall’s more robust approach.

‘Long history of obstacles’

Woodall was appointed in November 2021, to “carry out clinical therapeutic assessment and make welfare recommendations”, according to a statement filed on the father’s behalf.

Janet Bazley KC, who was representing the father, said he agreed with Woodall’s advice that “reparatory work” with his daughter should continue.

Bazley wrote: “[The mother] has refused to engage with Ms Woodall in reparatory work for [A] … she raises allegations against both Ms Woodall and Dr Willemsen. She accuses the court of bias.”

Giving evidence, the father said he felt his parental role had been “completely negated”. It is his case that the mother has raised false allegations about him.

Bazley said: “There has been a long history of the mother putting obstacles in the way of [A’s] relationship with her father. The mother has reported on a fairly regular basis safeguarding concerns … which have resulted in the suspension of [A’s] time with her father.”

‘Chronic stress’

The father has been represented throughout the case by a KC who also sits part time as a judge, while the mother, until the last hearing, has been a litigant in person – meaning without legal representation.

At the October hearing she was assisted by a McKenzie Friend, someone who attends court to support those without a lawyer. In unusual circumstances, due to the mother’s ill health, the McKenzie Friend was given the right to address the court on the mother’s behalf and question witnesses.

The mother claimed she has felt “weak” against the father’s legal team and that ongoing litigation had caused her “chronic stress”.

She said she had been open to full engagement with professionals until she “found out through family and friends that certain persons involved in proceedings may not be acting in [A’s] best interests”, prompting her to seek Woodall’s removal from the case.

In a statement she prepared herself, she wrote: “The reaction by Ms Woodall was punitive to the extreme … it has made engagement in good faith with Ms Woodall and Dr Willemsen very difficult … as both are intrinsically working together.”

She said: “It is clear that with [A] remaining and continuing to spend quality time with her father this is plainly not a case of parental alienation in any form.”

Parental alienation refers to a child rejecting one parent because they have been manipulated by the other.

The mother said that all focus on her daughter has been lost and that the over-involvement of professionals in A’s life verged on “the absurd”.

“I remain of the opinion a [proposed] transfer of residency has been motivated by money on the part of the experts/therapists … and punitively by [the father] simply because he can with limitless resources,” the mother wrote.

Expert evidence

At a 15 May meeting, Conning, Woodall and the child’s guardian agreed the girl should remain living with her mother.

However, in a 14 August report, Woodall claimed the mother had obstructed her work with the child, whose welfare required the immediate removal from her mother’s influence. The following week a third expert, Willemsen, was appointed by the court.

Central to the questioning of the experts was the framing of allegations raised by the daughter at a meeting with Woodall on 25 May. She complained her father walked around the house in a state of undress and stared at her while she was changing.

The mother later discussed the allegations separately with Woodall and Willemsen.

Each said in their evidence the mother had inferred or alluded to the father having a sexual interest in his daughter. But both confirmed they had not asked the mother explicitly if she believed he posed a “sexual risk”.

Responding to questions from Bazley, Woodall referred to the meeting at which the mother discussed the allegations: “That meeting was concerning in that it was characterised by what I can only describe as contempt towards me and Dr Willemsen and some claims made echo claims made elsewhere online and by people in the media that there is something about the work being done which doesn’t listen to the child, disregards, [the mother] says, the favoured parent and moves the child to a harmful parent.”

Woodall added: “The mother appears to have gone in the direction of listening to people who campaign in this space.”

‘Contemptuous behaviour’

Speaking on behalf of the mother, the McKenzie Friend said Woodall had changed her position about where the child should live “almost instantly” after the mother raised a “number of issues with [Woodall’s] credentials and regulation”.

But Woodall said she had already held concerns in July about the girl’s “contemptuous behaviour” and that events “going on behind the scenes” were sufficiently concerning for her to shift her position.

Asked by the McKenzie Friend who would repair the “alienation that is enforced” if [A] goes to live with her father, Woodall made a point of distancing herself from the label “parental alienation”, saying she had not mentioned “alienation” in her reports.

The McKenzie Friend said it was “very public knowledge” that there is a reframing of the term, which has been given “various other names which all mean the same thing”.

