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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Professional Parent Alienation Syndrome: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

More news about Eve Innocenti, whose Kafka-esque case was discussed on this blog a few days ago. Eve was present by telephone at a meeting with social workers to discuss her being allowed to have contact with her children, who are now with their father and stepmother except when they are in residential treatment or a therapeutic foster home supervised by the attachment therapist we referred to as Woodrow Thynne.

Here’s what Eve was told: she may not have contact with the children unless she states that she abused and neglected them when they were in her care. Her refusal to “take responsibility” by dropping her denials of these accusations is interpreted as symptomatic of an ongoing emotional disturbance. As long as she denies guilt, say the social workers, she cannot help her children “heal” from the impact of what she is said to have done.

What is she accused of doing? Here’s an interesting thing: in a further Kafka touch, no one will tell her. She has been told that what she must do is to make a written list of bad things she did to the children, and the social workers will check it against what the children say. However, the children’s guardian ad litem has told Eve that in fact the accusations are related to information in letters from the children’s schools a year after they went to live with father and stepmother--  and these were not the same schools they attended when living with Eve.

Did the unspecified allegations then come from the interpretations teachers placed on things the children said, spontaneously or perhaps not so spontaneously? Maybe--  but let’s not forget that one of the techniques of attachment therapy can be to have children repeat over and over words given to them by the therapist, stating their hatred for a past caregiver and describing the awful things she did. This is considered to be expressing emotion, but can easily be a matter of putting words in a child’s mouth. Statements by children that were clearly guided or suggested by a questioner are not admissible in court, and in fact court-related interviews with children about their experiences are videotaped to show whether suggestions were given. A therapist may not appear in court, and if he or she does appear, a videotape of the therapy session is not usually requested. Certainly the alleged letters from the schools did not include videotaped evidence of the children’s statements.

It’s understandable that decisions regarding children should be made in a more private manner and with fewer procedural constraints than are found in a criminal court. Either adult or child behaviors may not reach a criminal level, but may show the need for some type of protection of the child that will prevent worse from happening. But have we not seen enough abuses of this special kind of court proceeding? A year or two ago, we had  juvenile court judges of Luzerne County, PA  sending children to prison-like residential situations and receiving financial kickbacks from the operators. This morning’s New York Times discusses reform of the Shelby County, Tennessee system that has mistreated juveniles for many years.

The particular abuse that Eve is experiencing—refusal of information and treatment of her denial as if it were an especially serious form of confession—is one that has also been experienced by fathers falsely accused of sexual abuse of their children. It could not happen when adults are tried in a civil or criminal court, but it is far from unknown in juvenile proceedings, and is largely connected with one tradition in U.S. social work. This tradition goes back to the days of the “psychiatric social worker”, and follows an intensely psychodynamic pattern of interpretation in which either confession or denial can be taken to mean guilt and in which actions can be attributed to repressed impulses; it does not, however, seem to include the possibility of false confessions resulting from persuasion. The tradition also interprets denial of accusations as evidence that an emotional disturbance not only existed in the past, but still exists, and will have deleterious effects on the children if any contact is allowed.

This tradition has the capacity to wreck lives and to violate the civil rights of both parents and children. It is ironic but unsurprising that practitioners who believe that loss of attachment figures is a primary cause of mental illness feel that such a loss, when engineered by the therapists themselves, is to the benefit of the children. It is also unsurprising that the therapists interpret the distress of a mother who has effectively lost her children as evidence of mental illness and as a reason why she should be denied contact. When we mingle the psychodynamic social work tradition with attachment therapy, as well, we need not be surprised at the circularity of reasoning that states that children who have been diagnosed with a form of attachment disorder must by definition have been abused or neglected, and that the diagnosis itself is evidence that a caregiver has done wrong.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years of the so-called “Parental Alienation Syndrome”, a behavior pattern in which one member of a divorcing couple accuses the other of abuse, both publicly and in direct communication with the children. The goal is to destroy the children’s regard for the accused parent and to maximize the accuser’s custodial power. This behavior does exist, of course, although it is probably a mistake to call it a “syndrome” and thus imply that it is a useful diagnostic category of mental illness. In Eve’s case, however, we seem to be seeing a new version of parental alienation, performed by professionals as they exercise what Oscar Wilde called “officialism”. The social workers, the therapist Woodrow Thynne, court functionaries, and others have dedicated themselves to alienation of a parent and destruction of her children’s regard for her. Strangely, it seems that efforts to work with and support a parent who had been genuinely abusive would be pursued with energy, while the opposite is being done in this case--  the energy is devoted to alienation.   

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