A series of investigative texts by journalist Jelena Jindra entitled The System for the Protection or Abuse of Children? published from July to September 2021 on the portal of H-Alter (Association for Independent Media Culture) from Zagreb, drew great and attention and caused a lot of controversies among the general and professional public about the scientifically unfounded notion of "parental alienation". This term, which in Croatia, but also in the whole world, is very popular among experts for the protection of children in the health, judicial and social protection system, has also been propagated in Serbia in recent years by prof. Dr Gordana Buljan Flander, through "educational sessions on alienation" which she held not only in Serbia, but also in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.
The immediate reason for a series of investigative texts by journalist Jelena Jindra, published by the H-Alter portal, were protests in front of the Italian Parliament, demanding an urgent end to the court practice of taking children away from their parents, whom experts suspect of "parental alienation".
The journalist deals with this phenomenon in Croatia, which she states is "the leading European country in the implementation of 'parental alienation'", according to the assessments of the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners (EAPAP). The main promoters of "parental alienation" in Croatia are well-known experts:
- prof. Dr Gordana Flander Buljan, clinical psychologist - psychotherapist, permanent court expert and manager of the Polyclinic for the Protection of Children and Youth of the City of Zagreb;
- Judge Lana Petö Kujundžić, President of the Youth Department of the Zagreb County Court;
- and prof. Marina Ajduković, PhD, psychologist and sociologist, full professor at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb, former director of Social Work Studies.
What does this have to do with Serbia?
In the fourth sequel of the articles on "parental alienations", journalist Jindra writes that prof. Dr Gordana Buljan Flander spreads this doctrine across Croatian borders, through her "education on alienation" in Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Namely, one of the leading civil society organizations in Serbia - the Centre for the Rights of the Child (CRC), is implementing a three-day training called "Parental Divorce and Child Protection", which, along with prominent experts from Serbia, is led by Professor Flander Buljan, with “the participation of numerous experts from social welfare centres, marriage and family counselling centres, courts of appeal and lawyers from various cities in Serbia”. Professor Buljan Flander is also the author of a handbook for trainers under the same title as the seminar.
We are deeply concerned that the handbook for trainers who are supposed to teach experts on the controversial concept of “child alienation” states, among other things, that there are serious indications that [the concept] could be found in new editions of DSM and ICD” (p. 13), which is not true. Also, it is not appropriate for the manual for future trainers not to contain scientific and professional references on the considered concept, with the exception of one incomplete reference (Baker and Ben Ami, 2011) and the note (at the end of the manual) that the book "Dijete u središtu (sukoba)" [“The Child in the Center (of the Conflict)”] by authors Buljan Flander and Roje Đapić, 2020, was used.
We consider dangerous the experts’ teaching about “parental alienation” or “child alienation”, given how little knowledge and how much bias there is in the system (social, health and judicial) in understanding violence against women and domestic violence, as well as insufficient knowledge that it (violence) differs from conflict and the so-called high-conflict divorce. The use of so-called theories of alienation in situations of domestic violence or violence against women and children run counter to key guidelines for supporting and protecting victims and can become a powerful mechanism for silencing them, by which perpetrators turn the experts’ opinion in their favour.
Therefore, we share the opinion of colleagues from women's organizations from Croatia, who in their reaction state:
“If we allow the victim to be intimidated and punished in this way because she has decided to report violence (against herself and / or the child) / request supervision or a ban on meeting / visitation with the abusive parent, if she expressed concern for the child's safety while the child is with the other parent and / or otherwise tried to point out the threat to her and / or the child's mental, emotional and / or physical security, we violate the most basic principle of working with victims of violence and transfer responsibility for violence and its consequences from the perpetrator to the victim”.
What is obscured by the use of the concept “parental alienation” or “child alienation”?
Journalist Jelena Jindra (in text no. 2) states that Croatian experts are holding back the fact that the use of this concept is recognized (all over the world, about which numerous researches have been published), as a powerful manipulative tool used by violent fathers in child custody battles, in order to continue abusing mothers through children and institutions of the system. She also states that neither experts nor lay people dispute that there are situations in which one parent, after divorce, manipulates the child in order to make it difficult or deny visitation with the other parent, but that the use of the doctrine of "parental alienation" is problematic for many reasons, which has also been empirically confirmed (see text no. 7).
The journalist points out (in text no. 3) that in 2019, more than 1,000 prominent experts, organizations and institutions from all over the world wrote to the World Health Organization, expressing concern over the possibility of "parental alienation" being officially codified as a health problem in the parent-child relationship, offering arguments for it. This appeal had an impact, so the World Health Organization gave up on including that concept in the new, 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (it is not even in the current ICD-10 classification, and should not be used as a diagnosis). Therefore, the World Health Organization has withdrawn the proposed alienation code QE.52 (Caregiver-Child Relationship Problem), and it will not be in ICD-11.
Let us remind of the fact that many women's organizations from our region, including AWC and several organizations from Serbia, were among the signatories of the document sent to the World Health Organization (see in the attachments: Collective letter of concern - for the WHO).
The journalist also states that the European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP) also considers this concept unsuitable for use in psychotherapeutic work, about which a statement was issued. AWC has placed this document on its side (see attachments).
