In the UK or anywhere, high conflict family separation is a mountain of a field to get to grips with. The system involves so many agencies, authorities, professionals, and client families – and so many diverse and divergent views about what to do.
High conflict separation presents in all its forms. So this mountainous field includes the whole complex range, the good the bad and the ugly alike. We can expect that specific patterns and risks will be promptly assessed, differentiated out and skilfully handled. We can’t expect the mountain to be partial, neatly giving us only risk and proven abuse, or only Parental Alienation, depending on our own particular interests.
So scoping and route-planning the mountain like this, is going to need us to securely team up parties who may be nervous, distrustful or hateful of each other. The child’s welfare and voice is easily lost or misunderstood. And ideologically gendered positioning understandably but unhelpfully mirrors, polarises and overshadows more constructive team working up the mountain. Team work will require constant talking and repeating of assurances so that each party shows they fully understand the other’s experience and viewpoint on the way to the top. See Section 7 below for more on this.
One imagines that there are teamed up groups of people working on this in their own corners. But if they put their head above the parapet, they may get shot down in flames. So we don’t seem to have a lot of access to much of the joined up thinking that is needed to climb this mountain.
Who dares to sketch the mountain and set out some routes to get to the top? Let’s have a go in the alienation experience blog. Please help fill in gaps and propose improvements.
The headings are:
- Overall Aims
- Prevention: Before Coercive Persuasion Happens
- Prevention and Early Intervention: Before Going to Court
- Prevention and Early Intervention: In Courts
- Enduring Cases
- Awareness Raising
- Coordinating Our Efforts
- Sustain the Teaming Up
- Comprehensive Services and Standards
- Some Benefits of Sketching the Mountain
1. Overall Aims:
- The overall aim is to understand and help separated families and children to avoid, resolve or otherwise get out of enduring high conflict patterns of all kinds to stop the harm they cause.
It has to be “of all kinds”. Often there is a mixture (or hybrid) of unreasonable reactions and thinking, talk and behaviour, of alleged and actual risk and abuse too. High conflict includes less obvious specific patterns at one end of the spectrum: Child and Parental Alienation and Child Abduction. Those dealing with high conflict separation must be qualified to spot and know what should be done about the whole range. However, there are several separate sections to climbing this mountain.
- The top priority throughout is the present and future welfare of the child.
It is fair to assume that ALL enduring high conflict separation is emotionally abusive to the children. If nothing is done, there can be long-term harm throughout their lives. Dispensing with one parent may seem to solve the conflict, but it usually harms the child. In general and in particular, there is a debate about the relative importance of a child sustaining a relationship with both parents versus protecting a child from being in the middle of constant high parental conflict. So the child’s welfare may not be simply achieved, but it is the main reason why this mountain must be climbed.
Other reasons are the extreme distress to parents and other family members, and the extreme financial costs of often prolonged frustrating legal and professional involvement that plainly doesn’t often work very well.
In what follows, below each heading is a summary of that aspect of the mountain, along with some ‘Aims’ that point the need for a route up it.
2. Prevention: Before Coercive Persuasion Happens
A simple idea is for the prevention of harmful psychological coercive persuasion of all sorts before it happens. This requires that the pattern can be defined whatever guises it appears in to divide people from their healthy relationships with family and friends. Influences that typically happen outside of families include: cults and extremist terrorism. Influences that operate within established couples and families are: intimate partner or domestic and child abuse and Parental Alienation.
There is growing momentum for this idea of Learning about a common enemy e.g. in the new law on coercive control and in the new website and approach to prevent extremist hate. It is the raison d’être for the Open Minds Foundation.
The idea is simple enough for anyone to try using – e.g. parents within your own family, teachers within your own school. It converts into a survey format that applies to any of the different kinds of undue influence.
Some interesting questions come out of this linking together all undue influence patterns under one umbrella. Non-family undue influence, such as cults, scams and extremism, involve more obvious recruitment of new victims. This is different to families … well, until it gets us to think of where recruitment happens in families. Recruitment to family undue influence happens when a couple fall in love – ‘madly’ in love, one might say.
People say in retrospect that they would have known to walk away from their future partner if they’d known more at the start of their relationship. So the prevention of undue influence in families means we need to look harder at that first recruitment stage.
