Controlling twelve horses running and pulling a wagon about to break, with us as the driver, is a metaphor that can be related to the practice of parent-child reunification and its various means. Over the past two years we have been heavily involved in dozens of cases as experts appointed by a family court, working with both rejected fathers and mothers. About half of these have entailed the severe alienation of parents who were disconnected from their children for over six months to five years.
In our practice we have met few parents whose conscious intention was to prevent the other parent from a role in forming their child’s life. While claiming that they want their child to have two parents they, still nevertheless, fuel the child’s split identification. The minimising of this total dissonance is what we experience as one of our main challenges. It is not easy to intervene in these complex cases and much assertiveness is needed to gain some control over these turmoiled families.
When preferred parents say they want the child to have two parents, we attempt to believe them until they prove otherwise. In these families, bi-directional accusations by the parents tend to be overwhelming and we try to avoid ‘stories from the past’ as much as possible; we prefer to rely on our own impressions, based on what we see and hear on ‘our shift.’ In a battlefield full of mines, our own impressions are often the single solid piece of ground to rest our foot on.
Framed as narcissistic personality disorder, or borderline, or both or any other, these categories merely help us understand the heavy transference and countertransference we feel with these parents. These cases come up in our dreams, when we brush our teeth or meditate. They bring us to extreme levels of frustration, to moments of losing our cool with a parent, carrying the real potential for mental and physical burnout.
In a descriptive account of the clinical challenge with preferred parents, as an alternative to psychiatric disorder diagnosis, we would describe the difficulty as such: these are parents who are made conscious of their contribution to their child’s unbearable tension amidst their ongoing contention, and yet are unable to realise and/or regulate their part in it. So whatever personality disorder they may have, we find ourselves working with a parent that willingly or not needs to stop his psychological pressure to delegitimise their child’s human affinity to his other good-enough parent. And due to these extremely complex interpersonal situations between parents, empathic therapeutic strategies often seem insufficient. In addition to a practitioner with solid therapeutic stamina, a strong judge is also essential. As one of Israel’s more decisive family court judges lately wrote in his final ruling on an alienation case, ‘a judge in these cases needs to hold the boundaries and “to grab the bull by its horns” and, referring to the preferred parent, “especially if it’s a wild bull”.’
Whilst a rejected parent’s parenting deficiencies can never be considered to be the cause of an alienation reaction in a child, as clinicians working to restore the relationship between the child and the rejected parent, we sometimes need to address potential shortcomings, such as a lack of presence or intimacy, or a tendency to be too harsh, in order to help the child reconnect to their natural attachment bond. This can be difficult for rejected parents who may experience this as being blamed for what has happened.
During the last two years, parental alienation has become a burning issue in Israel, both clinically and politically. It has been regularly debated in the public arenas of welfare services and workers’ skills, legislation and court interference, clinical practice and expertise, and in the formal and social medias. A strong opposition to the concept of parental alienation and reunification processes is heard by a group of women’s organisations and some prominent family lawyers. Their main claims are that parental alienation is an invented phenomenon, unproven in empirical research, and is often claimed by abusive fathers in order to cover up their faults. Not least, that it also traumatises children under unregulated interventions, which is an immoral practice that overlooks children’s rights.
Under such clinical and morally charged discourse we, as practitioners, are also keen for more research-based practice; and we also struggle with dilemmas about the forcing of children to re-establish their relationship with a parent. While children (at least overtly) object, refuse, or fear to do so, it is our responsibility to weigh the clinical risks. As clinicians, in an emerging field of work which is currently unregulated, we are faced with criticism that the interventions we use increase pressure upon children whose lives are already replete with emotional difficulties. Whilst pressure in reunification processes may appear to cause regression in mental stabilities, the short term problems are recognised as being outweighed with the long term mental, emotional and psychological impacts for children who are left to spontaneously reconnect with a parent.
All these phenomena are known to be true and are to be expected both by us and by parents who should be responsible for supervising their child and seeking professional assistance and guidance. Are we “adding trauma to trauma” like one of us was accused of by a lawyer in one of our court interrogations? Relying on over twenty years of interventions with complex families, including family violence and child maltreatment, we feel we must also weigh the alternative risks of leaving these children to their stated will of spontaneous recovery. More than once we found ourselves in court interrogations, or in policy discussions with public servants, arguing that, to think that by refraining from intervening with alienated children, we free them from potential psychological harm – is somewhere between naivety and clinical maltreatment. In other words, there are risks in intervening and risks in not.
