Australian researcher, Anne Morris, originated the concept of maternal alienation (MA) during her research with women survivors of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) and mothers of child sex abuse (CSA). Morris defined this as the phenomenon of children being alienated from their mothers, within a context of DVA, through the deliberate use of tactics such as mother-blaming (Morris 1999). Morris’s research shows that maternal alienation is used as a strategy of abuse across a continuum of violence and abuse, which includes child sexual abuse, and domestic violence. It is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that is used in conjunction with coercive control and other types of abuse to maintain power over women and children. Morris draws attention to research that highlights how the tactics used by child sex offenders to entrap their victims and enforce secrecy show that their strongest target is to break the mother-child relationship (e.g. Hooper 1992; Laing 1999). The grooming and alienating tactics used by child sex offenders are similar to the strategies of perpetrators of domestic violence who undermine the mother-child relationship and seek to separate children from their mothers in order to cause harm to the children’s mothers. MA is, then, both simultaneous woman and child abuse where children are used to harm their mothers and a child is abused in order to hurt the child’s mother. MA allows abusers to continue to perpetrate emotional and psychological harm to a mother in perpetuity and, in this way, constitutes post-separation violence.
Morris founded the Maternal Alienation Project (MAP) in Adelaide in 2002, which sought to educate agencies and raise awareness of MA. The Project was aimed at women who had become alienated from their children by perpetrators of DVA and CSA and the professionals that worked with the mothers. MAP was planned as a three-year project but lost funding due to the political activism of fathers’ rights groups and Christian Right lobbyists in Australia, which foreshortened the Project after just eleven months (Morris 2008). The opposition was due, in part, to Morris’s denouncement of the Parental Alienation Syndrome (Gardner 1992) and the view of men’s activists that the gendered nature of MA harmed fathers. A recent literature review suggests that MA, as a concept, has not been further researched beyond Morris’s studies but it is cited in some key DVA documents and conferences in the UK (e.g. Kelly 2014; Coy, Perks, Scott and Tweedale 2012). Although MAP was curtailed at eleven months, Morris reports a high level of involvement and support, including representation from community and women’s health, the DVA sector, child protection services, the family courts and family and children’s services. Morris reports that service users and practitioners, including Aboriginal workers involved, spoke of recognising MA within diverse cultural communities (Morris 2008: 4).
In the UK, MA is largely unheard of but my own masters’ research into the concept identified three central aspects where mothering roles are undermined, mothers’ contact is sabotaged and fathers supplant mothers as children’s primary attachment figures. I identified that there is a lack of specialised interventions for women (and children) experiencing the profound and long-term effects of MA which provides the rationale for this doctoral study.
Coy, M., Perks, K., Scott, E., and Tweedale, R. (2012) Picking up the pieces: domestic violence and child contact. Rights of Women and CWASU 2012
Gardner, R. A. (1992) The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics
Hooper, C. A. (1992) Mothers surviving child sexual abuse. London: Tavisotck/Routledge
Kelly, L. (2014) Looking forwards, looking back: the needs of survivors and their children. ‘Ready for the Future’ Women’s Aid 40th Anniversary Annual Conference. 2 July – 3 July at Aston University Conference Centre: Birmingham
Laing, L. (1999) A different balance altogether? Incest offenders in treatment. Challenging Silence: innovative responses to sexual and domestic violence. J. Breckenridge and L. Laing. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin.
Morris, A. (1999) Maternal Alienation: the Use of Mother-Blaming in Abuse. ‘Conference on Health for All: Primary Health Care Research and Evaluation in the 21st Century’. Held 30 June – 1 July 1999 at South Australian Community Health Research Unit: Adelaide
Morris, A. (2008) Optimising the ‘spaces in-between’: The Maternal Alienation Project and the politics of gender in macro and micro contexts. Unpublished PhD thesis. Adelaide: University of Adelaide