The language in question is that of Adrienne Barnett in “A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales”, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (Jan 2020). The paper discusses the role of parental alienation within the English and Welsh family courts.
The striking thing about the paper is that Barnett neglects almost entirely the alienated children – until the very last sentence, when she seems to remember what she should have been addressing. The entirety of the paper is presented from a sex war perspective. Claims of parental alienation (PA) are portrayed in this paper as a weapon being deployed by abusive fathers against mothers and their children, and – she claims – credulous courts are falling for it.
Barnett appears to have little interest in PA. Her paper is actually about claims of PA, rather than PA itself, and about the effectiveness of such claims in influencing the outcomes of adversarial contests in the family courts. The reality – that PA is principally a form of child abuse – is notable for its absence. Instead her perspective revolves around claims of PA being a weapon deployed by men against women in a sex war: the child disappears from the picture.
There is much to say here. Let me unpack it in parts. The principle parts are these,
- The status of PA, specifically as a diagnosable form of child abuse;
- The claim that PA is asserted as a counter-attack to allegations of fathers’ abuse;
- The language used in the paper and what it reveals.
Let’s take these in turn.
Firstly, people of Barnett’s persuasion do not believe that PA is real. They regard it as a ruse. Specifically, Barnett’s position is that claims of PA are a cunning stratagem by abusive fathers to deflect attention away from their abuse. She writes in her Conclusion,
“PA is a concept that is proving more powerful than any other in silencing the voices of women and children resisting contact with abusive men. PA is not an ‘equal’ counterpart to domestic abuse, it is a means of obscuring domestic abuse, and should be recognised as such.”
Over and over again throughout the paper this perspective is reiterated. A couple of quotes will suffice,
“It is no coincidence, it is suggested, that PA, in its initial form of parental alienation syndrome (PAS), emerged when the courts recognised domestic violence as a factor militating against contact.”
“The emergence and development of PA in England and Wales shows a clear pattern of (initially PAS) and PA being raised in family proceedings in response to concerns about and measures to address domestic abuse. This, it is suggested, cogently reveals PA’s intended purpose – to shut down domestic abuse in private family law.”
Note how the language betrays that PA itself, i.e., the child abuse, is ignored. The phrase “PA’s intended purpose” makes no sense unless we interpret it as the author clearly does in her own mind as “the intended purpose of claims of PA”. It is not the child abuse which interests her – and this is why reading the paper is so disturbing. She is only interested in the effect of claims of PA, interpreted as a tactic to manipulate judicial rulings and score a hit in a sex war between parents.
This is the language of division. It is the opposite of what we should learn from the reality of PA – that parental conflict should be overcome for the sake of the child. But Barnett does not want conciliation. She wants mothers to “win” and is willing to subordinate the best interests of the child to do so.
The same author, Adrienne Barnett, has an article in the current (June 2020) edition of Magistrate, titled “Parental alienation and the family courts”. In it she states simply, “There is little, if any, credible scientific support for the theory of PA”.
I will not attempt a thorough critique of parental alienation here, as that would require a book-length digression. However, let these remarks suffice….
By 2016, parental alienation and alienating behaviours in separated or divorced families had been well documented in over 500 references drawn from the professional literature across 30 countries (Harman et al, 2016).
By 2018 there were more than one thousand research and clinical studies reported in scientific and professional journals, books, and book chapters, (Kruk, 2018). That reference summarises the position as, “Research evidence of the many facets of parental alienation is much more robust than is often assumed”.
According to chartered psychologist and PA expert Dr Sue Whitcombe (2017), the prevalence of alienation within the general community of separating parents has been estimated from random sampling to be up to about 15%, but in samples of the most intractable cases the prevalence can be up to 40%. She quotes Sarah Parsons, Principal Social Worker and Assistant Director of CAFCASS, as stating in July 2016 that “parental alienation is responsible for around 80% of the most intransigent cases that come before the family courts”. Whitcombe has estimated that this implies that parental alienation is likely to be a feature in a minimum of 9,000 family proceedings applications per annum in England and Wales, involving more than 18,000 children.