The accusations of ‘adding trauma to trauma’ are unfounded, because people, including children, prove resilient to most challenging situations. In a children’s refuge centre, where one of the authors has worked in the past, on visiting days, severely abused children eagerly waited for their abusive parents at the window, simultaneously holding on to their attachment to, and their trauma from, their parent. Complete rejection of a parent by a child is an extreme psychological and worrying mindset, and a gradual, supervised exposure to a rejected parent – the ascribed source of fear and anxiety - is better than letting the real or invented trauma live its own life. Our clinical standpoint, therefore, is that allowing a child to decide or maintain his denial of a good-enough parent who is alive and currently wants to build a healthy relationship with him, carries traumatic qualities as well; they could be analogical to being half blind or without one hand, facts that one can outlive, but carry dramatic limitations.
Until the qualification and skills of clinical practice in this field are more formally regulated, the acknowledgement of such risks can enhance risk-reduction practices: constructing multi-system interventions that check and balance one another (courts, welfare agencies, private practitioners, long-term follow up), requiring that practitioners work under supervision and remain ever careful and skeptical, realising that we are in an developing field. Cases of problematic parenting call for parental guidance, therapy, or supportive mentoring for any parent who is interested in changing. Due to child safety issues and the high prevalence of false or exaggerated allegations against rejected parents, screening for abusive or neglectful parenting is key to this practice, and may usually be assisted by past and current available reports of welfare/mental health/law enforcement agencies. In our practice, less than 10% of cases in which a child has rejected a parent have resulted from emotionally abusive parents to a degree that made their children’s rejection seem plausible behaviour. For these parents, reunification remained a worthy goal, but with some different routes and emphasis.
Accusations of immoral aspects in the authoritative elements of reunification processes stem from children’s rights discourse, arguing that such interventions threaten the child’s sense of autonomy. Indeed, children may experience oppressive feelings during these procedures. However, the developing of traits of self-centred grandiosity and a lack of empathy run counter to moral behaviour in interpersonal relationships, in family ties even more so. We often tell the resisting child, who inevitably holds a limited perspective on life, that when he’ll turn twenty-five, or on his wedding day – he will better understand the court intervening to restore the relationship with his rejected parent. Supporting children to work through family relationship problems and assisting them to overcome anxieties for the cause of recovering family ties may be argued to be the most moral thing to do for alienated children.
We believe that for judges to execute productive and brave rulings in cases of alienation, they need skilled and experienced practitioners to present an accumulated abundance of solid, logical and persuasive interventions. In this regard, earlier this month, a bench of three district court judges (Heb: mechozi) denied an appeal by several Women’s Organisations, asking the court to order the Ministry of Welfare to reject a literature review on parental alienation that was written and handed in by us in February 2020. Their claims were in line with the oppositional arguments mentioned above.
This ruling is a move in the right direction for children in Israel who are disconnected from a parent as a result of alienation. Over the past two years in Israel, there has been a rise of 300% in new court cases involving alienation. Until this field develops to become a recognised, differentiated child maltreatment phenomenon and a formally trained clinical skill of practice, we designate for ourselves and our judges one challenge each. The American Psychosocial Association’s ethical principles section 2.01e on boundaries of competence states that 'in those emerging areas in which generally recognised standards for preparatory training do not yet exist, psychologists nevertheless take reasonable steps to ensure the competence of their work and to protect clients.’ This is our responsibility as practitioners: careful practice and cumulative, sound research. But, for us to do our work, we need the courts who appoint us to protect us more decisively. The courts and judges must see themselves as being responsible for protecting us - in court procedures and on social media - from unprofessional, extrinsic, and often vicious personal attacks. Otherwise there will be few clinicians in any country who are fit and willing, for the sake of disconnected children, to drive a broken wagon that’s being pulled by 12 wild horses.
At the forthcoming Zagreb conference, we will share some of the major challenges and dilemmas connected with this work in Israel. We were looking forward to meeting practitioners from other
countries, face-to-face, so as to share and hear how they find their encounter with this professional experience- personally, clinically, and politically. Although the Corona virus means that the
conference has moved online, our wish remains the same: to share, support and be supported by other practitioners working to reconnect children and parents who for no justifiable reason live
their lives apart. Though the occasion has shifted, we still wish to share some common themes and experiences from our child-parent reunification work in Israel. Hopefully this will be a first
step in an ongoing dialogue to improve our highly needed practice with a demanding, controversial, and emotionally charged family phenomenon.
Dr. Benjamin Bailey is a social worker and a psychotherapist. He is a faculty member in the department of criminology at Western Galilee College, Acre, Israel.
Inbal Kivenson Bar-On, PhD, is a lecturer at University of Haifa, teaching at child disorder department and counselling and human development faculty.