Of course, children are not so lucky – they are born into families without much chance to choose at all. Constructively influencing children is a lot of children’s upbringing in families and schools anyway – it may be hard to spot the differences between healthy normal and unhealthy emotionally abusive relationships. When families separate, there is another phase of recruitment into your ‘side’ of others including your children (hence the coercing part of Parental Alienation).
The aim of this prevention before undue influence happens will be to give everyone the tools to think for themselves so we can all spot the pattern and walk away rather than be taken in. In his important book Intelligent Disobedience: doing right when what you’re told to do is wrong Ira Chaleff shows that cognitive learning is unlikely to be enough. We need to practice intelligent disobedience in the same way that guide dogs for the blind are trained to prevent their humans walking into disaster.
3. Prevention and Early Intervention: Before Going to Court
Most separating parents manage the difficult process collaboratively to ensure both parents’ love, relationship and care for their children continues. There is plenty of informational guidance for them. Though it is seldom easy, most parents are able to do it themselves. It is easy for parents to let outsiders in to help them in their difficult upsetting predicament, but parents and helpers should remember that outside help can make things worse.
- Aim: Support parents doing as much as they can themselves as the best way. Keep working on a number of practical and cultural hurdles that hinder parents.
- Aim: At this (and any other) early stage, parents and helpers should expect to draw up collaborative parenting agreements as part of any collaborative separation to be completely sure what it is you think you’ve agreed.
More active help (before legal processes and courts) is typically found from family mediation and from collaborative divorce lawyers. These engage and offer parents structured help in collaborative parenting as they separate. The earlier this collaborative help can start the better to avoid, guide or resolve the early stages of conflict before it escalates. Parents need to quickly realise that they may not be able to do it themselves, so they can move onto collaborative help. This is already available and promoted before court and around early court hearings at lower levels. But access may depend on personal and financial resources that not all parents can manage.
- Aim: Promote an even stronger culture, referral to, funding assistance, and provision of effective collaborative and shared care solutions, since that will prevent and reduce the number of high conflict cases.
- Aim: As soon as outside agencies get involved with separating families, and at every level after that, professionals need to know quite a lot of complex specialist and even counter-intuitive things. As just one example of many things to remember: Children are liable to the influence of others – and especially by close emotionally upset family members; so what a child says about their family’s separation can only be one part of anyone’s more complete assessment of what is in their best interests.
The problem is that for some couples, one or both parents may have good or bad reason to resist or to find it too hard or otherwise to fail to collaborate even with the best collaborative help available. Even if they know this is bad for the children, attachment-hurts trigger over-riding life and death impulses that fuel the conflict. It is often at this stage that parents turn to lawyers for more active guidance (not just the legal signing off). Involving lawyers does not automatically mean huge expense or going to court. Good lawyers can help avoid these.
- Aim: Improve the knowledge, skills and routine information provided by family lawyers so that all families get reliable support and guidance, not the sometimes well-worn but bad advice: give it time, trust me, etc.
- Aim: Identify good practice and promote it – e.g. the parents’ two collaboratively-minded lawyers can skilfully liaise, if possible, towards a child-focused resolution that the parents themselves may not be able to negotiate but can be persuaded to consider and accept. It’s not the best way maybe, but sometimes this is concluded with a collaborative compromise at the 11th hour in the corridors outside the court, avoiding the detrimental effects and expense of going into court. This is not the same as a formal collaborative divorce approach.
- Aim: For any early intervention drawing up collaborative parenting agreements is part of any collaborative separation, and also provides a basis for litigating separations and for child welfare hearings.
Well functioning courts may be challenging, but they should not be detrimental either. It may not look it, but family courts start out by providing an extra structure that aims to help parties reach an agreed solution, not an imposed one.
4. Prevention and Early Intervention: In Courts
Family courts have slowly changed from their natural adversarial culture to help shape more collaborative outcomes. There is still a way to go. A family court may seem intimidatingly like what we all imagine a full court of law looks like. But – until they specifically move to become proof hearings – family courts are intended to be just another more structured public way to encourage and produce a collaborative agreement between parents. The focus is still on collaborative parenting.
- Aim: There are many improvements in family courts in progress and under review that need to be more quickly defined and put to work. Some require more development and determination, others are just a matter of changing custom and practice.
