Published May 1, 2003 by Paper presented at Child Sexual Abuse: Justice Response or Alternative Resolution Conference, Australian Inst. of Criminology
Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Paradigm For Child Abuse In Austrailian Family Law
by Dr. Elspeth McInnes
This paper argues that the absence of a publicly funded investigative capacity in the Family Court of Australia when there are allegations of child abuse by a parent, creates the conditions for the de facto operating presumption of the Parental Alienation Syndrome paradigm in the courts. This paradigm, at its simplest, insists that claims of serious child abuse are invented and that children’s statements and manifestations of fear are the outcome of parental coaching. Without a publicly funded professional child protection investigative service available to inform the family court, the private adversarial system of family law commonly fails to substantiate allegations of child abuse, thereby systematically producing the outcome that child abuse allegations will be deemed to be false. Safety for children in family law proceedings who are subject to abuse depends on access to a professional investigative service to inform the court, and a redefinition of a child’s best interests in the Family Law Act to give safety the highest value.
The presumption that allegations of paternal child abuse in the context of family law proceedings are false products of a vindictive and vengeful mother is an approach which is common to followers of Parental Alienation Syndrome and fathers’ rights groups. The absence of a specialist public professional child abuse investigative service for the Family Court means that allegations are normally doomed to be defined as unsubstantiated. With no way to prove them true, allegations of abuse are routinely argued to be false. This in turn reinscribes the PAS paradigm in the lived experiences of family law officers and ancillary service providers such as legal aid officers, counsellors, mediators and lawyers. The popularity of the PAS paradigm survives extensive empirical research findings showing that false allegations of child abuse are very much the exception rather than the rule (Brown et al 2001a; Humphreys 1999; McDonald 1998; Parkinson 1990, 1990a, 1998).
I want to make a distinction in this paper between some practices of ‘parental alienation’ and the content of the Parental Alienation Syndrome paradigm. Generally the term ‘parental alienation’ in the context of parental separation has come to refer to practices by a separated parent of disrupting and denigrating a child’s relationship with their other parent to give expression to their own hostility towards the other parent. Such behaviours may include:
•denigrating the other parent in front of the child,
•condemning aspects of the child’s appearance or conduct as being just like the other parent,
•expressing anger if the child speaks positively about the other parent
•preventing communication between the child and the other parent
These behaviours express adult-centred emotions with harmful effects for the children who are prevented from enjoying a relationship with their other parent without pressure and interference (Lodge 1998). Despite the ‘alienating parent’s reactions, many children maintain positive feelings for their other parent and may even resent the hostility of the alienating parent, specifically when they have not been exposed to any violence or abuse. In contrast, expressions of fear, disclosures of abuse, emphatic rejection of the abusing parent and a strong connection with the protective parent are consistent with exposure to abuse. Yet these are the main symptoms given for the PAS paradigm.
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