‘Parental Alienation’, Father’s Rights, Women’s Inequality

Last week, many Canadian newspapers reported on an Ontario child custody case decided in mid-January wherein a judge of the Ontario Superior Court decided that a mother had alienated her children from their father over a period of fourteen years and granted custody of the children to their father.  Here’s a report at The Star.

I’ve seen a lot of conversations going on in response to this decision and they follow the usual pattern – many men, some of them Men’s Rights and Father’s Rights advocates – but by no means all – see this case as an example of the terrible abuse that some men suffer at the hands of vindictive women.  These men engage in a fight with women who have often been abused by husbands or partners or had difficulties with children.  Everyone has an anecdote that’s supposed to be determinative.  Shit gets flung.  The conversation accomplishes little but for providing people with an opportunity to vent.  Often the men and women involved in the conversation are people who have been badly hurt in their interactions with family law, I don’t dispute that and, also, I’ve been there.

It would be good, though, if these conversations could be based on knowledge rather than opinion.  Besides having a personal experience with family law in Ontario, I’ve also practiced family law and done academic research and teaching in family law.  So, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on this case and the issues involved in hopes that it might inspire some readers to dig a little deeper before offering their expertise – a bit of snark – sorry!

One of the problems with the PAS (“parental alienation syndrome”) deal, even if it really is a syndrome (and there’s more evidence that it isn’t than that it is)  is that it makes it almost impossibly difficult  for women who experience emotional, physical, sexual and economic abuse in a marriage or with a partner who is the father or in loco parentis to a child or children to have her allegations believed.  It’s already notoriously difficult to prove these allegations and it’s aways been common that abuse is disregarded or put down to women/mothers being vindictive.  Now, of course, it’s not impossibe that some women have used such allegations in a purely manipulative way.  Similarly, women who have been victims of rape often have their cases “unfounded” by police and possibly there have been women who have concocted allegations for one reason or another.  The problem is that the very possibility of that happening often, much too often, leads to law enforcement personnel “unfounding” rape charges because they’ve fallen into rape myth traps.

One of the problems I see, in both cases, is how easily the dominant “meme” or rhetoric or discourse or conversation , the one which characterizes the woman as lying, manipulative bitch, is accepted as the most likely truth of the situation.  We fall into this pattern so easily –  so much of the culture reinforces and reproduces the dominant memes, that it makes these ways of stereotyping women very easy and dangerous – the meme becomes one more tool in the toolbox for men and their lawyers.  If it’s so easy to believe that a mother could be a lying manipulative bitch, why is it not similarly believable that a man might lie and deny abuse and use his power, his money and the patriarchal power vested in the “justice system” to get what he wants?  IMHO, that’s actually the most likely result, given women’s inequality.  NOT saying this is the fault of every individual man – it’s systemic and sometimes, men are the victims of it as well.  The feminist points don’t go away just because patriarchy sometimes victimizes men.
Mediation and “collaborative justice” are also problemmatic for women.  In fact, I did my Master’s Degree thesis on the use of mediation in the context of family law.  I looked at the entire Canadian history of child custody decision making, attempting to document the specific, concrete ways in which dominant ways of thinking about marriage and mothers and children and fathers shifted over time, always put women at a disadvantage, even when granting women custody – and how those shifts still work to women’s disadvantage.  There’s really good scholarship out there that demonstrates how even the ideas of gender neutrality introduced into Canadian family law in the ’80s works to obscure the unfairness of many decisions [for instance, google Susan B. Boyd].  What we’re looking for is a pattern.  Everyone has an anecdote that falls outside the pattern.  We tend to pay much more attention to the heartrending anecdotes than we do to the pattern.  One anecdote from a man or his mother tends to trump several thousand of them from women.  My colleagues and I have been talking lately about how much more attention the tropes about “women” and “mothers”  get – those lying, manipulative, hysterical, spurned women – and how incredibly easily they are accepted as “truth”.  Especially as compared to the stories of men which “we” (including the lawmakers and law enforcers) seem to find so much moe credible, most of the time. 

