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News and views from The Backbone Collective which advocates for women and children who have experienced violence or abuse and who are enduring further harm from New Zealand's Family Court. 

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WHY DOES NZ LAW SCHOOL SUPPORT A DISCREDITED THEORY DESPITE WARNINGS FROM PSYCHOLOGY EXPERTS?

 A Masters Law thesis published this week by the University of Otago Law School is based on discredited theory ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’ (PAS) and ignores recommendations from psychological experts for its use in Family Law to be stopped.    Backbone explores how using PAS as evidence in the Family Court endangers women and children, with true accounts from members of The Backbone Collective.  In this opinion piece, we also examine media coverage of the thesis’ release and PAS, which failed to present a balanced story on PAS, therefore reinforcing this debunked theory’s credibility.

A Masters Law thesis published this week by the University of Otago Law School is based on discredited theory ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’ (PAS) and ignores recommendations from psychological experts for its use in Family Law to be stopped.  

Backbone explores how using PAS as evidence in the Family Court endangers women and children, with true accounts from members of The Backbone Collective.

In this opinion piece, we also examine media coverage of the thesis’ release and PAS, which failed to present a balanced story on PAS, therefore reinforcing this debunked theory’s credibility.

 

WHY DOES NZ LAW SCHOOL SUPPORT A DISCREDITED THEORY DESPITE WARNINGS FROM PSYCHOLOGY EXPERTS?

A Family Court lawyer Lee James got a lot of media attention in the last week talking about her newly-released MA Thesis on parental alienation which was supervised and approved by University of Otago’s Law School in New Zealand.

It is unusual for a Masters thesis to make news headlines. But in this case it is shocking that the research got any air time, given that it is based on the concept of PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome) which has long been discredited in the United States from where it originated.

 

Parental Alienation Syndrome - an unscientific concept with no endorsement from professional and medical associations

PAS was dreamt up by American Psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s. He claimed that most children who reported sexual abuse fabricated their stories, as they had been alienated and coached by their mothers to make false allegations.

Gardner recommended that the mother reporting violence and abuse should be encouraged to stay with the abusive father; and that she should be helped over her “anger” and in cases of separation, the child should be placed in the care of the abusive father.

However Gardner’s theory has never been scientifically proven: Over 500 studies have been done on PAS, yet not one has endorsed his claims. Gardner’s books were all self-published and none were peer reviewed. None of his books were based on research.

Even though PAS is not recognised by the American Psychiatric Association or any other medical or professional association, New Zealand Family Law continues to apply it in court proceedings.

EVEN THOUGH PAS IS NOT RECOGNISED BY THE AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION OR ANY OTHER MEDICAL OR PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION, NEW ZEALAND FAMILY LAW CONTINUES TO APPLY IT IN COURT PROCEEDINGS.

Despite its crumbly foundation, Gardner ‘trained’ many judges and lawyers around the world to adopt PAS - including those in New Zealand.

Since then  many mothers reporting abuse of their children in Family Courts have been accused of parental alienation. When women say their children are scared to see their abusive parent, their and their children’s fears are ignored, and they are instead accused of parental alienation - or turning their children against their abusive parent. 

 

PAS used extensively in New Zealand Family Courts

Backbone has surveyed hundreds of women who have experienced abuse, and heard that accusations of parental alienation are used extensively in child custody cases in Family Courts in New Zealand.

Over half the women surveyed reported they were accused of parental alienation (or a number of other terms used to mean the same thing including: “poisoning the child”, “enmeshment” and “coaching”). They were accused of this if they raised safety concerns about their children having to spend time with their abusive father.

Backbone’s surveys also found that women were more likely to be accused of PAS if their children disclosed sexual abuse.

According to our survey responses, psychologists were the most likely group of professionals to accuse women of parental alienation in New Zealand.

Being accused of parental alienation can result in terrible and far-reaching consequences for children who have escaped abusive circumstances and become the subject of Care of Children Act proceedings. Once a woman has been labelled a ‘parental alienator’, any subsequent disclosures her children make about abuse are seen by the court as evidence of further alienation. 

Some describe it like being caught in a spider's web, where the more you struggle and try and prove the violence and abuse is real; the more tangled you become in the lies that frame you as an alienator.  

Of enormous concern, using parental alienation as evidence in Family Courts can turn a child’s journey through the Family Court into a living nightmare, as their experience of violence and abuse is not believed, and they are ordered to spend more time with their abuser. Sometimes they are even removed entirely from the care of their protective parent, under the guise that this parent is alienating the child rather than protecting them.

