When being too motherly can land you in jail

Children|Stowe Family Law|May 11th 2009

Children are far stronger than we give them credit for

Yesterday, I read an article in the Sunday Times that ruined my otherwise very pleasant day.

The piece by Daniel Foggo concerned a mother who is being imprisoned because of her “over indulgent” behaviour towards her three children following the breakdown of her marriage.

The unnamed woman had, according to reports by social workers, encouraged her children to make “serious allegations” about her former husband that transpired to be false. The judge remarked that she had “serious concern about [the mother] infantilising the children…and encouraging them to want to take an inappropriate part in these proceedings.”

Banned from seeing her children for three years, it appears that the mother is also facing a second jail term for posting a video of her plight on YouTube.

The articles I read were the first I had heard of this case; therefore my opinions are based solely upon the facts as they are laid out in the newspaper.

Even if there have been some exaggerations or omissions, it strikes me as wildly inconsistent that, when the courts are overloaded by cases of child neglect, cruelty, perversion and kids in care without parents, a mother who has been shown to love her children (albeit too much, presumably as an overreaction to the breakdown of her marriage) has now been stopped from seeing them?


Because she doesn’t fit what is expected of her by the court and social services.

Let me say immediately that I’ve acted for people who are regarded by the courts as very difficult parents. They are usually in a minority, but I concede that they can be alarmingly difficult clients to represent.  Everything they say and do is exactly what objectively, advising them in their best interests, they shouldn’t. They are perceived to make the wrong remarks, to behave wrongly – sometimes very wrongly, with issues such as alcohol abuse – when in their often fragile and weakened state of mind they just can’t cope any more and don’t know how to communicate their feelings. They don’t understand why, having been decent respectable parents for years, divorce requires them to jump through hoops they frankly just can’t.

They get on the wrong side of the Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) officer who reacts with increasing and heavy disapproval as the case blunders on hampered by the constant flow of frustration – often in torrents of e-mails – about their spouse and the children. And finally when it comes to court – often I am very sorry to say, with the other spouse sensing blood – they get on the wrong side of the judge because, having become weakened by their experience, they don’t know how to play the game in court. Or even if they know, they can’t. They go off at tangents; they don’t answer the questions in the right way; they don’t know when to shut up: they damn themselves. But they can’t see it. And finally if a judge believes their authority has been continually flouted – even with the most sensible judge – that’s the fastest way to prison.

In this particular case the mother was required to attend a “parenting course” to learn the error of her ways, because she was deemed to be too permissive to her children. She failed the objective tests. And so she lost her children.

I know from my own experiences with clients who have been unable to adapt to the requirements of our legal system, that such parents can suffer the worst of punishments. The very thing they are utterly condemned for doing – rightly or wrongly, trying to alienate the children from the other parent – becomes their punishment. The children become alienated from them. The worry for that parent is the alienation will last forever. It becomes an uncontrollable, all-consuming nightmare.

This mother, if what she says is true, is not backing off. She is utterly desperate, but she is going nowhere. Or rather to jail if she has to.  She wishes to see her children and for the life of me, I can’t think why – as a parent who isn’t going to disappear from their lives – she shouldn’t. Or why they shouldn’t see her. Even if she isn’t Mary Poppins.

And I say this also because it seems clear that she was, objectively, a fine mother until the marriage began to break down. In the article she seems to be blaming herself for her “post-natal depression” – but that sprung out at me too and reminded me of other client’s experiences.

Depression is frequently made worse if there is no helping hand. No comforting partner. No-one to help them through. It’s certainly my experience that many people wrongly blame themselves for the breakdown of the marriage without appreciating that perhaps – just perhaps – a stealthy hand is giving them the push.

We don’t know anything about the real circumstances of this woman and her marriage, but we do know from the article that as a direct consequence of the court’s orders, the unnamed father is able to complain to the court repeatedly about the children’s mother, knowing that the court will back him up and could keep sending her to prison. Is that, with the benefit of hindsight, the right approach to deal with this case? Should she, as their mother, be cast in this light with the welfare of the children always being paramount in law?

In view of how serious this case appears to have become, perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal in the High Court.