Lorandos, 2020 has performed a search for PA cases in US courts between 1985 and 2018. His search terms are defined in detail in the paper. Searching on the basis of relevant text alone produced 3555 case reports. This will be only a small fraction of cases in which PA was mentioned as most trials will not be reported. Lorandos and his coworkers then filtered those 3555 cases by requiring either, (a) that an independent expert testified on the subject of PA, or, (b) the court found on any basis that there was PA. These criteria were rigorous, e.g., in (a) a recognised PA expert was required, not a general therapist, mediator, etc. As regards (b), mere speculation by the court on the subject of PA was not sufficient. 1,181 cases made it through this filter. The incidence of PA cases within this dataset, and hence recognised by the US courts, was found to have increased steeply in the last three decades. 25% of the alienators were fathers, 75% mothers. On the basis of this extensive dataset, Lorandos concluded,
“In the thirty-four years since the term PAS was first introduced and then later reformulated, trial and appellate courts across the United States have found the construct PA to be material, probative, relevant to their tasks, admissible, and worthy of discussion, as they have grappled with emotionally abusive parents and damaged children. Review of the thousands of opinions located by the query reveals that courts understand that there is a distinction between ‘when one parent says negative and disparaging things about the other parent to the child’ and when an aggressor parent ‘engages in behavior designed to sabotage the child’s relationship with the victim parent.’ Hundreds of opinions illustrating courts confronting ‘unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent’ were located.”
Barnett’s dismissal of PA on the grounds that “there is little, if any, credible scientific support for the theory of PA” is clearly untrue. Whilst PA does have its detractors, that is not the same as denying the existence of the credible body of academic work alluded to above. Moreover, it is not just academic support, but a vast tranche of judicial opinion over decades. The disturbing thing about Barnett’s claim is that it was made in the house journal of the Magistrates’ Association, suggesting an attempt to seriously misdirect an influential body.
Let us turn now to the claim that PA arises as a counter tactic by fathers when they are accused of abuse in the courts. Barnett draws upon 40 cases of PA in courts in England or Wales in the period 2000 to March 2019, nearly 20 years. Hence just 2 cases per year on average. It is not clear if these were all the cases that could be found, or if they were selected. She writes,
“A total of 40 cases (comprised in 54 judgments) were reviewed in which PA/PAS was raised or referred to. These were identified in Family Law Reports and on BAILII, and a few unreported judgments were identified in Casemine.”
“The reported cases cannot provide a representative sample of all such cases.”
Of these 40 cases involving PA, in 35 cases the father claimed to have been alienated, and in 5 cases the mother claimed to have been alienated. Abuse was alleged in 27 cases (and I assume this means alleged abuse by the father in all cases, though that is not made clear). The allegations of abuse were often not examined or subject to fact finding. However, in 27 out of 35 cases a father who was alleged to be an abuser claimed there was alienation (77%). This appears to be a strong association, albeit from a tiny dataset with uncertain provenance.
However, an association tells us nothing regarding whether the allegations of abuse were causal in bringing about an assertion of alienation. One might alternatively argue that, where PA is genuinely present, a false allegation of abuse is likely. Consequently, Barnett’s conclusion that…
“The emergence and development of PA in England and Wales shows a clear pattern of (initially PAS) and PA being raised in family proceedings in response to concerns about and measures to address domestic abuse. This, it is suggested, cogently reveals PA’s intended purpose – to shut down domestic abuse in private family law (see Meier 2020).”
…is not demonstrated by the evidence presented.
However, she advises that we look at Meier 2020. Let’s do so then. Joan Meier, in the paper I deconstructed previously, identified 669 cases in the USA in which one parent made an alienation claim against the other, but of these, only 222 involved mothers accusing fathers of abuse and fathers accusing mothers of alienation. So, from that sample, two-thirds of alienation claims could not have arisen as “tactical counters” by fathers in response to them being accused of abuse. Consequently Barnett’s thesis, that allegations by fathers of alienation are prompted by accusations of abuse by them, gets little support from this source. This is particularly noteworthy as the skewed nature of the sample of cases identified by Meier would tend to enhance both factors.
Nor does Barnett’s thesis have anything to say about the 25% of allegations of alienation made by mothers in Lorandos’s far more extensive dataset.
Turning now to the language used in the paper, and what it reveals. Let us unpack the following sentence,
“PA is underpinned by, and premised on, a particular dominant construction of children’s welfare, that constitutes the involvement of fathers in post-separation families as overwhelmingly important for children’s emotional, psychological and developmental welfare.”