- Aim: To have lawyers and family courts everywhere clarify the difference between an informal and a proof hearing, about reports and challenging them, so that clients who are new to the system are clearly and reliably informed from the very start. It is not enough to rely on clients’ ignorance and their blind trust of those who know the system.
- Aim: Courts have an important role in prevention. The initial informal family courts must leave further behind their old adversarial patterns in order not to add to unfairness, injustice, polarisation and entrenchment. Many good ideas are slowly being put in place:
- For example, all courts should send out in advance routine guidelines (as some do now – Florida and Midlands) as part of proactively establishing what parents and lawyers are expected to do and not do in that court.
- For example, to avoid harmful delays for the children, there should be reliable waiting time limits for child welfare hearings and reports.
- For example, chronological if not actual continuity of the judge or sheriff can be instructed through the pre-welfare hearing assessment and report
- For example, a fairer more level playing field at the start would mean that the resident parent’s previous decisions are addressed before the non-resident parent is put on the downhill spot as if they are on trial for their innocence and worthiness to be a parent. If serious allegations of risk are made, those must be properly and promptly assessed as the next step. If the resident parent does not have good enough reason to have limited contact with their other parent, then the court can without further ado expect parents to take steps to establish better contact and shared care.
- Aim: Those lawyers, experts and judges who take part in the more informal processes must still be the best, most comprehensively trained and skilled professionals, since their assessments and decisions have more unchecked power than in a proof hearing. In the UK, in at least some cases – the more complex ones – courts struggle or make things worse because of reporters and reports that are inadequate. This is no surprise given the complexity and the lack of enough training. To class these reports as just information-gathering is to fail to realise how powerful complex personal information is shaped, interpreted and easily misinterpreted.
- Aim: The court culture must enable relevant challenges to reports at informal hearings to discover when a move to proof is appropriate and to avoid imposing badly made, poorly agreed, decisions.
- Aim: It is very relevant, then, to properly review and ensure better levels of service and training for CAFCASS or Bar Reporters (in Scotland) and their equivalent officers in any country.
Now we are ready to move on to the most massive peak in our mountain range: The more severe and enduring cases. For cases that cannot be prevented from reaching this stage, hopes of shaping collaborative parenting decisions have definitely faded. We can assume there is emotional child abuse going on, even when there is no added alleged or actual domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse to assess and intervene on.
5. Enduring Cases:
The more entrenched cases will, by definition, come to the family courts. To help the courts manage, various extra services can be found across the world. In the UK, England has the sensible but criticised CAFCASS service (typically from a social work background). Scotland have Bar – now named Child Welfare Reporters (typically practicing family lawyers) with improvements starting up. The level of reliable standards of skill and qualification in this court work is a recognised concern in all kinds of high conflict cases – PA and other risk or abuse.
Waiting in the wings of the courts, there are the thinly spread, more specialised experts. In the field of PA in the UK, these are so few, we know both their names. They are called on to be expert witnesses, and maybe to offer continuing work with the families.
There are long-established completely Alienated children and parents to support, educate and help know what to do as they wait in hope for something to change.
Last but not least are families who may have been through courts so that contact with both parents is in place. But Alienation can still be so powerful and dreadful that it can seem that it would be better to have no contact. Here legal steps may have no place – e.g. with older or adult children.
- Aim: Where conflict overrules collaboration despite all efforts to help, severe cases will continue their path through the courts. The old familiar legal rules and due process may be better brought in sooner. In severe cases, that may be preferable to the court prolonging its informal order in an empty hope that collaboration will somehow appear.
- Aim: There need to be more of the more fully trained, qualified and experienced routine court assessment and support services.
- Aim: There need to be more of the more fully trained, qualified and experienced expert professional witnesses.
- Aim: We need to work out who and how this training and qualification of routine and expert workers gets developed. Onerous as it always is, this is usually done by the careful establishment of some kind of professional organisation, structure, functions and standards. There are better examples of this elsewhere than in the UK.
- Aim: In these harder – potentially enduring – cases, we need skilled aware courts to authorise or mandate and to follow through on the specified specialist work. Aware proactive court authority is needed to grasp and continue a case more firmly to encourage and require reluctant parents to do the mandated work, to want to know why not if they don’t do it, and to be ready with alternative plans and consequences if not.
