A few years ago, whilst I was still a Barrister, I represented a mother in a residence dispute which went on for nine years. The children were 5, 3 and 1 when it started and 14, 12 and 10 when it finished.
The parents had separated, and the mother had left the family home and taken the children with her to her relatives.
At the first Court hearing she won her interim residence of the girls. She said they were ‘terrified’ of their father. The court was understandably cautious.
Over the years there were many professional reports. Each said that the boys showed no fear of him and when observed, were warm towards him. They said that the mother was manipulative. However, her argument that the boys were terrified seemed to sway the court each time and one order after another was made allowing her to keep them, which meant that they would never see their father.
At each court appearance, the father, a highly educated respectable pillar of the community became more and more desperate in equal measure to his alienation from his children.
The mother stated she had no part to play in the girls hostility to their father and would pay lip service to facilitating contact whenever the girls were ready. Of course they never were ready. All the girls needed to say was that they did not want to go to contact and she would say fine. Unlike school refusal, or reticence about the dentist, when she would insist and play a parental role, she felt unable to encourage them to see their father. ‘It is up to them’ she would say, allowing her 7 and 5 and 3 year old to not see him for months at a time.
Over the years, two child and adolescent Psychiatrists interviewed the children as did two Cafcass officers, two family therapists, a child psychologist and finally a Guardian appointed through NYAS. All stated that they felt the situation was highly unusual and their primary suspicion was that the mother was over involved with the children who were colluding with her belief that the father was not a suitable parent for them.
It was strange that until the separation, the mother had been quite happy to leave the children with their father on his own many times. She had been quite happy for him to take them out on his own and go away for weekends with him. Overnight, he became a ‘monster’ and someone highly unsuitable for the children, in her eyes.
When in a final desperate bid for contact, the Judge ordered 3 periods of supervised contact. The boys refused, even though people they knew and trusted would be there with them.
NYAS sought a Care Order saying that the children would be better off removed from the mother so that they could feel free to have a relationship with their father. The Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist stated that the girls adult relationships would be severely impaired by their alienation from their father which had been borne out of a collusion with their mother’s paranoia. The Guardian agreed.
Eventually, the Judge found that the court process that the girls had been exposed to was abusive in itself and that to remove them from their home where apart from the proceedings, they were happy and settled and doing well educationally was so far removed from their interests that the proceedings needed to finish. In short, although of course he had not ruled out contact for the father, the effect was that these girls would now continue to be brought up with their mother with no prospect of any relationship with their father and all that would mean for them and their future.
I do not think that justice was done and the people who suffered most in those proceedings were the children who were allowed by the legal system to maintain their position. I think often of that father who has been deprived of his children with no evidence of any abuse whatsoever, and of his children who have been deprived of him.
Now as a therapist, I see many people who have suffered as a result of not being able to have an equal relationship with their children or a relationship at all. That overnight, somehow with separation, a ‘good enough’ parent is not good enough at all. If people were able to keep in mind their childrens needs when they were denigrating the other parent to the children, then they would enable them to grow up as healthy adults with an ability to form good relationships themselves. For parents left out of family life and unable to see their children growing up, it is unbelievably painful. A system which didn’t allow this to happen would be in everyone’s best interests.
Some of the facts in this article have been changed in order to preserve confidentiality and anonymity.
Charlotte Friedman – Divorce support Group