About the creator of "Parental Alienation Syndrome"
Journalist Jindra (in text no. 3) writes that the creator of this theory is the American psychiatrist Richard Gardner (1985), who described the “parental alienation syndrome” as “conscious or unconscious behaviour of one parent, most often mothers, that adversely affects the relationship, the child and the other parent: the end result being the alienation of the child from the other parent”. As a court expert, Gardner gained popularity by participating in numerous lawsuits for child custody, on the side of fathers. Gardner's "alienation" as a tool, primarily for fathers, has gained great popularity in child custody litigation among lawyers in the United States, and conservative lobbyists have sought to introduce it into law in a number of states. After Gardner's suicide in 2003, state child protection institutions publicly rejected the use of the concept as scientifically unproven.
European promoters of “alienation” – the Woodalls couple
Journalist Jelena Jindra (in text no. 2) states that the main European "experts and promoters" for the concept of "alienation" are the married couple Karen and Nick Woodall, who have a private Family Separation Clinic in London. However, a significant fact is that the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP, the largest association in the UK with about 40,000 members), in 2015 sanctioned Karen Woodall for professional negligence. Part of the accusations referred to the fact that she wrote findings and opinions about children she had not seen or met at all, and the other part of the accusations concerned finances, because it was not clear what she was charging, nor the nature of the services she offered. Based on this, the BACP concluded that Karen Woodall had violated the code of ethics: “Ms. Woodall lacks personal moral values such as honesty, integrity, competence, and wisdom. And these are the basics of the code of ethics that therapists should work by", read the sanction posted on the BACP website (quote from the text of journalist Jindra).
However, the above did not prevent the Woodall couple from being the founders of the European Organization of Parental Alienation Practitioners (EAPAP) and key educators on this topic. Journalist Jindra also states that Professor Buljan Flander and the Zagreb Polyclinic, as co-founders of EAPAP, are key promoters of these "experts" in Croatia and neighbouring countries, but also that EAPAP is not registered in the UK nor Croatia as an organization / association or foundation.
Without going into one of the "by-channels" of this newspaper research, which deals with suspicions of "nepotism, clientelism, conflict of interest and corruption, not only within the child and family protection system but also within the academic community" (in text no. 6 ), although we do not consider it irrelevant, we consider it extremely important to inform the public - professional and general - about all the problems with the concept of "alienation" which are summarized in text no. 7, prepared by sociologist Nataša Škrbić (also listed in our articles).
Scientific (un)foundedness of the so-called alienation theory
In addition to confirming the scientific unfoundedness of the so-called alienation theory, which is why the American Psychiatric Association (APA) did not accept it as a diagnosis in the 1994 revision of the Diagnostic Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), nor in the 2013 revision (DSM-V), and it has already been stated that this was not approved by the World Health Organization (in ICD-11), Nataša Škrbić presents a summary of key empirical findings and publications of experts who challenge this theory; presentation of opinions of leading professional associations in relevant fields; findings analysis of the consequences of the application of the law and expertise that included the so-called alienation theory (e.g. in Spain, Italy or Canada); which is why such legal provisions have either been repealed or are currently being reviewed.
We add that it is important to keep in mind the provisions related to this issue that are binding for Serbia:
- Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (confirmed by Serbia in 2013), and in particular in Art. 31 – Custody, visitation rights and safety, which states:
(1) Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that, in the determination of custody and visitation rights of children, incidents of violence covered by the scope of this Convention are taken into account.
(2) Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that the exercise of any visitation or custody rights does not jeopardise the rights and safety of the victim or children.
- Report (basic) on the assessment of the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence in Serbia (2020), recommendations regarding Art. 31:
GREVIO urges the Serbian authorities to take the necessary measures, including legislative amendments, to ensure that courts are under the obligation to: a. consider all issues related to violence against women when determining custody and visitation rights; b. ensure the recognition of witnessing violence against a close person as jeopardising the best interest of the child; c. restrict custody and visitation rights where this is warranted to guarantee the safety and best interest of the child; d. end the practice of removing children from non-abusive parents and placing them into foster care (para. 172. p. 42).
Also, the following could be important for the professional public:
- Mid-term horizontal review of GREVIO basic evaluation reports on the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (2021), the part related to the challenges for the application of Art. 31 (pp. 112-117);
- Resolution on the consequences of violence for women and children committed by partners in intimate relationships and the right to child custody (2019/2166 (INI)), prepared by the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality in the EU Parliament, pending vote.
Attachments mentioned in our text:
You can read the text on the so-called alienation theory by Nataša Škrbić HERE.
You can view the collective letter of concern sent to the WHO by the world's leading experts and organizations HERE.
You can see the EPA announcement HERE.
You can see reactions of prof. Dr Gordana Buljan Flander, in her own name and in the capacity of Manager of the Polyclinic (through a lawyer) HERE.
You can see the reactions of Croatian professional institutions HERE.
You can see the reactions of women victims’organizations and individual victims HERE.
You can see the motion for a Resolution on the consequences of violence perpetrated by partners in intimate relationships and on the right to custody of children and on women (2019/2166 (INI)) HERE.
You can see the Report (basic) on the evaluation of the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence in Serbia (2020) HERE.