Ongoing therapy required

Earlier in her evidence, Woodall said A was responsive to her mother’s changing moods and would require ongoing therapy. Her evidence was aligned with that of Willemsen, who said A cannot reconcile her love for her father with looking after her mother’s needs.

Woodall confirmed that she and Willemsen had worked together on two previous cases.

Willemsen recommended that A should move to live with the father, with the mother’s contact “very carefully built up”.

Laura Bayley, the barrister representing the children’s guardian, told him: “What you have proposed is an extremely draconian step … moving her from her primary carer to supervised contact only.”

Conning was the first of the three experts to have been appointed to the case. She found the mother showed a number of “alienating behaviours”, which meant the child saw her mother as “perfect” and her father in a negative light.

However, Conning did not support a transfer of residence, which she said would be a “dramatic change” for a child who had lived with her mother since birth.

All three experts agreed the mother would benefit from undertaking a course of therapy although they differed in the types of therapy they recommended.

‘Leaking anxiety’

While the court heard how Woodall had spent time in the father’s home observing him with his daughter, the mother claimed she was not given the same attention.

She told the court: “Karen Woodall has made much about me leaking my anxiety to [A] but she has not seen me at any time … with [A].”

During cross examination, Bazley put to the mother that Willemsen had been in “no doubt” her clear intention was to suggest the father had a sexual interest in A.

The mother insisted: “That was absolutely not my intention …” She said it was Woodall who raised the matter as a “safeguarding concern” on 13 October.

Giving evidence, the child’s guardian said the mother had told her categorically, on 18 October, that she did not believe the father posed a sexual risk but rather there was an issue “around boundaries”.

Bazley said the guardian was “extraordinarily naive” to accept the mother had abandoned her allegations.

Bayley said: “This guardian has been involved with the family since 2021 and there has been no criticism of her approach … up until August of this year when she diverted from the recommendation put forward from Ms Woodall and – in her final evidence – with Dr Willemsen.”

In final submissions, the McKenzie Friend said “there will be grief, loss and considerable mourning” if the girl is separated from her mother.

She urged the court to look into who would pay for therapy, having earlier raised concerns about the mother’s financial resources. She said, “supervision costs run into thousands per month and therapy costs into tens of thousands a year”.

Giving judgment

In handing down judgment Keehan said the central issues in the case relate to “the mother’s attitude towards the father and towards contact and the adverse impact that those attitudes have had upon A”.

He said despite the history of obstacles around contact, the case was unusual in that the girl had otherwise enjoyed regular contact with her father.

He said it was important to underscore Woodall is “not a psychologist” but describes herself as a psychotherapist and accepts she has no regulatory body.

He said he approved the instruction of Woodall because in other cases he “found the assistance of Ms Woodall to be extremely helpful, positive and beneficial”.

Keehan said he found the father to be “a very balanced and measured witness”. He acknowledged the father had inappropriately, from time to time “vented his frustrations at the conduct of the mother by denigrating her in the presence of A” and had shown “a lack of awareness of appropriate boundaries between him and [his daughter]”.

Keehan said he had found the mother to have been “vociferous” in defending herself against the father’s application.

He said he would have to approach her evidence with “extreme caution” due to the fact she had alluded to the father having a sexual interest in A.

The mother’s evidence that she was simply repeating safeguarding concerns of Woodall was “at worst a bare face lie”, he said.

The judge said Willemsen and Woodall opposed being identified by the press adding: “I understand their reasons but I respectfully disagree and I find the article 10 rights of the press should hold sway … they should be named along with Dr Conning.”

The Court’s ruling

Keehan ordered a transfer of residence to the child’s father and scheduled four supervised contact sessions with the mother, at her cost.

He said the success of those sessions would determine whether she could move to unsupervised contact, including regular overnight contact.

Keehan said the father should instruct and fund Woodall to “oversee a further programme of therapeutic work for A as advised by her in liaison with Dr Willemsen”.

Willemsen should be further instructed to assess the mother’s progress and liaise with her chosen therapist, according to the order.

The arrangements will be reviewed at a hearing in April 2024.

Reporter: Hannah Summers
Bureau Local editor: Gareth Davies
Deputy editor: Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editors: Alex Hess and Emily Goddard
Fact checker: Lucy Nash
Illustration: Chanelle Nibbelink

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Subject:

  • Family courts
  • Transparency
  • Justice system