As part of a series of journalistic articles entitled “The child’s right to both parents: cases of alienation in court practice and social welfare centers” published by journalist Barbara Kraš Kedmenec on the portal with the support of the Agency for Electronic Media for Quality Journalism, the text “CONDITIONAL LOVE A parent who loves a child as much as a child hates the other parent is a manipulator; experts warn: by its inaction the system goes to the hand of the abuser” is published on October 11, 2020. Among the expert interlocutors, on behalf of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, the director professor Gordana Buljan Flander and psychologist Mia Roje Đapić. We published the text in its entirety:

“In recent years, the term alienation has been mentioned in practice, which tries to define the situation in which one of the parents instructs the child, creating aversion and a desire to break off contact with the other parent. It is a type of emotional abuse that is difficult to recognize in practice because it does not leave physical consequences but those that are very often invisible to the eye.


Although a newer term, in psychological practice it entails a whole range of defined symptoms that experts use to determine whether it is alienation.

“Undoubtedly, a parent who encourages the child’s pathological fusion with himself, as a result of which the child absolutely and uncritically rejects the other parent, emotionally abuses the child,” is a clear message from the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center.


And while scientific and professional practice are discussing whether it is a separate syndrome, an entity, as it should be called, whether it should have its own diagnostic category or not, etc., generations of children and young people are victims of time, warn the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center.


Alienation of a child can end in borderline personality disorder

“The main symptom of alienation in the psychological sense is the development of ‘splitting’. The child resolves the unbearable anxiety of one parent’s emotional pressure to reject the other parent by bowing to one parent, usually the one who is less secure, whose love the child feels he/she deserves. Then child sees one parent absolutely perfect, without flaws, and the other parent absolutely negative, to the extent that he/she begins to deny his/her existence and all the memories he/she had with that parent. For example, we often see child stop calling his/her mother or father, first calling him/her by name and then ‘he’ or ‘she’, which completely depersonalizes mother or father as a parent” said the director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center professor Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD, who has been working on cases of alienation for years.

This is not the end of the story, she warns, because such a child begins to experience themselves and others in the same way and is at high risk of developing various psychiatric disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.


“An alienated child is a child who, far too early in development, has been given great power to decide (under the influence of one parent) on things for which he is not ready. Although it may seem to work well, the real consequences are seen in adolescence. When a parent undermines the authority of the other parent, it actually undermines parental authority. A child who, at the age of seven, decided whether to see his/her mother or father, at the age of 15 will feel that he/she can and should independently decide when to come home and whether to go to school. It is very difficult to return him to the position of a child and establish healthy boundaries”, continues Buljan Flander.


How to live with half of yourself?

These are children who have suppressed their true needs and emotions, they are looking for a “leader” who will determine what they think, feel and need, just as they have relied on an alienating parent. By not preventing violence against, today, children, tomorrow we will have adults with emotional, psychological and empathic deficits with whom they will enter into relationships with other people, participate in creating dysfunctional family communities and be disabled in normal coexistence and community action.

“That is why it is not strange that children ‘fall into bad company’, that is, they fall under negative peer influences. They feel that at least half of them, that part associated with the alienated parent, is not worth it, that it should be deleted. What is it like to live with half of yourself? Finally, these children feel they are not worthy of love. One parent has convinced them that the other parent does not love them, but the love of this parent who remains with them is conditioned. That parent loves the child as much as the child hates the other parent. If my parents don’t love me for who I am, the child unconsciously concludes, how could anyone love me? ”, our interlocutor analyzes the child’s thoughts and feelings that parents expose to passive aggression, numerous resentments on a partner basis and ultimately pathological maintenance of an unhealthy relationship.


In cases of alienation, the recommendations are clear; violence is violence, emotional violence is abuse and as such professionals working with such cases, be they psychologists, special educators, social workers, judges, lawyers, etc., should characterize it as such either from a mental health standpoint or from a mental health perspective. by law.


