Domestic Violence by Proxy – Clarity on the Parental Alienation debate from a child who lived through it Hello, my name is Jennifer Collins. I am the adult child in a highly publicized ”Parental Alienation,” child abuse, custody case. Many ”professionals” from the therapeutic and legal fields resort to the term “parental alienation” to try to explain why children say that they do not want to spend time with a particular parent post divorce. They have no idea how that label can be destructive and even deadly to children who are being abused and then turned against their protective parent who is desperately trying to protect them and secure their safety.
In actuality “Parental Alienation” excuses a perpetrator of child abuse, strips a domestic violence survivor of any support she might have while demonizing her, leaving the children victimized again and wondering why no one will help them. Parental Alienation was lodged against my mother to supposedly explain my brother’s and my fear of our father and pining for our mom. Not only is ”parental alienation” heavily relied on to explain away reports of child abuse, it is an easy, simple and convenient rationale when these professionals get confused between the ”he said/she said” factors in child custody cases. In my case, it resulted with the court ignoring my brother’s and my accounts of horrible abuse, severing the most important bond we had in our young lives (with our mommy) and forcing us to live with the person we identified as abusing us (our own father.) I have been on both sides of the ”Parental Alienation” argument and what happened to me and my brother fell well beyond what this fictitious phenomenon contends.
My father’s allegation of Parental Alienation against my mother was nothing more than a smoke screen to conceal his ongoing abuse of his primary target victim and her children. His efforts to take my brother and me away from our loving mother to punish her for leaving him was successfully achieved AND condoned by the system put in place to prevent such abuse from happening. What my father did to us – isolating us from our mom who we longed for as little children, along with his cruel emotional and physical tormenting of my brother and me – was much too severe to be labeled with such a canned title as ”parental alienation.”
That term is too weak for what we suffered. It’s more than bad-mouthing or saying nasty things about a parent. I wish that was all we had to suffer! ”Parental Alienation” doesn’t even begin to capture the kind of torture that my brother and I endured but there’s been no term to accurately portray what happened to us and what’s continuing to happen to thousands of other children of domestic violence survivors until now. Dr. Patterson found Domestic Violence by Proxy to explain that a batters “purpose is to use children as a tool to punish the victim for either leaving the relationship or filing an injunction for protection.”
What my father did to us was Child Abuse and not only did his behavior towards us not change, it actually worsened. He used my brother and me to keep control over our mother and isolated us from our mom to punish her for standing up to him. My father would openly say in front of us “This will teach her that she better listen to me!” or “You know that this is all HER fault, don’t you?!” These frightening tactics exemplify the very definition of DVbP. Dr. Joyanna L. Silberg, PhD, Executive Vice President of the Leadership Council; found that Domestic Violence by Proxy is “A batterer with a history of using domestic violence or intimidation uses the child as a substitute when he no longer has access to his victim, the former partner”. For us it was like being prisoners of war.
Domestic Violence by Proxy isn’t very hard to identify. These cases begin with roots planted firmly in a history of domestic violence. My father beat up my brother, my mother and me. This history of domestic violence is the single most important factor in recognizing Domestic Violence by Proxy because after years of study, we now know that leaving a violent or abusive relationship doesn’t necessarily stop the violence and abuse against the victim. In the majority of cases the abusive dynamics continue, especially for those victims who have children in common with their abusers. Dr. Silberg states that in DV by Proxy cases, the batterer “sees clearly that the easiest way to continue to hurt her is to assert his legal rights to control access to the child of his former partner.”
Like most abusers, our father recognized that he no longer had direct access to our mother after the divorce, but he DID have access to us kids. He quickly learned that the best way to get to our mother was through her children, realizing that abusing us was a far better and more effective way to hurt HER. This chain of events is at the heart of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE by proxy. Perpetrators are aware that their history of domestic violence against their former spouse doesn’t put them in a very good light so they portray themselves to others as ”good parents and loving fathers whose only wish is to maintain a relationship with their children”. With their unabated rage against the mother of their children in full effect, they abuse their own children then claim to be the victims of ”Parental Alienation” when mom reacts to and reports the abuse to authorities, asking for intervention.
If we accept the abuser’s claims that he’s a good parent, I ask you, would a good parent withhold crying little kids begging for their mother? Wouldn’t a good parent console, calm and reassure his children that they’re loved and safe – that Mommy’s just a phone call away? But that’s NOT what these guys do. The term ”Parental Alienation” doesn’t even begin to capture the kind of torture that my brother and I endured because in fact, it wasn’t ”parental alienation” – it was MEAN, VIOLENT, TORTUOUS, ABUSE! Because of what happened to my mom, brother and me, I’ve dedicated my life to bringing child abuse to an end and accurately identifying DVbP is one of the first steps in doing so.
