Mothers who allege abuse more likely to lose custody of their children

by Dr Sarah Nelson


Dr Sarah Nelson is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) and a research specialist on childhood sexual abuse and its effects across the lifecourse. Sarah’s book, ‘Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches’, offers hope of more effective, imaginative means of protecting children and young people from sexual abuse.


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To work at length with childhood sexual abuse (CSA) in the UK is to become aware that mothers who voice fears of abuse by the father, after separation or divorce, often find contact with their child reduced or lost. This raises serious child protection concerns. Those who come across this pattern have included researchers, counsellors, domestic abuse and sexual abuse support agencies, and family lawyers (Nelson 2016, ch.2).

Now a frequent but anecdotal experience has been verified by international research. Some similar results to CSA were found if mothers claimed domestic abuse against themselves. A mother’s risk of losing child contact doubled when a father made a counter-claim of ‘parental alienation’ (PA).

It is not denied that in general, some parents will attempt to alienate children against the other parent after separation. Rather, this is about the specific use made of PA against female ex-partners who allege child sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Two large US studies were produced by Professor Joan Meier and Sean Dickson. Their first, 2017 study found family courts only believed a mother’s claim of a child’s CSA in one of 51 cases when the accused father alleged parental alienation.

The second (2020) study found only 2% of a mother’s sexual abuse allegations were believed in court. The impact of PA was gender-specific, only female partners suffering from it. In non-abuse cases, ‘parental alienation’ had a more gender-neutral impact.

Handed to abusers

Silberg and Dallam’s research (2019) focused on cases involving abuse allegations first viewed as false, then later validated. In all cases the father was the abusive parent. Initially courts were highly suspicious of mothers’ motives, treated them poorly and pathologizing them (McInnes 2014). Judges relied mainly on reports by custody evaluators who mistakenly accused mothers of attempting to alienate their children from fathers, or having coached the child to falsely report. As a result, 59% of perpetrators were given sole custody, the rest joint custody or unsupervised visits. Nearly 90% of these children then reported new abusive incidents. The main reason cases were overturned was because protective parents could present compelling evidence of abuse, backed by reports by mental health professionals who had specific expertise in child abuse (my italics).

Use of PA increasing

Barnett’s 2020 study in England and Wales, looking at 20 years of PA in private family law, has found PA increasingly raised in family proceedings, and in political and popular arenas, in response to domestic abuse concerns. Fathers claimed these mothers, as resident parents, had alienated children against them. PA has become, they say, part of the discursive repertoire of current family law, with “increasingly harsh consequences for women and children.”

Meanwhile Doughty’s 2020 study, from both England and Wales, says use of PA had been rejected by courts there, but was now increasing, possibly driven by campaign groups and media narratives. Cafcass (Children and Family Court and Advisory Service) in England now says it is a factor in a significant proportion of cases. Cafcass is revising its training in recognising it and what to recommend to the judge, including that children be removed from an alienating parent. Doughty discusses progress to counter myths about PA, and “considers how best to support practitioners in resisting pressures to conform to these powerful narratives”.

In Scotland, independent reports about the best interests of the child in residence and contact cases are now performed by Child Welfare Reporters. When their role was redefined in 2015 they were explicitly required to have training in parental alienation. It is not clear if this training has yet taken place.

Possible reasons

Several factors help to explain the scepticism about these child sexual abuse allegations -in addition, of course, to the long societal history of widespread scepticism about CSA. This includes how what was originally called ‘parental alienation syndrome’ (PAS) was invented; the historic legacy of prejudice about the motives and manipulative nature of women; and the presumption that all fathers have a right to their children.

PAS was invented by the late American psychiatrist Richard Gardner. He argued that CSA allegations were rampant in disputed custody cases. In fact they are relatively rare (Trocme and Bala, 2005). Vengeful mothers, he believed, used abuse allegations to punish ex-husbands, and deny them custody or contact. They brainwashed the children into believing false claims (Gardner, 1992). This theory has been influential, even among child protection professionals themselves – and irrespective of the quality of the child’s own disclosures, even though the syndrome’s authenticity has repeatedly been questioned: for instance, “the scientific status of PAS is, to be blunt, nil” (Wood 1994, Emery et al., 2005).

