CCChat-Magazine_Issue-17

mingrob

October 2020

The FREE magazine on &

around coercive control



Contents

Editor's Notes

5 It's Domestic Violence Awareness

Month and the focus is on family courts.

The CCChat Interview

6 Dr Adrienne Barnett talks about her

research.

Parental Alienation.

23 Does it really exist in family court?

Experts discuss on a recent webinar.

Lived Experience

40 A survivor talks about her experience in

the Hong Kong family courts.

Making The Invisible Visible



Editor's Notes

About The Editor

Min Grob started

Conference on Coercive

Control in June 2015,

following the end of a

relationship that was both

coercive and controlling.

Since then, there have been

several national

conferences as well as

smaller events.

Min’s interest lies in

recognising coercive control

in its initial stages, in

identifying the ‘red flags’ of

a potentially abusive

relationship before a person

becomes too invested in the

relationship, as that is when

it will be much more difficult

to leave, as well as the

challenges faced when

living with and recovering

from trauma.

Min has talked on

identifying covert abuse

and, with the use of

examples from social

media, she identifies a

number of covert tactics that

are commonly used to

manipulate. These tactics

will often be invisible in plain

sight- as the abuser seeks

to remain undetected.

Min is also a public speaker,

and speaks on both her

personal experience of

coercive control, family

courts and the livedexperience

of trauma - as

well as more generally of

abuse that is hidden in plain

sight.

Let's Grow The

Conversation!

To contact Min:

contact@

coercivecontrol.co.uk

It's Domestic Violence

Awareness Month

It's that time of year again. Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is also

the month of my birth and the month I nearly died, so it's fair to say that I

have been spending some time looking back and recalling the journey that

has led to this point.

It's also been an intense month because of my current focus on how

victims of abuse are viewed in the family courts and also the influence of

'Parental Alienation'. I could so easily have made this issue of CCChat so

much bigger but didn't want all the contents to overwhelm so, instead, have

concentrated on a fascinating interview with Dr Adrienne Barnett. I could

have talked to Dr Barnett all day, what she said was really eye-opening and

I hope to be able to have many more conversations with her.

I have also included a link to a recent webinar which I found equally

illuminating. For a better understanding of what is happening in the family

courts, I can not recommend Rachel Meyrick's documentary ' What Doesn't

Kill Me' and the Engendered podcast's episode with Professor Joan Meier

highly enough. It's about time the plight of victims who have been

misunderstood or disbelieved is brought to the forefront and understood

because, until that happens and something is done about it, children will

continue to bear the brunt of a system that is less than adequate.

But make no mistake, it's heavy going and what I've learnt is to take time

out to process and recharge so that the fire within me to seek meaningful

change, is not extinguished. So I'm spending lots of time out in nature and

Autumn is a lovely time of year for that.

Take care and see you soon,

Min x

Making The Invisible Visible


The CCChat

Interview

Dr Adrienne Barnett

Making The Invisible Visible


The CCChat Interview

Dr Adrienne Barnett

Dr Adrienne Barnett is

a Senior Lecturer in

Law at Brunel

University London

and Director of

Undergraduate

Programmes for

Brunel Law School.

Prior to this, Adrienne

practised as a

barrister in London

for over 30 years,

specialising in Family

Law. Her specialist

area of research is

domestic abuse in

private family law

cases on which she has

published widely over

the past 20 years.

More recently

Adrienne has been

researching parental

alienation in England

and Wales and was

commissioned to

prepare the literature

review for the

Ministry of Justice’s

2019 inquiry into risks

of harm in family

court proceedings,

published in June

2020.

She has undertaken

training for the

judiciary and

professionals on child

arrangements and

domestic abuse.

I

was very pleased to be able to interview Dr

Adrienne Barnett about her research. As a

former practicing family law barrister, Dr

Barnett brings with her a wealth of

understanding not only of what victims of

abuse face but also of how the court system

responds to allegations of domestic abuse.

MG: What made you leave practicing law and go into

academia?

AB: When I started my LLM in Child Law and Policy in

1995, I was still in practice at the Bar. I maintained links

with Brunel and did some part time teaching for a couple of

years, which I really enjoyed and then in 2008 I started my

PhD at Brunel.

My research question was how courts and professionals

respond to domestic violence in private law children cases.

I found that I was increasingly more interested in my

research than in practice. In 2013 the massive legal aid cuts

came in and I found that I was working three times as hard

for half the income, and that problems with the legal aid

agency meant that my fees weren't being paid.

Towards the end of 2013, when I was close to finishing my

PhD I left practice at the Bar. Starting salaries for new

academics aren't huge, but it's a regular income and more

importantly, it meant doing the roles I really love - teaching

and research.

Starting a new career at the age of 56 is daunting but also a

new lease of life! I did enjoy practice at the Bar but it's

really exhausting and after over 30 years I think I did my

time. I'm primarily motivated by trying to help those in

challenging and disadvantaged circumstances, such as

parents in care proceedings or victims of domestic abuse.

I would like to think that I made a difference to the lives of

individual people when in practice at the Bar, but in

research one can try to make a difference more broadly.

Making The Invisible Visible


MG: I find it really difficult not to be

affected by what I read, as so much of it is

really distressing. How did you find it?

AB: I found a similar thing. I was

reviewing over 80 studies and with some

of it, I had tears. I had stopped reading at

some point, stopped writing because it’s

so much. Some of the accounts that you

read in the reports are so harrowing,

really really difficult.

MG: Coming from a place where I have

lived experience, I’ve had to be very

mindful of how what I read affects me.

I’ve had to learn to to pace myself. What I

don't understand is how people can read

these visceral accounts and simply say

MG: And let’s be honest, they do tend to

say the same thing, it takes my breath

away how different yet similar so many of

the instances globally are.

AB: Yes, they absolutely are. You look at

studies from England and Wales,

Australia, US, Canada, Europe, all overand

they’re all saying the same things.

But I think people who say that have a

vested interest in not wanting all of this

information to be presented as credible.

MG: That’s certainly true, or maybe they

have some experience but they just can’t

bring themselves go there.

“I’ve been trying to track back, where does this hostility

and, let’s face it, it’s to female victims, come from.”

Dr Adrienne Barnett

that the account is anecdotal, that there is

no proof, that it's 'he said/she said'.What

I don’t understand is how someone can

just switch off from all that.

AB:There’s all sorts of reasons why

people do but, actually, when people say,

it’s anecdotal, it’s only one person’s

account, there’s such a wealth of research

and literature. A lot of it may be small

qualitative studies, but there are so many

of them and they all say the same thing so

that in itself increases the validity and

reliability of all these accounts.

You have one small study saying this is

what happened to me; this is the way the

courts reacted; this is what’s happening to

my children but when you’ve got ten

studies in different places, in different

jurisdictions, all saying the same thing- it

builds up a body of reliable evidence.

