Parental Alienation and Reform – Asking the Right Questions


It was pleasant to read Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of CAFCASS, acknowledging that parental alienation was a form of child abuse in this week’s Telegraph. Pleasant… although being honest the main emotion was irritation, as I read an article which did little and said less. Catch up! Alienation is recognised… this isn’t news. If you want a news piece, ask what’s being done about it?

Parental alienation is rarely a disease which strikes without warning. It’s an administered poison, which eats away at the child’s view of the world. As with any poisoning, earlier diagnosis, intervention and prevention presents the best hope of cure. Failing this, the child gets more ill and future interventions become less likely to succeed. What we often see is the judicial ‘doctor’, who has had the child as his patient for months or years blame the parent for the poisoning while abrogating himself of relationship deaths by ignoring his failure to diagnose and treat. For a classic example, read this where the President of the Family Court does this himself.

Remember the poisoning scene in the film Sixth Sense… Anthony Douglas recognises that parents are putting bleach into their children’s drinks. Bravo. This rather begs the question of what he and the President of the Family Court are doing to improve outcomes for the affected children, having responsibility for their respective organisations and child welfare. We’re well past the days when the senior courts didn’t accept parental alienation as a factor in intractable contact disputes. There’s case law confirming it can cause significant harm to a child. Training courses within the British Psychological Society (BPS) and judgments recognising the court’s failures. Click the links… read them.

It should come as no surprise whatsoever that Anthony Douglas and Sir James Munby (President of the Family Court) know very well what the problems are. Perhaps the journalist should be asking them what steps they’re taking to improve case management and judicial training to help prevent such harm being caused to children? In fairness to Anthony Douglas, I’ve seen far more improvement in CAFCASS reports in recent years than I have in judicial case management in cases involving alienation. Those improvements though, aren’t universal.

In September 2015 I was asked to write a report by a charity setting out the problems in intractable contact dispute and parental alienation cases. I know Sir James Munby has it, charity representatives met him to discuss the contents. I understand there wasn’t much disagreement about the issues when the report was discussed. You can read the report yourself… here. The Telegraph’s reported idea to have a panel of experts advise the courts and propose more effective interventions isn’t a new thing. In my report, I made the same suggestion, proposing Dr Kirk Weir, Dr Mark Berelowitz and Dr Sue Whitcombe (Dr Whitcombe is currently running the BPS training courses on understanding, intervention and treatment of parental alienation).

In February 2016, a number of the problems my report listed were the subject of judicial acknowledgment in F (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 1315. Be assured, the problems are known beyond Munby. How many years does it take to turn recognition of a problem to improvement in case management? Case law is all well and good, but unless the lower courts are aware of it, and the guidance it contains, what benefit? How many litigants-in-person know how to present it, if they’re even aware it exists themselves.

Sorry to say that the Telegraph’s article didn’t fill me with hope. It underlined to me that the problems are well know, but there’s a lack of capability, resource or motivation to address them. Perhaps the very structure of the Family Court and Family Justice system prevents professional management of such cases due to poor communication and training? Does individual judicial discretion prevent more professional process being accepted? Does convention trump welfare or is there another reason the same old tired mistakes are made again and again? These are questions I’d like to see posed in the Telegraph… and some answers too.


Parenting Stereotypes and Alienation


A powerful talk by Dr Jennifer Hardman on parenting stereotypes and alienation, given at an independently organised TED talks event. Dr. Harman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University and is the Program Coordinator for the Applied Social & Health Psychology Program.

A number of interesting features for me.

  • Parenting stereotypes;
  • The importance of parenting time as a tool to address alienation;
  • Alienation as child abuse and domestic violence.

My thanks to JUMP for emailing this to me.


New Guidance on Psychologist Experts – Part 2


Rarely I write two articles on a single subject in one day (and certainly not this late at night). However, I’m genuinely enthused about this latest initiative by the Family Justice Council and British Psychological Society. It’s a matter I’ve been talking and writing about for the past two years.

Last year, I worked with Families Need Fathers making proposals for improvements in family law related to contact disputes and cases involving child alienation. These were presented to the President of the Family Court at a meeting last September. My belief (then and now) was that there should be greater collaboration between the courts and organisations such as the British Psychological Society to develop and share best practice to improve outcomes. It’s a belief which is clearly shared and worked upon by others and I thank them.