Ironically, in our child care system we assist our children to know their roots and we encourage them to have contact with their birth families, warts and all. No amount of “parenting courses” will ever influence a mother’s natural behaviour towards her own children and nor should it. Furthermore, these children shouldn’t have to police their mother and report her behaviour to their father or the authorities. These children have a right to know their mother as she is, because nothing will change her. I also believe, strongly, that she has a right to know them before much more damage is done to their relationship.

Children are far stronger than we give them credit for. I have no doubt they will survive and thrive knowing her once again, without barriers.

But if the emphasis needs to shift in this tragic case, I would look more closely at the father. So far he has had the full sympathy of the court, despite the ghastly plight of the woman he once loved and had children with. If anyone can bring this unhappy case to a sensible resolution for the sake of the children, it could be him. Because in the final analysis he too stands to lose out. Statistics show that children alienated from one parent during their childhood often bitterly regret it later in life – and lay the blame on the parent who was the policy architect.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Margo says:

    From reading the newspaper articles it seems that the problem was not the Mother’s love (whether excessive or not) or her permissiveness or over-indulgence which led to the order, but the manipulation and persauding/encouraging the children to make false allegations against their father.(the report states that she was ‘also’ found to be over indulgent, which implies that taht was not the reason for the decision.)

    I agree that there is often a problem with parents who have been ‘fine’ parents before a split subsequently being critisised (by their ex, as well as bodies such as Cafcass) but in this case that doesn’t appear to be the issue – presumably before the separation she was not demonising the children’s father.

    The children surely also have a right not to be manipulated and put under such pressure by their mother.

    My question is – how would you propose these children are protected?

    If this mother will not abide by court orders, and will not or can not stop herself from acting in a way which is causing significant emotional harm to the children (The Judge is quoted as having made a finding that the children were suffering ‘serious emotional harm’) How do you protect them?

    How is significant emotional harm caused to children by their mother following a divorce between successful, middleclass parents less serious than emotional harm casued to a child by (say) and alchoholic or mentally ill parent?

    I do think that many of the other points which you make are valid in terms of cases ivolving childnre and parents generally, but on my reading of the reports about this specific case, it apepars to me that the court finally, and after trying all other options, acted to protect childnre who were suffering significant emotional harm. It may not be the best outcome for the childnre, but it may be the ‘least worst’ if the reports of what had been happening are correct.

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thanks for your comments which are highly perceptive. I wrote this piece because I believe that strategy isnt working and I believe, will not work.
    I have grave concern for the wellbeing of this mother in her current circumstances and also for the entire family.
    I have therefore approached this case from a different perspective which is,that like it or not, she is their mother and she cant be successfully made to vanish from her childrens’ lives. She is a fixture. The children have no mother at the moment, and that cannot overall be in their best interests. Therefore, there must be another non-punitive way given her parenting skills were not in doubt prior to the breakdown of the marriage.
    I believe this mother needs help from the court.The starting point would be the immediate removal of the threat of imprisonment from her.
    This may level the playing field, help to restore the mother’s self confidence (which may be at the root of the problem) and remove the constraints on the children about her comments and her care of them which I assume deeply confused them. There could then follow a reintroduction between mother and children with the assistance of experts in the field particularly if she needs medical or other help.
    I dont know the mother’s financial circumstances but that could be a contributory factor to the problem.
    I do believe that the father has a major role to play in this case for the sake of the children, and a great deal of progress would be made if he was able to take a major and active part together with the mother, in rebuilding these shattered relationships.
    There is no perfect answer to these very rare cases but orders of a punitive, draconian nature, only lead to years of unending misery for all involved.

    • Sarah White says:

      Hi just came across article i am the mother. I was absolutely torn apart for no reason and as for undermining the father it was the complete opposite he forced me into a contact centre for a hour a week and the children would greet me with daddy says your a wXXXe. My eldest run away from his father at 16 and came to me obviously very mixed up as for my youngest i havent seen him for 13 years he is 16 now and been poisoned against me.

