Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Monday, July 22, 2013

Kafka Meets Parental Alienation Syndrome in Canada

On July 18, I posted follow-up comments on a situation in Colorado, where a mother whose parental rights have not been legally terminated has been prevented for years from seeing her children. The father and stepmother of one child had custody of that boy and his half-brother, but sought the care of an “attachment therapist” who placed the boys in therapeutic foster care and recommended to the courts that they not be in contact with their biological mother, against whom there have been no charges of abuse or neglect. The mother has run through all her resources. A lawyer who was consulted about the matter says that she may as well pretend that her children were run over by a bus, because she will never get them back or get any redress from the county and its employees, who are protected by law from complaints about their actions. This mother, by the way, even proposed voluntarily to relinquish her custody of the children, with the hope of being able to tell her story in court, but was told that she could not do so unless she came for counseling--  although of course the court can terminate her parental rights. She has also been told that her therapist’s statement that she is psychologically normal cannot be correct.

This Kafkaesque situation, where an individual bears the burden of punishment without being accused or sentenced, and where the person is essentially pressed to confess something unknown and to execute himself, can occur because citizens have no recourse against human services and child protective services functionaries. These people can operate outside the law to a considerable extent, or, to be more accurate, can easily bring the forces of the law to support their own decisions. Although most such workers are well-intentioned and do their best in difficult situations, there are a number who are loose cannons, and woe to those who get in the line of fire.

Now, it seems that Kafka has also been visiting Canada. To further complicate the matter, his visit there is in connection with the highly problematic Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). The term PAS is used to allude to the fact that a very small number of divorcing parents make a point of persuading their children, inaccurately, that the other parent is abusive and dangerous. Unfortunately, as occurs when a little boy gets hold of a hammer and finds a lot of things that need to be banged, some practitioners have generalized the PAS concept to apply to almost any case where a child prefers one parent to another or seems afraid of one parent. In these cases, too, the practitioners say, an “alienating parent” must have acted to create the child’s mind-set, and therefore the feared parent should be given custody of the child, who should be protected against the abusive alienating tactics of the first parent.

Of course there are children who are alienated from one parent, but to say this is an identifiable “syndrome” is at the very least premature and may simply be wrong. In a small number of cases, the alienation may have been worked by the other parent. In some cases, alienation may have occurred because a parent is genuinely someone to be feared, abusive, threatening, or bizarre in behavior. In still others, alienation is situational; for example, toddlers and preschoolers may show distress and reluctance to engage with a parent who has been absent, simply because this behavior reflects their mourning response when an attachment figure goes away for a period of time. If the absence has been long enough, they are not happy to see the person return, and rather than a joyful reunion they display their anger and detachment, greatly distressing the parent who did not anticipate or understand this normal behavior (and who may assume that the custodial parent has caused the problem).

Proponents of the PAS hypothesis, like Richard Gardner and Richard Warshak, also suggested a form of therapy for alienated children. Assuming that the children had been “brainwashed” into disliking one parent, they assumed that a “reverse brainwashing” or “deprogramming” was needed, in which the children were isolated from the “alienating parent” and persuaded that their beliefs were wrong, then placed with the disliked parent. PAS or no PAS, effective treatment or no effective treatment, Gardner and Warshak should be given some credit for limiting this approach to children older than eight.

However, a Toronto family has given me many details about a custody case where the father claimed PAS, and a toddler and a preschooler were put into a form of treatment whose effects raise the most serious questions. The children, now 6 and not quite 5, were in this “PAS therapy” for a couple of years, and now are in their father’s custody. The mother has not seen them for 6 months and is told (here’s the Kafka part) that she cannot see them unless she admits that she “alienated” them from the father and goes into therapy with the practitioner chosen by the father. According to what has been told to me, a child protective services worker has told the mother that she will probably not see these children until they are adults. A complaint to the Ontario College of Psychologists remains under investigation after a year. The mother’s parental rights have not been terminated legally.

