Meeting the professionals

Once you're in the court process, it is inevitable that you will encounter the professionals who work around it. In many jurisdictions, the courts are advised by professionals to help them make decisions about what should happen in disputes about children. In the United States, this is normally a custody evaluator. In England, it is predominantly those who work for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) - Cafcass Cymru, in Wales. In Australia, a similar function is carried out by family consultants and in other countries, such as Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Canada, South Africa, mainland Europe and other parts of the world, this work is undertaken by specific agencies or by social workers, Guardians Ad Litem and other related professionals. In most cases, these professionals are charged with providing the court with an independent assessment of the issues in the case and advising the judge hearing the case to make decisions about arrangements for the children. It's important to know what their specific role is in your particular country, state or territory. Information about this can be found online or through legal professionals.

 

Family court report writers will normally interview both the parents and the children involved in any disputed case and make recommendations based on these and on any paperwork that has been made available to them. Whilst it would be foolish and wrong to castigate all of the professionals and agencies who carry out this work, many work to very high standards, our experience in cases both the United Kingdom and around the world is that reports are often poor, demonstrating a lack of understanding and knowledge about the issues that families face as they go through high conflict separation or the ways in which children present in such cases. Equally, the growing trend to involve children in court proceedings has resulted in many court report writers overly relying on children's 'wishes and feelings' to guide their recommendations.

 

Wherever you live in the world, it is worth remembering that any assessment of you and your family is as likely to be at least as much a subjective process as it is an objective one. Even the most experienced of professionals will bring, at least to some extent, a degree of subjective judgement into their dealings with your family. That is unavoidable. But, in family matters, where policy and practice are invariably driven by stereotypes and political agendas, you are likely to face a whole lot of assumptions and personal subjective judgements. This may surprise you. Most people like to conceptualise the law and legal processes as being objective, analytical and applied equally to everyone. However, it is useful to separate the different strands of the legal process out and recognise that different approaches work better in different circumstances.

 

With the best will in the world, most social workers and other family court report writers will only have a short time in which to prepare their assessment of your family's situation and decide what will be in the best interests of your children. They may, in addition to talking to you, your children and their other parent, spend a little time looking at the paperwork. From this, they may draw some immediate conclusions about the case, who is responsible for what and what the causes are likely to be. In cases of alienation, the reports will almost certainly contain information stating that your child does not wish to see you. They may also include suggestions as to why your child is rejecting you and even specific allegations made against you. This becomes the background to your case and will create an impression about who you are in the mind of the reporter, even before they have met you. In addition to this, they may have met your child's other parent and your child before they interview you. Again, this will prepare the ground upon which the reporter bases their evaluation. Added to this, the report writer may be steeped in their own personal assumptions about the 'proper' roles for mothers and fathers and the ways in which men and women should experience their parenting. And, of course, they may well have very gendered expectations about the way that mothers and fathers, men and women, 'should' behave. Failure to take account of these things when dealing with professionals who are writing reports for the court – whether they are court officials, social workers, therapists or psychologists – can have a seriously detrimental impact on your case.

 

The following points can help you avoid the pitfalls:

 

Be aware of the negative preconceptions

Any professional charged with writing a report for the court is likely to have already read some of the paperwork and spoken to other professionals in the case. They may also have spoken to your child and their other parent. This means that they will have already formed a picture of who you are, how you behave and what your motivations are. Spend some time working out what these will be, based on your own understanding of how you are being portrayed. Have you been accused of being a bully, of being inflexible, of being violent or abusive, of being concerned only with your rights and not your children's welfare? Write down all the things that you know, or suspect, are being said about you and then work out what will reinforce these preconceptions and what will help to dispel them.

 

Understand the gender stereotypes

In North America, Europe, Australia and many other parts of the world, we like to believe that we live in a 'gender neutral' world where women can be structural engineers and men can be full-time parents. And, it is true, that over the last thirty years or so, many of the gender barriers have been challenged and the roles that men and women are expected to take up are more fluid than they perhaps were for previous generations. However, it is a mistake to believe that they no longer exist, especially in the world of family breakdown where post separation roles and expectations remain, largely, very rigid. For example, mothers who choose not to take up the main care for their children after separation are often negatively judged for not being sufficiently maternal. Equally, fathers who want to be very closely involved in their children's lives after separation are often considered to be doing so as a way of controlling mother or reducing child support payments. Similarly, the behaviours of men and women are often judged against gender norms. For example, we often work with fathers who believe that the more they show the report writer how upset they are by what has happened, the more sympathy they will receive. In reality, the reverse is often true. Whereas mothers who display anxiety and tears are often viewed sympathetically, fathers who do the same often find that they are described in the report as being unstable and overly emotional and this is then given as a reason why the child is rejecting. Likewise, mothers who show too little emotion can find themselves described as detached and uncaring. Think about the gender assumptions that may be present and make sure that you don't challenge them too greatly.