As for the “new” process of “collaborative justice” now so popular in family law, there’s lots of critical work on that too.  It seems to work for some people, but imagine how it can be used against a woman who is in a relatively powerless position considering how prone “we” are to setting women’s views of reality aside.  Some truly terrible things result.  Formal legal processes are often critisized, especially in the context of family law – another thing I looked at in my thesis.  Thing is, formal legal processes have at their heart, supposedly, the protection of the rights of the parties.  Sometimes, we get rights “right” and actually protect relatively powerless people.  But “rights” aren’t first and foremost with mediation and collaborative law – an agreement, sometimes any agreement, is understood to be “in the best interests” of children.  Sounds good?  Sounds “right”?  That too depends on point of view.  Where agreements reinforce the relative powerlessness of mothers and formalize abuse, as they often do, the harm to the mother becomes harm to the children as well – though there still seem to be few people who “get” that.   There is still a view that a man can be almost as abusive as they come to his wife; as long as he hasn’t directly abused his children in a way that can be proved, he is almost always deemed to be a fit father, at the very least for the purposes of access to children which almost always necessitates an ongoing relationship with their mother.  The emotional damage experienced by children whose mother’s are abused is ignored, though it seems just intuitively true to me.  It’s not that I want to pay attention to mothers at the expense of children; I just have a broader concept of what’s good for children.  Or at least children who have mothers as primary caregivers.
Hmmm.  As always, I get back to how complicated it is, how much work it takes to understand it and how unlikely it is that most people can or will take the time or trouble to figure it out.  Everyone seems to think they’re an expert in family law, certainly everyone who’s been through the system and lots of other people as well.  Most people also think that when they read a case, or about it, everything they read “true” or the judge wouldn’t say it.  This despite the fact that judge-made law is known to be as gender biased as any other form of law.  I’m being honest when I say, in family law, as with so many other things, it’s one step forward and two steps back for women.
One last note:  it’s often said that “joint custody” works best for children and so it’s an inviolable “good thing”.  As usual, for every study that says it’s best, there are a few more that show the flaws in those studies and more studies that show less glowing results.  Again, the big concern is that joint custody regimes so easily reinforce the previous status quo in the relationship where the mother does all the work and the father has all the control.  That’s what joint custody often means.  Stats Can has some numbers that show that in by far and away the greater number of Canadian cases, joint custody means the mother has de facto custody and the father can intervene with regard to major (or minor) decision making.  Those are situations in which the parties have come to an agreement.  And clearly, it’s not custody or even shared time that many fathers want.  It’s ongoing control. 

I’m not saying all fathers, so don’t bug me!  I’m sure there are plenty of engaged and involved and loving fathers and I wish them no harm.  But an engaged and involved and loving father respects the mother of his children.

I’ve not included many links here because I just needed to get this off my chest.  If anyone wants sources, ask me in comments and I’ll try to provide them.

And by the way, the three children in the case reported at The Star lived with their mother and her family for fourteen years, with almost no contact with their father.  Even if that lack of contact was no fault of his and even if it was entirely the fault of their mother, I wonder how we can possibly say that it’s in the best interests of these children to be sent from the home of their mother to a courhouse to be handed over to the patriarch without the mother’s presence and to be entirely cut off from contact with her for the foreseeable future.  Maybe this is justice for this father.  It’s neither justice for the children nor good for them.  If the situation was reversed, if the father had abused these children in this way, I can tell you almost for sure, they wouldn’t be handed over to their mother with no access for Dad.  It doesn’t happen.

UPDATE:  I’ve bounced the uglier comments.  And I forgot one trope about women, specifically feminists:  we’re all aching to “claim our victimhood”.  No matter how uppity we get.

8 thoughts on “‘Parental Alienation’, Father’s Rights, Women’s Inequality

  1. Pingback: The NCP Revue » Again, missing the point

  2. The issue as I see it, as founder of http://www.FamilyLawCourts.com is of women who are victims of parental alienation who are too emotional in their responses, shriek it doesn’t exist because it’s really about Richard Gardner. Women such as these only harm other women and men who are likewise victims.

    The definition of parental alienation has morphed *considerably* since I first published Gardner committed suicide.

    However as always, the results of parental alienation is the same as the Stockholm Syndrome. Any time one parent isolates the child from the other and then trashes the relationship; that’s alienation.

    Unfortunately, both fathers rights groups and mothers rights groups keep the issue gender based and thus, off the focus of judges violating basic Constitutional rights. More details about Parental Alienation mid-way down the home page of http://www.FamilyLawCourts.com

  3. You are trying so hard to be a level headed equalist but it has failed. Your victimhood shows through as dose your bias toward the female of the species. You fall into the group of females that want it both ways despite your alleged academic qualifications.

    You infer that a man who has a difference of opinion with his female partner is abusive and your logic then goes on to also infer if he is that way with the mother of his children then he has a good chance to be that way with his children.

    Same old, same old feminist propaganda just repackaged in a more civilized tone. Tell men why is it that this perceived feminist underclass of victims gets physical custody in a 9-1 ratio and its concomitant entitlements such as child support and indeed alimony in some cases. Greed is good, just check the current Montreal case of the uber rich poor transplanted SA mom a victim of Quebec s common law rules. (but that’s a whole other story).