A man named Richard Gardner came up with Parental Alienation Syndrome, a discredited theory he concocted and smartly marketed. His explanation of PAS was not based upon any scientific research, but on his own experience and bias. His work was self-published and never peer reviewed. The idea is that if children don’t like one parent and object to visitation with their father (this is almost always used by fathers), the only possible explanation is that the mother has alienated the children and the bizarre “solution” is to force the children live with the abuser they are afraid of and have no contact with the protective mother. According to this theory the child’s reaction cannot be because the father mistreated the child or the child’s mother. The only explanation is the mother is alienating the child. Mr. Gardner made many horrific statements during his life supporting his belief that society is too uptight about adult sex with children and that such activity is actually beneficial to the child. It was this bias that formed Gardner’s theory and why it is so often used to protect fathers who sexually abuse their children.
My mother was only 17 years old when she married my father. My mother was sent to the hospital 3 times in the first month she was married due to my father’s abuse to her. Since she was also abused as a child, she just accepted that this was the way life was. When my father fractured my brother’s skull, Child Protection became involved and our mother was warned that if she didn’t take us and leave our father, we would be removed from them both, and she would also be charged with “Failure to Protect.” My mother followed their instructions and fled.
When she filed for an Order for Protection, my father was automatically awarded unsupervised visitation. During visitation our father kept abusing us and beating us – more than when he lived in the home. He could no longer use our mom as a punching bag so he turned to us kids. This is exactly what Domestic Violence by Proxy is. It is when an Abuser tries to maintain power and control over his victim by hurting her children. When our father picked us up for visitation he would tell my mom “Get a good look at them. This might be the last time you ever see them alive!” We begged her not to make us go with him. In turn our mom pleaded with the court to protect us but she was warned that if she withheld visitation she could face charges of ”custodial interference.” Despite the lack of support from the court and her fear of our father, our mom still tried to protect us. She listened to our cries for help and refused to send us alone with the man she knew was beating her children.
This gave my father the leverage to file for custody based on his bogus claims of PAS. The Judge found that our mother was a victim of our father’s unrelenting abuse and our father admitted that he hurt our mother in front of us. He even admitted to shaking us by the neck and threatening to kill us, yet the judge decided that it was easier for us to live with our father’s physical abuse than to live with our mom who he referred to as a “broken woman” and a “scared little bird.” Somehow those labels seemed more of a threat to us than our father’s fists! Considering that family courts are supposed to be focused on ”the best interests of a child”, I cannot fathom how any judge can see it fit or ok to place children in the custody of a documented abuser and then to further assist him in denying the children access to the only protective parent they’ve ever known. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it any better now. Most of the mistakes by family courts in child abuse and domestic violence custody cases involve a failure to consider the context of the various disputed accounts. In intact families, children hear their parents make negative statements about each other yet this is not parental alienation. When a parent escapes a relationship with an abuser (as they’ve been told to do by governmental agencies) and tries to protect their children from abuse, this is not parental alienation. When the abuser simply continues his violent behavior by abusing the children instead of their mother, although this is technically parental alienation, it is much more severe than that. This is clearly Domestic Violence by Proxy. The abuser accuses his victim of Parental Alienation for explaining to her children that the abuse being waged against them is wrong and not their fault. If she tries to protect them from his abuse she is accused of further trying to alienate her children from their father. So for doing the right thing, the protective parent is again accused of wrongdoing. Worse, these allegations of Parental Allegation are enough for the court to reverse custody.
Parental Alienation is commonly used as a legal defense tactic by abusers and it automatically discredits mothers who speak up for their children when they come forward and reveal that someone is hurting them. Parental Alienation has been used as a convenient and catchy phrase that is thrown about to simplistically mean one parent influencing and swaying the child’s allegiance by systematically saying negative things about the other parent. Generally mothers are accused of being malicious liars, who are fabricating abuse to “get back at” their exs, but what our father did to us went beyond careless words; he was calculating and cruel. Because our protective mother was the one making a commotion over our father’s abuse, she was viewed as “the problem” rather than our offending father. Everything got so twisted around that the court reacted in its most common response to PAS allegations; and took my brother and me away from our protective mother and gave us to our abusive father.