SOME DESCRIBE IT LIKE BEING CAUGHT IN A SPIDER’S WEB, WHERE THE MORE YOU STRUGGLE AND TRY AND PROVE THE VIOLENCE AND ABUSE IS REAL; THE MORE TANGLED YOU BECOME IN THE LIES THAT FRAME YOU AS AN ALIENATOR.

Members of The Backbone Collective tell their personal accounts of being accused of parental alienation

Two Backbone members share below their accounts of being accused of parental alienation, which resulted in terrible distress for themselves and their children.

Both women were accused of parental alienation after they and their children told professionals about the children’s experiences of violence and abuse.

Both mothers were horrified at the media coverage of Lee James’ MA thesis on parental alienation, which failed to present a balanced view of PAS, thereby gave it credibility it does not deserve, and which they argue is harmful.

Anne explains;

I was targeted and harassed and blamed by my ex’s top big city lawyer to be alienating the children from their father. Initially I was granted a Protection Order and the children were forced to see their father under supervision.
 
After one year his lawyer and lawyer for child pressured me to remove the court ordered supervision of the children. I was advised by my lawyer that if I refused this, (following the judge's recent decision to remove our Protection Order and the accusations of parental alienation), the consequences could have been dire for me.
 
We all suffered horrendous stress from being manipulated into facing psychologically damaging situations just because they didn’t believe my words, nor the children’s very own allegations of violence. 
 
Even when there was CYFs and police warnings, evidential video interviews of the children and an arrest, the Family Court ignored all the evidence showing my ex was a risk to us.  Eventually a court ordered psych report found that the children were in no way being alienated from their father- they were just scared of him because of his own behaviour toward me and them. However, the report finding didn’t appear to matter because the judge made his decision a few weeks prior to the 30 page official report release. The judge clearly didn’t “want” to hear the truth, and he actively chose to ignore it. 
 
I had no money to fight the orders made - no way to appeal. I am now deeply in debt from trying to protect the children. The damage has been and continues to be destructive to the children’s psychological well-being. It breaks my heart. 
 
How can this be in the children’s best interests? My children have begged someone, anyone to listen to them. They have been ignored as if they were just the furniture in a marital division. 
I FELT SICK LISTENING TO LEE JAMES SPEAK AS IF SHE UNDERSTOOD OUR SITUATION. SHE IS A LAWYER AND YET HER BODY OF RESEARCH HAS NOT UNCOVERED THIS FAKE THEORY’S TRUE ORIGINS?
— Anne, mother accused in the Family Court of discredited theory Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
I felt sick listening to Lee James speak as if she understood our situation. She is a lawyer and yet her body of research has not uncovered this fake theory's true origins?
 
We spent a year of utter hell putting ourselves through the trauma of litigation abuse via Family Court after leaving our abuser and initially being granted a Protection Order.
 
Hearing this interview highlights the ignorance of people in the Family Court working on cases where there has been domestic violence.
 
Slapping a disproven theory, like parental alienation into the picture only inflames the situation we have in New Zealand and leads to a cycle of greater domestic abuse in our homes. 
 
Unbelievable. Stop filling our heads with nonsense Radio NZ and investigate the term before airing something that continues to be so utterly destructive.
Unbelievable. Stop filling our heads with nonsense Radio NZ and investigate the term before airing something that continues to be so utterly destructive.
— Anne - Domestic violence survivor

Sylvia’s experience of being accused of PARENTAL alienation

Sylvia was accused of parental alienation and as a result lost care and contact with her child who she has now not seen for 18 months.

Personally, my case involved family violence experienced by myself and witnessed by my child. My child had no interest in seeing his father because of the abuse yet he was forced to by a judge who claimed he had been alienated.
 
Unbelievably the psychologist appointed to our case was still using the non-existent theory, and although he claimed there was no alienation, the very mention of the term makes me very angry.
 
It is completely misleading for the court and should not be used by any professional in Family Court matters. In our case it was very obvious that safety was a significant problem yet the Courts believed it was more detrimental for my child not to see his father than to keep him or myself safe.
 
It is well known that abusive men use the term parental alienation to gain access to their children and cut off contact with the protective parent. He has since cut off contact completely between my child and I for over 18 months now.
THE NZ PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY HAS CONDEMNED THE USE OF PARENTAL ALIENATION BY THE COURTS AND YET HERE WE HAVE A LAWYER WITH OVER 20 YEARS’ EXPERIENCE IN FAMILY LAW DOING A THESIS ON IT.
— Sylvia - Domestic violence survivor who has not seen her child for 18 months after being accused of being a parental alienator.
When I listened to Lee James speaking with Jesse Mulligan  (interview on Radio New Zealand on July 11) about parental alienation my initial thoughts were why is this continuing to be used when it has long been discredited and has absolutely no scientific basis? 
 