- Aim: To do this, courts and workers need to develop more teamed-up effective joint working options with other skilled professionals, with the few experts there are in the UK, or like the development of Parenting Coordinators (in the USA).
- Aim: Another option would be that those who provide services – services that are characteristically not court-linked so as to be more suitable for the more collaborative cases (e.g. family mediation) – these services should consider branching out to grow and provide some of these court-linked kinds of services for those families who need more mandated authority to make it work. This means developing that active, assessing role and authority including reporting back to court. Those with additional child counselling skills may develop an approach to this family work by meeting the children as a good starting point.
- Aim: Courts should take steps to feedback to the children any outcome of the court in appropriate terms for the children, rather than leave it entirely to the least neutral person, the resident parent, who is likely to frame what happened in court as the judge confirming and therefore amplifying further their very partial view of the picture.
- In the most enduring cases, courts and lawyers may have nothing or nothing more to offer. So any and all kinds of non-legal support, help and self-help is going to be needed for some decades yet.
Hopefully, in the not too distant future, a range of changes and other measures that are now being developed will reduce the number of new enduring cases of high conflict separations. Eventually this should reduce the need for specialist assessment and treatment too. Those cases that would have become enduring cases will be better and more promptly identified and assessed. Effective intervention will stop even those potentially most serious cases quickly.
So it is possible to envisage a time when enduring cases will just not be allowed to endure. Ideally, then, the children in those would-have-been enduring cases may be temporarily very stressed and distressed, but intervention and support will prevent the harm and emotional abuse that happens now. This distant future – reasonably if not easily – means that PA will just not happen, the term itself will be a memory only, and emotional abuse will be minimal. Whether domestic violence and other abuses can be so readily eliminated after separation may need further consideration.
In practice, to most people, this rosy future still looks a rather long way off. Numbers of severe and enduring cases are growing, and present systems have to find ways to manage the mountain as well as they can. It is hard to imagine a time when there will be no enduring cases at all, nor a way that will work for all situations. Specialist knowledge, assessment, decision-making and treatment can anyway never be dispensed with or forgotten. If they were forgotten, the mountain would grow back again.
6. Awareness Raising
More specific awareness-raising is also needed. On its own, high conflict separation patterns is a mountain that is big and tricky. There are several different ways up the awareness mountain, each with their pros and cons and diverse supporters. Obviously people in different countries and local situations may need to choose different routes.
Even if lots of the worst cases could be prevented, we have to publicise the worst cases a lot. Mostly those affected by high conflict talk to fellow sufferers and helpers of their own specific pattern – having been victims of actual abuse or victims of Alienation. This means that people tend to group mostly with the already-converted. That is important for help and self-help. But it is not the same as raising awareness for others. The rest of the world may be distant and prefer to keep their distance.
We need to find any and every way to engage a wider and more active interest in change. Talking with the converted is not enough.
People in the not-yet-aware world may also hold a range of cultural prejudices about some counter-intuitive patterns in high conflict separations. In short, the result is disbelief, doubt and denial. Only by getting the worst picture across to more people will the world understand why it is such a serious problem that needs solutions.
But we are in a bind. A small group of loudly upset sufferers and supporters are, as it were, yelling at a puzzled if not actively resistant wider audience. If the serious harm is not underlined, then the audience won’t get why this is any worse than the trouble and strife of any family break-up. But somehow shouting that message louder and louder can be off-putting and counter-pr0ductive to those whose awareness we are trying to raise. As in court, if you can’t reason calmly, the listener – like the judge – may count that against you and dismiss what you’re saying.
The bind gets worse. By emphasising how terrible it is, that mountain-high picture of grim abuse, misery and injustice probably makes the people – those who do eventually hear the message – feel just hopeless and defeated. So a successfully communicated grim picture may still turn people off from doing anything about it – even though there are things that can readily be done. We need to put some clear solutions together alongside the grim picture.
Awareness raising is not a simple process. An essential element is a child-focus, on the harm they suffer straight away and maybe for the rest of their lives. The parents and other adults are also very upset, challenged, and need support and help and justice, but children are innocent and vulnerable; they attract greatest sympathy from the wider world. A child-focus is also the best focus in any effective professional or court work with the families. Parents and everyone can team up better around what is best for the children.