Once custody was reversed in favor of our father the trauma of his abuse continued. His abuse was so intense and severe that Domestic Violence by Proxy is the most appropriate terms to describe what he did to us. Dr. Silberg describes how “by emotionally torturing the child and severing the child’s bond with the mother, he harms his intended victim, the child’s mother, in a way she cannot resist.” Our father would beat us and tell us that it was because of something our mother did. We were not allowed to have any contact with our mother at all: no visitation, no phone calls, no letters, etc…. It was horrible. When we begged our father to see our mother he would tell us painful lies like that our mother was crazy and in a mental institution. We were repeatedly told different stories that she moved away to another state, that she had a new baby to replace us – he even told us that she didn’t really love us and that she did not want us anymore! He would tell our mother and the courts that we were thriving without her. No one checked up on us. They just took my father’s word for it. The “Parental Alienation” that our mom was accused of for trying to protect us from abuse didn’t compare to the continued abuse that my father blatantly committed against us. Yet the court officers simply ignored our pleas for help stating that we needed to accept that this was the way it was and “life wasn’t fair.”
It is disturbing that courts often grant custody to abusers, who are devoid of empathy and compassion, with the expectation that he is more likely to encourage the children to have a relationship with their mother. The children are traumatized by being ripped away from their primary parent and having the most important bond in their lives severed. Ironically once an abuser gets custody, he continues to engage in the abuse of the children as well as to his former spouse. This is another example of Domestic Violence by Proxy. The abuser withholds the children from their mother, tells them damaging lies about their mother and even threatens them by saying that if they continue to love and long for their mother they will be punished. So after the custody reversal the court actually condones the same behavior it allegedly sought to avert and prevent! Judges repeatedly punish and retaliate against protective mothers for any negative statement made against the father and then do absolutely nothing when the father actively prevents the children from having a relationship with their mother. This double standard is just one example of gender bias that has been found by court sponsored committees in over forty states.
When we were finally allowed to see our mom during supervised visitation, all of our conversations were restricted. We told our mom (and the court supervisors) that our father was still hurting us. The supervisors scolded us for that saying “You’re not allowed to talk about those kinds of things anymore.” When we told our mom what our father had said about her not loving us and wanting us, we wanted confirmation from her that it wasn’t true but before she could answer the supervisors again instructed her “don’t answer that.” My father did not endure such scrutiny before custody was reversed even when we were begging for protection from his angry fists. What’s ironic about “Parental Alienation” is that the person accusing it is usually the person who’s deliberately using alienating and divisive tactics himself. He is the one who is actually being abusive towards the children. In our case, my father’s actions and behaviors were completely ignored by the court because my mom was “guilty” of Parental Alienation. How is it that a court of law, whose supposed to be pursuing justice for all, can take the word of an admitted perpetrator over a confirmed victim’s and call it “fair and impartial”?
For 18 months and 8 days we were truly isolated from our loving mother. My father and several court evaluators openly admitted that their goal was to destroy our bond with our mom. This treatment is what happens to cult victims. They attempted to brain wash us into believing that our father was actually the victim of our mother’s evil intent. Since my brother was 11 years old and I was 9, we sometimes doubted our mom – we were hurt and angry that she abandoned us. We thought “If she really loved us she wouldn’t let this happen” but there was not ever one time where we thought that our father was the victim. Throughout all of it, we knew with certainty that he was the one who was hurting us!
My brother and I were desperate to escape our father’s abuse, but we lost faith in the family court system because of the one truth our father would repeat “They don’t believe you! No one believes you!” Somehow, during the little visitation we had with our mom, she would find little ways to communicate the truth in messages like “I believe you did a very good job. I always believe you! I can’t wait to see you again… I always want to be with you!” Sometimes she would be reprimanded by the supervisors but she always found subtle ways to tell us that she was still there for us. Despite our mom’s veiled reassurances, it was such a confusing time for us so my brother and I decided to confront our mother. We still held out hope that if our mom knew what was really going on in our father’s house she wouldn’t leave us there with him any longer (and I’m saying “she” because we believed that our mom was ultimately allowing all this.)
It turns out our mom DID love us and DID want us and was willing to do ANYTHING to prove it to us. We started writing notes to her and sneaking them into her pocket during visitations. Then finally one day, when we ran away from our father’s house, our mother was there waiting for us. We fled the United States and found protection in the Netherlands. We were the first Americans to be granted Asylum in Holland. It took years for us to recover from the abuse. We were forced to live in secrecy for 14 years until we were found by the FBI. Our mother voluntarily returned to the United States to face the legal consequences for her actions. Happily, all kidnapping charges against her were dismissed! Yet some people who didn’t even know us from men’s rights web sites wrote about our case and chastised my mom. Like my father had done a decade earlier they accused her of Parental Alienation because she hid us from our father for 14 years despite our accounts of the abuse! How is denying a man the right to ABUSE his children wrong?