This is not the language of true empirical enquiry, but the language of sly insinuation. Note the corrosive role of the word “construction” in that sentence. Here I enter dangerous waters for a layperson as I am aware that “construction” is a technical term within academic psychology. But the word can also be used as an instrument to convey the post-modern, post-structuralist perspective that there is no objective truth, only “narratives” – or “constructions” – vying for dominance. Under the boot heel of this intellectual corruption any distinction between truth and power vanishes.
The language betrays the author’s view that the idea that fathers are important in child development is one such “constructed narrative”. It is a sly means of implying that one is free to reject this “mere construction”. But fathers’ importance to child development is not a “mere construction”; it is a well-documented empirical reality. And this is at the heart of the dispute in which we are engaged. The main goal of the feminist movement has, from its inception, been to make women independent of men, and this includes making the family independent of men. The feminist credo is precisely “families don’t need fathers”. It is the most staggering arrogance, as well as being false.
You see this defining belief reflected in the same quote. Barnett opines that “PA is underpinned by, and premised on” the claim that fathers are significant in their children’s development. She is telling us that PA is an invalid concept because it is predicated upon the significance of fathers to their children’s development – which she also regards as an invalid concept.
That is the nub of the issue.
Barnett introduces the acronym “FRM” (fathers’ rights movement) which is new to me. One can sense her lip curling into a sneer. Between the lines we read that fathers deserve no rights, the very thought is obnoxious.
But it isn’t about father’s rights. The assertion explicit in the appellation “Families Need Fathers” is entirely different, but one which the prejudiced movement represented by Barnett equally oppose: that families have any need for fathers.
The feminist position which has gained dominance in academe and in politics is that fathers are not necessary. The dark psychology from which this springs has a name as simple as it is ugly: prejudice.
There is a huge literature on the role of parents in their children’s psychological development, and this includes literature specific to the significance of fathers. Nor are the roles of mother and father identical and mere “strength in depth”, but distinct in some aspects. I shall not rehearse the case again here. The deleterious effects of fatherlessness have become increasingly well documented since Dennis and Erdos’s 1992 classic polemic “Families Without Fatherhood”. Both authors professed to be socialists of some complexion, so dismissing their work as the rantings of antediluvian conservatives doesn’t wash. But what we have now is not the outmoded conflict of left and right. What is going on now is the perennial power play of division.
There are rich pickings in this short work of Barnett’s when it comes to language. I’ll just list a few and leave the reader to deconstruct them at leisure,
- “political fathers” (nothing political about Barnett herself, of course)
- “discursive” as in referring to PA as “part of the discursive repertoire of current family law”
- “unimpeachable” as in “the myth of the unimpeachable father on which PA is premised”
- And one of my favourites, “abuse perpetrated by ‘normal’ fathers” – oh, so sly.
That the axis which insisted “the personal is political”, the original axe blow which aimed to divide the sexes, should now be a bit stuffy at fathers being “political” is rather rich. The sex war has been inflamed by this axis for fifty years, with ever increasing intensity. Division has worked well for them.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is currently at the Committee stage in the House of Commons. The Public Bill Committee decides which amendments to put forward in the DA Bill’s 3rd reading. We currently have two women MPs who sit on the Committee also actively campaigning in Parliament to raise support for an amendment to the Bill to include “misogyny” as a criminal offence. For anyone so out of touch that they think “misogyny” means hatred of women, where have you been? It means heresy; it means dissent. They are moving to criminalise dissent. To discover who rules over you, ask who you are not allowed to criticise.
This belligerent axis of divisiveness, based on prejudice, has nothing to fear from fathers, however “political” they may be.
The dominance of one voice over the “discourse” is indisputable, despite the endless protestations from this voice that they are silenced. For the proof, consider our Parliament. It consists almost entirely of prejudiced bullies and moral cowards too frightened to stop them. It is into that arena that the works of Barnett and her ilk are projected, an arena which will lap up the confected narrative because embracing the alternative, the truth, would mean having to be brave.
However hopeless is the prospect at present, I’m sure of one thing.
The antidote to division is not more division.
The antidote to division is unity.