Here’s some things we should aim to put together. Most of these are easy to say but not easy to do:
- Aim: Find ways to talk about and promote knowledge of high conflict separation that engages and persuades a wider audience. This will show the grimness but also link to coherent strategies of what will prevent and help the suffering families and especially their children. Given the binds described above, we need to try out one and all the different ways to do this – loud or quiet, anecdotal or statistical, media or more personal, campaigning or academic. This roughly means using every kind of general public media to reach the general public. Obviously, the internet is now the way to go.
- Aim: Research better anecdotal and statistical evidence of prevalence, long-term effects on children, etc. This roughly means using every kind of professional publication, conference and committee to reach professionals and policy-makers.
- Aim: Given the multiple cultural resistances, counter-intuitives and prejudice about high conflict separation, we need new and broader ways of opening people’s minds up. There is a case to bracket together Child Abduction and Alienation since that automatically gets people thinking on the same valid tracks about Alienation.
- Aim: Develop the best ways to lobby, link to and influence relevant organisations, policy-makers and government.
- Aim: Develop well-thought-through sustainable and effective ways to use the media – press, internet, social media.
Influencing by information and persuasion gets close to more robust proactive interventive measures, e.g. taking up legal action or formal complaints about misinformation or malpractice. Those measures go better under the heading “Services and Standards” below.
It is not so straightforward to raise awareness in the emotive and complex field of high conflict family separation. There are frustrating patterns of sustained mistrust and ignorance that frustrates calmly informing people about it. Awareness-raising can quickly become more heated than just exchanging information.
At the moment, our field seems somewhat thinly spread and not very organised. Everyone has their our own website that mostly we, the converted, read and share and link to. There are some but not that many more-teamed-up people and organisations to raise awareness. Those groups naturally tend to self-support and protest functions, rather than considered promotion of effective wider awareness.
There are anyway pros and cons to setting up such awareness raising organisations as opposed to doing more quiet personal networking and individually tailored interventions (e.g. getting journals to publish corrections). As usual, it is not a matter of one or the other, but both individual and organised endeavour.
7. Coordinating Our Efforts:
The Early Intervention plan a decade ago cannot be the last coordinated effort to tackle this mountain. The debilitating gender-based ideological battle mirrors the high conflict separation and is no more productive in practice.
- Aim: We all must keep thinking and teaming up until effective solutions are found. Children are being harmed for life while adults, academics and agencies fail to do this.
- Aim: Think through how to get organised, raise awareness, develop and influence policy, and so on. This involves considering what approach to use: whether to be engagingly moderate or challengingly strident; to set up formal organisation or use informal networking; to use private channels or launch into public media and government lobbying Usually it is not one or the other of these, but both approaches working in tandem.
- Aim: Meanwhile, continue to look for and link with the many remarkable individuals whose often isolated innovative dedicated work remains far too unremarked and certainly not joined up enough with other people’s efforts.
- Aim: Continue to improve, network and share quality thinking and ways forward. That is what the alienation experience blog is for. Here’s one concise and comprehensive overview open to anyone’s improvement, a detailed picture of the mountain – well, the slippery half of the mountain anyway – to go with these mountain-climbing routes.
8. Sustain the Teaming Up
We noted at the start that teaming up is needed in order to climb a mountain that covers the full range of high conflict separation. So we need to team up across agencies, groups, and viewpoints. But typically these may all be in as much conflict as the couple themselves. The taking-sides and conflict mirrors up through all the many levels of our system.
Teaming up across professions and agencies has to continue day to day. That frontline may be the pragmatic place for integrated local teamed up services to grow. But any inter-agency teaming up is notoriously hard to do. Especially when services and budgets are being cut back, it is easier to follow the quickest route. The short cut means using well-worn automatic responses, not ones that take more time and thought. Even harder than interagency liaising is teaming up across gendered viewpoints.
Teaming up across gender
It will help us to get policy, professions and agencies to team up reliably, if we sort out a more adequate theoretical and practical approach – a simple gender-based approach is not working. And the polarisation of the gendered positions seems increasingly counterproductive. Most of our organisations and publications name themselves after one or other gender or gendered role (‘Fathers This’ or ‘Women That’). But gender, abuse and conflict are not so simply explained. See below for more on this.
