The Best Interests Of The Abuser
How the family court was captured by discredited concept designed to protect abusive men, consistently placing children's lives at risk.
Earlier this month the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a global call for input into child custody cases and violence against women and children. The specific purpose of the inquiry is to understand how the discredited concept of “parental alienation” has been advanced into custody proceedings worldwide and how it is undermining the welfare and safety of children. To those unaware of this concept or the behaviour of family courts what you will read below may seem absurd, but it is through this absurdity that the family court is able to avoid greater public scrutiny – people unexposed to the system simply wouldn’t believe that it could function with such irrationality and brutality. It is incredibly positive that the UN is now paying serious attention to what has become one of the great moral and ethical failures of recent decades.
This should not be considered a niche issue. It is important for both political science and international relations for three reasons: Firstly, how societies treat women and children is the true reflection of their social health - and the behaviour of justice systems provides the legal framework to these values. Secondly, one of the central pillars of our current political instability is men’s inability to emotionally cope with the advancement of women, and their attempt to reassert their “natural authority” – a desire to dominate individuals, groups, nations, or land is all driven by the same psychological impulse. And thirdly, the family court provides a stark lesson in how institutions can easily become captured by bad ideas, and how difficult it can be to weed them out when many actors within and around institutions are professionally – and financially – invested in these ideas.
When considering prominent gender-based legal struggles, if you are in the United States you might immediately think of the right to obtain an abortion. The U.S Supreme Court’s Roe vs Wade decision from the early 1970s created a large and sustained political backlash against the idea of women’s bodily autonomy, a backlash that eventually overturned the decision earlier this year – even though this new decision was made against – or to spite – broader public sentiment.
However, worldwide there has also been another deeply consequential gender-based legal struggle taking place within the family court. Here the contest has been over a broader power within the household, based around an idea that should be deemed archaic, but remains persistent: That men have the right to use violence against their family members.
Rather than this perspective diminishing as traditional male domestic authority has become less socially acceptable, in family courts this idea has instead been on the ascendency. Over the past few decades “fathers’ rights” and other male supremacist groups have successfully been able to alter the culture of family courts to make it more difficult for mothers to protect children from abusive fathers. Through incessant campaigns of obfuscation and suspicion of women, reporting child abuse has frequently become detrimental to mothers, often leading them to lose custody of children themselves.
This revolution within the family court has been in reaction to another significant social development from the 1970s, that of no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce produced a major shift in power relations within the household. It transferred much of the bargaining power to the person who most wanted to leave the marriage. When domestic violence is present this is usually the wife, often looking to protect not just herself, but also her children. No-fault divorce meant that women no longer had to present their case to sceptical authorities who saw the household as a domain of legitimate male control, or who set too high a bar for what constituted abuse. This decreased the power that abusive men had over their wives and children.
Abusive men therefore needed a new legal tool to be able to reassert their authority within the household. They found this through a New York psychiatrist called Richard Gardner. Gardner was a man with an unusual preoccupation with child sexual abuse. Unusual in that he felt there was an unwarranted social hysteria over the issue. Appallingly, he believed that many children seduced their fathers and this had a “species survival value.”
Gardner was aggrieved that fathers could face penalties for this behaviour, so in the mid-1980s he devised a legal tactic - disguised as a psychiatric theory - to make it more difficult for mothers and children to have their allegations of sexual abuse believed. Known as “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” Gardner’s ruse dictated that rather than experiencing abuse at the hands of their fathers - and being frightened of their fathers because of this - children were instead being brainwashed by their mothers to hate their fathers. The remedy he proposed was to remove custody from mothers.
The “genius” of Gardner’s tool was that the more a mother or a child insisted that abuse had taken place, the more evidence of the “alienating” syndrome. He designed a trap. One that could be used to distract the court from abusive behaviours, and reverse the perception of victimhood in judges’ eyes away from children towards abusive fathers. The idea was to punish mothers and children for challenging male household authority by reporting child abuse.
The tactic didn’t always work, as revealed in the recent Allen v. Farrow HBO docu-series, where in 1993 Woody Allen failed to successfully utilise the ploy against Mia Farrow. And although the concept had a lack of credibility within the psychological and psychiatric professions, the concept gained enough of a success rate that a market opportunity was sensed by lawyers, therapists, professional witnesses, and “reunification specialists,” operating in and around the family court. These opportunistic groups understood that abusive men would pay handsomely to avoid the consequences of their own behaviour, and Gardner’s device offered them an instrument to service this lucrative demand.
This “repugnant market” - the economic term for servicing the demand for something unethical or amoral – that Gardner inspired has relied on not only converting the court to the underlying assumptions of Parental Alienation Syndrome, but to also expand the concept to be more than just Gardner’s desire to protect paedophiles. It required a broader ideology – to cast a wider net to be a successful counterforce against all forms of domestic abuse.