Yet Gardner’s neutrality can be judged by the fact that he believed paedophilia, rape and sadism served species survival by “enhancing the general level of sexual excitation in society”. Gardner claimed adult-child sex benefited the species. Women’s physiology and conditioning could make them gain pleasure from being beaten, bound, and otherwise made to suffer. Gardner lobbied to abolish mandated reporting of child abuse and for funded programmes to assist those claiming to be falsely accused. (Gardner, 1992, Dallam, 1998, Hoult, 2006).

The theory also ignores sound reasons why sexual abuse by a father could be much more likely to emerge after parental separation. The child may feel safe for the first time to confide, while a mother’s suspicions may have been the actual reason for the separation.

Also influential and a boost to the theory are strong historic prejudices in society and in the law, that women’s and children’s credibility is highly suspect, and that women are malicious, spiteful accusers of men. The adversarial courts system enables abusive fathers’ lawyers to use PA as a powerful weapon. In concentrating on women’s manipulativeness, it ignores known patterns of manipulative behaviour in perpetrators of CSA and domestic violence, towards partners and children.

Finally, very relevant is the entrenched historic belief among judges and many others in society that a father has a right to his children, no matter how he treats them. Indeed the law enshrines presumptions: for instance in Scotland it is presumed that a child will benefit from contact with both parents, and that both parents will continue to play an active part in their children’s lives even after separation.

In March 2020 petition PE07190, in the name of Samantha Kerr, was presented to the Petitions Committee “Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to recognise parental and familial alienation as a specific and serious form of pathological psychological child abuse”.

However, international findings that remain deeply concerning for child protection suggest both that similar Scottish research be urgently undertaken, and that clear guidance on the need for impartial investigation, which challenges prejudices, is issued to legal professions, police, health and social work. Fears or allegations of sexual abuse, made by mothers around divorce or separation, require to be investigated as rigorously and open-mindedly, with as much skill and informed knowledge about patterns of violence and abuse, as any other allegation. It also suggests evaluators should have genuine expertise and experience in both child abuse and domestic abuse, if the safety and protection of children is genuinely to become a national priority.


Barnett, A. (2020) ‘A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales’,
Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 42, (1): 18-29 .

Dallam, S. (1998) ‘Dr. Richard Gardner: A Review of His Theories and Opinions on Atypical Sexuality, Pedophilia, and Treatment Issues’, Treating Abuse Today, 8(1): 15–23.

Doughty, J. (2020) ‘Professional responses to “parental alienation”: research-informed practice’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42 (1): 68-79.

Gardner, R. (1992) True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse, Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Hoult, J. (2006) ‘The evidentiary admissibility of parental alienation syndrome: science, law, and policy’, Children’s Legal Rights Journal, 26(1): 1–61.

McInnes, E. (2014) ‘Madness in family law: mothers’ mental health in the Australian family law system,’ Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 21(1): 78–91.

Meier, J. and Dickson, S (2017) ‘Mapping Gender: Shedding Empirical Light on Family Courts’ Treatment of Cases Involving Abuse and Alienation’, Law & Inequality, 35 (2): 311.

Meier J. (2020) ‘U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show?’ Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law , 42 (1): 92-105.

Nelson S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support, Bristol: Policy Press.

Silberg, J. and Dallam, S. ‘Abusers gaining custody in family courts: A case series of overturned decisions’, Jnl of Child Custody, 16(2): 140-169.

Trocme,N. and Bala, N. (2005) ‘False allegations of abuse and neglect when parents separate’, Child Abuse & Neglect, 29: 1333–45.

Wood, C. (1994) ‘The parental alienation syndrome: a dangerous aura of reliability’, Loyala of Los Angeles Law Review, 29: 1367–1415.