This is the second part of our blog by the reunification expert team, illustrating that re-connecting, even after extreme alienation, is not only achievable, but that there is a proven pathway that alienated parents can follow.
We last left the story at the point in the process where the little boy had been re-introduced to his wider family. Now for the rest of the tale:
The next visit I had planned was to include dad but only on Facetime and in a ‘spontaneous’ way so I arranged for Will to call his sister at a particular time when I knew Zac and his cousin would be sitting still.
Remember that Zac had had no direct contact with Will for over two years and so this needed to be done gently…fortunately technology is most useful at these times and so it was very much a choice whether Zac even looked at his aunts phone when Daddy called.
Facetime is not intrusive for children as you can just look or walk away.
It never ceases to amaze and move me how children even when they have been told terrible things about a parent nonetheless demonstrate the strength of their early ( pre- separation) attachment relationship and Zac looked delighted and excited in equal measure when he could see that it was his dad on the Iphone, and asked me if he was ‘allowed’ to say hello. I told him ‘of course’ and despite a sudden shyness he spoke to him… tentatively at first but then more confidently ( reassured I am sure by the presence of his family and myself ).
For the first time in a period of time equating to nearly half of his life.
A big step was taken that afternoon. However this is also a stage at which a sudden resistance is most likely.
A worry which is always present at this stage is that the child goes back into the resident parent’s home before the necessary change has taken place with that side of the family and so the ‘reset’ button is pressed.
Although this more readily happens with older children it is often the case that the child will at this stage attempt to disengage from the reunification process. He may express a previously absent fear of the parent or an antipathy towards the professionals who are assisting.
He is quite simply trying to please everyone and if this is too hard, he will usually, from a self protective instinct, prefer to please the parent upon whom he is most dependent.
This is natural and children are hard wired to do this. In alienation it however becomes maladaptive behaviour and children struggle to reconcile their love for the villified and targeted parent with their desire and need to please the resident parent.
Herein lies the harm.
What we also frequently find at this stage is a kind of mirror ‘splitting’ whereby the splitting/ black and white thinking existing in the main home where Mum is all good and dad is all bad ( or vice versa) is mirrored in the child’s reaction to the professional team. If the child suddenly reacts in a different way to me at this juncture he is probably reflecting the resident parent’s anger towards me for having succeeded in successfully and happily reintroducing the child to the parent they have been painting in a very bad light to that child.
We need to deal with this without losing momentum. This is where ‘ the team’ is crucial…
In our team we are fond of the ‘good cop bad cop’ analogy. This can work well as we can take on differing roles, all of which are important. I like at this stage, if this happens, to use my family support workers as new additions to the direct work. They are important as they ‘don’t do the court stuff’ and are freed up to be the more ‘fun’ person for the child to work with when the parent might have discouraged the child from trusting and working with me .
They have the same aims and similar skills but introducing them when this might be the reality for the child works well.
Meanwhile in the ‘background’ to this, we work with the whole family to reintegrate the targeted parent and I coach the resident parent in how to speak about the ostracised parent to the child.
Our ‘contract meeting’ where the resident parent meets with the social worker and says out loud to the child that they want them to see them and that not seeing them has been ‘a mistake that we have made as your parents’ gives a very clear message to the child that the resident parent is in favour and gives them the ‘emotional permission’ to see them. My coaching can occasionally work so well that a 12 year old girl screamed at her mother the other day ( she is part of a particularly tricky reunification with her dad) “ I don’t like you any more, you’re turning into Alison!!”
The next hurdle once some contact has been established is to get a face to face meeting. I say hurdle not because the child is resistant but because to keep everyone ‘on side ‘ at this stage is a carefully planned operation.
With Zac as can be seen above, he was immediately excited to see his daddy, nothing it seemed would get in the way…and despite some minor blips, nothing did. As the school was Zac’s ‘safe place’ …this is normal for young children, I included (the much loved and looked up to) Mrs Phillips and arranged over the next session with Zac for Daddy to ‘come and see my classroom and meet my teacher.’
The emotions involved in such a reunion cannot be overstated. Zac ran into his father’s arms as soon as he saw him and the teacher and I were both holding back tears.
It’s probably worth saying at this point that I have never done this work and had a child of this age NOT be overjoyed to see their estranged parent.
It’s the older children however who, having had more negativity and with more complex emotions associated with puberty and adolescence who prove the most resistant and troubled. At these times I feel blessed to be able to effect this kind of change and healing.
So, with Zac and his dad…how to progress after the positive start?