The system goes to the hand of the abuser

Gordana Buljan Flander and Mia Roje Đapić in the book “Child in the center (of conflict)” state that a child who is exposed to alienating behaviors does not necessarily show indicators of alienation or mental health disorders in general, especially when the family comes to counseling at a time when alienating behaviors were just beginning to develop. However, the authors warn that when we talk about alienation, we are talking about mild, moderate or severe alienation, and each of them requires rapid recognition and prevention, which is not the case in Croatian court practice and the social welfare system.


“When the court needs to determine parental capacities, it often reaches for psychological and psychiatric expertise, which in itself does not last long. The problem is that several years have passed by the time of the expertise. According to our internal data, an average of three years pass from the beginning of the divorce to the beginning of the expertise, which is still not the end of the court process. What does this mean for the child? This means that often half or more of the child’s life is lived in a war zone, the child lives neglected, abused, without one parent, or without half of themselves.


Namely, a child is, both genetically and emotionally, half mom, half dad. Asking a child to give up one parent is the same as asking him to give up half of themselves. Sometimes expertise is really needed, but sometimes seeking expertise and other procedures, changing experts and institutions, going to treatments without a real intention to help the child, allows the manipulative / abusive parent to buy time”, warns Buljan Flander.

Experts often do not recognize that this is an alienation, and lawsuits take a long time. All this time, the child develops undesirable psychological processes, he/she is traumatized, as well as parents who during the “processing” of their case before the institutions are often unable to establish a relationship with the child or see their child.


When there is no other solution, ie when all other attempts at conciliation, mediation, counseling, psychological therapy, etc., “fall into the water”, the only remaining solution is the enforcement of a court decision on which parent the child will live with, and which, according to lawyer Eleonora Katic, has a very negative connotation in public. Very often when enforcement is attempted, and when it fails because the parent, for example, refuses to hand over the child peacefully to the other parent, or, worse, the child claims that he does not want to go to the other parent, threatens suicide attempt, “all institutions pull a little ”because it’s a situation that’s traumatic.

“Yes, but this awful situation exists because one of the parents is an alienator and has treated the child so manipulatively that the child is now alienated from the other parent.” Enforcement by taking the child should be carried out quickly. Here the system should be much faster and react faster and deal with these unpleasant and traumatic situations because, and I heard this from an expert sentence that I remembered and which in practice is my guiding thought, better a one-time short-term trauma than a long life in toxic environment. That is the sentence I am guided by when I propose enforcement” said Katic in the text in which we wrote about the issue of alienation from the point of view of court practice.


What emerges from a series of interviews with experts with whom the Portal has been in direct contact is as follows; social welfare professionals are not educated enough to recognize alienation, Article 12 of the Convention on the Protection of Children is very often abused, according to which the will of the child is respected even when the child is clearly harming his or her own interests. forced them to comply with the interim measure of the court, there are no mechanisms by which the parent would be punished in case he does not go to a certain psychological therapy or the child is not taken to the same, psychological expertise is very often determined too late in litigation. The “hole” that the system allowed them to drag the trial.


Protocol of the Ministry

“The father invents that the mother ‘slapped’ the child a little. As soon as corporal punishment is mentioned, the examination of whether she beat the child, did not beat the child is repeated and the procedure immediately stops for further examination”, states Katić, one of the examples of parental manipulation based on experience in his work.

“The Center for Social Welfare provides counseling services to parents, refers parents to counseling in a family center or counseling center for parents and other providers of this service.

The Center decides on the imposition of a warning measure on errors and omissions in the care of the child; professional assistance and support in the provision of child care and intensive professional assistance and supervision over the provision of child care.


Also, the center makes a decision on the urgent measure of separation and placement of the child outside the family, but only if there is a danger to life, health or welfare of the child that can be protected only by separating the child from the immediate environment. In doing so, the center takes care that the separation of the child from the family is determined only if no milder measure can protect the rights and welfare of the child.


The center informs the competent police station, ie the state attorney’s office about manipulative behavior in order to take actions within their competence”, reads the response of the Ministry of Labor, Family Pensions and Social Policy to our inquiry about family law protection measures applied for manipulative behavior of one or both parents. .