In 2014, Practice Direction 25B, ‘The Duties of an Expert’ was a welcome step forward, but there needed to be more done to ensure practice directions are followed and due diligence done when practice directions are at times ignored in court proceedings. That, I believe, is a matter for Family Justice Councils to pursue.

Best practice sharing, feedback mechanisms and agreed standards are essential tools in improving outcomes and introducing consistency into court proceedings. This becomes even more important amongst the chaos caused by court closures, cutbacks and fewer parties having representation.

Expert reports are variable in quality and the joy of this new initiative and the intentions behind it are to not only set appropriate standards for psychological assessments, but to introduce feedback mechanisms to improve standards in expert reporting. The guidance goes further in giving examples of what psychological assessments should include (see the image below… the example being for contact/residence disputes). Make sure you read it!

crdPoor quality assessments, and the appointment of practitioners lacking the requisite skills and/or experience causes delay (often months), the need for additional assessments (costing the parties thousands), and risks poor outcomes for families. Delay in itself makes it more difficult to resolve cases. Past research showed 20% of those involved in court work as experts lacked the necessary qualifications, and a further 20% lacked the necessary experience. I doubt enough people carry out due diligence when proposing or considering an expert.

To assist with due diligence, we have updated our own guide on Psychological Assessments which can be found in the Crisis Menu of our online guides. We have included:

  • A download version of the new Psychologists as Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts Guidance
  • Links to registers for psychologist practitioners.
  • Links to relevant registering bodies for child psychotherapy, systemic family therapy, and other therapist counsellors who may be considered for appropriate family court work as experts. Bear in mind Practice Direction 25B sets out that the term expert includes a reference to an expert team which can include ancillary workers (in addition to experts) who may be considered experts in their own field.
  • Links to professional conduct hearings and findings for each of these organisations.
  • A download version of Practice Direction 25B, which includes the standards to which all experts in family proceedings should adhere and all those involved with cases involving experts should be aware.

Guidance on Expert Witnesses in Family Proceedings


A guide has been announced today by Courts and Tribunal Judiciary for all stakeholders specific to the use of psychologists as expert witnesses. The guide provides discipline specific information in relation to regulation, codes of conduct, competencies, supervision/peer review and quality of service.

The guide will be added to our Psychological Assessments page and can be downloaded via the following link:

Psychologists as Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts

Standards, in respect of all expert witnesses were updated in 2014 via Practice Direction 25B and consideration of these should form part of due diligence for the appointment of experts in proceedings, not least to avoid proceedings being delayed and unnecessary costs to litigants.

Practice Direction 25B includes “Subject to any order made by the court, expert witnesses involved in family proceedings (involving children) in England and Wales, whatever their field of practice or country of origin, must comply with the standards.”

These are:

      1. The expert’s area of competence is appropriate to the issue(s) upon which the court has identified that an opinion is required, and relevant experience is evidenced in their CV.
      2. The expert has been active in the area of work or practice, (as a practitioner or an academic who is subject to peer appraisal), has sufficient experience of the issues relevant to the instant case, and is familiar with the breadth of current practice or opinion.
      3. The expert has working knowledge of the social, developmental, cultural norms and accepted legal principles applicable to the case presented at initial enquiry, and has the cultural competence skills to deal with the circumstances of the case.
      4. The expert is up-to-date with Continuing Professional Development appropriate to their discipline and expertise, and is in continued engagement with accepted supervisory mechanisms relevant to their practice.
      5. If the expert’s current professional practice is regulated by a UK statutory body (See Appendix 1) they are in possession of a current licence to practise or equivalent.
      6. If the expert’s area of professional practice is not subject to statutory registration (e.g. child psychotherapy, systemic family therapy, mediation, and experts in exclusively academic appointments) the expert should demonstrate appropriate qualifications and/ or registration with a relevant professional body on a case by case basis.  Registering bodies usually provide a code of conduct and professional standards and should be accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (See Appendix 2). If the expertise is academic in nature (e.g. regarding evidence of cultural influences) then no statutory registration is required (even if this includes direct contact or interviews with individuals) but consideration should be given to appropriate professional accountability.
      7. The expert is compliant with any necessary safeguarding requirements, information security expectations, and carries professional indemnity insurance.
      8. If the expert’s current professional practice is outside the UK they can demonstrate that they are compliant with the FJC ‘Guidelines for the instruction of medical experts from overseas in family cases’.
      9. The expert has undertaken appropriate training, updating or quality assurance activity – including actively seeking feedback from cases in which they have provided evidence- relevant to the role of expert in the family courts in England and Wales within the last year.
      10. The expert has a working knowledge of, and complies with, the requirements of Practice Directions relevant to providing reports for and giving evidence to the family courts in England and Wales. This includes compliance with the requirement to identify where their opinion on the instant case lies in relation to other accepted mainstream views and the overall spectrum of opinion in the UK.