AB: That’s also possible. A lot of people

just can’t see themselves in that lightthey

can’t see themselves as victims or

survivors.

MG: I don’t know whether you’ve noticed

this but, on the whole, we don’t want to

think the worst of someone, we always

want to give them the benefit of the doubt

– just in case they’ve had a bad day, just

because we don’t know what’s going on in

their lives but for some reason that

allowance tends to be focused towards

abusers but not victims, Why do you ty

hink that is?

AB: It’s a really strange thing and

something I’ve been working on for a very

long time. There’s a general distrust,

almost hostility towards victims and a

sympathetic and open response to

perpetrators. It’s a really strange thing

and it seems to go back a long way.

Making The Invisible Visible


I’ve been trying to track back, where does

this hostility and, let’s face it, it’s to

female victims, come from.

MG: I see parallels with racism. It’s

almost as though it’s worse to be accused

of the thing than to be actually doing the

thing.

AB: That’s absolutely right. People say

it’s worse to be convicted of something

they didn’t do than to not be convicted of

something they did do.

MG: I don’t get that

AB: I mean who makes that type of

judgement, why is one worse than the

other?

AB: I agree with you that I don’t think

there’s some big conspiracy, corruption

thing going on here. When I started

research on parental alienation, it was

like a whammy. It hit a nerve, and I think

it’s probably because, even though mine

was a very small study, there isn’t any

other study in England and Wales on

Parental Alienation and I suspect that is

why it seems to have produced such a

huge backlash.

What I have found, if you put it into its

historical context, you can see where all of

this comes from. Just to give you a bit of a

background to it, I’ve practiced at the Bar

for over 30 years and specialised in family

law, for the last 25 years, until I stopped

practicing at the end of 2013.

“But when you’re in practice, it’s really really noticeable how

there’s such a strong push to reach agreement”

MG: I’m really interested to know,

because you used to be a practicing

barrister, what your view is of parental

alienation. I say this because I’ve been

accused of it and I'm interested to hear

what your experience is of how it is

viewed in court. For transparency, I’ve

had both really good experiences of the

courts and lawyers but also really really

bad ones, so I don’t come from the belief

system that thinks the court is corrupt

and snatches babies to fill some quota but

I do think that there is some heavy-shit

bias going on there.

How do you get judges, lawyers, social

workers and others working within the

court system to understand that this

charming guy they're laughing and joking

with, is not like that when you’re not

watching him?

I started before the Children Act came

into effect and what was noticeable was

that the Children Act brought in a much

stronger focus on the whole coparenting

ideal and I think that was it’s purpose.

It changed technology, it brought in

parental responsibility- all of these things

to try and diffuse conflict and encourage

coparenting , because of this focus on

coparenting and increasing the value of

non resident fathers in children’s lives

and so on. I think to some extent that is

where the hostility to mothers who raise

concerns about contact comes from. I

don’t know if it originated from there or it

just became stronger from the late 1980’s

but when you’re in practice, it’s really

really noticeable how there’s such a

strong push to reach agreement, not fight

these things. Let sort out some contact for

dad and the pressure is really there on

you as a representative.

Making The Invisible Visible



It was the first time in this whole issue

that it was really brought to life. It was

the first major piece of research on this

and it just blew the whole thing open. I

read that as part of my studies and I

thought wow. It all makes sense to me

now. I am see what’s going on in the

courts, I can see what I’m doing. It was

really groundbreaking research but it

didn’t really make it into the court arena

and was greeted initially with some

hostility by family lawyers

MG: That doesn't surprise me.

You go to court and say we don’t agree

with this, we’re going to fight it and you

get a load of hostility to that approach

from judges.

MG: Oh WOW

AB: So the pressure really is on the

professionals and a lot of the time, when

people say professionals are trying to get

their clients to not raise domestic abuse

and to reach agreement, I do think

sometimes people don’t realise the

pressure on professionals themselves

from courts although, having said that,

they do all kind of sign up to this procontact

and reach agreement ethos.

In 1995 I started studying for an LLM in

child law and policy when I was still in

practice at the Bar and it was around that

time, a couple of years into my study, the

Marianne Hester and Lorraine Radford

report * on contact and domestic violence

came out.

*For the sake of the children: The

law, domestic violence and child

contact in England, 1997

AB: So I did some research into the area

the report hadn’t really looked at - how

barristers represent victims of domestic

abuse. I did a small piece of research

which was published in 2000 and then

carried on from there, researching this

whole area and it was noticeable.

All the things that people complain about

now, about the courts, the pro-contact

culture, not understanding domestic

abuse, not understanding coercive

control, although that was not really

known about back then, the approach to

victims of abuse, the pressure put on

them to agree contact, the unsafe contact

arrangements- that was all raised in the

original Hester and Radford report and

nothing seems to have changed since

then.

There have been so many attempts to

change the law. We had Re L in 2000,

which was four conjoined appeals heard

by the Court of Appeal which laid down

the really really strong marker that

domestic abuse is not being taken

seriously in the family court and it laid

down guidelines.

Research after Re L found that these

guidelines still weren’t being observed,

that the courts were still operating under

the same practice - dismissing or ignoring

domestic abuse and so on and that was

why PD12J was brought out in 2008.

Making The Invisible Visible



Arising from Hester and Radford's report,

the Advisory Board on Family Law, led by

Wall, L J who was very affected by the

report, did a consultation and they

brought out guidelines for how domestic

abuse should be approached in private

family law cases.

Subsequent research to PD12J- some of

which was carried out by Professor

Rosemary Hunter and myself and some

by Rights of Women. I did a small

qualitative study and there were a couple

of others around 2012 to 2014 and these

all found the same things again - PD12J

not being followed properly, courts still

not understanding domestic abuse and

still prioritising contact over safety.

It seems to provoke a backlash and this

increases the perception of obstructive,

implacably hostile lying mothers, so it’s

very difficult to make any kind of

headway when there’s a strong push

against any progress that’s being made,

and without wishing to go into conspiracy

theories, there are strong vested interests

generally. Strong patriarchal interests.

MG: I can’t remember who said that the

law is written by men for men.

AB: And yet you have laws which are very

clear. If PD12J, was followed, we wouldn’t

be in the position we are in now but

changing the culture is proving very very

hard but with parental alienation, we are

in a different ball game altogether.

“Since then, PD12J has been amended three times to try

and reinforce its importance and strengthen it and yet still

nothing seems to have changed ”

Since then, PD12J has been amended

three times to try and reinforce its

importance and strengthen it and yet still

nothing seems to have changed and with

parental alienation, if anything, I think

it’s got worse.

MG: I’ve noticed that. In the five or six

years I’ve been doing this, it’s been

markedly worse. Why do you think that

is?

AB: When you look at what’s going on in

the wider social, political background,

you can sort of trace why this might be.

