Tension is high in the waiting area outside the top floor courtrooms of the Inner London Family Proceedings Court in Wells Street, central London. In one corner, an agitated young mother sits pressing crumpled tissues to her face, mumbling, “I just want my kids back”, as solicitors huddle close by talking among themselves about the need for her to attend parenting classes.
In the opposite corner, an older mother sits staring straight ahead, her handbag perched primly on her lap, studiously avoiding eye contact with her former partner, who has sidled over to sit by my side. Like all family courts, Wells Street, the largest in the country, has only been open to media scrutiny since April after a campaign arguing that the close secrecy in which they traditionally operated led to widespread miscarriages of justice. “Blokes are being crucified in here,” the man blurts out to me, his face red with pent-up fury. This is not quite true.
Over the course of the next few hours, a formidable female judge patiently listens to his pleas to be allowed to see his baby son fortnightly, despite objections by the baby’s mother that this should not be granted until full background checks on him are completed. She claims that he was once excluded from a leisure centre for inappropriate attention to children. Her objections are overruled. Supervised contact is granted.
After years of high-profile stunts by pressure groups such as Fathers4Justice, many people assume that men still systematically fare badly in family courts. But in the wake of a recent spate of stories highlighting the treatment of mothers considered “too stupid” or disruptive or too busy working to look after, or even be allowed contact with, their children, some question if the pendulum has begun to swing the other way.
I hear the stories of mothers whose experiences have convinced them of it. Isabel is a former teacher, aged 40, now living in the northeast of England. Her voice trembles as she tells of a lengthy legal battle with her wealthy ex-husband for custody of her son. “He left me when I was pregnant and showed little interest in our son at first. But as soon as he got a new girlfriend with children of her own, he wanted to impress her by playing the family man, and applied for contact and eventually full custody,” she says. Her ex-husband, a prominent businessman, Isabel says, is a bully who intimidated social workers into writing negative reports about her mothering abilities. She tried to challenge them in court, only to be told, she says, by the judge who granted her son’s father increased contact: “Any more from you and you will never see your son again.”
“It was all about control as far as my ex was concerned,” she says, “and because he had a cousin in the legal profession, he knew how to play the system. I began to be treated like some sort of criminal and entered a living hell.”
When Isabel’s son was three, he started to complain, grabbing his genitals, that his father was “hurting me there lots and lots”. But when Isabel told the court that she believed her son was being sexually abused by his father, she was accused by psychologists employed by her ex-husband of suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a controversial term used to imply that she had planted false allegations in her son’s mind.
The term PAS, sometimes referred to as “implacable hostility”, was coined by an American psychiatrist, the late Dr Richard Gardener, in 1985, to describe the process by which one parent brainwashes a child against the other by obsessive denigration. It has been cited in high-profile custody battles such as that of the actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, but it has never been recognised as a clinically diagnosed condition.
In this country PAS has been dubbed by some mothers “the new Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy” — the now widely questioned suggestion that parents expressing concern for a child’s health may be fabricating or inducing illness. There are no statistics cataloguing the extent of its use in the British courts, but it appears to be gaining an increasing foothold here. Time and again in my conversations with mothers who have lost custody of their children, or are struggling to maintain contact with them, it emerges that they have been accused of suffering from PAS.
It was on the strength of such accusations against her that Isabel finally lost custody of her son. She is allowed to see him only once every three weeks during visits that involve her making a round trip of more than 300 miles. Devastated that her son is being raised by her ex-husband’s new wife, who she believes neglects her child, she is “seething with anger and feelings of impotence” at the injustice. “I am heartbroken that my happy intelligent little boy has been so let down by the system,” says Isabel, who describes the family courts as “a one-size-fits-all setup” that leaves too many parents and children traumatised.
Isabel describes her son now as “just a shadow of himself” when she manages to see him. “He appears at the door and I hardly recognise him, he is so withdrawn. But I daren’t say anything more to the courts about this because I am sure then they will stop me from seeing him altogether.”
Laura, a 44-year-old businesswoman, has not seen her two sons for more than a year, after her ex-husband was granted full custody (now known as “residency”) when she too was accused of trying to turn them against their father. “My sons were rejecting their father partly because they felt so guilty about leaving me when they went to see him. But the so-called experts who assessed them had such little understanding of child psychology and development, they were on a par with dentists trying to perform brain surgery.”
www.Pa-Pa.org – Parental Alienation awareness, prevention and support.
www.FNF.org.uk – Keeping children & parents in contact since 1974.
www.ManKind.org.uk – Supporting victims of domestic violence and abuse.
www.woodcraft.org.uk/aboutus/who.php – A unique progressive educational movement for children and young people – both girls and boys.
“It is a rare breed of human who can blend a free spirit, a decisive nature, a deep respect for life, love for adventure, and an uncompromising sense of integrity into human happiness and being. Such individuals hear the heartbeat of wholeness.”
“Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” Convention on the Rights of the Child
A child who is separated from one or both parents is entitled to “maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests” (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 9)