Judicial Judgment ‘Wholly Lacking’ in Intractable Contact Cases


F (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 1315 is yet another case involving alienation where the handling of the case by the lower court was ‘wholly inadequate‘. Not my opinion (actually it is, and I agree…), but that of the Lords Justice who heard the appeal.

The case highlights the failings which are increasingly commonplace in the lower courts. The child has been poisoned by one parent against the other yet the court grants excessive weight to the child’s wishes and feelings at the cost of their welfare needs, and fails to address the issue of the alienating parent’s behaviour. The child is left subject to continued emotional abuse and the parent who sought the court’s help is utterly failed. Months elapse due to the court’s failure to get a grip and problems become entrenched. Continue reading Judicial Judgment ‘Wholly Lacking’ in Intractable Contact Cases


Proposals for the Reform of Intractable Contact Dispute Law


paper2Last September I had the opportunity to write a paper on the reform of private family law and specifically related to contact enforcement. The paper was presented to Sir James Munby, President of the Family Court, by officers of Families Need Fathers who had been offered a continuing dialogue by him following his presentation to the charity AGM in 2014. A follow-up meeting is diarised to discuss the paper’s contents and proposals.

Within the paper, the guiding principles for the proposals were “what is practical, realistic and has a reasonable chance of being taken forward”.

Continue reading Proposals for the Reform of Intractable Contact Dispute Law


Failings in Intractable Contact Cases Continue


When intractable contact dispute cases fail to be resolved there are common reasons, and ones which involve how the cases are managed by the court and professionals involved in proceedings. Some of those cases are salvageable, while for others the long length of proceedings acts as a bar to the court entertaining a different approach.

My criticism isn’t universal and I acknowledge there are experienced and highly capable judges and welfare officers. It’s that very observation which sees me compare what, in case management terms, is the good, the bad and the ugly (one movie we didn’t see this Christmas). Sadly, justice and positive outcomes remain reliant on the quality and experience of the individuals involved, with a lack of process and poor adherence to what process exists exacerbating problems. The appeal system alone is an inadequate means of quality control to identify poor practice and capability.

Rather than intractable contact disputes being complex, these are often cases made complex by poor investigation, inadequate welfare analysis and failures to apply and carry through strategies from an early stage. These are common reasons for failure, and the saddest thing of all is that none of these should come as a surprise. Continue reading Failings in Intractable Contact Cases Continue


Alienation, Strategies and Pessimism


There are strategies which aid in successful resolution of cases involving implacable hostility and children being cognitively manipulated to oppose contact (commonly referred to as parental alienation). While there is case law to support these strategies, they’re not rocket science (but just because they’re common-sense doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes need spelling out): Continue reading Alienation, Strategies and Pessimism


Parental alienation counsellor Karen Woodall sanctioned for malpractice


The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has published findings of professional malpractice in respect of Karen Woodall, a therapist specialising in work with families where parental alienation is a factor. The BACP is the UK’s largest professional body representing 40,000 counsellor/therapist members.

Parts of the complaint (upheld) relate to Ms Woodall providing a written assessment on the family including opinion that the child ‘is suffering from…’ and ‘I make this diagnosis…’ when she had not in fact met the child at that time. Other findings relate to a lack of clarity in respect of fees and the nature of services offered. Continue reading Parental alienation counsellor Karen Woodall sanctioned for malpractice


Useful articles on Parental Alienation – Psychology Today


With parental alienation being once again in the media, the 2013 article by Edward Kruk Ph.D is worth re-reading The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children: Undermining Loving Parent-Child Relationships as Child Maltreatment is worth revisiting.

The second article mentioned in the first, is available via the following link The Impact of Parental Alienation on Parents: Post-traumatic Stress in the Rupture of Parent-child Relationships.

Edward Kruk is Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, specialising in child and family policy, and previously worked as a social worker in both Canada and the United Kingdom.

(Thanks to FamilyBlawg for sharing)