So we need to find a way to team up across the, often viscerally heated, opposed groups: women’s/mothers’/rights groups versus men’s/fathers’/rights groups. Both sides need to see and unite because we all want the same thing. That one thing is: To prevent and stop all abuse of all kinds in families. All of us want to replace it as far as possible with safe if not improved and repaired relationships.
At present, far from this collegial unity, each side tends to demonise the other side … as if the other side is in fact actively helping the abuse to happen.
The best and most important focus in teaming up at all levels is to sustain a child-focus. Domestic abuse and conflict between adults, we know, results in lack of attention and real harm to children and their welfare even if they are not directly in the firing line. A constructive way forward that promotes teaming up is by promoting shared parenting or custody.
Serious abuse between adults who do not have children of course happens and needs to be responded to. Teaming up across sides is needed there too.
In that case, in order to bridge the polarised gender groupings, it is useful to remember that abuse of all kinds happens in same-sex relationships … that’s same-sex male partners and ex-partners, and same-sex female partners and ex-partners, as well as the various non-binary sexualities too. In addition, abuse happens across other adult same-sex relationships in families – parents, siblings, wider family, close friends, etc. So, if abuse and conflict happen in other than heterosexual close relationships, it helps us to remember it cannot be explained simply or by gender alone.
Teaming up our literature
Each gendered side of this potential teaming up has its own literature that proves – beyond a shadow of doubt to that side – their own side’s unassailably held position. It will be important for each side to read more of the other’s best literature and research.
To be useful this reading needs to be done while holding on to a more enquiring and sympathetic intention to better understand the other side’s position and reasons … at the same time as finding, no doubt, the expected unacceptable stuff. Putting that behaviourally, instead of throwing a book into the bin in a rage, we should note points carefully, in order to raise them in future collaborative debate … we need to finish reading the book properly. By working hard, the aim is to understand better why the other side feels as passionately justified as they do.
This is not to say that gender is an unimportant factor to take into account. Even if it was the only or indeed the most important factor, the gender debate needs to be brought under control as it is still getting in the way of teaming up against all abuse. The gender debate is important but not if it excludes other aspects … and escalates things too.
The huge endlessly unproductive energy consumed in the gender debate is allowing and even enabling abuse to go unchecked. That must stop if we are serious about the outcome we all share.
Finding better thinking
It would help teaming up to assemble literature that draws together a more multifactorial picture of family abuse, enabling a more accurate complex picture and some more unifying approaches to help us team up. Here’s a short list to start with:
A constructive and unifying way forward – one that builds in sustained teaming up – is through promoting gender equality in family life. Gender equality is central to the definition of feminism. Equality does not mean getting rid of difference. Teaming up between parents (whatever their gender) applies inside as well as outside the family and home. But when family conflict happens, this seriously knocks back the the parenting team and the teaming up. Gender rights thinking and policy moves in to protect one’s own side. The result is that women’s (and men’s) rights groups seem opposed to the original feminist aims. The debate is about men as dangerous and powerful. Women’s groups seek to keep men and fathers out of the house and home as much as possible. So, teaming up reminds us that we all DO want the gender equality feminism originally set out.
Clarifying these very different types of feminism allows us all to team up with the defined core value of gender equality. We can team up with that kind of feminism. Improved teaming up through gender equality in families is also likely to decrease conflict and prevent family separation. Where separation does happen, that gender equality will improve the teaming up needed then too.
When families don’t stay together, then gender equality means we value shared parenting or custody as the optimal pattern after separation. This does not have to mean dividing the child exactly down the middle. It does not mean no differences between the parents or genders. Shared parenting sets the culture and framework for expecting that as the norm. It means we all ask “Why is shared parenting NOT happening?”. Google <shared parenting> for more resources. For example, the International Council on Shared Parenting has got the support of the Council of Europe to influence laws in member states.
Elly Farmer (now Hanson) and Samantha Callan’s (2012) Centre for Social Justice report Beyond Violence: Breaking cycles of domestic abuse – executive summary, full report. They confirm that it is the monopolising of policy and practice by one viewpoint that is preventing effective prevention and intervention:
… Power, control and patriarchy are explanatory factors in many contexts of domestic abuse, but there are many others that are also significant, including poverty, substance misuse, psychological vulnerabilities rooted in people’s past experiences (such as insecurity, jealousy, and dysfunctional ways of resolving conflict), and the dynamics that play out between two people in a relationship.
