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Entries in high conflict disputes (4)


High conflict separations shouldn't prevent shared parenting

Dr Edward KrukAn article by Dr Edward Kruk in Psychology Today puts the arguments for shared parenting in high-conflict separations, giving a useful roundup of the results from recent research studies.

He refers to various recent studies that contradict a presumption that the amount of parenting time should be limited in cases of high conflict. High conflict should not be used to justify restrictions on children’s contact with either of their parents.

He goes on to point out that: " research has demonstrated that sole custody is associated with exacerbation or creation of conflict, as fully half of first-time violence occurs after separation, within the context of the adversarial “winner-take-all” sole custody system."

Dr Kruk suggests that the main therapeutic task in high conflict families is to help divorcing parents separate their previous marital hostilities from their ongoing parenting responsibilities. Parents who remain challenged in this regard also have the option of parallel co-parenting. Over time, as the dust settles, parallel parenting may become replaced by a more cooperative co-parenting arrangement.

FNF Scotland sometimes hears of sheriffs who reject proposals for shared parenting in cases where there is still significant amount of conflict between parents.  While we don't deny that such conflict is not good for the children involved, or indeed their parents, we suggest that the eventual benefits of shared parenting should be taken very seriously.


Putting the case about alienation to court

Linda GottliebAmicus briefs are submissions to court from an expert on a general point, rather than about specific circumstances in a case. They are normally used in connection with appeals at the highest level, sometimes to the Supreme Court or to the Inner House of the Court of Session in Scotland.

An expert family therapy practitioner in America, Linda Gottlieb, has prepared an amicus brief about children in high-conflict divorce cases, which can be seen on her web site. In presenting information about the alienation in such cases, she makes five points about how children's own wishes and opinions should be considered:

"In evaluating the consideration that should be granted to a child’s wishes and opinions in determining the nature of the relationship to have the non-custodial parent, I wish to stress that doing so does not serve the child's best interests." 

"Firstly, in cases that reach the point of an adversarial court proceeding, it is impossible to separate the child's wishes from the influence of the residential parent. In a high conflict parental relationship, we can expect that the child will merely mimic the thoughts, feelings, and wishes of the custodial parent..."

"Secondly, it is exceedingly unusual for a child to feel enmity for and reject a parent..."

"Thirdly, all the recent research indicates that children who have a parent either absent from lives or only marginally involved develop very poor outcomes..."

"Fourthly, we need to consider how unhealthy it is for a child to linger with unresolved anger for a parent..."

"Fifthly, at some point in the child's life he will recognize that he has rejected a parent when he rebuffed that parent’s efforts to reenter his life..."

It may not be possible to deploy these arguments wholesale in the initial hearing of a case, but it is worthwhile knowing what an experienced practitioner is prepared to put before a court.  See her web site or her book for further details.


Parental alienation: why have the courts been so slow?

Professor Nicholas Bala from Queen's University Canada contributed an overview of parental alienation and the courts to a recent seminar in London. 

In it he examined why the courts in England have been less likely to identify parental alienation than courts in Canada and Australia.

His presentation covers the background to the topic and includes comment on the gender politics - pointing out that advocacy groups for both mothers and fathers use “welfare rhetoric” to deny and seek contact.

He poses the question: "Child support is state enforced, why not contact?"

By searching published case reports in England/Wales, Canada and Australia for mention of alienation he shows an upward trend in cases over time, although fewer reported cases in England and Wales.  In his study, 81% of alienating parents are female and 19% male.

The presentation goes on to discuss judicial presumption of contact, the use of experts in such cases, conflict reduction and parental education,  In his study of alienation cases, the residence of the child was reversed to the rejected parent in 26% of cases and modified to shared in 4% in English cases. 

He concludes that we need:

  • a “change in culture” – greater recognition by society, professionals and courts of harm to children from high conflict, value of less adversarial dispute resolution, but also importance of role of both parents in lives of their children
  • a legislative declaration about presumptive value of relationships with both parents after separation (provided not adverse to child’s safety). Legislation needed to educate parents, lawyers, mental health professionals & judges
  • effective judicial control & timely intervention
    - in high conflict cases, early effective judicial intervention is critical
    - in the most severe and intractable,  courts need to make earlier use of contempt and change in residence

Can alienated children's wishes be trusted?

Child psychiatrist Dr Kirk Weir talked about his work in high conflict contact disputes on 27th September in Edinburgh to two audiences  - family mediators and family lawyers.

Drawing upon his experience as an expert witness in the English Family Courts, he described how such cases can be resolved, but only if the expressed wishes of the alienated child are ignored and contact is vigorously enforced using the authority of the court.

In such cases, otherwise normal children will insist that they no longer wish to see one of their parents after separation, usually the father.  This is sometimes accompanied by allegations of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.  The vast majority of such children are well adjusted, and doing well both socially and at school.

Within the context of their relationship with one of their parents they express feelings, statements and behaviour which are extreme and out of character - parental alienation.

Dr Weir described a study of his work in 60 court cases.  His involvement came after a Finding of Fact had dismissed any allegations of child abuse or domestic violence.  In preparing his report to court, he interviewed both parents separately, and then met children on their own and with each parent.

In the sessions with the alienated parent and children together, apparently stout resistance dissolved into normal loving contact, sometimes within minutes, sometimes after a hour or so.  

This enforced contact was successful in all cases involving children under 5, in 80% of cases with children aged 5-7, and in 40% of older children. 

His conclusion: alienation is a powerful but unstable defence mechanism, found in children who are torn between loyalty to the main carer and feelings for the other parent in high conflict contact cases. 

Dr Weir's talks were arranged by Relationships Scotland in assocation with Families Need Fathers Scotland.  The results of his study will be published in Family Court Review shortly. (High Conflict Contact Disputes: The Extreme Unreliability of Children's Expressed Wishes and Feelings.)

Here are some notes handed out on the day