“This is where we come to the key problem. In case of alienation, the system behaves according to its own protocol. If they say that no milder measure works, then we are going for enforcement. Milder measures have proven counterproductive in cases of alienation and make no sense other than giving the alienator a bunch of time to abuse the child. The very definition of a child’s health is problematic because if we have already stated that emotional abuse of a child is a violation of the child’s health, as well as sexual abuse is the same, then they should have taken urgent measures to exclude the child because the abuse will not stop until the child is not removed from the abuser” said psychologist Maja Vučić, a cognitive-behavioral therapist with experience working with estranged parents.


The established way of functioning of the system does not bring any results, she adds and claims that the system continuously becomes a participant in violence against a child by not doing anything. “Alienation can be determined very quickly because the manipulative behavior of the parents as well as the symptoms of alienation in the child can manifest very quickly; by the fact that you cannot reach your child or child does not answer the phone, does not answer messages, it can be noticed that child has been cut off. The point here is that within two months the child begins to look hostilely at the parent he or she loved until yesterday. Alienating parents also prevent supervision of meetings and do not follow the prescribed measures.

The system should be set up in such a way that already in the early signs of alienation the child is taken away from the alienator as a matter of urgency and that the child can be reunited with the parent from whom he or she has been alienated. When the alienator is deprived of the manipulation tool, which is the child, the alienating parent will either realize that this is not the case and reset because he will lose the child and change the way it works or the parent will be found to be an abuser without repair capacity, they will no longer have the opportunity to be with that child or will see him/her under strict supervision. And the situation has been resolved” Vucic said.


In her opinion, if the expert team of the Center does not have a mechanism to determine or they are not sure whether it is an alienation, one should go for a psychological expertise as soon as possible.


Expertise in court proceedings

As Kolinda Kolar, a judge of the Civil Municipal Court in Zagreb, told us for the purpose of writing an article in which we explained the importance of making a court decision on enforcement of a court decision, the length of proceedings is most affected by the length of evidence, propose to the court further control expertise in six months or one year in order to determine whether the participants follow the expert’s recommendations and whether there have been any changes.


In this situation, the court is prevented from making a decision because the case needs to be returned to the experts in, say, six months so that the experts can then take into account everything that happened during that period and give their final conclusion, if possible. Furthermore, experts often state in their findings that the problem cannot be solved if one or all of the participants do not start attending some form of therapy. The court has no possibility in this type of case to impose on either party the obligation to attend therapy”.


Buljan Flander says that when the court needs to determine parental capacities, it often reaches for psychological-psychiatric expertise, which in itself does not last long.

“The problem is that several years have passed by the time of the expertise. According to our internal data, an average of three years pass from the beginning of the divorce to the beginning of the expertise, which is still not the end of the court process. What does this mean for the child? This means that often half or more of the child’s life is lived in a war zone, the child lives neglected, abused, without one parent, or without half himself. Namely, a child is, both genetically and emotionally, half mom, half dad.


Asking a child to give up one parent is the same as asking him to give up half of himself. Sometimes expertise is really needed, but sometimes seeking expertise and other procedures, changing experts and institutions, going to treatments without the real intention to help the child, allows the manipulative / abusive parent to buy time, “says our interlocutor.

“The reason for the length of proceedings in conflict divorces may be due to the behavior of the parties themselves who ‘feed’ on the fact that they will prove to each other who is a better parent, who is right, and in the meantime the child may be alienated due to manipulation of one party. There may be responsibility in the judiciary, ie judges who are either too slow or some do not recognize that in cases of alienation of children should react quickly because the further it goes the worse and riskier the situation for the child and you simply get into a situation where at some point you can no longer do nothing to help that child. This is especially true for children aged 15, 16, 17, and this is where the most common situation is that if the system reacts, the child will only return the next day to the abusive parent, or the alienating parent.


There are responsibilities on us lawyers as well because some lawyers don’t know how to recognize alienation; either they do not deal with that special branch of law and do not recognize alienating procedures or do not recognize the way in which actions should be taken to prevent further conflict between the parties. You often cannot resolve the dispute by agreement in such conflict cases, but the lawyer should recognize the problem in such cases and try to resolve the dispute without incentives to enter into further and deeper conflicts” said lawyer Katic.