Obviously the fathers rights groups play a

very strong role in this and there’s always

this push every time inroads are made in

protective convictions of domestic abuse

in the family courts.

MG: I was a litigant in person for

numerous hearings as, athough I

qualified for the merits test, I did not

qualify for the means test, so what I did

was literally ring every lawyer I could find

who offered a free initial consultation.

I must have literally spoken to about a

hundred lawyers, mainly solicitors, to

help me put together my bundle and what

I did notice, which is one of the reasons I

contacted so many, is that they don’t all

advise the same thing.

I actually found that really shocking as

you would expect to contact a lawyer and

then be given the same advice regardless

of whoever you contact, but that really

wasn’t the case at all. I found some very

strongly held biases as in lawyers who

were very much pro-father regardless of

the history. Then there were the lawyers

who deemed any contact unsafe. I found

the inconsistency deeply worrying.

Making The Invisible Visible


One lawyer told me to beg borrow or steal

money for representation or else my case

would not be heard adequately and I ran

the risk of losing my children because I

had made an allegation of domestic

abuse. Several told me not to mention

abuse at all, unless I had proof.

The overarching thing I found, with many

of the lawyers I contacted, and maybe it

was because it was the initial free

consultation, and maybe it was because

they weren’t going to be remunerated for

that appointment, but they came across

as quite desensitised and considered a lot

of the incidents as 'minutiae' and I got the

distinct impression that they were

irritated that I was even bothering them

at all.

MG: Or maybe it’s a protective

mechanism? Let’s not go there, let’s not

dwell on it. I think it’s also the same with

the police. They see horrific crimes so

they lack the understanding of the impact

of crimes they probably consider lower

level.

AB: I used to do a lot of public law cases.

Care cases. Representing parents and you

do have to have some sort of selfprotective

mechanism because some of it

is so harrowing that you have to find a

way through that. Maybe that’s part of it.

I do get the impression that it’s different

in private law. Somehow they don’t seem

to see victims as real people. It’s all

somehow, this is something we need to

sort out but these are people’s lives here.

“ They’re disturbing the ordinary harmony of the family courts. The

minute you start raising questions it’s “oh here we go again”

Dr Adrienne Barnett

AB: Absolutely.

MG: In many instances , there was no

understanding or even a willingness to

put together the puzzle pieces to create a

full picture. That’s what I found.

AB: Yes, the focus is very much on how

can we sort this out? Never mind what

they see as peripheral matters. We just

need to sort out some contact. And you’re

right, absolutely, about the desensitising.

I think that’s a very large part of it.

I could read all the research and find it

deeply affective and someone else can as

well but there seems to be, somehow, that

lawyers and judges in court see so much

of it that they don’t relate to it as

something real.

MG: I've certainly found that. What I’ve

noticed is that victims are often seen as

troublemakers.

AB: Yes, because they’re disturbing the

ordinary harmony of the family courts.

The minute you start raising questions it’s

“oh here we go again”

MG: I've noticed that. It's very much, well

you married him, didn’t you? You had

children with him. Well, if you knew he

was such a bastard, why did you marry

him? which doesn't really help the

present situation at all. Also, what's often

misunderstood is that people tend not to

go into a relationship with an abuser.

You don’t actually realise until you're in

too deep and ccertainly not when you’re

still being put on a pedestal and they’re

still presenting their best selves.

Making The Invisible Visible

AB: It seems to all go downhill when

you’ve had the children, somehow.



“They’re disturbing the ordinary harmony of the family courts. The

minute you start raising questions it’s “oh here we go again” ”

MG: That actually reminds me of

something. When I gave birth, he brought

his ex-wife to have a look at me

breastfeeding because, according to him,

I wasn’t doing it properly.

AB: How humiliating. Why did she go

along with that?

MG: She wasn’t a fan.

AB: You must have seen Dirty John

MG: Yes but which one, the first one or

the second?

AB: The second one, Betty. I remember

the case.

MG: Oh my! The second series was way

worse than the first one, which I couldn’t

really relate to.

After each episode I had to literally go for

a walk or make some bread – take my

frustration out on the dough- just to get

rid of the fury over how he always had

tailored clothes but his kids had to have

second hand clothes. There was no

heating in the house but Dan always had

tailored clothes.

AB: The interesting thing about Parental

Alienation was that when I was still in

practice, it rumbled away in the

background but wasn’t really raised very

often. The vast majority of cases , where it

did tend to get raised, was the Fathers 4

Justice people and the courts didn’t really

take it seriously and tended to get quite

annoyed with them, and it really wasn’t a

big thing.

Making The Invisible Visible


But in May 2017, four of us, myself and

Professor Felicity Kaganas from Brunel,

Professor Rosemary Hunter and

Professor Shazia Choudhry from Queen

Mary held an international symposium in

Inner Temple where we’d been looking at

the whole issue of contact and domestic

abuse, how to get the courts to take it

seriously, why do things keep going

wrong- let’s see if we can learn some best

practices from other jurisdictions.

We had professionals, judges, the

Ministry of Justice and lots of

international researchers who spoke

about their experiences. Everyone seemed

to be having the same problems but very

few solutions- there were no evident

solutions to this.

It was really interesting to trace how it

progressed through the system within the

wider context of what was going on

socially and politically at the time and

what was really interesting is that at the

same time, if you went onto the web and

you typed in Parental Alienation, you’d

get loads and loads of solicitors firms all

advertising their services- are you a

victim of Parental Alienation- instruct us,

experts suddenly emerging from all over

the psychology and psychiatry world. We

are experts in PA, we can evaluate and

assess in court.

This wasn’t just happening in England

and Wales but just about in every

jurisdiction in the world.

“It was really interesting to trace how it progressed through the

system within the wider context of what was going on socially

and politically at the time”

One of the speakers was Professor Joan

Meier of George Washington University.

She spoke about Parental Alienation and

she was saying mothers were having their

children removed from them and placed

with their abusers because of accusations

of Parental Alienation.

We were all saying it sounds absolutely

terrible but we don’t have that problem

here. Joan said, it’s going to happen here

and literally within months, if not weeks,

Parental Alienation was everywhere - in

the courts, in the media, in family law

circles, politicians - everyone was going

on about Parental Alienation and I

thought my gosh, she was absolutely right

and where is all this coming from, all of a

sudden? That was why I decided to start

doing this research to try and trace how

Parental Alienation got here, why has it

suddenly blown up in 2016/2017 and

what is happening with it in the family

courts?

I’m not going to make myself popular for

saying this but it was quite clear that

people saw a lot of money in this. I mean

this is happening at a time when legal aid

had been cut. More litigants in person, far

fewer family lawyers being instructed in

private law cases – a lot of firms stopped

doing legal aid and private law work

altogether.

