Time and time again, rejected/alienated parents come to see me after an adverse or at best an ambivalent family assessment conducted by family consultants (custody evaluators). These parents are frustrated hurt and angry and indeed frightened for their children because it seems to them that family consultants make inadequate (or no) recommendations and ignore or discount the evidence of alienation and of adverse influence upon the children.
In fact, many of my clients state very clearly that some family consultants accept as fact whatever the children (especially adolescents and teenagers) tell them and that the merest hint, or unsubstantiated claims of conflict and family violence in particular is enough to consider the child’s loving relationship with a rejected parent to be an appropriate sacrifice.
Clinical and forensic psychologists are one of the professional groups who conduct family assessments in Australian family law jurisdictions. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) provides practice guidelines for clinical and forensic psychologists in their engagements as court-ordered family consultants.
It is suggested here that the APS guidelines available to family consultants about parental alienation (PA) and its impact upon children and parents relative to family violence and parental conflict are outdated and inadequate. In some cases these inadequacies may mislead and misdirect family consultants to ignore or misattribute the signs of alienation and therefore fail to make appropriate recommendations.
The resulting failings of family assessments in relation to parental alienation are identified here. Parents engaged in family law proceedings and ordered to attend upon a family consultant may now be in a position to raise questions about the level of knowledge and capacity to consider PA before seeking the appointment of a family consultant or prior to the family court ordering a family assessment.
The Family Assessment can Make or Break Most Cases
In Australian family law, as in other similar jurisdiction, much depends upon the assessment undertaken by a family consultant (custody evaluator) as ordered by the family court.
The family assessment can make or break most cases. Often the only way to respond to an adverse assessment, or an assessment that does not adequately consider PA, as a plausible hypothesis is to mount a contested case and cross–examine the family consultant. That is a difficult and expensive option indeed.
8 Ways a Family Assessment Can Go Wrong
It seems that many assessments conducted by court appointed family consultants fail to adequately consider PA as an option and even when they do assessment of PA may be rudimentary at best. We surmise this because feedback from rejected parents suggest that family assessments seem to make the following mistakes in relation to parental alienation:
- Over-privileging children’s testimony when an appreciation of PA would enable family consultants to refer to peer-reviewed evidence that children’s testimony cannot be given credence in the presence of alienation processes,
- Failure to recognise alienation processes and alienation markers demonstrated by children. This means that family consultants do not always recognise alienation and its processes, for example contact interference or exposure to adult concepts, yet alone that they are abusive,
- Discounting and not properly attributing acts and omissions by favoured/alienating parents as alienating (and child abusive). Evidence of coaching and contact interference for example is often ignored or its effects under-emphasised,
- Implicating rejected/alienated parents as instrumental in their own rejection. This means that a rejected/alienated parent is often construed as at least being part of the conflict even when they are taking actions that are protective of their children and that the impact of rejected parents parenting is over-emphasised,
- Failing to distinguish between types of parental rejection; alignment, estrangement and alienation. In particular this means that family consultants are at risk of confusing alienation with estrangement, when estrangement is a legitimate response to parental abuse and/or violence and alienation is parental rejection without a legitimate reason caused by the other parent,
- Relying upon an overly simplistic interpretation of attachment theory, suggesting that only one primary attachment is important or relevant to a (particularly young) child and therefore that other attachments are of lesser significance and may be sacrificed,
- Discounting the adverse effects upon the child of a forced rejection of a loved parent relative to the effects of family violence and parental conflict; the latter considerations are privileged over the former. This ignores evidence that adult alienated children are at risk of significant adverse outcomes similar to children exposed to family violence and abuse, and
- Confusing and conflating family violence and parental conflict with parental alienation. No distinctions are made between ‘conflict’ and ‘high conflict’. No consideration is given to the possibility that a favoured/alienating parent may foment conflict with a view to isolating and alienating the child and implicating the rejected/alienated parent.
What makes this so when PA is more than 30 years old, hundreds of articles and books have been published and the concept of PA has been given legal and psychological validity in a number of international jurisdictions?
Little or No Discussion about Parental Alienation in APS Guidelines
According to the statements of general policy in the Parenting after Separation, a Position Statement prepared for the Australian Psychological Society’, the:
“APS supports care arrangements that minimize exposure of children to risk factors (especially high conflict), and which do not undermine attachment formation and security”.
This seems to suggest that family consultants would be required to take an adverse view of any presentation in which a child’s relationship with a loved parent is undermined or adversely affected and therefore make appropriate recommendations to keep a child in contact with both parents.