A more nuanced and rich version of an Attachment-based approach is Pat Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model e.g. in her book Raising Parents: Attachment, parenting and child safety. This covers the full range of good, bad and ugly including coercive and alienation relationships from all sides. Brilliant, clear, deep and comprehensive, a diagram summarises it, but it naturally takes the reader a big commitment to work through something this complex. Yet this is the kind of challenge that professionals need to take on to qualify as competent to assess the unique complexity of each case.
Nick Child (2014) has argued similarly that Keeping one eye on family abuse is not enough. Reading each other’s literature produces useful crossovers – in this case, realising that ‘coercive control’ is a very good concept for us all to use. Usually it is exclusively claimed for ‘gender-based’ domestic abuse by men on women. But clearly it has a wider application in a non-gender-based way (as Crittenden does). That paper was Nick’s attempt to challenge his own profession to broader thinking. We – family members and professionals – might all do well to find any and every opportunity to talk about these issues everywhere we go. I know someone who managed to get high conflict separations into her Math/s project!
Karen Woodall has found a more global motor-way to by-pass the one-lane-only debates. As blogger on a world stage, The Huffington Post, in a single You ain’t no Muslim bruv blog, she joined together the world’s new top priority – the concern with young religious-extremist terrorists – by giving them the same name: Alienation, and offering the skills from Parental Alienation as relevant. And there are obvious gendered ideas to bring to bear on the same terrorism concerns.
In order to team up and then remain teamed up, all of us may have to get used to frequent repetitive assurances that show that we have as full an understanding of the perspectives of the other ‘team members’ as we can manage. Here are some of the assurances that will need to be repeated regularly:
- Making the child and the child’s voice and welfare central is a unifying principle. That is the rope that ties us together on the mountain – a principle that we easily let go of and misunderstand as adults at all levels fall out with each other.
- So we need to keep assuring each other that we share and are working on the same top priorities – the child’s welfare and prevention of all abuse – rather than the usual more partial gendered allegiances.
- Men and men’s groups need to repeatedly assure women and women’s groups that they fully understand how badly some women and children are abused and are at risk from the (cohabiting or separated) men in their lives.
- Women and women’s groups need to repeatedly assure men and men’s groups that they fully understand how badly some men and children are abused and are at risk from the (cohabiting or separated) women in their lives.
- Both genders and gendered groups need to repeatedly remember and assure same-sex couples and those who support them and their children that they recognise that the full range of high conflict separation patterns happens for them too.
- Both genders and both gendered groups need to repeatedly recognise that anyone who has been through abuse and risk and injustice will be ‘post-traumatically’ affected and sensitive to gendered assumptions in generalised ways that no amount of reassurance quells. That is, abuse by just one man breeds feelings and views about all men … abuse by just one woman breeds feelings and views about all women.
- Instead of defaulting to blame and rage at the other side, we need to default to the shared assumptions:
- We all want to stop all abuse.
- We all want what’s best for the children.
- Those who have reason to rage at, sue or criticise professionals, family lawyers, judges, courts etc, need to keep recognising and reassuring others that there are also many more in those professions and roles who try to work skilfully, welcome help, learning and feedback, and seek to change and improve their functioning, even if that is slow to happen.
- Given an adversarial legal system, and that sometimes imposed decisions are required, we all have to remember that there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and that naturally ‘losers’ will not be happy about the system. Until we learn more, sometimes losing will not be justified.
- We need to share and understand on all sides the natural rage and reaction to injustice, and to support the feedback, appeals and complaints process as a way to learn better. If lawyers and judges just don’t know enough, neither side nor the children will not be properly assessed or understood. And injustice will be everyone’s experience … which explains how:
- At present we hear that the same court system may be reported (by mothers) to be totally pro-fathers at the same time as reported (by fathers) to be totally pro-mothers. We will be closer to the mark when less sweeping generalisations are replaced by carefully looking at individual cases. Courts might be better rated for being pro-children’s-welfare than pro- one or other gender or parent.
- However heated you may otherwise feel, keeping calm, engaged in or (after cooling down) returning to continue in honest talking are usually going to be the best basis for better outcomes for the common cause at every level of ‘getting up’ this mountain.