What emerged was an uninventive realigned concept simply called “Parental Alienation” that has sought to describe any action taken by one parent to exclude another. This may seem like a reasonable concept within the often fraught nature of personal relationships, but it has become used in the most insidious manner – a way to obfuscate custody proceedings and seek to reverse victimhood away from children and women and towards abusive men.
Although proponents of parental alienation use gender-neutral language - and claim that women can be “alienated” too - the success of the concept as a legal tactic is gender-specific. This is because while the parental alienation industry may try to distance itself from Gardner, his original intent to protect male household authority is buried deep within the concept’s DNA. Last year, this was recognised by an Italian Supreme Court judge who overturned a custody decision made in a lower court after concluding that the parental alienation asks courts to make judgements based on specific gender roles and negative stereotypes, not on a parent’s ability to provide a safe and happy environment for children.
The judge in this case likened parental alienation to a concept devised in Nazi Germany called “tätertyp” or “offender type” – a form of profiling that established a person’s guilt by their social group – or “criminal way of being” – rather than by their provable actions. Parental alienation works in a similar manner to designate guilt by gender. Women are guilty of “alienation” because women are deemed to be suspicious by nature, and by seeking to protect their children they are undermining a predetermined social structure.
Through this lens we can see that the use of parental alienation as a legal tool is built around two core tenets:
The first tenet is that women are habitual liars. Fathers’ rights and other male supremacist groups obsessively bark that the family court is riven with “false allegations”, that women are emotionally unstable and that they fabricate stories out of jealousy and spite. Empirical studies have demonstrated that mothers (and children) are the least likely people to fabricate stories in family courts, but unfortunately, this time immemorial perception of women as inherently deceitful has persistent sympathies within the legal system, as well as the broader culture.
The second tenet contradicts the first, but it is arguably the more consequential idea because it has been able to gain considerable traction not only within the family court, but also the social services that are designed to protect child welfare. This is the belief that a lack of normalised contact with a father is more damaging to a child’s development than any violence a father could commit.
Last year in a family courtroom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an extraordinary exchange took place that highlighted how this second tenet of “contact at all costs” is being advanced into the family court system. For those unfamiliar with the culture of family courts the dialogue will seem both bizarre and appalling. Yet such is the dominance of the concept of parental alienation within family court systems globally, this is now the lens by which vulnerable children’s lives are being determined.
A lawyer (Richard Ducote) acting for the mother was asking a professional witness (Robert Evans) - acting for the father - a number of questions about the ethical basis of parental alienation. The questions were blunt and brutal, but it is the responses that are truly shocking:
Ducote: Can a parent inflict more damage by parental alienation to a child than the parent could inflict by, say, breaking the child's bones?
Evans: Conceivably, yes.
Ducote: How about, you have a four year old child, and the parent punches the child in the face and leaves two black eyes. Could in your opinion, parental alienation be worse for the child than that?
Evans: Potentially, yes.
Ducote: Okay. How about if you have a 4yr old, and the father forces the child to perform fellatio on him. Could that be less harmful to the child than parental alienation?
Evans: Potentially, yes.
Ducote: How about the father actually fully penetrates his four-year-old daughter's vagina with his penis. Could that be less harmful to the child than parental alienation?
Ducote understood that professional witnesses like Evans have become dangerously entrenched in the family court system, and as they continue to grift off the vulnerability of children it has become an ethical imperative to demonstrate their lack of credibility, and sick worldview. Yet, Evans, needing to protect his source of income, unashamedly sticks to the grift, maintaining an appalling commitment to the idea that lack of normalised contact with a father is what is truly damaging to children, regardless of how much violence and horrific abuse is hypothetically inflicted on them.
Yet ghouls like Evans would not have been able to profit off the family court if the system itself didn’t have a preconceived socio-political ideal it was seeking to protect. Once courts, social services, and governments submit themselves to this idea - that violence is less consequential than lack of contact - it becomes incredibly difficult for mothers to convince the state that their children are in danger. A mother’s expected obligations become not to her children’s welfare, but to facilitate contact with the father, regardless of his behaviour.
The success of this ideological conversion of the family court was quantified in 2019 by Professor Joan Meier of the George Washington University Law School. She found that when fathers are accused of child abuse a counterclaim of “parental alienation” doubles the likelihood that mothers will lose custody of their children. This phenomenon is leading to an estimated 58,000 children throughout the United States being placed into dangerous home environments annually. Which is in turn leading to horrific subsequent outcomes, including the murder of children by their fathers after family court judges disbelieved or ignored the threat they posed.