Lack of interest, professional responsibility and courage

Education of all participants is important, but today knowledge is available more than ever before, they point out in the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center where they continuously work on non-formal education and education of all those involved in working with children.


Recently, the European Conference on Alienation was organized by the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, which was attended by more than 400 experts from the country, the region, Europe and the world, and they had the opportunity to learn from 32 lecturers from various countries. Although this topic, unfortunately, is not covered by formal education, the Polyclinic emphasizes that it is everyone’s responsibility to follow modern scientific knowledge and improve throughout their careers.


Buljan Flander warns that today we are facing a much bigger problem than the lack of education.

“And that is the lack of interest, professional responsibility and courage of some colleagues. We often hear that colleagues are reluctant to work with children in a divorce, especially a highly conflicted one, or when signs of abuse are observed. A large number of these children end up in the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, which cannot respond to the needs of the whole of Croatia on its own.


Namely, only 50 percent of our patients come from Zagreb, and the rest from all parts of the country and even the region. That’s why waiting lists are sometimes longer than we’d like. Although we specialize in the work and treatment of child psychotrauma, I am sure that many other health care institutions that have multidisciplinary teams can diagnose this problem, or assess the family, as well as the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center does” says the director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center.

The Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center receives about 1,800 new patients every year. To that number should be added the number of 300 to 500 of them who are already in treatment. Of the total number of patients, 50 percent are divorced / divorced parents, and half of them are highly conflicting divorces, in which children are at significant risk of abuse and neglect, which, according to the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, is always assessed without regardless of the primary reason for arrival.


Buljan Flander and her colleagues noticed the trend that the issue of abuse and highly conflicting divorces is often redirected to the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, “which our colleagues explain in private conversations with the fear that they will have problems with the system and parents.”

“Unfortunately, professionals who respond to abuse, to the manipulation of children in divorce, as well as entire families, often become the target of the perpetrator’s parents. In alienation, it is common for the anger that a parent feels towards a former partner to be directed at an expert in the child protection system, both in our country and in the rest of Europe and America. Then comes public provocations, calls for lynchings, public involvement and systematic pressure on experts. This, of course, is not pleasant, but it does not absolve us from the responsibility of doing our job diligently.


We cannot choose which children we will work with and which we will not, depending on how many problems we expect from the family. If the pressures mentioned are too heavy for us, we can only imagine how heavy they are on the backs of children who, doing nothing or enough, leave us alone with that burden” said this esteemed psychologist.


Prejudice against estranged parents: instead of empathy, condemnation

Another wrong assumption, ie very often a prejudice in cases of alienation, is that the parent from whom the child is alienated often has to present himself / herself before the institutions as a parent without a defect. They are the ones who are often put in focus, not the alienating parents that the system should qualify as abusers.

“Alienated parents are often very lonely in their struggles and troubles. Losing a child is the hardest experience, and estranged parents generally do not enjoy empathy, but condemnation. Many people do not understand the problem and think that surely a parent has done something wrong if the child completely rejects him or (falsely, under the influence of the other parent) accuses him of abuse. The reality is often different.


The child ‘merges’ with that parent and bows to that parent whose condition of love is to reject the other parent, which is the opposite of what we would assume at first glance. I believe that some people blame estranged parents for similar reasons as they blame, for example, victims of violence. We humans have a need to believe in a just world and personal invulnerability.

If we were to admit to ourselves that alienation (or violence, or anything negative) can happen to anyone, not just bad parents (or a certain group of people), then our sense of security would be greatly impaired. That is understandable, but it is by no means a justification for inadequate reactions of experts towards alienated parents”, said Buljan Flander.


Psychologist Vučić told us: “Alienating parents, in order to determine their position, often falsely accuse the parent from whom the child was alienated of beating the child, and as soon as the Center hears that it is physical violence, the parent is forever marked and it is for them an excuse that the child doesn’t want to see you. Whatever the parent says in court in that case, the facts about the alleged event are not verified. ”

“When an estranged parent expresses a view at the Center that his or her rights to see the child are being violated, then you are confronted with statements that it is not you who is important here, but your child. Parents put themselves in a state, I would call it a ‘twighlight zone’; a parent who systematically begs them to help the child and save him from emotional abuse receives messages’ you need to cooperate ‘(I don’t know how to cooperate with a parent who does not want cooperation),’ you are to blame because you beat the child’, ‘ you need to make contact with the child ‘(I don’t know how when you can’t reach the child).