    Why is it that the feminist myth of female victimhood tries to hide the fact that women institute violence against men in almost equal proportions and that the worst possible place to put children is in the custody of a single parent female who has the highest rate of abuse and killing of children.

    These are based on government produced statistics in Canada and the U.S.A.

    I see all these feminist blogs and the great consistency amongst them is the sense of victimhood of the scribes producing them. After almost two generations of affirmative action, bra burning and family courts run amok in favour of the female when will you all grow up and understand you will not be equal until you can stand on your owen two feet without all the entitlements and clearly see you are equal.

    There is a group of women in Canada who understands this. They call themselves Real Women not feminists. They have an annual non-tax supported convention every year.

    Not once in your scribbles have you made note of the great emotional pain this father suffered at the hands of a dysfunctional mother who could not see the value of the two biological parents in the lives of the children. Not once could you grasp all of the moments he has missed as his children were growing and what they have missed developmentally as a result. Your view appears to support the end justifies the means. I too developed an academic paper on how to win custody and one of the ways is to control and alienate the children against the target parent. The longer you can do this the better are your chances. After a period no court in the land dare change that. Well, guess what, the courts are started to “get it”. Abuse is abuse and you seem to support the notion that it is better to have the children stay with the abuser than with the target. I find it to be an appalling point of view. If you do practice law no wonder the system is so dysfunctional. You are unable to think outside the box.

    • I agree with you 100%. I believe that it is people like the lady who wrote that,that the system is as unfair and corupt as it is.As long as both parents are fit,they should share the joy of parenting,because there is nothing sadder then a father,who deserves his kids,missing out on all the small moments that create lifelong memorys.

  4. I didn’t say that a husband who has a difference of opinion with his wife is an abuser and I wouldn’t say that. I didn’t say that a husband abuses his wife will abuse his children; I said that the abuse of a children’s mother is abuse to children. Lots and lots of evidence for that, though I don’t see why it isn’t just obvious. Exposing children to violence, especially toward someone they love? Abusive.

    Women are involved in “domestic violence” just about as often as men, but men are more likely to cause more harm, including death, than women. Like this: if I slap my husband’s face, that is an assault and if he calls the police, as some men actually do, I will be charged and that incident will get “counted” as a domestic assault. Women are involved in lots of these. Men are very much more likely to cause serious injury requiring treatment, hospitalization or death. But I’m interested in how you’d know the numbers since you don’t trust the data.

    I am a feminist and I am a real woman. lol

    I’m sure not interested in your academic paper because you don’t know how to logic, as a friend of mine says. I’m sad for the Dads who have a hard time with divorce. Never said I wasn’t. Sad for kids who lose their Dads. Sad for kids who lose their Moms. Sad for women who are abused throughout their lives. You see, for the most part, people don’t choose to be victims. The role is chosen for them. It’s a painful role and certainly not one I would ever choose for myself. To demand equality for oneself and for women is the opposite of claiming victim status – it’s claiming one’s power.

    You make no sense. I like this though: “Not once in your scribbles …” lol your scribbles!

  5. Pingback: Child custody and Visitation: When One Parent Has To Move | Custody Guidelines

  6. Being a single mother who went through 6 years with an abusive man,I do fear at times if my son will be okay,not that my ex would ever hurt him intentionally but the mistrust is there,but I could never keep MY son from his father,don’t get me wrong,if his father ever hurt him physically,your damn right I would do everything in my power to prevent it from happening again but just because his father did what he did to me,does that mean that I in return punish my son by not allowing him to have a relationship with HIS father? That is not my decision to make….that is for my son to call.It is his right to decide whether or not to have a relationship with his dad.It seems like mothers need to stop saying”but look what he did to ME”…because it’s not about you anymore.It’s about the child and it just seems that people are really losing sight of that.I encourage my son to mantain a healthy relationship with his dad,even though at times he(the father) may not deservemy cooperation.It is still up to my son.He is 9 years old and sometimes his dad does bail on him and sometimes he isn’t there when he should be but the best thing and the right thing I feel that is my right,is to be there for my son and try to explain that sometimes people just lose sight of what’s important.I reassure him that his dad does love him.I am there for him…..what kind of mother would I be if I tried to keep my son from his father????

  7. As a victim of what a wife can get away with via the judicial system is just criminal and the lawyer is no help many being part of the status quo. My advice to men is to not open your wallet, fight the battle on your own merit and sue for damages. Put her in the box so the judge can listen to the lies for himself. Mine managed to put me behind bars but wouldn’t show up to lie to the judge at trial , twice. No problem just slap a peace bond on me and leave me to fight further to even get a glimpse of my kids. The new boyfriend and her must still be laughing.

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