Because contact and normalisation has become the court’s overarching objective violence will not only habitually be disbelieved, excused, or ignored, but it becomes necessary to discredit the character of any mother who insists that her children are in danger. If a mother attempts to prioritise her children’s safety by withholding contact she will be designated a “hostile parent,” getting in the way of the normalisation process, and penalised by the system. The idea of “contact at all costs” places the welfare of adult male egos above the welfare of children.
Last week, in a landmark case that will hopefully lead to this idea starting to unravel – in Europe at least – the European Court of Human Rights made a ruling in in favour of a mother and her children that Italian courts were in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights - the respect for one’s private and family life –by continually forcing children into contact with a violent and abuse biological father, and removing parental responsibility from the mother due to her insistence that the man was not safe. The judgement that a child’s family life is based on environmental elements, not biological ones, is incredibly positive.
When discussion violent and abusive men, I prefer to distinguish between a “biological father” and “father,” because I think it is important for us to contemplate what fatherhood actually is. Is fatherhood simply a matter of a sperm hitting an egg? Or is it the positive, loving, caring and responsible attributes of parenthood? We need to ask ourselves why does the former persistently carry greater weight than the latter? It doesn’t take much effort for a man to ejaculate, so it seems extraordinary that this is where we should be placing our social – and legal – value. We can see that this idea of “the exalted sperm” is also part of what drives those who are hostile to the idea of abortion.
I have been observing and writing about this problem for the past couple of years, and in doing so I have come into contact with an extraordinary movement of women – and occasionally men – worldwide who have committed themselves to changing the behaviour of family courts. Yet these advocates are often fighting an uphill battle to have these deep institutional failures taken seriously by the media – who obviously play a vital role creating widespread public awareness, as well as place pressure on justice systems to reform their behaviour.
Just over a week ago a former New York police officer, Michael Valva, was convicted of murder for freezing his son to death. Yet the New York Times article on the conviction failed to mention that the family court had awarded Valva full custody of the boy after repeatedly being informed by the mother that he was a dangerous man. Instead Valva’s counter-accusation of “alienation” was deemed valid by the court - leading to this horrific result. This should have been a crucial detail in the story, but somehow it wasn’t considered relevant by the reporter.
Despite a lack of sustained media interest, the groundswell of advocacy from women dedicated to ending this lunacy has had some recent success. In March this year the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act was signed into law by U.S President Joe Biden. Within the updated legislation there was a provision known as “Kayden’s Law” – named after Kayden Mancuso, a seven year old girl murdered by her biological father after a family court in Pennsylvania ignored evidence of his violent and abusive past – including criminal convictions. Kayden’s Law provides federal funding to states to improve their child custody laws and processes to place
The legislation has four main aims – First, to restrict expert testimony to only those who are appropriately qualified. Second, to try and limit the use of brutal “reunification camps” which seek to bully and brainwash children into relationships with fathers they are frightened of. Third, to provide training for judges on a wide spectrum of family violence, both physical and emotional. And fourth, to require family courts to take past behaviour of abuse seriously.
In the United Kingdom, the influence of unregulated “experts” – who push the idea of “parental alienation” – is currently being reviewed by the president of the family division of the High Court. This has come after a number of MPs, lawyers and charities, as well as the Association of Clinical Psychologists have stressed that these grifters have become a serious threat to the safety and well-being of some of the UK’s most vulnerable children.
Laws in most countries do stress that child safety needs to be the primary lens for any custody decisions. However, the specific wording of legislation is only one component of how decisions are made, there is also the culture of the legal system, that of the social services that feed into it, and the worldviews of individual judges themselves. These other components unfortunately make custody proceedings highly susceptible to manipulation.
Fathers’ rights groups have been extraordinarily successful in constructing a narrative that family courts are discriminatory against men. However, this has to be understood as performative victimhood; an essential part of their ruse. For the legal tactic of parental alienation to work, abusive men cannot recognise their own ideological victory over the family court, it relies on them persistently claiming that they are the system’s real victims. Men who genuinely believe themselves to be victims are often mired in a sense that their household authority is a natural right and that violence is an essential component of masculinity. For women and children to resist this is considered a form of persecution.
It is here where parental alienation has proved to be the counterforce to no-fault divorce and the domestic power-shift that it created. The concept has been able to successfully lower the bar for fatherhood to simply a matter of DNA, stripping it of any positive, caring, and responsible ideals to strive towards, and making acts of family violence inconsequential – or indeed rewarded. This has been accomplished with the goal to reassert the household as a domain of absolute male authority, to make sure that violent and abusive men maintain legal legitimacy, even after they have lost moral legitimacy.
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