  3. Salli Ward says:

    There’s so much truth in what both contributers have written above. Of course it is best for children to have good relationships with both parents. Of course we should think very carefully about removing that right. I presume in the case discussed the judge was convinced that the benefits of the children having contact with their mother were outweighed by the harm they were suffering as a result of that contact arrangement. Certainly immense damage can follow as a result of one parent alienating the children from the other – and often this is not sufficiently acknowledged by anyone involved. Frequently the mother is the resident parent and she is alienating the children from non-resident dad; this needs to be taken very seriously as it can easily lead to the father being completely absent from the children’s lives. In this case the father was unlikely to completely lose out as he was advantaged by being the resident parent. Nevertheless, let’s assume the judge judged that this was one of those percentage of cases where the mother’s alienating behaviour was going to lead the children to reject their father or harbour feelings of resentment against him (and the mother) and thus be raised in distressing insecurity about their parentage and their heritage, leading to low self esteem, weakened sense of self and weakened attachments – ultimately increasing the likelihood of dysfunctional relationships, teenage pregancy, emotional ill-health, etc. It seems strange that the judge thought that to guard against this she needed to reverse the circumstances, i.e. put the children at risk through no contact with their mother rather than negative contact with their father. Perhaps she felt she had no choice. Perhaps they had the reached the end of the road and there were no services available to intervene and try and reach a situation where the children were benefiting from knowing both their parents. At ‘Pro-Contact: Services for Separated Families’ it is very rare for us to recommend no direct contact to the court; when we do two things need to be clear: 1) we have to be convinced that direct contact is harmful – in the saddest cases this is because the child has completely rejected the parent (albeit because of the behaviours of the other parent when no-one intervened quick enough to prevent this) and 2) we have to give careful consideration to what processes might protect the child in the absence of direct contact and keep direct contact on the agenda for some time in the future. A frequent method used is a programme of indirect contact, sometimes with what we call ‘therapeutic management’ to ensure all three points on the triangle (mother, father, child) are being supported. Our research into indirect contact suggests the ongoing involvement of professionals is appreciated long after an arrangement is agreed and in place. In addition we often work with an alienated child to help them re-connect with a parent – literally or through looking at culture, heritage, identity, family stories, etc. We work with either or both parents to encourage them to see what is in their child’s best interests and work together to co-parent beyond separation. The chances of ‘success’, of course, are greatly increased if we can become involved before a child has withdrawn from a parent and whilst parents are still open and able to work at what is best for their child. Where the non-resident parent is damaging the children’s relationship with the resident parent (and where this hasn’t been resolved) the only answer may be for contact to be supervised. There are a whole host of interventions that might be attempted before drastic measures are taken. Pro-Contact offers counselling, anxiety management, anger management, parenting, art therapy, family therapy, mediation, life story work – to name but a few. Sadly, the vital assessments for families in receipt of public funding can no longer be ordered since the Legal Services Commission removed them from allowable disbursements under its new Guidance. They remain, however, appropriate for those families where conflict is high and the risk to the children’s welfare needs swift resolution. In the case discussed here it is terribly sad if the mother could have been helped to maintain contact through any of the methods mentioned or others. Certainly, all parents need to know how awful it is for children to hear one parent speak badly of another; certainly children should be protected from conflict and from lengthy court proceedings. Let’s hope the father in this case understands that, too, and is working to protect the children from rejecting their mother. Are there pictures of her around the house? Does he recall with the children stories of loving things she has done? Does he tell them they look like her or take after her in some ways? Let’s hope so because they are kids in real need – like many kids across the country being raised with one parent absent from their lives. We all need to work very hard, imaginatively and with utter commitment to the child, to prevent these numbers increasing as parental separation increases.

  4. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thanks very much Salli. Im so glad you were able to comment and so appreciative that you are able to contribute to this debate with real experience.
    I came across your organisation when I was chairing the Bolton Family Law conference, and it was great to hear then about the work you do and now readers of my blog can learn about your work too. (www.pro-contact.org.uk)
    Through your organisation I believe that in fact, the answer to post separation trauma suffered by mother or father is not to send them to prison.
    Im far from sure that this type of trauma is sufficiently recognised by the courts – but certainly I recognise it in my clients, who are all I think and to varying degrees, traumatically affected by the breakdown of their relationship.
    I believe that organisations such as yours do provide more appropriate solutions for the benefit of the family and particularly of the children whose long term future must also be taken into account.
    I wish you very well, and many thanks for your valuable contribution.