There were far fewer experts because

since changes had been made, I think in

2010, it was already more difficult to

instruct experts under the new part 25 of

the Family Procedure Rules, even more

difficult when legal aid was cut as there

was no money to pay the experts but with

Parental Alienation suddenly, as soon as

it was raised, the courts said we need a

Parental Alienation expert. I guess they

figured out that there were enough

wealthy non-resident parents who could

pay for all this and it really looks like that

is when it took off.

Making The Invisible Visible



MG: That makes a lot of sense.

AB: I noticed, when I reviewed the case

law for all reported and published

judgments that referred to or related in

any way to parental alienation, parental

alienation syndrome, or alienation, that it

didn’t come up with a huge number of

cases but then most cases aren’t reported

in the judgments or online on Bailii so

only 40 cases were identified but it was

noticeable that between 2010 and 2013

there were hardly any cases on Parental

Alienation at all and that is the period

when the restrictions on instructing

experts came.

MG: That’s interesting

AB: Yes, it was interesting

MG: Wasn't there also an increase in the

number of fee-pay Mackenzie Friends

advertising to do work on Parental

Alienation?

AB: That’s right. Another thing I noticed

is that were were a number of people

from the fathers rights groups who had

themselves been accusing mothers in

reported cases of Parental Alienation and

not getting anywhere with it and then

they suddenly emerged as Mackenzie

Friends and some pretty horrible

characters, people who had attacked

Cafcass officers and all sorts of things.

One of the biggest problems with Parental

Alienation, is that they have co-opted so

many women into the whole parental

alienation cohort.

MG: I’ve noticed that a lot of the experts

are women.

AB: But also mothers. I get a lot of

mothers saying how dare you say Parental

Alienation is not a valid concept, I am

being alienated from my children by their

fathers. It’s very difficult to explain that

what is happening to them is an extension

of the abuse. That is how abusive men

behave- they try and disrupt children’s

relationships with their mothers.

Making The Invisible Visible


Was this abuse going on whilst you were

still together, what else is going on? When

you put it in context, you can always see

that it’s part of a much wider strategy of

coercive control and these mothers have

been co-opted into the Parental

Alienation lobby.

It’s really hard managing that and saying

this can't be equated with abusive men

saying they’ve been alienated from their

children

MG: Because they’ve lost contact with

their children. It’s the only group that,

even though it doesn’t fit, it’s the only

group that speaks for them. There is

Matchmothers for mothers living apart

from their children but many people

There were a small cohort of reported

cases where mothers were raising it and

by and large they had absolutely no

success, so it doesn’t actually help

mothers to raise it in court, which is

interesting.

The courts seem to adopt a different kind

of approach altogether. There was one

reported case where the mother lost

residency to the father. He wasn’t making

the children available for contact, the

court had made enforcement orders, they

made committal orders, they weren’t

being enforced. The father then appealed

against these committal orders and the

Court of Appeal’s attitude was: the

children don’t want to see their mother

and we can’t force them.

“it was was noticeable that between 2010 and 2013 there were hardly any

cases on parental alienation at all and that is the period when the restrictions

on instructing experts came. ”

haven’t heard of them which is surprising

as I know more mothers who have had

contact with their children severed, than I

know fathers who have been alienated

and, in most cases the mothers were so

scared, they left without the children

because they thought that, if they took

their child, the child would be in greater

danger than if the child stayed with the

abuser because he would then not try and

hunt them down. They then tried to get

the children back through the courts and

then realised they weren't able to.

AB: I hear literally almost every day from

women who that’s happened to. They’ve

lost the care of their children, the fathers

are preventing them seeing them and they

are struggling through the family courts.

But what I’ve found is that in reported

case law, the vast amount of Parental

Alienation allegations are made by fathers

against mothers.

MG: That's just ludicrous.

AB: That is such a different approach

to how the court would approach it had it

been reversed the other way round, to a

resident mother and non resident father.

When I did my smaller qualitative study,

years ago where I interviewed various

professionals including Cafcass officers,

this was about 2011, this was about

contact and domestic abuse and not

Parental Alienation, all the people I

interviewed tended to speak in terms of

resident mother, non resident father and

how courts would approach it.

There was one Cafcass officer who talked

about a case where the father was very

abusive and had taken the children. The

mother was trying to get contact but the

father wouldn’t allow it and so I said what

did the court do? She said nothing.

Nobody did anything. And I thought that

was really telling.

Making The Invisible Visible


It's really worrying when you consider

how a traumatised victim might present

in court but how little trauma responses

are understood.

AB: I think that’s absolutely true and

now, with the vast increase in litigants in

persons , there’s no one to give advice.

MG: I’ve been asked for advice on many

occasions but often my advice isn’t

accepted which is to say do what the court

wants - do whatever it takes to get the

kids back- argue later.

AB: Yes. They say jump you say how

high.

MG: The impression I get is that if a

father is angry or aggressive in court, he

is seen as passionate and a parent who

misses his children, but if a mother is

seen as angry and aggressive, she’s a bad

mother.

AB: Absolutely. There’s an academic

called Richard Collier who has written a

lot on men and masculinities and

MG: It's really not good.

Thank you to Dr Adrienne Barnett

for this interview with CCChat.

“There was one Cafcass officer who talked about a case where the father was

very abusive and had taken the children. The mother was trying to get contact but

the father wouldn’t allow it and so I said what did the court do? She said nothing.

Nobody did anything. And I thought that was really telling. ”

domestic abuse and he highlights that a

good father is seen as one who fights for

his children whereas a good mother is

seen as passive and accepting of

everything that’s thrown at her.

MG: I've noticed that. I also don't think

there’s enough understanding of how

mothers are judged by how they present

themselves and how it gets interpreted by

the court, if they are not biddable and

passive. It seems to me that you need to

present in a certain way and not ruffle

feathers.

By Dr Adrienne Barnett:

Barnett, A. (2020) 'A genealogy of

hostility: parental alienation in England

and Wales'.

Barnett, A., Hunter, R. and Kaganas, F.

(2018) 'Introduction: Contact and

domestic abuse'.

Barnett, A. (2017) 'Family law without

lawyers – A systems theory perspective'.

Making The Invisible Visible



Does 'Parental Alienation'

Really Exist in Family Law Cases?

I recently listened to a

fascinating webinar on

'Parental Alienation' and

how it is perceived in

family law cases.

I have taken some

extracts from the talk for

this piece but please do

watch the webinar.

The link is here:

youtu.be/Cq81BRQjMMI

M

ost of us have heard of the term 'Parental

Alienation' but how many know what it

means? According to Joyanna Silberg,

Ph.D., the Executive Vice-President of the

Leadership Council on Child Abuse &

Interpersonal Violence, there is no

universal definition.

Dr Sillberg believes that we need to parse the terms into all

of its component parts namely:-Do parents disparage

children? What is the effect of parents going through

divorce? Who disparages children? Which children are

most affected by that? HOW are they affected and what

are the best treatments for children who are affected?