- Good conversation is the first step to better teaming up. As Theodore Zeldin said in An Intimate History of Humanity:
Only when people learn to converse will they begin to be equal. The enemies of conversation are rhetoric, disputation, jargon and private language, or despair at not being listened to and not being understood.
This is probably the steepest individual climb each and every one of us has to do in order to sustain the team working together. It is enough for one blog. When the gender divide has been sorted out, then we can better get organised on the wider fronts. Meanwhile, we must do the best we can anyway.
9. Comprehensive Services and Standards:
Mostly, luck – often bad luck – decides what kind of services and courts you and your children get during what is perhaps the most difficult time in a family’s life. As in any other comprehensive service, standards need to be set so that everyone gets a good service – whatever your postcode and whatever the professional you go to for help.
- Aim: Taking your family conflict through lawyers and courts can be prohibitively taxing and expensive. Only a few parents have the stamina and funds available. But we are talking about children being abused by the process. So we must find effective ways to intervene in enduring high conflict cases that do not depend on a parent’s motivation and money. As in other family strife, parents may not be willing or able to do the right thing for their children without help or intervention.
- Aim: For all the above listed aspects and aims, especially the legal ones, major multi-agency and government efforts and investment are required to ensure that good standards and services are identified and established uniformly in all areas of the UK.
- Aim: This entails comprehensive standards of training and qualification for all professionals involved including the format of reports and use of evidence-based practice.
- Aim: Some level of training should be part of all training and CPD for helping and legal professionals.
As well as this positive planning of comprehensive standards and services, from case law to witch-hunts to malpractice in modern times, what may eventually be needed to stop incompetence, ignorant publications and bad professional practice, is the use of direct challenge. Sometimes it is right to use formal and public complaint systems, official demands for retractions and corrections, and suing a miscreant professional to stop them and discourage others. Taking legal action should not be taken lightly since it can devour years of a person’s life often without achieving a satisfactory outcome.
- Aim: Systematic correction is required for most of our’authoritative’ professional guidelines and literature because they only partially attend to the field of high conflict separation, its risks, and its assessment. Sometimes even eminent journals and thinkers publish plainly ignorant and prejudiced ideas. This too can readily be challenged and corrections published.
- Aim: Support selected strategic use of formal complaints and legal action to show up and stop gross ignorance and malpractice.
10. Some Benefits of Sketching the Mountain:
This sketch shows the enormous size of the mountain of high conflict family separation and of the routes to tackle it.
It helps to know how big the mountain is. We can develop a realism about our own inevitably limited individual efforts. It helps to get an overview of the mountain so we can identify where we are on it, what we’re good at doing. We can see better that others work just as validly climbing on other important parts of the mountain. We get a sense of how everyone’s efforts are worthwhile different parts of this huge business. We can see more clearly and then connect up better how our efforts integrate with other people’s work. We can compare how similar or different the mountain looks in different countries.
The full sketch above shows how the courts play such a key role in so many ways. That is because society has always rated change in family arrangements to be of the utmost important. So the high authority of the law and of courts continues to have a key role in guiding or making family decisions. But families and societies have moved much faster than our laws and legal systems can. The struggle to help ordinary lawyers and courts catch up with this special role is evident.
Some countries, notably Australia in the 1990s, have tried hard to sort family separation and conflict through any other (i.e. collaborative) means than lawyers and courts (i.e. adversarial). Scotland famously operates a separate system, the Childrens Hearings, to manage most of the child care and children’s justice cases; but long term decisions about children and families remains in the adult courts, even if those courts struggle to get the hang of it. Some argue (e.g. in the USA) that family courts are plainly dealing with such distinct, specialist and complex matters that there should be a specialist separate administration for them.
Once a full general picture of the mountain is in place, it may be well worth having a full discussion – in each particular country – of the pros and cons and the comparative feasibility, efficacy and costs of trying to crank up an old creaking legal system to do the job or whether building a completely new system might be better.
Improving this page
This page scopes the mountain we have to climb, and sketches routes up to the top. It is a work in progress that calls out for more diverse input. Please contribute and add to it by Commenting below. This is a big, urgent, and (once you lay it all out) it is a do-able thing. Thousands of families – and especially their children – depend on us climbing this mountain for their future protection from misery and harm that may continue and be recycled throughout their lives. However high and steep the mountain, we must find ways to climb it.