Parental Alienation or Implacable Hostility: The Language of The Family Court
Posted on 9th January 2023
Parental Alienation or Implacable Hostility: The Language of the Family Court
Content warnings - this article discusses paedophilia and other paraphilias. It also mentions child suicide and rape. We believe it is important to be aware of the history behind the terms 'parental alienation' and 'parental alienation syndrome', but if these topics are too much for you, then absolutely skip this one. We will see you again in a few weeks with some other articles around lighter themes.
CAFCASS define parental alienation as, “when a child’s resistance or hostility toward a parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.” There is no commonly accepted or offcial definition of parental alienation however. The family court seems to prefer the term ‘implacable hostility’. This is defined as the attitude shown by one parent to another in denying access to, or contact with, their child or children after separation or divorce. It diers from typical hostility in that the deep-rooted nature of the hostility cannot be justified on rational grounds, and measures taken by third parties, such as mediation, are to no avail. Why is it that the family court does not view these terms interchangeable when they are, at face value, very similar?
The idea of parental alienation being a syndrome was first raised by divorce researchers Wallerstein and Kelly in the late 1970s. They theorised that a child’s rejection of a non-resident parent was pathological, fuelled by marital separation and the opinions of the resident parent being shared with a child without context, for the gain of that resident parent. This construct did not become common in the courts or within the scientific community however. The terms ‘parental alienation’ and ‘parental alienation syndrome’ became more widely known when psychiatrist Richard Gardner began dedicated efforts for the syndrome to be recognised. In his 1985 paper, he defined it as, "...a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against the parent, a campaign that has no justification. The disorder results from the combination of indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent." Gardner ran a clinic where he focused on counselling for divorcing parents, and this clinic is where he gathered his research for his claims of parental alienation being a syndrome.
Gardner’s report turned out to not be credible. This meant that parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation were cast out by the scientific community, branded as “garbage” and “junk science”. Gardner’s paper was based solely on his own interpretations of data gathered in his clinic, and was full of misinterpreted or simply incorrect information. His report contained many sources that were not what he claimed them to be. He cited fifty US cases as setting a precedent for parental alienation syndrome, but after independent review, it was found that none of these cases set such a precedent.
Gardner also held bizarre and controversial opinions about women, children, and how sex plays a role in society, and these beliefs influenced his work. His paper is written from an incredibly misogynistic standpoint, repeatedly citing “vengeful mothers” employing child abuse allegations as a weapon against their ex-husband to ensure they get full custody. Gardner commented that, “the reason women lie about child sexual abuse in custody litigations is because ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, and/or because they are gratified vicariously by imagining their child having sex with the father.” The quote comes from the 1697 tragedy, ‘The Mourning Bride’ by William Congreve, so its use as scientific justification in a research paper calls Gardner’s credibility into question, as well as raising further questions about his views on women. According to a study conducted in Canada in 1998, it was found that only 12% of child abuse or neglect allegations made in the context of child access were intentionally false, and of those allegations, the majority were made by non-residential fathers. This is also the pattern seen here in the UK, albeit based on much more limited research.
Looking deeper into Gardner and his beliefs, it becomes clear that he was not only supportive of paedophilia, but all human sexual paraphilias. He believed that, “all deviant behaviours serve the purposes of species survival by enhancing the general level of sexual excitation in society.” He believed Western society to be “excessively punitive” in its treatment of paedophiles. He believed that society should move to accept, and even encourage, this behaviour, as it would “increase a child’s sexualisation and increase likelihood of his or her genes being transmitted at an early age”. In addition to this, Gardner also said that women make for potentially masochistic rape victims who gain pleasure from being made to suer, due to their physiology and conditioning. He commented that this would be, “the price they are willing to pay for gaining the gratification of receiving the sperm”. Due to a combination of the lack of any real scientific evidence and Gardner’s controversial opinions, parental alienation syndrome has been thrown out by the scientific community, along with parental alienation.