The history of this particular family case is that the contact ( I SO hate that word) had stalled several times at the stage of the overnight contact beginning. Allegations were made and a CAFCASS officer had made a recommendation- based it would appear solely on the information given her by the mother- that overnight contact shouldn’t be attempted.
That was 2 years ago, before the psychological report which identified alienation and significant harm to Zac from that alienation. So I knew that this was what I had to ensure happened. And I was very aware that I needed to build on the progress already made. So I made a plan to get the first overnight sorted out asap.
Zac had never been to dad’s current house and also hadn’t met his new partner..too many changes and surprises all at once are not good for anyone let alone a 5 year old boy so I counselled dad that the partner needed to be away for the weekend ( that was something that needed to be dealt with separately and sensitively ) and that I would endeavour to stay overnight.
Yes, this is kind of ‘different’ for a social worker…most social workers do a 9-5. Even we freelancers don’t commonly stay at a clients home overnight. However if the child used to stay overnight then the normalisation of the contact/ parenting time requires that he does again..which is where we need to be responsive and to think outside the box a bit.
So a couple of years ago when I developed this service I wrote an ‘overnight contact protocol’ which sets out the very necessary boundaries and rules associated with this rather unconventional sort of social work.. this is sent to every client and his or her lawyer / Mckenzie friend.
Zac was very excited about the prospect and I was careful to make ‘fun’ plans to accompany this crucial step. There is a need to be creative here…Zac just loves dogs and one of my own dogs is trained as a therapy dog, and is a definite hit with my younger clients… so it was planned that the dog was also to stay overnight. ( bear with me here, it really does work!)
The Friday arrived and I was clear that I needed to collect him from school- collecting a child from the home in these situations just doesn’t work, the conflicts and divided loyalties are too great- and so Dad, the dog and I went to the school. Zac was excited to introduce his dad to the teacher again, loved the fact that Captain ( the terrier) was with us, and excitedly told his friends ‘ this is my daddy!!’.
Will looked as if he was going to cry and I patted him on the back and advised him’ keep it in for now’.
The evening and the night was without incident and as I usually do I showed Zac that I was in the spare bed and that Captain and I were available all night if he had ‘any troubles he didn’t want to bother daddy with’. He slept soundly however and didn’t wake at all and was very happy and bouncy when he awoke.
The rest as they say is history….its not a linear thing, there have been blips and some ( thankfully temporary) setbacks but Zac and Will are now reunited.
It’s not always as straightforward as this. But I wanted to give a picture of a child who had said to several previous social workers that he didn’t want to see his Daddy. They had in turn, having no knowledge of and no training in the dynamics of hostile family cases and alienation questioned the safeguarding information.
Surely there must be a reason for this child to state he is fearful of his father they said…could we have missed something? We can’t force him…as his mum says, surely he can’t be forced to see his dad. In this situation the ‘no smoke without fire’ theory flies completely in the face of the child’s best interests. It becomes clear that the smoke, in fact, is coming from the party pointing the finger.
He cant be made to see his own Daddy…Really?
He is 5.
If he refused to go to the dentist or school would it be good parenting to allow him to choose?
But the local authority social workers did nothing when Zac said ‘no’ he ‘didn’t want to go with them’…he clung to mum, they always collected him from her..she ‘couldn’t force him’ either…and consequently Zac lost so much time, missed family christmasses, weddings and the love of his paternal family. His dad and the paternal family missed his first day at school.
They are playing catch up now. Better late than never but couldn’t this just have been avoided if the professionals dealing with it at the early stages had recognised what was going on and what needed to be done?
There is a huge need for training for local authority social workers in this complex area of family law, we are developing this area..watch this space.
We have worked with children from 2-15 and in a wide variety of situations.
The bereaved parents ( for it is indeed a living bereavement) in these sad scenarios are mums as well as dads. Due however to the systemic gender bias which allows women to assume control of the parenting following separation no matter how involved the father has been, it is overwhelmingly dads with whom we work. However we aim to work with the whole family if we can. The changes that we assist in bringing about are far more long lasting and meaningful if we take both parents with us on the journey of change.
…In the final part of this blog we will share the context, how the team came to be working together, a few more cases studies and more ways to access support.
Please Note: This blog deals with extremely distressing issues. It is our aim to provide victims of alienation with a voice and trusted professionals with an opportunity to suggest ways to address the challenges this community faces. Should readers need additional support, we will gladly refer readers to trusted professionals who add value, deliver results and operate in line with our core principles.
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