She says that it is essential as lots of things are being

lumped together under the umbrella term of Parental

Alienation and so it is necessary that we take a step back

to start describing behaviours and look at the actual data of

what has happened to children during divorce.

According to Dr Bob Geffner, who is the president of the

Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego,

Parental Alienation is a common term that people in the

street recognise. "It sounds like one parent trying to turn

the child against the other parent. Unfortunately, the

definition of the term has been corrupted and that is a

problem."

" We all come up into cases where a parent tries - or

sometimes attempts- to turn a child against the other

parent in a very highly disputed divorce case with a lot of

animosity. That’s a different situation with what we face

nowadays in many of the family court cases." he says,

" The term really deals with behaviours. Alienating

behaviours. It’s not a verb, it’s not a label. It’s a description

of various behaviours a parent may or may not do.That’s

what we need to focus on. What is problematic is

suggesting there is research or some other type of

common symptoms of a child. Or that this happens

frequently."

Making The Invisible Visible



“It would not be unusual for them to say bad things - oh he’s at it again,

there she goes - and the kids may overhear that. That’s a different situation

than an intentional attempt to turn a child against the other parent.”

What DOES happen frequently,

according to Dr Geffner, is when parents

involved in a very contentious divorce

case, are not happy with their ex spouse.

" It would not be unusual for them to say

bad things - oh he’s at it again, there she

goes - and the kids may overhear

that. That’s a different situation than an

intentional attempt to turn a child against

the other parent. The common term for

certain behaviours has been turned into a

label - 'Parental Alienation' . It’s used too

often as a diagnosis or a condition. That’s

where you run into problems."

That’s why the people who propose

Parental Alienation as an official

diagnosis have been turned down, but

they haven’t stopped trying even though

several neutral committees have told

them that it is not a diagnosis, a label,or a

condition - it is a set of behaviours and

that when it occurs, it needs to be treated

as dysfunctional parenting behaviour.

" There is no common set of symptoms a

child will show but often it becomes a

circular argument in that we assume a

child is giving a reason for not wanting to

see a parent.

For example, if a child says they are

afraid of a parent or that a parent has

done something, they tend not to believe

it but assume it must be a false allegation

and that somebody must be

*programming* the child to make these

types of disclosures."

Making The Invisible Visible



According to Dr Barnett, who has looked

at the case law for her research, Judges

take different approaches to Parental

Alienation in different courts in England

and Wales and different courts in other

jurisdictions.

"Some courts adopt a child-focused

approach- looking at signs and certain

behaviours in the child, others looked at

parents’ behaviours and it was the latter

that seemed to predominate."

According to Dr Barnett, using parent

behaviours seemed to have the effect of

conflating and widening the category of

parental alienation, so that just about any

behaviour by a parent could be

subsumed within the category.

Dr Geffner believes that these types of

behaviours need to be treated like any

type of dysfunctional parenting and be

referred to counselling or a parenting

programme and the children should be

treated as though they have been

traumatised.

But that’s a whole different situation to

what is happening in family courts

throughout the world.

What about evidence of a parental

bond, such as photographs showing a

parent and child going to the zoo?

What weight does the court give to

this?

According to barrister, senior lecturer and

researcher, Dr Adrienne Barnett, a

snapshot photograph doesn’t really say

very much. Children who have been in

very abusive relationships with parents

can still have happy family snapshots.

“ As many judges have said to me, we

really can’t run a case on photographs.”

Dr Joyanna Sillberg has been teaching

clinical psychology for 40 years tells her

students "If you’re surprised, you haven’t

finished your job. Because your job, as a

clinical psychologist doing an evaluation,

is to find out why."

"So if you’re saying it doesn’t make

sense, you are the evaluator- FIND OUT.

Don’t be surprised. In a way I feel it’s us

being lazy, as a field, if we’re willing to

say it’s unreasonable or surprising

because the child DID react that way."

Dr Joyanna Sillberg continues: " I find

that when I do a careful evaluation, I’m

not left surprised. I’m left with all my

hypotheses evaluated and I’m left with

the one that fits all the data. Let’s

understand where the child’s coming

from. Why DO they feel that way?"

Dr Bob Geffner says that he generally

finds that kids love both parents, even in

an abusive situation. "They love both

parents. They don’t like the

BEHAVIOURS- but that is separate from

loving the parent."

Making The Invisible Visible


He says he can usually tell who is

untrained because of the assumptions

being made.

"They assume that because a child runs

and jumps on a parent’s lap and gives

hugs that they weren’t abused but

we know from decades of research that

that is not accurate. Photographs are not

a big deal . We can assume they had a

loving relationship at one time or another.

That’s not the key now. The key is why

are they saying this?"

Dr Geffner talks about lack of resources

and doesn’t agree that this is the biggest

problem with Parental Alienation. He

identifies the problem as being one of too

many assumptions.

He advocates better professional curiosity

to look deeper. " Maybe there is some

type of inappropriate parenting or neglect,

or the parent is not giving them enough

attention or something has caused this

reaction as opposed to assuming that

someone got them to say this."

" What we do know from research is that

it’s very hard to programme a child to say

something really detailed or negative

about another parent they really have a

loving relationship with. Some studies

show that when you try to do that, you get

a reverse effect. Professor Gail Goodman

has done research showing how difficult it

is - even in young kids aged from three to

six- to get them to say things they know

are not true."

" What we DO know from research is that it’s very hard to programme a child

to say something really detailed or negative about another parent they really

have a loving relationship with. Some studies show that when you try to do that,

you get a reverse effect."

" When a child says they don’t want to

see a parent anymore, they don’t

understand the reason because they are

using adult logic and this doesn’t mean

it’s the same logic as the children. The

children can have a variety of reasons but

we don't ask them enough."

" We assume that their (the children’s)

information is not correct. It doesn’t take a

lot of resources to spend time with the

children and to be asking them questions.

We find that many of the people- social

workers, people in child protective

systems and others around the world

don’t have a lot of time - they have a

large case load- but it doesn’t stop them

from asking questions and believing that

maybe there is something going on here.

so the key to finding out what is

happening is in asking questions, not in

making assumptions. So not

automatically believing that a child is

making it up or that a parent isn’t doing

anything.

" You’d be surprised how many

evaluations we review in the United

States and other countries where they

really don’t spend much time asking the

questions: what goes on in mum’s

house? What goes on in dad’s house?

What do you like? What don’t you like."

Dr Geffner says that this doesn’t take a

lot of resources. What it does take is the

ability to be neutral, to not make

assumptions, to ask key questions and to

spend a little bit of time with the child or

children who are saying these things.