Approaching this from a legal standpoint, there are further reasons that can explain the general reluctance to use the term ‘parental alienation’ in court. It is a highly exploitable phrase, as any evidence that refutes it can be used as further evidence for its existence. It has been previously described as a “defence lawyers dream”. Fears of such counter allegations have also prevented domestic violence survivors from disclosing any violence, meaning they do not seek the help they need.
On 29th April 2021, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 received Royal Assent. Relevant stakeholders and interested parties were invited to review the Act, and provide feedback. This revealed great debate about whether to include parental alienation or not. Some suggest parental alienation falls under domestic abuse, and so does not need its own explanation. Others suggest that the highly contested term only attracts false allegations and detracts from proceedings by encouraging debate with its chequered history. In the end, the term is excluded from the Act because of a lack of understanding. There is no ocial definition, the implications are unknown, and psychologists do not agree on how to handle it. If parental alienation is alleged, what happens next? If it is somehow proven, how do we navigate deprogramming the indoctrinated children? This is an unanswered question, and this was the main reason it was deemed best to exclude parental alienation from the Act.
Richard Gardner believed that ‘threat therapy’ was the best remedy, which involved sending children to jail or juvenile homes until they agreed to comply with the court orders. Children subjected to these procedures often became suicidal, and many killed themselves in response to seeing court orders issued in favour of their abusers. Clearly, this is not the way forward - it does not deprogram the child, it just forces them to pretend to agree because the alternative is far worse. Gardner was very much in favour of gaslighting children into allowing their parents, specifically their fathers, to abuse them, as that was their right. He commented, “a child that tells his mother he has been sexually assaulted by his father should be told ‘I don’t believe you. I’m going to beat you for saying it. Do not talk in this way about your father ever again’.” He was in favour of promoting a pro-paedophilic society, one in which children are not believed about assault. As the results of his ‘threat therapy’ show, it is vital that children are not only believed, but given the support they need to navigate a situation that no child should ever be in.
The reluctance of the family courts to use the term ‘parental alienation’ appears to stem from the controversial nature of the term, and that the use of it distracts from proceedings by inviting debate as to whether it exists at all. Because of this, the term ‘implacable hostility’ is deemed more appropriate. Parental alienation implies intent, a conscious malicious action by the resident parent to begin a campaign of estrangement, and this would invite proceedings of its own. Evidence would need to be presented, witnesses questioned, a decision made, and consequences faced. Implacable hostility suggests an extreme emotional response. There is no ill-will intended necessarily. This allows the issue to be acknowledged, without sidelining the main concerns within the case to make room for debate about the term used.
Parental alienation carries misogynistic connotations that stem from Gardner and his opinions, so it makes sense that the family court would not wish to associate itself with his ideas, even if the fundamental concept can clearly be seen in many cases. The damage that Gardner's research has done to the credibility of parental alienation is extensive. It has created doubt in the minds of judges internationally that the accusation of parental alienation is often unfounded, and that the use of the term "syndrome" casts those accusations further into uncertainty. An accusation of implacable hostility comes with less baggage, even if malicious intent is obvious in the resident parent. At face value, the two terms seem very similar, but ‘parental alienation’ carries with it Gardner’s reputation, and so using ‘implacable hostility’ will often make for a smoother set of proceedings. This does not show, however, that parental alienation does not exist, only that it has been sullied by a man with questionable scientific credibility, and even more questionable opinions. ‘Implacable hostility’ might make things simpler, but does it portray the same idea? It is time to forget about Gardner and his “junk science”. We all know that these parents have been alienated, even if the court would rather not use that term. We cannot continue denying the justice they deserve as we hide behind ‘implacable hostility’. It is time to see them as they are - victims of parental alienation.
Domestic Abuse Act 2021 - https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/domestic-abuse-act-statutory- guidance/outcome/domestic-abuse-act-2021-statutory-guidance-consultation-government-response-accessible
A lot of the research for this article came from "Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: Research Reviews" by Joan S Meier, alongside the National Online Resource Centre on Violence Against Women. Her full paper is well worth a read if you would like to know more about this topic, and it also includes a detailed bank of references if you would like to find even more to read.
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