Re-published from blog by Rachel Watson, February 27, 2021
When women raise claims of abuse in the family courts, the judge will often appoint an expert to carry out an assessment and write a report to help guide their decision on contact or custody. The expert can be a lawyer, a social worker or a mental health professional and they hold a tremendous amount of power; they become the eyes and ears of the court.
Many experts instructed by the family courts lack true expertise in coercive control and child abuse and some hold extreme beliefs. Some excuse abuse. Some don’t understand how harmful abusive behaviour is to children. Others hold the distorted belief that reporting abuse is more harmful to children than the actual evidenced psychological, physical or sexual abuse. Therefore, it is important to know that you have some say in which expert the judge will instruct. You should also be allowed to dispute an expert’s report if the report is unfair, inaccurate and misleads the court.
You aim to get a credible and impartial expert who will report accurately. If you prepare in advance, you will approach the judge’s appointment of an expert calmly and with confidence rather than uncertainty and fear. Find a few credible experts who would be suitable to report to the court, for example, an expert who uses a trauma-informed, child-centred approach, a member of a professional association and someone who understands coercive control and domestic or child abuse. Consider a professional who uses the Power Threat Meaning Framework, if available in your area. Ask domestic abuse charities or mothers in family court support groups for recommendations.
Google the proposed expert and check for any sanctions for misconduct or connections to parental alienation. Look on their websites and social media to get an idea if they are advocates of domestic or child abuse victims or if they appear to promote fathers’ rights. (This, sadly, is a gendered issue). Ensure that you and the court have the CV of any expert proposed and enough time to review it. Don’t be pressured into agreeing on an expert who is sprung on you at court. Also see this FJC guidance on instructing an expert. Research as thoroughly as you can.
Objecting to the proposed expert
I’m afraid I cannot agree to an assessment by ———– They are not the most suitable expert to assess or obtain the child’s views in this case. The expert proposed has a particular interest in parental alienation.
Parental alienation is not recognised as a mental health condition and is not a professionally recognised diagnosis by the:
- American Psychological Association
- American Medical Association
- World Health Organization
Parental Alienation Syndrome was removed from The World Health Organisation index in Sept 2020.
There is no universal definition of parental alienation and there is disagreement in the parental alienation community regarding what parental alienation is. Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation are now used by lawyers and proponents of the theory interchangeably.
The theory of parental alienation is based on assumptions and opinions; there is no scientific evidence or peer-reviewed research to support the theory. There is a lot of recent, peer-reviewed, academic research by credible international experts which shows how harmful the concept of parental alienation is to the outcomes for children in cases where claims of abusive behaviour are raised. Research shows the treatments for children who are said to be alienated are strict and harmful. (Note that some of the PA research has been challenged and rebutted).
When the concept of parental alienation gets applied to the case, it can adversely affect the child’s participation rights; children are not heard or believed.
I would therefore like to propose a balanced assessment starting from a neutral perspective. I propose the court use an expert who uses a trauma-informed, child-centred approach. The expert I proposes is credible; their qualifications are XXX. They are a member of the XXX association, and they have experience in getting to the root of a child’s experiences and fears. The approach they use focuses on the needs of the child, not the parents’ needs, and offers positive and practical outcomes for all parties involved. Their approach is kind, fair and safe, and therefore they are the most suitable expert to report the child’s views or give the court an accurate assessment of the situation.
Disputing a biased and inaccurate report
If you already had an unfavourable report carried out by a family court expert, then you will be extremely hurt, confused and worried. You should get the opportunity to dispute the report and request another expert which you can do by incorporating the information above. When a court reporter has attacked you, your natural reaction is to defend yourself. The judge may see your defensiveness as hostility or vengefulness. Your ex and their team often use your defensiveness to blame you further. Therefore, you must be strategic in your response. Take your time and give yourself some breathing space to recoup from the attack so you can make your move calmly and confidently.
I’m afraid I cannot agree with the report of ———— the report is inaccurate and does not offer the best / a safe solution for the child.
Use the following checklist and explain any aspects of your report;
- That are unbalanced/unfair
- That are inaccurate
- That contain assumptions and opinions rather than facts
- Where the reporter acted outwith the remit of their appointment
- Where relevant information concerning harmful behaviour towards the child was diminished or omitted
- Where relevant information concerning the child’s mental health was diminished or omitted
- Where the child’s views have not been transmitted to the court, they have been translated
- Where the reporter put pressure on the child to accept their views
- Where the report misleads the court on the child’s experiences and therefore the recommendations are inappropriate, unkind or unsafe
Keep in mind that experts must give facts relevant to issues, and those facts must include good and bad points.See these Instructions to Child Welfare Reporters and Guide to Child Welfare Reports (Scotland) for information or look for similar in your country. Once you have written your response, read over it and check that it sounds factual, child-focused, and as kind and positive as possible.
Every time you communicate with the court, it is an opportunity to show the court you are a reasonable, thoughtful parent who is not focused on your ex’s harmful behaviour (towards you) but focused on the child’s wellbeing. Keep this in mind and it should help guide you towards a successful outcome. Good luck in your case and hang in there. Rachel x