Making The Invisible Visible


Dr Adrienne Barnett: " What is clear is

that children living with domestic abuse

aren’t bystanders or witnesses. They are

victims in their own right and experience it

in a very active way. "

Research by Professor Jane Callaghan et

al shows that children are incredibly

aware of what’s going on in their homes.

Even very young children. Children can

recover from the experiences of domestic

abuse if they have the support of the non

abusive parent but all the research shows

that continuing contact with the

abusive parent seriously impedes that

recovery.

The difficulty is that many cases are

being misread."Researchers found many

cases being misread as Parental

Alienation and implacable hostility so that

the idea that it is widespread and

prevalent has been conflated into

situations which were not alienation or

hostility."

Dr Barnett prefers not to use the term

Parental Alienation, because it does get

so misused. Alleging Parental Alienation

has also been weaponised by domestic

abuse perpetrators using coercive

control. " One of the key tactics found by

numerous studies is the perpetrator

disparaging the relationship between the

parent and child to try and disrupt that

relationship."

Research by Professor Jane Callaghan et al shows that children are

incredibly aware of what’s going on in their homes.

Even very young children.

Dr Barnett points out that although the

victim and children may escape the

abusive relationship, if that abuse is

continuing, it is difficult for the victim to

heal, it’s difficult for the children to heal

and is difficult for the victim to support the

child.

There is a difference between

intentional and unintentional

alienation of a child but when it is

intentional, is that domestic abuse?

Dr Barnett cites a 2013 study by

Professor Liz Trinder, another study in

2015 and a study by Cafcass in 2017

which all consistently found that cases of

what were then called ‘ implacable

hostility’ - unjustified denials of contact,

turning children against the other parent

made up around 4%- 5% of total cases.

There is a difference between that, in the

context of domestic abuse, and when

somebody makes an allegation that their

child is being alienated from them without

the context of wider domestic abuse.

This is key to understanding the different

situations says Dr Barnett, who is

contacted frequently by mostly mothers

who say they have been alienated from

their child and then go on to give a whole

description of a highly abusive

relationship where the 'alienation' is a

part of the abuse.

" It’s very different from a parent who

says their child has been alienated from

them for no good reason but there is no

context of domestic abuse. And often the

person saying they’ve been alienated is

the abusive parent. "

Making The Invisible Visible



Dr Joyanna Sillberg talks about her own

research:

" We looked at what we call ‘ Turned

Around Cases’. Cases in which- before

the age of eighteen- a child was sent to

live with someone who was later

designated an abuser to that child.

The average amount of time that the child

spent with the parent who was later

labelled (either by different court or the

same court) as being the abusive parent

was approximately four years."

Dr Sillberg talks about a case in her

sample of child coming home from visiting

mother. Father takes a knife and stabs

the stuffed animal mother has given to

child.

" Probably not against the law but clearly

abusive to the child. Father later puts hot

poker on child’s chest to get child to go to

bed.

The type of person who will do this is the

kind of personality who will carry out the

malignant form of abuse by proxy which

people want to call *alienation* but is so

different to the allegations where there is

no concrete behavioural sign."

"A child was sent to live with someone who was later designated an abuser

to that child. The average amount of time that the child spent with the parent

who was later labelled (either by different court or the same court) as

being the abusive parent was approximately four years."

These are cases where there have been

two changes in residency:

1) The first time was when allegations of

abuse were made. The judge ignored this

and transferred residency to the abuser.

2) The second time was before the child

turned eighteen and where either the

same or another judge turned around the

finding, or there was an appeal or a child

makes their own application.

The child was then returned to live with

the parent they were originally living with.

Dr Sillberg looked at what had happened

between the first and the second court

hearing.

The judge has misidentified the abuser

and put the child with someone later

termed the abuser. The way this is

uncovered is through the continuing

abuse to the child.

What is the view on historic abuse?

Something that comes up a lot with social

workers is a scenario where a child

doesn’t want to see the non-resident

parent and the resident parent says there

was abuse 5 or more years ago. Social

workers, Cafcass and the courts will say it

took place a long time ago, therefore it is

historic and no longer matters. The court

then has to ascertain whether or not it is

justifiable estrangement.

According to Bob Geffner, we need to

look at the use of power and control in the

family. " The key in these cases is the

inapproriate use of power and control -

where one person is getting their own

needs met at the expense of another."

These are the issues, he says, that we do

not see people either asking about or

looking at in more detail.

Making The Invisible Visible


The term Parental Alienation is trying to

be, by those who promote it, woven into

domestic violence and child abuse,says

Bob Geffner. According to him certain

behaviours may be, but it is a catch-all

phrase.

" What we’re finding is that in dealing with

child custody evaluators, mental health

professionals, judges, attorneys, social

workers, child protective services, law

enforcement- especially in child custody

cases- there is an assumption that there

IS Parental Alienation and that when you

have allegations of either domestic abuse

or child abuse they are false. And it’s not

a small percentage- it is a HUGE

percentage- and they don’t understand

the research that says this isn’t a

common occurrence.

Unintentional saying something negative

about another in a disputed custody case

is not unusual. An intentional act of

repeating over and over how bad the

other parent is doesn’t occur as

frequently as people keep assuming and

nowhere near as much as child abuse or

domestic abuse.

The bias is the problem. We have cases

where the child says something. They

don’t want to see a parent and if you

listen, will tell you why: - I’m afraid of

them - They touch me - They don’t pay

attention to me - I have to do everything

that person wants. Whatever it is, they’re

giving reasons but we don’t believe

them. I don’t want to say we want to

believe everything a child says. We go

back to finding out more. What happens

is we go the opposite way in these cases,

by assuming this behaviour has occurred

and it’s a condition We say it’s an

alienated child or a targeted parent and

the solutions to this are absurd and

doesn’t meet anything we know in trauma

psychology, family psychology or any of

these areas because the solution - once

you decide Parental Alienation has

occurred-is not what we would do with

any inappropriate parenting behaviour.

Making The Invisible Visible


“We take the child away from their primary caretaker and place

them with the person they say they don’t want to see. ”

Dr Bob Geffner

Dr Geffner says the solution is to teach

appropriate parenting and to provide

counselling. "Provide some type of

therapy so they can understand what is

happening to the child or what they’re

doing is hurting their child. "

What is Dr Geffner's view on the way

perceived Parental Alienation is dealt

with?

"We take the child away from their

primary caretaker and place them with

the person they say they don’t want to

see. And they do it suddenly - send them

to these programmes or camp to

essentially 'deprogramme' them.This is so

dangerous. It’s like going to the last resort

first and producing so much trauma that

it’s incredible."

Dr Bob Geffner has criticisms of Amy

Baker’s research which he considers

flawed. " There are no common

symptoms that she’s found. She had a

very biased small sample and has written

more about that than the number of

subjects she had. So people assume

there are 'clusters'."

It has been 30 years since Parental

Alienation has been promoted in family

courts, ever since it was first proposed as

a theory by Richard Gardner.

