The respective roles of intuition and analytical reasoning.
Private versus Public Law Cases
It is not only that these cases are time consuming. The most significant impact is the high level of emotion which characterises the contestants and rapidly spreads into the Proceedings. I was quite unprepared for these difficulties when I first began to report on these cases, despite having had years of experience of providing reports to Local Authorities and later to the courts in Care Proceedings. I soon learnt that the skills and literature which were relevant to assessments in Care cases were rarely applicable to assessment in high conflict contact disputes. This difference between public and private law cases is relevant to readers of this journal. It is my opinion that CAFCASS does not fully appreciate the very different set of skills, experience and background knowledge required in dealing with public and private law cases. Increasingly I find that CAFCASS Reporters and Guardians have had experience in child protection but not in private law. The abolition of the Court Welfare Service greatly accelerated that process. ..
Fear and Loathing
When I began to see private law cases I was not expecting to see nice respectable parents who were profoundly dishonest and devious. I was caught off guard by the intensity of hatred and emotion, the extremes of denigration of an ex-spouse and the total resistance to the idea that the non resident parent had anything positive to contribute to their child’s future development. I met nice children who were filled with fear and loathing for a parent they may have loved at one stage in the past. These children were totally resistant to the idea of any form of contact be it direct or indirect. They were rude and dismissive about one of their parents and all relatives on that side of the family. They often refused to accept cards or presents and tore them up or threw them in the bin. When I discussed the possibility of a contact visit the children reacted as though terrified. It was only on reflection that I realised I had assessed many children who had been the victims of serious parental abuse in care cases, who did not react like this at all. In fact in care cases the main problem was that the children retained a strong wish to be with those who had abused them and it was their continuing bond of affection to their abusers which put them at risk. It was some time before I learnt that extreme resistance to contact and rejection of the non resident parent was a well known phenomenon and had been described in similar circumstances throughout the western world.
Dr Kirk Weir, “Intractable contact disputes – the extreme unreliability of children’s ascertainable wishes and feelings” (Based on lectures given to the Judicial Studies Board 2010-11).
When there is little understanding of an issue – for example, how to differentiate the patterns on the right side of the continuum illustrated above – myths and ideologies can fulfil the hunger for some image to work with and these images derive from the dominant culture. No matter how well thought through established laws, ideologies and practice originally were, it’s important to keep thinking critically and not simply piggyback on what’s gone before or we end up with no-one thinking and everyone thinking the same. When we reach that point it can become almost impossible to resist following or – with the blindness of the seeing eye – accepting what others are doing.
Some of the things others are doing – especially in the more challenging cases – can cause great harm. Steven G. Miller has degrees in psychology and medicine and currently does research on the cognitive science of clinical problem-solving. He is one of 16 leaders in this field to have written chapters for the most recent international text (see below). Quoted here is a short section in which Miller describes 10 common, but flawed, heuristics that should not be used because their use can cause great harm:
A 10 doesn’t marry a 1 Although there is a grain of truth to this quip, most people understand that it should not be used for serious decision making. Astonishingly, that understanding is not universal and this pseudo-heuristic is used by some professionals. “He married her; there must be something wrong with him!” To apply this to a case of severe alienation is to assume that the targeted parent must have done something to deserve a child’s rejection simply because, in the past, he or she married a spouse who later became an alienating parent. To believe that shows a poor understanding of psychopathology, as many people with serious mental disorders, including sociopaths and borderlines, can convincingly mimic normal behaviour and, particularly when courting or being courted, can be deceptively charming.
He says this; she says that. The truth is probably in the middle This is the famous “He says/She says.” If used as a heuristic, it is not only unreliable, it is unconscionable. Such thinking makes it impossible for a victim of false allegations to receive fair assessment since the victims true account is likely to be given as much weight as the victimizer’s false account (possibly less weight if other biases are at work, which they often are). Those who make false allegations know this and can easily manipulate professionals who are naïve enough to employ this type of fallacious reasoning. “If I sling enough mud something will stick.”
If we turn this over to an expert, he or she will figure it out This may or may not be true. Even among experts, the errors reviewed in this chapter are common. Blind faith in this dictum by those in the legal arena can be catastrophic, especially if a court “punts” and the putative expert is given too much authority with too little oversight.
How parents behave in a clinical evaluation is diagnostic Despite much research to the contrary, there is a widespread misconception that a clinical interview has high validity. In fact, research has shown striking limitations regarding information obtained through interviewing (Griffin & Tversky, 2002). Some claim, for example, that if a parent is anxious and intense in an interview, he or she is probably like that when parenting. Such thinking entails the fundamental attribution error. The key question is not whether the parent is acting that way, but rather, why. If the parent is anxious and intense owing to rejection by his or her own child, the observed effect may not be diagnostic. From a psychological perspective, that parent is having a normal fight or flight reaction. Failure to recognize that – to view the behaviour as dispositional rather than situational – is a serious but very common error (see Sauber & Worenklein in this volume).
