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Academic: Disputed theory used in child custody cases violates child protection law

A university academic is taking child protection authorities to task for using the controversial concept of parental alienation to place children in care. Tampere University Social Work Lecturer Anna Metteri says that the theory requires officials to ignore children’s views in custody cases, because they are assumed to be manipulated by one parent. Metteri says that approach clashes with child welfare laws, which call on officials to listen to children. Yle News spoke with one mother affected by the conflict between an unproven theory and established legislation.

Nukkekoti.
Image: Simo Pitkänen / Yle

Romanian-born Camelia Jalaskoski’s world came crashing down when, after less than six months of recovering her two youngest children – both under 12 years old – following a convoluted custody battle, child welfare officials decided to place them in foster care. The reason: a parental evaluation found that she was “too close” to the youngsters and therefore incapable of perceiving what was in the children’s best interests.

“I got the papers later and they said that according to a parental evaluation – taken at Tampere University Hospital – I have too close a relationship with the children. And I manipulated the children against the father,” Jalaskoski told Yle News.

The authorities were leaning on theory known in Finnish as “vieraannuttaminen” and elsewhere as parental alienation, in which one parent attempts to alienate the other parent from the child. The decision to place the children into foster care is based on what the authorities concluded were the mother’s efforts to estrange them from their father.

Problems with alienation theory

Yle News spoke with Anne Metteri, a lecturer in social work at the University of Tampere. She says it is often challenging for social workers to determine whether or not parents are deliberately trying to force a wedge between the other parent and their children.

“It’s not … diagnosis-based, it’s a phenomenon. Of course it can happen that one parent tells lies about another, that happens, but in such cases a social worker should be able to interview parties to bring lies to light. And if there are lies, like in Eerika’s case, you have to take measures,” Metteri said, referring to the case of eight year-old Vilja-Eerika, who was also a client of the child welfare system, but who died at the hands of her father and his girlfriend on Mother’s Day 2012 after years of physical abuse, in spite of efforts by her mother and school officials to alert child social workers to signs of maltreatment.

Metteri said that in recent years there has been spirited discussion in Finland about parental alienation, including some efforts to recognise it in legislation. However so far, the theory has not been written into Finnish law.

“No. You can’t find it. What you can find in child protection law – you will find listening to the children, the child’s best interests, maintaining the child’s long-term relationships. If the child has been living with mother or father the whole life and then there is divorce, you cannot move children like packages,” Metteri pointed out.

“That’s a problem because according to the guidelines from these alienation theories, they say you don’t listen to the children, you separate them from the alienating parent and then you isolate the child,” she added.

Not only have Jalaskoski’s children been isolated from their home, church and school, they have also been separated from each other. One has been placed in a foster care institution and the other with a foster family.

Metteri pointed out that experts in other countries have had some problems with what is known as Parental Alienation Syndrome. Some have observed that the theory is based on the very subjective experiences of one clinician, and its scientific validity has therefore been called into question. While it has appeared in some family and custody disputes in the US as well as in Finland, it is generally not accepted as a legal argument in other jurisdictions, such as Canada and the UK.

No comment from local officials

Yle News attempted to contact Tampere child protection officials to find out more about the legal framework in which social workers operate and to ask about parental alienation syndrome. Officials initially agreed to an interview, but later reversed that position. Instead they referred Yle News to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs and Health.

When contacted the Foreign Ministry indicated that it was not the appropriate authority to comment on child custody law or practices. However Social Affairs and Health Ministry ministerial adviser Riitta Burrell agreed to answer questions via email.

Asked whether or not parental alienation syndrome is a recognised argument in child protection cases or whether it is used in legal custody decisions in Finland, Burrell in turn referred us to the Justice Ministry. However, she did volunteer that Justice Ministry officials are currently updating legislation relating to child welfare and parental meeting rights. She also said that consideration of the child’s best interests should be at the centre of such decisions.

“The most central point in child protection work and child protection evaluations when alienation issues arise is to highlight the child’s benefits as well as the child’s experiences and perspectives,” Burrell wrote.

Parents should have a chance to be heard

The ministerial adviser noted that the Child Welfare Act as well other legislation compels child welfare workers to always seek the child’s best interests. According to Burrell, parents should also be heard before children are taken into care.

"In deciding to take children into care, before implementing the decision, social workers must provide an opportunity for interested parties – such as the child’s parents or guardians – to be heard."

However, Jalaskoski said she had no warning of the authorities’ impending decision - the children were removed from school without her knowledge just two weeks before the end of term in May. She was later informed of the official decision via mail days after the separation.

Burrell noted that caregivers – or children who’ve reached the age of 12 – who oppose such decisions can apply to the social welfare office of the local administrative court for redress. Parents also have the right to appeal administrative court decisions in the Supreme Administrative Court.

Camelia Jalaskoski told Yle News that she has challenged the child welfare officials’ decision in the local administrative court – but as far as she knows, the matter won’t come up before autumn. Precisely when, or if she will ever live under the same roof with her youngsters, she still can’t say.

Long history as client of the system

Official documentation shows that the family – and especially the children – have had a long history with child welfare officials dating back to 2007 when they were infants. In one incident, the mother fled to a shelter with the children following a violent attack. Police referred the case to prosecutors who however declined to press charges against the father.

In mid-2015 a local judge gave the father sole custody after a hearing in which Jalaskoski was not present. However shortly afterwards school officials filed child welfare reports which resulted in the youngsters being placed in a children’s shelter later that year. In December child welfare officials returned the children to their mother, saying that her home would be the best option for safeguarding their psychological wellbeing – only to reverse that situation with their latest decision.

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