" There has been no system research in

any country, anywhere in the world, that

has really documented a condition or an

obvious set of symptoms or an obvious

profile or even showed what the

prevalence is. It’s all based on

assumptions and a few poor studies."

Making The Invisible Visible



What of a child who is living with the

resident parent- may live in a smaller

house, have less money and so

blames the other parent or may

become protective of the resident

parent and, as a consequence of that,

in their own mind take a dislike or are

angry towards the non resident

parent?

According to Dr Sillberg, this is incredibly

common. " That is bread and butter and

happens in almost every case I see after

divorce. As a child psychologist, I treat it

all the time. Very successfully with

reasonable parents who have some

anger- helping them understand the

impact it’s having on their children."

" The cases where it doesn’t work is

where there is abuse or violence

or emotional abuse between the parents.

Those are the ones where the resolution

can not happen with the variety of tools

available. "

Dr Sillberg says we shouldn’t generalise

from this minority to say that this is what’s

happening with all these other families.

"It costs a penny to give a diagnosis of

Parental Alienation but it costs a million

dollars, metaphorically, to parse it out and

see what’s going wrong. Let’s not jump

for the easy solution- let’s really figure it

out."

“ It doesn't take extreme measures, it doesn’t take a

camp where they’re forced,

it doesn’t take coercion.”

This is a common occurrence as Dr

Judith Wallerstein found out when she did

her research on children, "But to elevate

it to criminal behaviour, to the point where

mums and dads are losing their children,

is adding a dimension of trauma that is

unnecessary."

The majority of families work things

through for the benefit of the children

and only a minority end up in family court

where they have this escalating inability

to negotiate. What the studies show, over

& over again is those are the families

where there is some component of

coercive control, says Dr Sillberg.

"It doesn’t take extreme measures, it

doesn’t take a camp where they’re forced,

it doesn’t take coercion. It just takes

listening to each person’s point of view,

working it out- having the mother or father

describe what makes it unpleasant for the

child."

And what of the cases where a Judge

is advised by psychologist that a

transfer of residence is needed and

that the former resident parent

shouldn’t see the child for 3 months or

so or there is a bridging placement in

foster care?

" That's like the last resort being done

first" says Dr Geffner, "It is what was

promoted in the late 1990'. It was

supposed to be for the most extreme

cases, where everything else was tried

but in the cases we see, it is the first

choice."

" The case we're working on now started

as one month, then it went to 3 months ,

then it went to 9 months. It's now been a

year and a half because the child is

refusing to back off their initial allegation."

Making The Invisible Visible


There are some key terms that get

confused: There is a difference between:

- a parent intentionally attempting to turn

child against other parent - a child who

rejects a parent for one reason or another

- a child who is estranged from a parent -

or who aligns with a parent

The key issues are:

1. The relationship

2. The dynamics that led to the situation

3. What is the attachment relationship?

A strong relationship attachment is

different from loving a parent. And

attachment really has a specific meaning

- it's not just throwing out the words- and

that is key.

"Labels don’t get us anywhere. Focus on

the behaviours - no matter what the

behaviour is."

With cases with no observable evidence

where even the evaluator or social worker

say ‘ well, there’s no evidence I can find

of alienating behaviours BUT ‘ that 'but' is

key.

We also need to be careful when

someone says the child is not believable,

therefore Parental Alienation must exist”

There seems to be three scenarios

where there is evidence for Parental

Alienation:

1) What you sometimes see in Social

Work /Cafcass reports- where they often

only met the child once or twice - is that

the child is using adult language so the

presumption is the resident parent has

said something.

2) A grandparent or parent doesn’t like

the non resident parent and has called

him/her an XYZ.

3) Where the child says they hate

everything about the non resident parent.

Making The Invisible Visible


A strong misunderstanding of how abuse

can continue to have a terrorising effect

on victims and also very much taking an

incident- led approach and failing to see

that it is a pattern.

Dr Barnett gives an example where the

father, in his own terms, had been a bit of

a hellraiser and had been incredibly

violent towards the mother- putting her in

hospital for months with severe lifethreatening

injuries from which she was

physically and emotionally affected.

Eight to ten years later he wanted

contact, saying he was a reformed

character and recognising what he did but

mother was still very scared of him and

the children resistant to seeing him.

Bob Geffner says he also sees those

cases:

"Find out what is the first thing that’s

started this? What we find is that often

other things were said but they weren’t

believed, or nothing happened.

What tends to happen if children aren’t

believed is that they stay quiet and don’t

say anything or they exaggerate to get

you to start paying attention to what is

being said. Out of the blue rarely

happens. Often something made the child

uncomfortable or afraid. Don’t assume.

Look at what’s going on. It doesn’t take a

huge amount of resources. It takes

spending some time with the child."

"Ideally we want to build a relationships

with both parents and may need to work

with both.

Dr Barnett believes that strong

assumption are made by the courts, that

if domestic abuse hasn’t taken place in

last few weeks or months it’s seen as

historic and therefore irrelevant.- let’s

move on, we need to be future- focused.

The minute Parental Alienation was

raised, it was all seen through that lens of

' there’s no good reason why these

children should be resistant to contact,

they’re much too young to be aware of it

at the time' or 'the mother’s got to get

over it'.

It misunderstands what’s happening on

so many different levels - That it wasn't a

one-off incident and the trauma of the

victim.

All of this led to the threat to the woman

of having children’s residency removed to

father unless she agreed to contact.

According to Dr Barnett, the term

Parental Alienation is seen as a silver

bullet and gets seized on by the parent

who likes that idea.

What happens in the grey area

between disputed breakdown that

goes on and becomes more than that?

"The term Parental Alienation brings in

such polarisation. In most cases, parents

aren't behaving in ways that are in the

child's interest because parents aren't

perfect, but somehow this term polarises

into completely opposing camps.

Making The Invisible Visible


" One of the things we do in every case, "

says Dr Geffner, " is to create a timeline.

We go back to the beginning: what

happened over time with the family?

What happened with allegations? What

has happened with petitions to the court

and court filing? That tells you a lot."

" One of the things we find is that this

whole idea of Parental Alienation - when

it occurs from an accusation standpoint -

there was some allegation by the child to

somebody about some kind of

uncomfortable or abusive behaviour. Or

that one parent talked about abuse first

and then the allegation of Parental

Alienation surfaced. "

What we know about domestic abuse

is that it's very rare to have evidence

and it is often seen as 'he said/she

said'

" That's why it's called the family secret"

says Dr Geffner, " but there are witnesses

to that - if you ask the children. They are

growing up in this home. If you ask them

in the right way - what's their experience

in the home, what scares them, what

makes them uncomfortable? Ask neutral

questions and spend time with the

children - you often find that they start

reporting some of the corroboration which

often led to initial disclosures."