A child’s birthright is to be loved, nurtured, taken care of and supported; childhood memories are supposed to consist of bedtime stories, making forts and summertime adventures. My memories are hiding in closets, watching my precious mother being reduced to a bloody pile on the floor, wanting to help her but not knowing what to do, squelching terror and tears for fear of being discovered and being his next victim. Despite all the abuse I suffered as a child, I initiated a call to my father a little over a year ago sincerely hoping that 14 years would have melted his anger and bitterness towards life into regret and reconciliation. Although I prepared myself for the worst, I was completely devastated regardless when all he had to say to me was ”You are 14 years too late”.
This is a man who terrorized and beat me – what he has to say shouldn’t matter, but I must admit that all I wanted to hear from him was an apology. I just needed him to acknowledge what he had done and know that he was sorry for it. I was so ready to swap 14 years for an apology yet there I was, broken-hearted all over again, with confirmation of the truth I knew all along; my father was an abuser and he would never change. That’s the thing about abuse: NOTHING about it makes ANY sense – not the abusive acts, not the beatings, not the consequences, not the weird feeling that remains when you still want your abuser’s approval despite everything he’s done to you.
Father’s rights groups excuse my father’s abuse by claiming that we are the victims of Parental Alienation, but one of these men’s groups actually came forward recognizing child abuse and denounced my father for his actions. They realized that my brother and I should not be discounted and discredited just because we lived with our mom all these years. My brother and I were not “brainwashed” either as some strangers have claimed. Our mom didn’t have the time, energy or desire to devote to such a thing – we were old enough to know what happened to us and our memories are our own. An abuser’s existence is completely intertwined with power and control dynamics and to effectively brainwash someone, you’d have to be fairly self-disciplined and have some form of power and control at your command. Domestic violence victims and survivors are given such flattering labels like crazy, out of control, an emotional wreck, a broken woman, a scared little bird…none of which implies the slightest bit of self-discipline or ability to exercise power and control over themselves (or anyone else!) so I find it REALLY puzzling that moms can be labeled by the professionals as broken, weak and unworthy yet be accused of brainwashing at the same time. If anyone is more likely to use brainwashing, it’s the abusers NOT the victims!
Sadly however, these fathers’ rights guys continue to defend my father. They claimed to have looked through court documentations from my father and concluded that I must have been lying as a child. Now they label me as a “man hater” who thinks that only mothers should be raising children. I have absolutely nothing against dads – I think it’s the sweetest and most attractive male quality to see a dad being nurturing towards a child. Whenever I see that, I smile and can’t help but to have a twinge of jealousy for the dad I didn’t have growing up – but I didn’t have a dad – I had a father who was consumed with anger, alcohol, drugs and controlling our lives through abuse. It wasn’t until my Dutch Papa came into my life that I got to feel a little of what it was like to have a real dad. The majority of men out there are good dads, but then there are some fathers out there who aren’t worthy of the honorable title. Would any good dad, or good man for that matter, suggest that my mother should be gang raped in prison to be punished for taking us away from our father? Men identifying themselves as Fathers Rights Activists write things like this to me and worse if you can imagine that. Would you feel safe leaving your child with a man who thinks such things? What kind of an influence do you think he’d be if he has any sons or daughters? I’m all for protecting the relationship between good dads and their children; what I have a problem with is the court system protecting the relationship between proven abusive parents and their children who are afraid of them for that very reason! In cases of violence and abuse, what needs to be protected is the children, NOT their relationship to the abusive parent.
Since our story gained substantial public attention, I have had the opportunity to meet many people on both sides of this debate. I have learned from nationally recognized domestic violence experts that my parent’s case was not unusual and that it is a clear example of Domestic Violence by Proxy. It has absolutely nothing to do with Parental Alienation. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is an unscientific concoction that is typically used by an abuser to avoid responsibility for his actions and abuse. The PAS accusation is used to blame the victim for trying to protect her children and is almost exclusively used against women. The paradox of PAS is that since it is not a real mental health disorder there is no cure, so once a woman is falsely accused of parental alienation, there is no recourse for her or her child. The mother can only stand helplessly by as suspicious authoritative eyes keep a close watch on her while she prays for someone to see the truth and intervene because she’s no longer able to do so. In the meantime, the child is left struggling with questions they don’t get answers to: “How could mom do this to me? How could she leave me with him? Why is she letting a stranger (a judge, therapist, GAL, etc.) make all the decisions now? Why won’t she protect me like she used to? Doesn’t she love me anymore? Was she lying when she said she believed me and loved me?”
