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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Can Policemen Be Trained to Identify Parental Alienation? (Not Kidding Here, Unfortunately)

I hear from concerned people in the Netherlands that a new issue about “parental alienation” (PA) has arisen. Not only are some divorced parents accused of “alienating” children who do not want to have contact with the other parent, even though many factors other than alienating behavior are likely to be responsible for the children’s attitudes, and not only is notional PA argued to be a reason for prohibiting contact between children and their preferred parents. Now, in addition, it has been proposed that policemen can be trained to identify PA cases!

Let’s examine this proposal under a strong light.

The first question we need to ask is a simple but critical one: can anyone identify PA? Is there any established, evidence-based protocol that can be used to differentiate PA cases from other cases in which children’s refusal can be based on a range of causes, from domestic violence and abuse to dislike of a step-parent or step-sibling to situations where contact with one parent interferes with sports or friendships?

No, there is no such method. Identification of PA cases is a subjective process based on the opinions of PA proponents. In no case does such identification involve observation or even corollary evidence for alienating behavior by preferred parents. In a few cases known to me, the PA identification did not even consider whether a child had refused contact. In one I can think of, a girl actually asked to have contact with her father and he refused on the ground that she would accuse him of molesting her if he saw her; he stated that he planned to send her to boarding school if he got custody. In another case, a 17-year-old who had for years been alternating weeks at her mother’s and father’s houses said she needed more stability and wanted to have a “home” at her mother’s house while continuing to visit her father, and this was alleged to be a PA case.

Interestingly, Richard Warshak, a long-term proponent of PA and supporter of the Family Bridges treatment, has written of his concerns about false positive identifications of PA and about the need to discriminate between PA and other causes of contact refusal. He appears to  recognize that children have been identified as PA cases when in fact they were not. (Although Warshak did not express concern about this point, the consequences of PA identification can include custody change and prohibition of contact with the preferred parent as well as court orders for that parent to pay extravagant fees for PA treatment. As PA proponents also argue that PA is child abuse, such parents are in danger of being affected personally and professionally when mistakenly identified as abusers.) However, Warshak did not mention false negative cases in which PA was not identified even though it was present. I assume that this means that he feels all PA cases—and then some—are being identified, and that only one kind of mistake is being made: the mistake that has the most obvious and serious bad consequences for the child and the preferred parent.

So it seems that nobody can clearly identify PA in a way that would allow others to confirm the identification. On the contrary, people are concluding that PA is present when even its proponents admit that this may not be correct. Among the undesirable consequences of this situation are possibilities that a child’s custody may be given to a genuinely abusive parent—and research has already indicated that this has happened.

Let’s get back to these policemen in the Netherlands. Can they be trained to assess PA? Well, it’s possible that they could, IF anyone else was able to make this assessment. As there is no one who can identify PA validly and reliably, with some known proportion of false positives and false negatives, it would appear that we have nobody to train the policemen. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

One more point: when child custody evaluations are done, they are supposed to include information from corollary sources. What do neighbors, teachers, grandparents, family friends think about the parents and children? Has domestic violence formed part of the background for the child’s refusal? Gathering this kind of information takes time and expertise. No doubt policemen could be trained to do this, but it hardly seems like their job. Of course, PA proponents are not doing this kind of investigation either, even though it should be part of their job.

Perhaps the conclusion here should be that policemen are just as capable as PA proponents of identifying PA: in other words, not particularly capable at all, and possibly not particularly interested in doing the job as they should.

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