A PROTEST campaign has been
launched over the decision of an Irish court to award custody of a
young child to his father, with whom he has not lived for most of
The child, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, has
lived with his mother since she and her boyfriend broke up in
acrimonious circumstances almost five years ago.
In a recent decision, a judge granted full custody to the father
after hearing evidence, detailed in a psychiatrist’s report,
that the child was unduly influenced into disliking his father.
The case is understood to be one of an increasing number of
custody battles in Ireland in which the controversial Parental
Alienation Syndrome (PAS) has been raised. The term was coined in
the 1970s by Richard Gardner, an American psychiatrist, and refers
to the “brainwashing” of a child by a parent.
Supporters of the mother in the case have been involved in
street protests, one of the first instances of direct action
against the operation of Ireland’s family law courts.
A 100-strong group of supporters also met and agreed to
petition the relevant authorities about the case. Almost 300
letters have been sent to health board and social service
officials and to Mary Harney, the minister for health, and Michael
McDowell, the minister for justice. Bertie Ahern, the taoiseach,
and Mary Banotti, a former MEP and mediator who intervened in the
Dylan Benwell abduction saga, have also been briefed by
At the moment, family law hearings are heard in private, mainly
with a view to protecting the identity of children involved in
child custody, abduction, incest, domestic violence and divorce
cases. The degree of secrecy that surrounds such cases is about to
be eased, however, to allow data to be gathered on family issues.
In future, details of the cases will be made available to the
media and public, but without identifying the people involved.
Apart from revealing trends in separation, divorce and custody
rulings, the relaxation of the “in camera” rule will show for
the first time how district courts treat cases of alleged domestic
The new laws will bring family courts into line with other
areas of law, allowing judgments, evidence, witness statements and
expert testimonies to be subject to public scrutiny.
The proposed relaxation of the secrecy ban has been welcomed by
family support groups. Liam O’Gogain, the chairman of Parental
Equality, said that, in the current environment, “there is no
protection of privacy for families in these situations. Family law
courts sit in local towns where everyone knows everyone else’s
business. Their private lives become the subject of a chinese
whispers. It is a fallacy that children and families are being
“The only people protected by the privacy rule are the paid
professionals, including judges, solicitors, social workers and
Groups representing fathers who feel they have been
discriminated against in family courts have been particularly
supportive of the change in procedure. In recent years, they have
become increasingly militant in a bid to highlight what they say
are often arbitrary decisions to separate them from their
children. In the UK, members of the group Fathers 4 Justice have
been involved in a number of high-profile protests to gain
publicity for their cause, including scaling Buckingham Palace in
a Batman suit.
Counsellors also believe that making information on family
cases available would help to highlight how destructive custody
battles can be.
“It is distressing how vindictive some parents can be,”
said Bernie Purcell, a counsellor who treats troubled teenagers at
the Roebuck centre in Dublin. The “viciousness and havoc” that
warring parents wreak on their offspring during separation and
custody battles often leaves children with emotional scars for
life, she said. “The parents might feel hurt and bruised by the
long-term effects of an acrimonious break up, but children have to
cope with psychological dilemmas that they can’t possibly cope
with. Tragically, many children end up in psychiatric care as a