Even though PAS has been discredited by the American Psychiatric Association as not an actual syndrome, thousands of children have been forced to live with their abusers and denied a meaningful relationship with their protective mothers. This false diagnosis, which is improperly used by some “experts”, is also not recognized by the American Psychological Association. Parental Alienation Syndrome does not appear in DSM IV which includes all valid mental and emotional conditions. Recently some psychologists have started to lose their licenses for testifying in support of PAS allegations. These former professionals lost their license because they gave a diagnosis that does not exist. Hopefully if enough “experts” lose their licenses it will discourage a practice that has destroyed the childhoods and often the lives of so many children. ”Fathers’ Rights” groups appear to be dominated by extremists who act like they speak for most men when in fact they represent a small minority. Even when a good father feels that he is being unfairly portrayed by his ex-wife, he does not set out to rip his child away from a loving mother and attempt to destroy the close bond his child has with that other parent. Yet these abusers systematically support the removal of any child from their mother despite the valid concerns of abuse. Their goals are to reduce or eliminate child-support, roll back protections against domestic violence and in some cases condone or encourage incest. If they openly and honestly presented their real agenda obviously they would be discredited as the extremists they are. Instead they use their great manipulation skills and speak of equal time, joint custody, friendly parenting and other terms that seek to create the illusion that their goals are reasonable and in the best interest of children.
These self-admitted “Feminist Haters” (as one site refers to themselves) have come to realize that the best way to hurt their partner and punish her for leaving or pressure her to return is to go after her children. Unfortunately we have seen this strategy play out in murders or murder-suicides, but most of the time abusive fathers who had little involvement with the children during the relationship suddenly seek custody after she leaves. This is Domestic Violence by Proxy in its purist form. The court system and the inadequately trained professionals often used by the courts have been slow to recognize this all too common phenomenon. Men who are identified by their children as being the person who physically or sexually hurt them use PAS to conceal their abuse. They misuse the term PAS to try to convince the courts that they are the “real victims” of lying children and vindictive wives. Protective mothers are viscously attacked by the courts and even jailed for doing what the law requires them to do: keep their children safe.
It is in this context that PAS is so often used in domestic violence custody cases. In our case, too much emphasis was put on the discredited theory of PAS and all of our treating medical doctors and treating psychologists were dismissed. In research totally unconnected to custody issues, numerous researchers have found that by the time a child reaches 18, one-third of the girls and one-sixth of the boys have been sexually abused. Although the stereotypical sex-abuser is a stranger in a raincoat, in reality most of this abuse is committed by someone the child knows, often the father. Nevertheless courts rarely find allegations of sexual abuse valid because they use experts with little training or understanding of these issues and they can’t imagine a father, particularly one who is successful in other parts of his life would be capable of something so horrible. My father was excused because a family court evaluation testified that he didn’t “look like an abuser.” He was cooperative and my mother was unrelenting in her determination to protect us.
Research shows that when children lose their primary attachment figure (the parent that performed most of the child care in the first couple of years of a child’s life), they are more likely to experience depression, low self-esteem and suicide among other harm. Children who witness domestic violence (see it, hear it, see their mother’s wounds, feel her fear, hear her screams) are far more likely to engage in harmful behaviors when they get older. In other words there is valid scientific research that provides good reason to insure custody to the primary, non-abusive parent. There is no research to support the common practice of taking children away from protective domestic violence survivor moms based on allegations of a syndrome that doesn’t exist.
Parental Alienation is the primary tool of choice that empowers and emboldens batterers to manipulate the facts, conceal child abuse and perpetuate their abuse through Domestic Violence by Proxy. My mom was once asked when she escaped the domestic violence from my father. I was surprised when she replied “the day I got my kids back.” When she was asked to elaborate she replied “even though he wasn’t hitting me anymore, his abuse continued through my children and that was even more devastating than any beating he gave me.” It was at that moment I realized that we were nothing but a tool for my father to continue to abuse his mother. It is time to recognize Domestic Violence by Proxy and understand that condoning the Parental Alienation deception is the route of “Court Appointed – Child Abuse.” It’s time to stop the “CA – CA!”