“ One of the things we find is that this whole idea of Parental Alienation - when it

occurs from an accusation standpoint - there was some allegation by the child to

somebody about some kind of uncomfortable or abusive behaviour."

" We don't see too many cases where, all

of a sudden, we have allegations of

Parental Alienation, where none of these

other things surfaced first. "

Dr Geffner talks about the importance of

timing : " In many of the cases we review

or work on, that label is used after there

has been some other type of allegation,

either in the divorce case or even before

divorce was filed, there were allegations

of domestic abuse or child abuse."

People assume that if it's a child custody

case, the allegations are false - at rates of

75% or more, when the research shows

it's not even close to that.

" How much is it costing you to deal with

the cases for five years? How much is it

costing society to deal with violence that

is escalating?Where do the kids end up?

What's going to happen down the road? "

Dr Geffner's final word:

" It goes back to the expression pay me

now or pay me later"

Link for the webinar:

youtu.be/Cq81BRQjMMI

Making The Invisible Visible



Lived Experience

Pearl Lai's story

I

had

never experienced the full blow of misogyny until

after I stepped into the family court. My abusive

estranged husband dragged me there. After we separated,

he lived close by and he let me have full physical child

custody, but it all changed when I planned to move to

another part of the city.

He took me to family court – and even had legal aid to pay his lawyers. I never

thought he would be successful in getting custody because I had evidence of his

abuse – police reports, social workers’ reports and medical records – to prove that

he was violent towards me. But they were all worthless. Instead, I was given less

custodial days because the court deemed my attempts to protect our daughter from

abuse as “alienating” her from the “good” father.

When my family and friends heard that a female judge was presiding over the

custody case, they told me, “That’s good. As a woman, she would surely sympathise

with you and your plight!” They were so wrong… The judge – a white British woman

– showed me the toxic intersection of sexism and racism. After spending many

hearing days at court, I noticed her preference. At the top of her pecking order was

white men, followed by white women, then Asian men and Asian women. As Asian

women, my barrister and I were at the bottom, treated with contempt.

Although common sense dictates that abusive parents are not fit to have child

custody, the logic is turned upside down in family court. Almost every professional

who work in family court, from the judge and lawyers to social worker and

psychologist, all have tried to downplay domestic violence and victim-blame

me. Here are some of the appalling comments that I have heard:

Lawyer 1: Was he ever violent to your child? No? That means he should get

custody.

Lawyer 2: Why did you not leave him sooner? Why did you give him access to see

your child? (Me: Because I was afraid of him!)

Lawyer 3: She is so smart and intelligent – it is hard to believe that she was

abused.

Lawyer 4: You mentioned about “coercive control” in your testimony. How did you

learn about the academic term “coercive control”?

Social worker: When was the last time the assault happened? Years ago? That

means he is no longer violent.

Psychologist: I am concerned that the mother is very impolite to the father, she

never greets the father when they meet, and it will “hurt” the child’s feelings because

essentially half of her is the father.

The judge should get the special mention in downplaying domestic violence. She

called our marriage “tumultuous” – not abusive.

Making The Invisible Visible


The judge also called his abuse an

“altercation”, assigning blame on both

sides. In her eyes, my attempt to present

a pattern of escalating violence, coercion

and control was a “smear campaign”

against my former husband (who, like

her, is also white).

When I told her that he forced me to have

sex with him, she refused to acknowledge

it as sexual assault because I “could have

said no”. When she heard that my ex had

abused our dog, she said that “physical

discipline is acceptable to educate a pet”.

She also seemed to see no problem in

abusing a child. “Are you going to report

every slap and punch to police?” she

asked me, after I reported my ex’s abuse

of my child to the police. I said yes.

The judge even threatened that if I

continued with my "behaviour", she

would take away my parental rights

altogether.When I started my journey in

the family court more than five years ago,

I felt alone. I didn't understand why the

court kept favouring him and the judge

kept blaming me for trying to protect our

child.

Abuse victims who went through family

court warned me not to “talk badly” about

my ex, lawyers discouraged me from

reporting child abuse because the court

would see me as “alienating” him. When I

tried to educate myself about abuse, using

terms such as “coercive control” and

“gaslighting” in my testimony, I was seen

as being “smart”.

“When I told her that he forced me to have sex with him, she refused

to acknowledge it as sexual assault because I “could have said no”.

In anger, she repeated the question.

When I answered with an affirming yes,

she banged her desk and yelled at me:

“Alright then!” She also banned us from

seeing a social worker who helped my

child to overcome her trauma after my ex

punched her on the face. When my ex and

his (white) friend told the court

unfounded lies – that the social worker

would interrogate his friend’s child for

repeatedly bullying my child – instead of

being concerned about child bullying, the

judge banned me from seeing my child for

a week.

She agreed with my ex’s lawyer that by

raising the issue of domestic violence and

child abuse, I had tried to “drive a wedge”

between him and the child. It is “parental

alienation” but in the name. In the end,

not only did she not believe me and our

child, she also punished us by giving my

abuser more custodial days.

In the eyes of both judge and lawyers, I

could not be a victim. I did not fit the

model of a perfect victim, of a hapless

woman who fell prey to abuse. But the

most maddening thing was, why did the

judge keep favouring my abusive exhusband?

Then the US election happened

in 2016. I read how 53% of white women

voted for Donald Trump despite multiple

allegations of domestic violence and

sexual assault – and I could now

understand why the white female judge

favoured my abusive ex, turned a blind

eye to his record of domestic abuse and

punished me instead.

Reading recent works and posts from

scholars, journalists and fellow survivors

from different countries – e.g. the US, the

UK, Australia, Canada, France and Japan

– made me realise the failure of family

court to protect women and children from

post-separation abuse is a global problem

that is rooted in misogyny.

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I also learned that the pseudoscientific

theory called 'parental alienation

syndrome' has unfortunately been

accepted as truth in family court.

I used to think that ending an abusive

relationship would end the abuse. It does

not – especially if the abusive person is

the father of the child. The family court is

not only complicit in helping my abusive

ex inflict post-separation abuse but also

in traumatizing me more.

There is a growing awareness in the UK

and Australia about the misogyny of

parental alienation and how abused

mothers and children are badly treated in

family court, but unfortunately there is

little such knowledge in Hong Kong –

despite the fact the justice system is

modelled after the UK.

Some years ago, the South China Morning

Post, the leading English-language

newspaper here, even published a story

about “parental alienation”, without

trying to find out the dark history of the

theory and the sexist application in child

custody cases.

It is frustrating. I don’t know which one

will come first: my child is turning 18 in

less than a decade, and thus can free

herself (and myself) from his control and

abuse, or the family court will realise its

failure to protect abuse victims.

I am not so optimistic with the latter, to

be honest.

* name has been changed.

Making The Invisible Visible



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