Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Deprogramming" the Children of Parental Alienation

Following up on the Ontario Superior Court's recent decision on parental alienation in A.G.L. v. K.B.D. (our report from last week is here), the Globe and Mail takes a critical eye to American counselling centres that purport to provide treatment to the "children of alientation."

See writer Kirk Makin's article, Judges sending children to U.S. for quack therapy, expert charges:

Parental alienation centres in the United States are using unproven "quackery" to deprogram children ordered into their care by well-meaning Canadian judges, a leading Ontario child psychologist has charged.

Peter Jaffe says the programs may even damage children by destroying overnight their primary support bulwark: the alienating parent whose care they have been under.

"It is not a good thing if a child has bonded to an alienating parent, but disrupting that child and pulling them away from whatever sense of security they have may end up being more harmful than good in the long run," said Dr. Jaffe, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London.

"When you're going to provide a treatment, you have to know what the unattended consequences or side effects are," he said. "You may be solving one problem but creating a whole host of new problems."

The deprogramming issue erupted last week after a Toronto judge forcibly removed three girls from their mother and sent them for treatment to a U.S. centre in an undisclosed location. It was at least the third time that an Ontario judge has taken the extreme measure in the past year.

I'm not sure we know enough about these programmes to truly evaluate their long or short term implications. I am inclined to find them conceptually suspect, at very least.

To add a bit of perspective, however, I'll note that in Ontario, the forcible removal of children from emotionally destructive environments and subsequent enrolment of such children in state-mandated counselling programmes is not entirely a radical or new development.

In child protection matters, our Children's Aid Societies have a statutory mandate to do exactly that - in extreme circumstances where less intrusive interventions have been to no avail. This is the case, irrespective of how deep the attachment of affected children may be to their problematic caregivers.

See the definition of a "child in need of protection" at section 37(2) of Ontario's Child and Family Services Act:

(2) A child is in need of protection where,

(f) the child has suffered emotional harm, demonstrated by serious,
(i) anxiety,
(ii) depression,
(iii) withdrawal,
(iv) self-destructive or aggressive behaviour, or
(v) delayed development,

and there are reasonable grounds to believe that the emotional harm suffered by the child results from the actions, failure to act or pattern of neglect on the part of the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child;

(f.1) the child has suffered emotional harm of the kind described in subclause (f) (i), (ii), (iii), (iv) or (v) and the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child does not provide, or refuses or is unavailable or unable to consent to, services or treatment to remedy or alleviate the harm;

(g) there is a risk that the child is likely to suffer emotional harm of the kind described in subclause (f) (i), (ii), (iii), (iv) or (v) resulting from the actions, failure to act or pattern of neglect on the part of the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child;

(g.1) there is a risk that the child is likely to suffer emotional harm of the kind described in subclause (f) (i), (ii), (iii), (iv) or (v) and that the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child does not provide, or refuses or is unavailable or unable to consent to, services or treatment to prevent the harm;

(h) the child suffers from a mental, emotional or developmental condition that, if not remedied, could seriously impair the child’s development and the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child does not provide, or refuses or is unavailable or unable to consent to, treatment to remedy or alleviate the condition;

Is a child who is on the receiving end of unrelenting parental alienation a "child in need of protection?" At the extremes, probably.

The question, however, of whether the so-called U.S. deprogramming centres are an effective cure is an open one. I'd like to see research and data on this, before jumping to any conclusions.

And by research, I mean objective, comprehensive data on the long-term psychological well-being of children treated in these therapies. I was not swayed by the narrowly-defined study of a clearly tiny sample group by an involved clinician with a potential financial interest in the outcome, as was documented in an article yesterday at Parent Central (h/t Tamara E.):

An intensive four-day program for children who've been brainwashed by one parent into hating another is showing signs of success, with more than 80 per cent repairing their relationship with an alienated mother or father, according to new research presented by its lead clinician.

The results, made public yesterday and currently undergoing scientific peer review, show that 17 out of 21 children who have completed the program after being removed from the grip of a "toxic" parent forged good relationships with the other parent that continue more than two years later.

"I think part of it is the children are relieved; they never really wanted to be soldiers in this war between their parents," Richard Warshak, a University of Texas psychologist who runs the program, told lawyers attending the Ontario Bar Association's annual conference yesterday.

Warshak's work was cited last month in a Toronto judge's ruling that stripped a mother of custody of her three daughters after the woman spent more than a decade trying to poison them against their father.

...Warshak won't say how much the program costs but does call it "expensive" – equal to 1 1/2 to two years of conventional therapy.

...Although 130 children have completed the program, Warshak's research looked only at the 11 families he has treated himself. Seven of the alienated parents were mothers; four were fathers.

Beyond that, I can't deny that a made-in-Canada solution - one that would allow our courts genuine ability to scrutinize, supervise and regulate "anti-alienation" therapies - would leave me considerably less frosty about this form of intervention.

- Garry J. Wise, Cancun

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