‘It tears at the very fabric of your being’
Being excruciatingly separated from children, especially at Christmas - a time for family, a time for togetherness, is the grim reality facing many parents across Ireland battling parental alienation.
‘John’ is from Cavan. It isn’t his real name, as much of what he discusses is governed by reporting restrictions from the family courts. He’s also particularly fearful that, should he be identified, it may compound an already difficult situation with his former partner, resulting in even less access to his children.
The man sitting across the desk in The Anglo-Celt office is unassuming. He arrived in an unpretentious car, works a modest job and, once the interview finishes, he melds perfectly back into the bustling societal fabric outside unnoticed.
But beneath this facade is a person totally at sea, lost in a world desperately fighting for the right to see his own children. They are the first thing John thinks about when waking up and the last thing at night, yet the closest he regularly gets to them is a picture taken in happier times saved on his phone, or the neatly framed photo he has on his bedside locker.
“Christmas is suppose to be the happiest time of year for family, kids especially, and here you are being left out. If you give [the kids] presents, you don’t know if they’ll be given or binned. Cards are ripped up, even things from school are thrown away. They’re ripped up by the kids and thrown into the fire by the mother,” explains John.
This level of vindictive animosity is just the tip of the ice-berg, says John.
For the best part of a half-a-decade John has found himself before the courts fiercely trying to have his side of the story heard.
It’s not just men that parental alienation affects, it’s women too. Aligned to their collective struggle is that Ireland, at present, is a country only waking up to this most contentious of behind-closed-doors concepts. It almost exclusively arises in circumstances of acrimonious break-up and where custody over the couple’s children is contested. Alarmingly, despite its rising recognition, parental alienation has been documented since 1914 when Albert Einstein first wrote about how his wife was ‘poisoning’ the children against him.
John is part of a social media group drawing together parents from all walks or life - fighting the same fight. The question most often asked at this time of year especially is ‘what to do?’ when everything around is one big advertisement for a ‘family holiday’.
The all-encompassing loss, associated with such estrangement, and the psychological manipulation of children by one parent against another has all too real and often tragic consequences.
“A lot of people unfortunately give up!” says John. “They give up in many ways more than one. Not only do they give up trying [to fight any longer], but they’re so beat up by the process that they give up on life as well.”
Driven to the brink
John recalls one recent message from a group member who posted a photo of a “bed full of tablets” and a message simply saying ‘lads I’m gone’.
“We were left trying to make contact with this person all night. Thankfully he just passed out but that is one example of a person driven to the brink and there are many more just like that. People who have been forced from the family picture; and everything has been done banish and remove whatever trace of contact there might be after that. It’s horrific stuff.”
The brainwashing, as John calls it, is at peak awfulness when parents begin to see their children angrily change and coercively act out against them. It’s made all the more difficult in John’s case that the alienator’s family is also involved, to the point that he sometimes feels threatened by seeing them in public.
“It’s the change in these children you know are so loving. You can see it in them... it’s not them,” says John, becoming emotional at the thought. John bites his lip sharply before persevering, though it becomes too much and he needs to stop two or three times. “They’re being brainwashed. The whole environment they’re left in is toxic and it adsorbs into them when everyone around them is making me out to be this big nasty person.”
For John, it is how his kids mimic their mother’s hostilities, sometimes violently, that strikes him most. Even what might seem like a little thing, there is a demand that John is addressed by his first name when in her house, but they’re with John alone it returns to being called “daddy” again.
“I’ve walked in the door to be hit and kicked by them. Just kicked, kicked, kicked in the shins from out the door and then the door closed in my face. I’ve been spat at. It’s hard to believe. I might not believe it myself if it was anyone else.”
As a result, John has gone to collect his children shaking at what to expect. “Are they going to be good today or totally riled up to attack?”
As bad as it all sounds, matters have improved. One of John’s children now willingly goes on access but often not before a variety of treats are dangled as a tempting incentive.
Another child, perhaps more cautious of the mother’s potential ire, is more focused in her detachment.
At the thought of this, John again becomes emotional. “Every so often we’ll meet, it might even be a minute, a little bit of eye contact, that little bit of hope and it gives you that sense of hope ‘all’s not lost’. I see it. By keeping distance from me, it doesn’t damage as much in the long run. I live for those few moments, but once that kitchen door opens [and the mother walks back in], that wall goes straight back up.”
Despite it all, John is most fearful for his ex-partner and the relationship she will eventually have with their kids, noting that the parent that generally pursues alienation often becomes the victim in later years.
Perhaps against all his fatherly instincts, up to now John has kept quiet, steadfast in a belief his children will eventually come to realise he isn’t the awful person he’s been made out to be. One day, perhaps based on his children’s own curiosity, he might show them the bile-filled letters he has received over the years, and just how hard he has fought to see them.
Making that heart-wrenching compromise has meant missing out on a huge chunk of his children’s lives as well as many milestone moments.
“I’m not going to start explaining to them at their age what happened now. They’ve gone through so much already and I know that, after they visit me, they get interrogated enough. At some stage, one of us has to be responsible and draw the line - one of us has to try to be the bigger person.”
Few people are aware of John’s personal circumstances. Those who do know wonder how he continues to keep together faced with his children being so viciously and vociferously turned against him.
“I’ve had people tell me ‘just grab them and put them in the car’. But I’m not nor will I grab my children kicking and screaming. Like that, it’s not just me that’s being alienated. There’s my parents too that are missing out on their grand children’s lives, uncles, aunts as well. If I don’t see my kids, then it goes without saying they don’t get to see them either.”
Every day, therefore, John says is like Groundhog Day. “It’s just so physically and mentally draining. Sometimes you’d just love to bury your head in the sand. And then you think of them, think of what you’re missing, it’s crushing, totally soul destroying. It tears at the very fabric of your being.”
This year saw some chink of hope for John and others though, a greater international recognition that parental alienation is an issue that needs urgent addressing.
After the recent decision by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to recognise parental alienation, the subject was raised by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, who in turn recommended an overhaul of the Irish Family Law system.
More local than that, three county councils have had motion tabled by members to discuss the subject - Donegal, Laois and last month in Cavan. A series of motions were tabled in Cavan, by Cllr Paddy McDonald (SF) and Cathaoirleach Shane P O'Reilly (FF) which called on the Council to recognise the right of both mother and father to child access in the event of separation. This was unanimously supported.
Of the legal system, John says it’s “roulette” as to whether your case might be heard. It’s been five long years, mired in delays, missed deadlines and outright refusals to abide by court orders by his ex-partner. All the while he remains patient, not confident, but hopeful the process will eventually win out.
“You’ve built up to this. You feel you can’t breathe and then you’ve a solicitor or a barrister fighting for you, they’re fighting your case, talking about your life, yet still you have to sit down the back, quiet, watching the whole thing unfold. When you do get a chance to speak, it might only be two, maybe three minutes - this very narrow window of opportunity, when in reality you feel you could tell them a book worth of stuff that’s gone on.”
He adds of the growing recognition of parental alienation: “Even to have an Irish politician use the term ‘Parental Alienation’ on the radio, that was a massive acknowledgement. Even any of the councillors I’ve spoken to here in Cavan, they were shocked at how widespread it is, and what an issue it is and how serious it can be. That, in itself, gives hope. People ask me how I keep going and suppose I don’t know. It must be faith, though I’m not sure if that’s in the system or what now at this stage. What I have in is faith that someone will see reality in all of this and, at some stage, this will all be over and one day we can all move on with our lives and be in a happier place, for me and hopefully my kids as well!”