Yet without a clear understanding and appreciation of parental alienation, what would lead a family consultant to recommend the counter-intuitive approach of placing a child in contact with the parent whom they have rejected?
However, in contrast the Parenting after separation a Literature Review prepared for the Australian Psychological Society says:
“Parental alienation is defined as a child’s unreasonable rejection of one parent due to the influence of the other parent and the child’s own contributions. Early intervention (and usually this requires specialist intervention) in alienation and estrangement is advocated”.
There it is. The APS recognises parental alienation in its professional guidelines. However, there is no further discussion in the APS guidelines as to what exactly a family consultant should consider as “specialist intervention”.
In fact this literature review makes only one reference to parental alienation, Kelly and Johnson’s response to parental alienation in 2001. This is not wrong just manifestly inadequate given the number of international publications and research, especially in assessment and intervention, already underway in 2009.
This leaves family consultants without adequate support to properly consider PA. The strongest and most defined guidelines are those organised around family violence and conflict whilst the weakest and least defined are those concerning parental alienation.
APS Guidelines Confuse Conflict and Alienation
The APS view in ‘Parenting after Separation, a Position Statement prepared for the Australian Psychological Society’ in the statements of general policy as expressed below,
“The APS advocates that shared care is contra-indicated in climates of high, on-going, poorly managed conflict and poor parenting, particularly for children under 10”.
This guideline does not recognise that one of the parental alienation processes is conflict fostered by the alienating parent in which the rejected/alienated parent is then implicated in perpetuating the conflict against the interest of the children when they are in fact taking protective action. Nor does it explain what is ‘high conflict’ and how it is different from ‘conflict’.
This is the guideline that might prevent a family consultant from recommending shared care in an attempt to maintain a child’s relationship with both parents, or might lead to a recommendation to ‘sacrifice’ one parental relationship for the sake of mediating ‘high conflict’ that is undefined.
By following this guideline, family consultants risk incorrectly assessing that parental rejection is caused by parental conflict in which the rejected/alienated parent is involved rather than by the favoured/alienating parent perpetuating conflict to secure the children’s enmeshed relationship with them.
Misattributing ‘Best Interest ‘ to the Alienating Parent
From section 3.8 from the Ethical Guidelines for Working with Young Persons :
“When psychologists are aware that the parents are separated and there are no court orders in relation to the young person, they may assume that the client-parent [the parent who presents with the child] has the legal authority necessary to engage psychological services on behalf of the young person”
Although family consultants do actually consult with all members of a family, this guideline might suggest to a family consultant they are not required to obtain information from both parents or that they may favour information from the parent presenting the child, over information provided by the other parent. It would be easy for a family consultant to construe they are serving the child’s best interests as they are required to do by privileging information in this manner.
Family consultants may be at risk of confusing exactly which parent is alienating and in particular assuming that the parent presenting with the child is in fact the “better parent” and who has the child’s ‘best interest’ at heart for the purposes of assessment.
It’s Time to Update Outdated APS Guidelines.
Because of the lack of adequate definition of parental alienation in the APS guidelines on which they rely, family consultants risk either inadvertently ignoring the effects of parental alienation or worst accentuating them. In particular, family consultants are at risk of implicitly validating the alienation and the status quo established by the favoured/alienating parent.
The APS guidelines as they are now reflect how PA is still not fully understood by the psycho-legal fraternity in Australia, despite extensive international research and why clinical and forensic psychologists are often unable to consider PA as plausible hypotheses for parental rejection.
It is time to update these definitions and provide more concrete guidelines about parental alienation at a similar quality level to the guidelines already available.
Guidelines as specific about parental alienation as they are about family violence and conflict will enable family consultants to consider parental alienation, together with family violence and conflict as part of a differential assessment.
APS Board of Directors, 2009. Ethical Guidelines for Working with Young Persons will. Australian Psychological Society (APS).
Burke, S., McIntosh, J., Gridley, H. 2009. Parenting after separation a Literature Review prepared for the Australian Psychological Society. Australian Psychological Society (APS).
Kelly, J. B., & Johnston, J. R. (2001). The Alienated Child: a Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Family Court Review, 39(3), 249-266.
McIntosh, J., Burke, S., Dour, N, Gridley, H., 2009. Parenting after Separation, a Position Statement prepared for the Australian Psychological Society’. Australian Psychological Society (APS).