The NZ Psychological society has condemned the use of parental alienation by the courts and yet here we have a lawyer with over 20 years of experience in family law doing a thesis on it.
 
It sets a dangerous precedent to do research on a theory that not only has no scientific basis but is also not supported in any psychological realm in any country around the world.
 
How was Otago University able to support this research which essentialy is promoting a theory by Gardner that has been proven  through over 500 other studies to not exist? It is not a syndrome or condition recognised in the DSM-V yet here it is being used once again as if it exists and is a valid psychological condition.
 
This needs to stop. Lawyers and judges need to further educate themselves on psychological behaviours, as recognised by the psychological profession, that parents use to manipulate children, before using defunct theory to make new case law.
How was Otago University able to support this research which essentialy is promoting a theory by Gardner that has been proven  through over 500 other studies to not exist?
— Sylvia - Domestic violence survivor

 

The real story behind parental alienation accusations - NZ Family Court’s misuse of the concept of parental alienation

Backbone finds that the real story behind parental alienation accusations is very different to that presented in James’ thesis and by its media coverage.

Abusers commonly use children as tools of abuse throughout the relationship and particularly post separation. 

Often that abuse can include putting the children's mother down or calling her names, threatening the children that he will hurt or kill their mother, refusing to return children after contact, failing to care for the children safely while they are in his care and pursuing applications for full time custody in order to punish the mother. 

These tactics undermine the children's relationship with their protective parent and this type of behaviour is called domestic violence by proxy - it is a proven dynamic of domestic violence and abuse and should not be confused with the concept of parental alienation. 

 

Another way: How we should protect women and children escaping abuse

Backbone is adamant that the Family Court needs to undertake risk and safety assessments so that abusive behaviour such as that described above informs a safe response to women and children who are escaping violence and abuse.

There is no room for a tit-for-tat response that labels mothers as alienators when they disclose violence and abuse of their children - as we have read above - this is so dangerous.

There is no room for a tit for tat response that labels mothers as alienators when they disclose violence and abuse - it’s so dangerous.
— Deborah Mackenzie - Co Founder The Backbone Collective

Backbone believes that the Family Court needs independent child advocates who understand the dynamics of domestic violence and child abuse to assess for risk and listen to children’s wishes. Legislation and reunification programmes proposed by Lee James to respond to the debunked concept of parental alienation will only make it easier to force children into unsafe care arrangements.

It is hard to understand why New Zealand Family lawyers and educators like the University of Otago’s Law School continue referring to a theory that no other professional or medical bodies recognise or support.

Why does PAS keep sticking like mud to the walls of Family Court rooms? It causes immeasurable harm to children whose stories of abuse are discounted by PAS, and whose parents that protect them are taken away and replaced by their abusers.

It is inexplicable why a thesis based on a defunct theory was ever allowed to be published - much less under the auspices of a university institution. How was the topic of this thesis ever accepted and nurtured into the resulting thesis?

It is inexplicable why a thesis based on a defunct theory was ever allowed to be published - much less under the auspices of a university institution.
— The Backbone Collective

Finally, why did journalists covering the thesis’ release not do their due diligence and report truthfully and factually on PAS instead of presenting only half the story?

We hope that one day, New Zealand’s Family Lawyers and Courts will listen to the world’s mental-health experts and stop using PAS as evidence against women who are trying to protect their children from further harm. Only then will we have a better chance at healing our broken system that responds to women and children who report abuse and violence.

Until then we must push the media to tell the truth and the whole story about PAS so it starts to be discredited for the debunked and dangerous theory that it really is.

You can read more about parental alienation in the NZ Family Court by reading our reports

 
 

about the backbone collective

New Zealand has the highest rate of women experiencing violence and abuse in the developed world, which is due in part to our broken response system.
The Backbone Collective is an independent body taking action to change New Zealand's dire statistics by examining the response system through the eyes of its users - women who have experienced violence and abuse.
Please join us as either a woman who has experienced violence or abuse, or as a volunteer who wants to help by volunteering your time, services or expertise.
Many reports have been written about where the system is broken but they have fallen on deaf ears. We think that Government and others in a position of power will start listening when hundreds, and potentially thousands, of women speak up about what needs to change.
 

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