Let me give some details about this early-childhood “PAS therapy” as told me by a family member. Only the father attended these treatment sessions, but the aftereffects were seen and documented by other family members. The children reported that they had been sat upon and lain upon. One stated that the father had pushed his fingers hard into her tummy, the other that the father pushed his head hard into the wall. (These actions, by the way, are characteristic of the more severe forms of holding therapy.) The children had bruises, puncture marks, and cuts, the last being explained in court as due to “playing swordfighting”with plastic mixing spoons with the father during the treatment session. On one occasion, the children came out of a late afternoon session falling asleep and their behavior seemed so unusual that they were taken to their pediatrician, who advised that they be seen at a hospital. One child slept a great deal for three days, was not hungry, but drank a lot. “She talked about colours while looking at her fingers wiggling and seeing things on the ceiling that weren’t there. Her breathing was fast and shallow” and she was restless. The children also mentioned being told to look at a moving “wand” that was waved near their eyes.

I am describing these effects in the hope that someone may recognize what is happening here and get in touch. It seems impossible that this frightening treatment was invented for use with these two young children; there must be others out there who have been through it. Of course, it is reminiscent of many alternative treatments, including holding therapy, some rogue versions of sensory integration therapy, and even EMDR. The location in Toronto brings back memories of the documentary “Warrendale”, banned from television for some years, that showed holding therapy at work in Ontario.

Like the Colorado mother, the Toronto mother has exhausted her resources. She cannot afford legal representation, and even if she were willing to “confess” actions that she did not do, she could not pay for the treatment she is supposed to receive. In addition, if she did “confess” and enter treatment, what are the chances that she would ever be declared to be good enough to have contact with her children?


If anyone has any ideas about what is going on here, or what can be done in either of these cases, I hope you will contact me.     

9 comments:

  1. because i don't have your email address i an not sure hoe to send you things...interesting qualified professional help never seemed to be an option??? http://www.ilovepurplemorethanyou.com/2013/07/adoption-when-violence-enters-home.html

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  2. and this https://www.facebook.com/Zehlahlum/posts/572056959499741

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    1. jean.mercer@stockton.edu will find me.

      My guess about the posts you sent links to, is that the people's definitions of qualified professional help are problematic. If you seek out people who specialize in the problem you have selected for your child-- why would they be likely to look for other difficulties in the child, in the situation, in you?

      I do wonder what difference it would have made in that one case if the martial arts had not been a focus.

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  3. Again, I can't believe this kind of thing is possible. It's scary, really! I have been divorced and my ex did ultimately sign away his rights and allow my current husband to legally adopt my daughter. I didn't force him and I've always been of the impression that I never could have because proving him unfit would be impossible (he was a bad dad, but not "unfit" by legal definition). It seems, however, that in some cases people are able to full the courts and CPS into believing a load of BS. How is that possible? How are so many, otherwise intellegent people, lacking in common sense? How can anyone think that the way to fix "brainwashing" (if it even exists) is by more brainwashing? As a social worker in training, I have a lot of work ahead of me if I want to make any kind of difference it seems.

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    1. You're right,there is incredible stuff out here-- so thank goodness people like you are going into the field!

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  4. Wikipedia claims "Warrendale" was filmed in Toronto:

    "The film is a cinéma vérité look at the lives of emotionally disturbed children housed in a Toronto facility named Warrendale."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warrendale

    I find it most shocking that the authorities are sitting on this complaint of child abuse.

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    1. By the way, I put out a query to a psychology and law listserv, asking if anyone had ever heard of this treatment,or any PAS treatment for preschool children. Nary a reply, even from some list members who are always ready to weigh in. I don't know what that means.

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  5. For the record, Warshak says that in considering cases of possible parental alienation seperation anxiety, preference for one parent, alienation because the parent was somehow abusive or neglectful, and the child simply being angry with the parent over divorcing should be considered. And his recommended treatment for what he considers "brainwashing" is to have the child and alienated parent meet in a neutral location without the alienating parent so they can reasess the relationship. It's certainly nothing like that, although it doesn't surprise me the AT folk are now preying on the idea of parental alienation.

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    1. Of course you're right, this is what Warshak has said and I believe it was what was practiced at the (now defunct?) Rachel Foundation. It's also my impression that Gardner and Warshak did not think the description or the treatment applied appropriately to young children.

      So, whence this Toronto treatment? It does seem to be an AT or, more generally, coercive approach that has simply borrowed the language of PAS.

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