/ 11 August 2022

Children are the losers in parental alienation

Graphic Alienation Website2 1200px

Through an alienated father’s jaundiced eye, Hollywood luminary Brad Pitt — shorn of fame’s vapour trails — is just another frog in the pot warming to the boil for dismemberment by the mother of his children. 

Pitt and Oscar-winning actor Angelina Jolie’s custody skirmishes over their tribe of adopted and biological children initially followed Tinseltown’s predictable plots – the recriminations from both camps feed an insatiable gutter press, before legal writ or waning public interest dampens wealth’s wails.

Pitt’s Los Angeles litigation this year against Jolie, a UN Refugee Agency special envoy, is a departure from the script. 

The Fight Club actor is claiming last year, two years after their divorce, Jolie “sought to inflict harm” by “secretly” and “knowingly” violating his contractual rights by selling her $164-million share in their south of France wine estate, Chateau Miraval, to Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler and is “bent on taking control” of the property. 

Seen from the perspective of an alienated father, the transaction is not about the sale price, it’s about the sleight of hand in setting ambushes to keep conflict roiling towards one parent’s end game for a child’s erasure from the other parent’s life. 

The difficulties in discerning parental alienation — the psychological manipulation of a child to disown the other parent — from the usual debris of acrimonious relationship breakdowns has allowed the classified psychological disorder to infiltrate South Africa and other societies unhindered. 

The child’s emotional burden, as the go-to blunt instrument in parental alientation’s conflict arena, is an incubator for short and long-term psychological and physical illnesses mirroring those from physically and sexually abused childhoods.

The toll for the alienated parent is wandering grief’s wastelands mourning lost childhoods.

The cost borne by the alienating parent is roaming the toxic reaches first mapped by the late journalist PJ O’Rouke in his critique of the US political classes: “They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power.” 

Roberto*, a Johannesburg landscape gardener and alienated father, said his mixed-race child was bedridden by lower back pain in her final two years of school and wrote matric in a wheelchair. 

“The mother’s words of comfort throughout was to tell her the ailment was the ancestors’ anger that she was the spawn of a slave master.

“Within days of the relationship’s split, I was served with a protection order claiming I was conspiring to kidnap my children and squirrel them off to eastern Europe,” Roberto said. The court dismissed the charges.

“Then it was denial of paternity, denial of access and in and out of the courts until the money evaporated. In the 12 years since the separation, she has refused to file for ‘papgeld’. It’s a safety net to stoke vitriol when imagination runs on empty. 

“I’ve lost a lot. Friends. Career. House. And, at times, my mind. It sets you adrift in seas of emotional chaos. I am close to losing one child and I’m desperately clinging to the other. But it’s like trying to stop a glacier’s march without boots,” Roberto said. 

Internationally classified as domestic violence — due to the psychological torture of severing contact between a parent and a child — parental alientation is set apart from other family crimes because society often casts the perpetrator as an innocent bystander unwittingly dragged into a no-rules street brawl. 

The alienator’s public facade is often convincing, belying an “often cunning” streak in their “need to punish the other parent that supersedes anything”, a Johannesburg private social worker, who declined to be identified fearing the legal fraternity’s censure, told the Mail & Guardian.

The alienator is “generally” driven by revenge, abandonment insecurities or a belief “they are a better parent and the other does not deserve to have the child”, she said. 

One the opposite side, the alienated parent is “frequently angry” and “aggressive” because they fear “they are never going to see their child again”, the social worker said.

“The ultimate aim is to destroy that bond [between parent and child] until their objective is achieved – when the child outwardly rejects that parent and aligns themselves with the alienating parent and refuses to have contact.” 

Howard Watson, co-founder of South Africa’s Parental Alienation Foundation, told the M&G the “emotionally manipulative behaviour” that is parental alienation “is not reliant on gender, and although more prevalent in mothers, fathers are far from innocent”.

Gauging parental alientation’s extent in South Africa is muddied by the justice department’s inability to give it “meaning” and the “recognition that it so desperately needs”, he said. 

Section 35 of the Children’s Act — that criminally cites the refusal of access to a child or rejecting parental responsibilities — is an avenue, except the police “refuse to investigate section 35 crimes, alleging it’s a civil matter”, the attorney said.

The foundation’s view was: “South African courts do not currently have the necessary skill or appetite to effectively deal with parental alienation,” Watson said. 

In the absence of legal guardrails, the alienator instils an “us against them” philosophy in the home, reminiscent of cults. The other parent is disdained, their extended families and friends annexed and personal histories and memories revised by stitching alternative realities together with spite’s thread. 

The child can emerge with debilitating psychological afflictions, including low self-esteem and self-loathing; depression; a hatred for the alienated parent; substance abuse; an inability to form lasting friendships; anger and aggression. 

Fathers 4 Justice’s Gary da Silva told the M&G there had been a “pandemic” growth in parental alientation during his nearly 20 years at the helm of the South African NGO advocating equal parental rights, including amending the Children’s Act to recognise parental alientation as domestic violence and child abuse, as well as criminal sanction for alienators and their enablers. 

Da Silva said, “Family advocates don’t recognise or believe parental alienation exists.” This, at best, displays parochial ignorance or, at worst, a comfort with a status quo that has “nothing to do with the best interests of the child and everything to do with how much money the lawyers and psychologists can make”. 

In the absence of legal sanction, the actions of the “invariably narcissistic” alienator, Da Silva said, can make blood sports pale in their brutality. 

“I have a dad who, by court order, can’t see his children until a psychological assessment is done on all five family members, at a cost of R80 000 each. That’s more than R400 000. He does not have that kind of money, so he has lost his family,” Da Silva said. 

*Names changed to protect the child

Guy Oliver is a Johannesburg-based photojournalist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.