A parent who criticizes the other parent when speaking with a therapist or custody evaluator probably criticizes the other parent in front of the children This, too, entails the fundamental attribution error. Consider a targeted parent who is seeking physical custody of an alienated child. In court, that parent has the burden of proof to show that the custodial/alienating parent is unfit. There is no way to do that without criticizing the other parent. If the targeted parent does explain the reasons for seeking custody (e.g., that the child is being abused by the other parent), a professional who employs this misleading heuristic would hold that against the targeted parent – as if the criticisms were mere name-calling. That puts the targeted parent in a no-win double-bind.
Both parties may contribute This faulty heuristic implies that all cases of alignment are due to a combination of alienation and estrangement (i.e., are hybrids). It also assumes that a targeted parent must have done something to deserve or warrant rejection. This is an example of how alignment issues can be counterintuitive to those who lack adequate clinical understanding. Obviously, it is possible for both parents to be deficient (although if the targeted parent has done something to warrant rejection the term “alienation” should not be used). That does not mean that most cases are hybrid. Furthermore, even if it were true, it would be inappropriate to assume that any individual case is a hybrid. Imagine the firestorm if such a heuristic – that both parties always contribute – were still applied to victims of domestic violence or rape (which in many parts of the world, it is).
If a child is adamant about a memory, there must be some truth to it This baseless belief flies in the face of massive research on false memories (Bruck & Ceci, 1999; Lilienfield, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2010; Loftus, 1997; Loftus & Pickrell, 1995; Schacter, 2001; Tavris & Aronson, 2007). False memories are remarkably easy to implant. They can feel every bit as real as true memories so children who have been programmed are often adamant that they “remember” events that did not happen. To quote Loftus and Pickrell (1995):
“[Research] on memory distortion leaves no doubt that memory can be altered via suggestion. People can be led to remember their past in different ways, as they can be led to remember entire events that never actually happened to them. When these sorts of distortions occur, people are sometimes confident in their distorted or false memories, and often go on to describe the pseudo-memories in substantial detail.”
Note that this excerpt refers to adults. Children, of course, are even more susceptible.
Performance in school usually indicates how a child is doing in general There is no credible evidence to support this premise. In fact, the opposite can be true because some children who live in a toxic home find a safe haven in school. There is certainly no evidence that academic or social success protects the victims of PA [Parental Alienation] from lifelong dysfunction due to trust issues, intimacy issues, esteem issues, anger issues, impulse issues, boundary issues, and the like.
Children are resilient; time heals all wounds This implies that most children suffer no long-term harm from PA. That is dangerously incorrect. For one thing, as illustrated by the literature on post-traumatic stress disorder, time does not heal all wounds – even in adults. In addition, it fails to account for severity. Naturally, children who sustain only mild alienation may experience only mild long-term effects. By contrast, it is well documented that those who suffer from severe alienation can suffer from severe long-term effects (Baker, 2007). It also represents a striking example of the ecological fallacy. At most, the statement is true of some children in the general population. One cannot use such group data to conclude that any individual child is resilient. Anyone who doubts this need only recall that suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents (Nock et al., 2008). Furthermore, many alienating parents have BPD [Borderline Personality Disorder], and the children of borderline parents have a significantly increased risk of developing BPD themselves (Stepp, Whalen, Pilkonis, Hipwell, & Levine, 2012). Since BPD is associated with up to a 10% lifetime risk of suicide, it should be clear that this flawed heuristic entails a potentially life-threatening clinical error.
When a man seeks full custody, it is because he wants power and control This is Paleolithic logic. While it is reasonable to question whether anyone who seeks custody might be doing it for the wrong reasons it is neither fair nor ethical nor accurate to assume that, especially based on gender.
Clinicians are sometimes told: “Trust your gut.” That, of course, means to trust one’s intuition. While there are times when that is good advice, it can lead to bad judgments when intuition is not coupled with proper analytical reasoning. That is particularly important for clinicians who manage pathological alignment because, as discussed earlier, such cases can be highly counterintuitive. For that reason, the next section will further explore the respective roles of intuition and analytical reasoning in clinical practice.
Steven G. Miller, from Ch 2 in the book: “Working with Alienated Children and Families”, edited by Amy J. L. Baker & S. Richard Sauber (2013). (Below right)
The texts below demonstrate the sophisticated understanding of complex patterns in conflicted post-separation families and the legal framework required to deal with these cases effectively and efficiently. Most importantly they illustrate the long term benefit of authoritative and informed early intervention by courts to prevent children being left to try to resolve these impossible predicaments themselves.