 

Remember you're being subjectively assessed

Given that any professionals who are tasked with preparing reports about you and your family are already likely to have negative preconceptions and gender assumptions about you, it is as important to concentrate on dispelling these as much as it is to present your version of events. Don't forget that the spotlight is already on you. You have already been presented as 'the problem' and the reason why your child refuses to see you. Just focussing on the facts and presenting timelines and evidence to show that, actually, it is the other parent who is the problem is unlikely to make much difference. That's not to say that you shouldn't lay out the facts as you see them but remember that it is who you are that is being assessed just as much as what has happened. Think about the kind of person you want the professional to feel they have met. Try to remain relaxed rather than being agitated. Be warm and friendly without being overwhelming. Show concern but don't break down. Talk about your love for your child but don't say you will die without them. Remain focussed on what you can offer your child not on the fact that your child has been taken from you. Gently challenge any factual inaccuracies but avoid getting into an argument. Make sure your home is as warm and child-friendly as you can make it but don't turn it into shrine to your child. Don't attack the other parent. Don't make a psychiatric diagnosis of the other parent (you're not a psychiatrist). Don't use the word alienation. Be as 'vanilla' (plain and ordinary) as you can be.

 

Don't argue your case too vehemently

It's quite natural to want to make your case as clearly as possible with anyone associated with the court process. You will know your case inside out and will probably have researched parental alienation and children's rejecting behaviour online and in books. You may have discussed your situation with other parents in a similar position, with friends, relatives and, possibly, with parental support organisations. You may believe that you know exactly what has happened and what needs to be done to remedy it and you have, quite possibly, amassed huge amounts of information and evidence to support your case. It is, therefore, not surprising that you will want to tell this to any social workers, report writers or psychologists that you see as part of the process. However, whilst it is important that you talk about the things that you feel may have contributed to the situation you have found yourself in, it is a mistake to imagine that you will be able to win the case by presenting all of the evidence you have to the professional. In fact, given the subjective nature of the process, it may actually make things worse to do so as you run the risk of appearing to be all the things that you have been described as being by the other parent; difficult, argumentative, un-empathic, fixed in your thinking, intense, overbearing, demanding and unwilling to recognise the part you have played in your child's rejection of you. Remember that whoever you are meeting is not there to carry out a forensic examination of the facts but to get an overview of what they feel may be behind your child's rejection and how each of the parents may have contributed to it. It's also important to think about how you present your position; the more dogmatic you are, the more likely you are to be judged as having been responsible for the position you are in. So, think about the language you use and how you can soften it. Use phrases such as 'it feels like' or 'I sometimes wonder' to ameliorate statements when talking to professionals. For example, if you are asked why you believe your children are refusing to see you, it is unwise to simply state that it's because their mother has poisoned them against you. Instead, you could try something like, 'I really wish I knew... my relationship with the children was great and they used to love being here, but that seemed to change when their mum moved in with her new partner.' If you are told that the children's father has accused you of acting irrationally and unpredictably, don't respond by demanding that the professional recognises that it is the children's father who is irrational and unpredictable. Instead, try a response like, 'that's not something I recognise and I'm surprised that he should say that. My focus is simply finding a way for the children to have a relaxed relationship with both of us.' Rather than saying, 'it's obvious to anyone that what she's doing to my children is child abuse!' it's better to say something like, 'I do feel that some of their mother's behaviours are causing the children distress and I'm concerned that that might be behind their refusal to see me.' Always remember that the court is the place to argue detail about your case. That is where you can present evidence and arguments and also where you can unpick the arguments put forward by the other side. Trying to do that with an evaluator, social worker or psychologist is likely to be very frustrating and, in some cases, counter-productive.

 

Decide what impression you want to leave

Given that you may feel uncertain about what to expect when you meet someone appointed to write a report about you and your family, and given that you will almost certainly have huge amounts of things that you want to get across, it can be a good idea to decide, in advance, what impression you want to convey about who you are. In business, this technique is used in to help ensure that key messages are conveyed in meetings. For example, in a selling environment, the seller may wish to leave the potential buyer with three key messages. These might be that the product meets their needs, that prices may be open to negotiation and that your company is friendly and trustworthy. Taking this 'three key messages' approach to your meetings with family court report writers and others involved in assessing your case can help to ensure that you stay focussed and that you're less likely to stray into areas that you feel are less helpful and may later regret. Try to keep these messages broad and not too complex. It may be extremely difficult to convince someone that your child has been deliberately turned against you, or that the allegations made against you have been fabricated, so save that for the court where you are able to present evidence and illuminate events. Instead, think about the picture that has been painted about who you are and how you can weaken that narrative. For example, the three key messages you may wish to leave the professional with may simply be that you are an ordinary parent, that you do not appear to be dangerous and that you are easy to engage with. Equally, in can be helpful to consider the messages that you don't want to leave the professional with. For example, that you are extremely angry, that you are on the verge of a breakdown and that you are fixated on how unfair and unjust the court process is.

When you meet with social workers, psychologists and others involved in the process, it is very easy to become overly anxious. Of course, what you are going through is stressful, but try not to let anxious feelings overtake you. Make some notes. Think about how you might respond to certain questions. Try saying them out loud so you can hear what they sounds like. Decide what key messages you want to get across and those that you don't. Remind yourself that, although the meeting is important, you do not need to argue the detail of your case at this stage. And, finally, find ways to relax and take your mind off it so that it doesn't overwhelm you. Go for a walk, cycle, meet with friends, do yoga, cook a meal, watch a favourite film or do whatever you enjoy doing that helps you to switch off.

Understanding Parental Alienation

Learning to cope, helping to heal

By Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall

 

 

Published by Charles C Thomas, Publisher, Limited

Springfield, Illinois, United States.

 

ISBN

 

978-0-398-09175-0  Paper

978-0-398-09176-7   eBook