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Family court proceedings linked to suicide, mental and physical health problems in new study

A study involving 45 women who accused their partners of domestic abuse has highlighted serious health problems they have suffered as a result of ‘biased family court proceedings’.

05/09/23

Family court proceedings linked to suicide, mental and physical health problems in new study

A ‘devastating’ new study has found a link between family court proceedings and suicide ideation, suicide, mental and physical health problems.

Forty-five women taking part in a study by the University of Manchester told researchers they attributed psychological conditions including suicide ideation, memory loss, depression and flash backs on what they were going through in court. They also said physical symptoms such as Crohn’s Disease, cancer, psoriasis, heart palpitations and miscarriage were either exacerbated by or directly associated with the court proceedings.

One respondent told how her mother had a heart attack in court and another how she lost her father to a heart attack also while proceedings were ongoing.

In the study, 43 out of 45 of the mothers’ ex-partners had some form of contact with the children – even the ones with child sexual abuse convictions.

In the two cases where the children had no contact, one was due to the parent accused of violence having abducted the child, while the other was told that the child had reached an age deemed old enough to make their own choice.

While the study is due to be published in the journal of family trauma, child custody and child development in the coming weeks, its authors warn that because it is qualitative and self-reported it is therefore not generalisable to the wider population. Authors say however that the women’s experiences now indicate a need for further research.

According to the researchers, 39 of the women accusing their former partners of abuse were counter accused of a ‘spurious’ legal argument called parental alienation.

Parental alienation was first identified by American child psychiatrist Richard Gardner as ‘parental alienation syndrome’ (PAS) in 1985 to describe signs and symptoms he believed to be exhibited by children who have been alienated from one parent through manipulation by the other parent. Proposed symptoms included extreme but unwarranted fear, and disrespect or hostility towards a parent. Numerous current studies have since criticised the use of the term “syndrome”, which has not been accepted by either the medical or legal communities. Gardner's research has also been broadly criticised by legal and mental health scholars for lacking scientific validity and reliability.

Despite the theory being widely debunked, researchers in the University of Manchester study found that parental alienation was still being used as a way to deny the abuse and grant access or even residency of their children to the abusive parents.

Research shows false allegations are rare and that it is extremely difficult to make a child make false allegations of child sexual abuse.

Lead researcher, Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno says that, though women who have suffered abuse are already highly vulnerable, the courts tend to side with the male perpetrators by accepting parental alienation.

The tendency for the courts to side with men, says Dr Dalgarno, can be explained by lack of training for judges and court professionals around coercive control and domestic abuse and many believe, a culture of misogyny and woman and victim-blaming which is prevalent in society.

“The women we spoke to in our study provide a graphic depiction of the costs of parental alienation allegations – a pseudoscientific belief system designed to control women and deny abuse - to their psychological and physical health,” Dr Dalgarno said.

Dr Dalgarno, who is a lecturer in public health at The University of Manchester and the Founder and Chair of SHERA Research Group said: “This is the first study to link family court proceedings with suicide ideation, suicide and mental and physical health problems in women who have been subjected to domestic abuse perpetrator behaviours.

“We believe that these conditions should be examined at scale in clinical research under the umbrella term that we have coined as Court and Perpetrator Induced Trauma (CPIT).

“The women we spoke to in our study provide a graphic depiction of the costs of parental alienation allegations – a pseudoscientific belief system designed to control women and deny abuse - to their psychological and physical health.

“The women are already traumatised, so it’s not hard to imagine the impact of dealing with court proceedings which threaten to restore an abusive parent’s access to their children because the courts don’t believe them.

Dr Dalgarno added: “Most abusers are not convicted most women don’t even report to the police- this study is an important milestone in highlighting this problem.

“Though we can’t generalise from this qualitative study, the findings acknowledge the structural disadvantage and intrinsic societal misogyny faced by women, providing transferable insights into the wider population of mothers.

“The system is loaded against abused women. Courts are often unsympathetic to them and the men’s rights group families need fathers conference was recently attended by the Family Court president and CAFCASS representatives, but these organisations appear much less involved with mother-supporting groups like Women’s Aid.

“It is known that around 49% to 62%of the 55,000 private family court cases each year involve domestic abuse.

“That is why we urgently need to know if these dreadful health impacts constitute a public health emergency – and that will require further research.”

Questions over the dysfunctional nature of family court proceedings were publicised in the 2020 Harm Report by the Ministry of Justice.

The report accepted that parental alienation is a tactic used by abusive fathers to deny abuse has occurred, though Home Office figures show only 2 – 5% of domestic abuse claims are false.

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