  5. Nick Langford says:

    In V v V the late Mrs Justice Bracewell said that judges ultimately have only four options: commital or a suspended sentence, the imposition of a fine, transfer of residence (obviously not possible in this case) or just ‘give up’: make an order for indirect or no contact or make no order at all.

    It looks very much as if this is a case where the judge gave up. I doubt that denying three children contact with one of their parents for three years is in any sense in their best interests. Three years is a very long time to a child.

    The mother doesn’t even come across as a particularly bad parent, and we should view a very wide spectrum of parenting skills as acceptable. Children have been left in the care of much worse parents, as we know.

    A three year ban sounds like some of the horror stories we used to hear regularly from the courts a few years ago (5 year s.91 orders, etc). I thought we had moved on a little from that situation – I’m certainly not convinced the court has explored every possibility adequately.

    As John Bolch says elsewhere, had this been a father the story would not have been reported and would not have aroused the anger and bewilderment this has. The gender should not matter, children need both parents, and injustice is injustice regardless of to whom it befalls.

  6. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thanks Nick. We represented a father pro bono who had been permanently banned from seeing his child because he too (in my opinion) had been badly affected by post separation trauma. The child concerned had originally expressed a wish to keep seeing him. We had the ban removed but by the time we came into the case, the child concerned had almost grown up. The father now has the long term problem of parental alienation to deal with.
    .As you and your colleagues know, I feel very strongly about these types of cases, whether mother or father, which I believe within the court process should belong in the High Court, and requires the most expert of management in a number of different fields.

  7. When only the High Court will do | Marilyn Stowe Family Law and Divorce Blog says:

    […] me When being too motherly can land you in jail May […]

  8. Margo says:

    Thanks for the responses – Salli, yours was partucularly interesting (I wasn’t previously familir with your organisation) I would be interested to know how succssful you fell t he types of wotk you have set out are, particulalry in the context of a parent who starts from the perspective that *they* ‘don’t need any help’ or ‘aren’t doing anything wrong’?

    Irecently dealt with a very sad case which ended with a order for no direct contact with the (in this case) father – (the child concerned having made it clear that contact was not wanted) he having rejected all suggestions and proposals made from a variety of csources including Cafcass and the independent child pychologist who became involved, about how he could improve the experience of contact for the child.

  9. Salli Ward says:

    We certainly see sad cases where there is no direct contact at the end. What we have learnt is that indirect contact – properly set up, managed and, if necessary, monitored, can provide the best hope for direct contact in the future and protect the child from some of the effects of alienation. We also know that this scenario (indirect contact only) is most likely if a child has reached the age of seven without having had professional intervention. Children, of course, vary massively and for some only a slight look of fear or disapproval in a parent’s eye can deter them from contact; for others the parent can be actively hostile but the child will still tolerate the uncomfortable experience of moving between parents. We always say Pro-Contact can’t work miracles but we are proud that in some cases those involved are convinced we have done. So yes, the methods work well, within limits. A little girl having fun with a ‘daddy’ she didn’t even know existed a year ago (‘I haven’t got a daddy’); a teenager saying ‘OK, I’ll see him’ when we were expecting him just to agree to contact with his half-siblings – we see some tearjerkers! Sadly, our relationship with the family courts is profoundedly affected by the change to the LSC guidance on payment under disbursement. Work with these complex, needly families is labour intensive and we lost 80% of our budget for assessment. Working with parents who attend only because they are ordered to do so is obviously not the best scenario – but people can and do change and children can still benefit from our interventions even when their parents remain hostile or unco-operative. Of course many parents simply want the best for their children – and some time to recover from their own trauma. We try to work with them, not against them. Of course it is our priority to keep children safe but we do believe that contact is usually the best outcome even where contact parents are a long way off perfect. We don’t ask parents to be perfect (after all, we’re not) – just good enough.

  10. Liz says:


    Bloody well written!