While, on the other hand, the alienating parent, who does not bring the child to the meetings, does not allow contact by phone, does not allow social welfare supervision to meet the child and with him, does not respect agreements or court measures, does not give the other parent information about the child, with whom he lives, about the child’s health condition, or the child’s phone number, all this is allowed without any sanctions, at least not timely.

I remember the parents I advised 10 years ago, when I first came in contact with the alienation case. It was completely incomprehensible to me then, ‘how can a child not want you’? So, I started from the same perspective as is the case today in most professional services, ‘if a child doesn’t want you, it means you have done something wrong’. How is it possible that the child you live with, for example, for 10 years and everything was fine, suddenly doesn’t want you? I didn’t understand that at the time and I told my parent ‘contact the Center with confidence, no one can take your child away from you if you have been a good parent so far’.


The epilogue of this case is that the child is of legal age today, that the estranged parent has a completely broken relationship with his child, and how the child, today an adult, left the system at the age of 18, no one cares anymore. The emotional health of that child has been damaged forever”, Vučić shared her experiences for the Direktno portal. She says she has learned a lot about alienation since then and it was normal for everyone who comes in contact with alienation to be educated, but it turns out that still a small number of people are educated about it and work with alienated children on a daily basis.

When we have a situation where everyone agrees that the child is alienated and even the expertise determines the alienation, ultimately in the Law we have that manipulation is psychological abuse of the child, says Vučić, and we come to the conclusion that the child should be taken from the abuser – everyone stops. “Experiences from the field, by experts, which I often hear, show that the child’s health in cases of alienation is not endangered and that there is no need for an urgent measure to separate the child from the alienator. Obviously, experts do not know what the definition of a child’s health is, that health is not just physical and that one does not need to have visible wounds in oneself in order for it to be impaired”.


Alienated parents are also victims of domestic violence, often with serious mental health consequences, including depression and elements of PTSD. If we ask them to prove that they are perfect, we put them in front of an impossible task. No parent is perfect. Nor would it be good for a child to be. A parent should be good enough, and the vast majority of alienated parents are, according to the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center.


Recognition of the term alienation in law and medical vocabulary

Alienation is not strictly defined in the Law as such; but judges and lawyers have room, if guided by what the legislature wanted to say, rather than by a strict letter on paper, to define the manipulative actions of parents over a child as psychological abuse and thus lay the groundwork for further action before the judiciary. However, the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center is of the opinion that a clear legal definition of alienation would contribute to easier recognition of alienation, but also to speed up the process before court institutions and facilitate the work of Social Welfare Centers.


They also state that alienation has not yet been classified as a diagnostic category, although there have been very strong initiatives and there is scientific evidence that it should become.

“One of the strongest criticisms is that alienation will then be abused to portray domestic abusers as alienated and to give them parental care. It is certain that an attempt is already being made to abuse this concept, with which we at the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center also have experience. Mothers and fathers who abused their children used to hide behind the alienation. However, the clearer the expert framework for assessment, the less likely it is that such manipulations will pass and come to life in practice.


The introduction of alienation in international classifications would significantly reduce the chance of such misuse of the term alienation in practice. After all, we can call it different terms, but the fact is that these are behaviors to the detriment of children, which the system should protect with urgent procedures”, concludes the director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center Gordana Buljan Flander.

Let’s ask ourselves what it would be like to be sexually abused. Would we give the parent a chance to make amends, would we leave the child with him just because the child claims he wants to, would we avoid reporting the parent just so as not to cause the child stress? We wouldn’t.

In cases of sexual as well as physical abuse, the Ministry’s instruction is clear: The measure of depriving a parent of the right to live with a child and entrusting daily child care to another person, social welfare institution or foster family is determined by the court in cases child. ”


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Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.   

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