  11. Stacey says:

    I believe that a mothers love and genuine concern within the English court of law is dismissed. I am currently going through a court battle myself, where my baby’s dad was not only VERY violent he is also certified insane and been in mental hospitals for over 10 years! He has been informed that his illness is affected by alcohol, so during a break at the last hearing he went into the pub to have 4 beers! Following this he shouted abuse at me, calling me and my family variuos offensive names.

    Regardless that my barrister and his see this, im still being told that he will more than likely have some contact orederd. The fact that my daughter has come to much harm (Never mind what he did to me- im a woman, she is just a baby) is ignored.

    Our legal system is disgusting and disgraceful. Would anyone tell me that they would leave their child/ren under the supervision of a certified schizophrenic?

    He always swore to me that when he gets access i will never see either of them again, then i’ll know what pain feels like. (Knowing this man as i do, regrettably he doesn’t mean abduction)

    Oh, but wait a minute its still MUST be in the best interest of my daughter to see her dad…..

  12. STACEY says:

    Just an update from above. After a lenghthy fact finding hearing, 15 serious allegations found against the dad- still contact may be awarded? Alienation is something that occurs if not enough love is given to a child, not through lack of a parent, especially if that child is loved and cared for enough by the one remaining parent.

    I do believe that our system in respect to child welfare is a disgrace. How do these professionals think the whole Baby P came about?

    God Forbid….

  13. Portia says:

    Many clients who go through the family court process and end up with unjust rulings suffer Legal Abuse Syndrome- PTSD with the added ingredient that the trauma is from the legal system.

    Mothers are expected to suffer- good for their souls- remember us being taught that even in the 1970,s. Women are here to save their husband’s souls, so should not leave them. It is all in our DNA from one generation to another.

    Now it is our chance to rectify this imbalance.

    Law is Male.

    Justice is Female.

    The scales of Lady justice must balance.

  14. lady regina says:

    When something as appalling as this verdict where a mother is banned from seeing her children for no good cause , you know that society is becoming more and more inhuman with each passing day. When being and acting as a mother is treated as a crime , then you cannot deny that something is so warped within that it has reached a point of no return. Did the punishment fit the ‘apparent crime? No amount of court orders can ever render a mother’s instinct void.Was justice done or an injustice born ? The court utterly failed to recognise the mothers vulnerable state and the fathers demand for punitive action. Family law courts have always upheld the adversarial system because that is how they rake in the money.
    The question is why do we subscribe to a legal system in which whatever a judge decides is absolute? Does a judge , a single person, no different from the rest of us somehow have extraordinary powers of insight and enlightenment? Are they born with or have special powers invested in them ?
    Why do we accept that they should be able to exercise incredible powers and influence over people’s lives , when they are no more human, infalliable and flawed like anyone else? Why does the public give them this right? It is our very justice system that needs to be challenged,smashed overhauled and redesigned so that Justice is served and not authoritarian rulings that only serve to maintain an secret society of appointed, not elected individuals.

  15. john says:

    Having been through the experience of repeated attempted alienation by a vindictive woman I totally agree with the court’s ruling. Why should the father be deprived of his having a good relationship with his children by the spiteful actions of a woman? Your comments that she was a good mother up til the break-up seem unfounded, maybe her attitude towards mothering and apparently owning her children were what caused the problems in the relationship. I’ve been through the court and CAFCASS system and believe me it is VERY female orientated, if they recommend that the woman has parenting problems then she must be bad. Overindulgent for example could mean she never encourages the children to go to school if they don’t feel like it, she never makes the children go to bed on time if they’re not in the mood and numerous other potentially harmful things, I really don’t think that this judgement was made on the grounds that for example she gives them too many sweets..
    Apparent high conflict people like this I am convinced cause the vast majority of problems in the family court system.
    Also I think that a number of people will presume she is bitter because the husband left her. This is not necessarily the case. My ex decided she no longer wanted to be with me for her own reasons. There was no abuse, no drink, no drugs, no affair she simply decided after our children were born that she did not want me around, she then made it clear that she wanted me to disappear from my children’s lives in a similar fashion.

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