An enmeshed relationship

A woman feminises her son against his nature, subjecting his will, because of her own emotional disturbance. A court rescues him, and places him in his father’s care, where he develops normal boyish interests. These demonstrate the harmfulness of the mother and the rightness of the rescue. That is the story you get from Mr Justice Hayden, who ordered the new care arrangements. It justifies greatly restricting the contact the mother has with the child- they must be supervised.

How would the mother, referred to as “M” to preserve anonymity, get her child J to wear a pink headband and nail varnish, leave alone present entirely female, unless J is a trans girl? Why would she?

CAFCASS, the children and family court advisory support service, investigated, and recommended that F[ather] not have contact with the child, as it would cause M and J “potential emotional harm”. Social services had anonymous referrals saying M was mentally ill and that J might access the skunk M smoked in front of him. The social services child and family assessment, completed in January 2015, concluded that there were no evident concerns suggesting that [J] was at immediate risk of harm. [M] is very clear that she is supporting [J] with whatever choices [J] makes and she presents with a good understanding of [J]’s needs. There were no concerns from the social worker regarding [M]’s approach to [J]’s gender presentation, and had appropriately taken on board support from the charity Mermaids. Upon completion of the assessment, no further action was taken by Children’s Services.

The judge finds this irrational and unsustainable, and draws attention to the schools’ concerns, that [J] behaved no differently than the other children but they felt that [M] was unwilling to accept this and on occasions she reduced a teacher to tears due to her ‘forceful and confrontational’ manner…in class, [J] doesn’t display any differences to the other boys.

What constitutes “difference”?
Who judges, and what are their expectations?
If J tries to conform in any situation, rather than following his own unconstrained wishes, what will he do?

One referral to social services said M was unwilling to accept help from local child mental health services.

The judge condemns social services strongly, saying the cry for investigation went unheeded. Social services combine both naivety and professional arrogance. However, social services reported those concerns were in relation to [J] presenting as a girl rather than concerns in relation [J]’s welfare and the care that is provided to [J]….the manner in which [J]’s gender identity is responded to by professionals could also cause emotional difficulties, as had been evidenced in research around gender non conforming children cited earlier. It appears that [M] is genuinely attempting to protect [J] from the impact of this.

M has accessed support from the Tavistock Centre, the child gender identity service. The judgment shows no evidence from them, only from psychologists. The first, Jean Sambrooks, refers to J as “she”, but the judge dismisses this, though he says that It is entirely counterintuitive to suspect that a boy who is consistently presenting as a girl may not truly wish to do so and may have been forced or induced into performing such a role by his mother. He draws attention to her concerns about the way M communicated, though Ms Sambrooks considered that the impact of these concerns was most likely to have alienated professionals to the mother’s genuine concerns.

The judge finds M highly manipulative and controlling with strong opinions, prone to exaggerate and distort, even “oppositional”. A mother defending a trans child from disbelief might need such qualities. He says As I have heard this case I have noted that these illogicalities often characterise M’s evidence. Nobody has doubted that M is both articulate and intelligent and so the reasonable inference is that she must recognise some of the illogicality of her own statements. I consider that she has learnt that by creating ‘confusion’, to use Ms Sambrooks’ word, amongst the professionals, she generates a situation in which her own distorted beliefs gain greater traction and are able to prevail with less effective challenge.

There were delays, which the judge reports were caused by M’s unjustified challenges of lawyers involved, and refusal to communicate. The family court transferred the case to the high court because lack of information of the child’s whereabouts raised concerns for his welfare. In November 2015 Mr Justice Hayden made a variety of highly prescriptive orders, reinforced by a Penal Notice. J, then five, was living in stealth, all the time presenting as a girl and registered at the GP as a girl. M said the Tavistock centre had advised this, but the judge says Though I was by no means certain, I very much doubted that the Tavistock would have given this advice in respect of such a very young child. I am amazed no-one asked them. Instead, the judge sought their file.

There was a hearing before Mr Justice Hayden where he ordered that J be delivered to F. He portrays M as controlling. What was perfectly clear however and requires emphasis is that M was determined that J should live entirely as a girl. At only five years of age that did not strike me as offering J choice or even the opportunity to express any ambivalence or confusion. I was also entirely satisfied that whatever choices J made and however he presented, he would be loved and cared for and his choices respected in F’s care.

The February hearing was very stressful for M. However what struck me forcibly, both then and indeed at this final hearing, was that M spoke of J only in the somewhat opaque and convoluted argot of social work and psychology. She offered an impressive, intense and highly articulate evaluation of the problems faced by children with gender dysphoria but she conveyed no sense of J’s personality, temperament or enthusiasms, notwithstanding frequently being encouraged to do so. Repeatedly she struck me as a professional witness giving evidence about somebody else’s child.

I was also left in no doubt that M was absolutely convinced that J perceived himself as a girl. M’s case on this point has not always been either consistent or coherent, but my overwhelming impression is that she believes herself to be fighting for J’s right to express himself as a girl. She has told me how J ‘expressed disdain for his penis’. I think it accurately summarises her position to say that she perceived it to be her responsibility in the face of widespread public, professional and indeed judicial ignorance to promote J’s choice of gender.

Why on Earth would M want to manipulate a child who was not trans into presenting as a trans girl? The judge does not say. How could she do that? There is societal pressure on boys to present culturally male, but the judge does not consider that: however he is sure the child is not trans. I am entirely satisfied, both on the basis of the reports and F’s evidence at this hearing, that he has brought no pressure on J to pursue masculine interests. J’s interests and energy are entirely self motivated.

Ms Sambrooks notes it would seem that [J] is very used to touching [M]’s breasts and that she has afforded him considerable knowledge or discussion of genital anatomy. Whilst this may reflect [M]’s view of [J]’s gender issues it is not in my view appropriate knowledge nor would a child of [J]’s age, transgendered or not, generally have such discussions. At most they are likely to have a rudimentary awareness of male/female differences especially if brought up with a different sex sibling.

There is more in the judgment indicating J is a boy, freely choosing to express as a boy, and not pressured by his father. Ms Sambrooks finds that M, powerful and manipulative, influenced J’s gender presentation.

Now J was with his father, M and her solicitor produced a response indicating she might have been wrong. She denied words had been put into her mouth, but she would not have said this without external pressure- just the removal of her child is pressure. She accepts the wisdom of the court in reintroducing [J] to his father and the paternal family. She accepts and understands why the Judge has formed a negative view of her refusal to allow contact firstly and secondly her dogmatic stance in respect of gender identity. Her dilemma is that whilst she hopes she has been doing the right thing she accepts that her approach may have been wrong….her initial reactions were disbelief, anger and a sense of injustice and unfairness; but above all a deep fear and anxiety of the impact upon [J] of moving in such circumstances. The decision has however made her re-examine her own actions and the positions she has taken in recent years. The judge finds this disingenuous.

Dr Kate Hellin, consultant clinical psychologist, finds an “enmeshed relationship” between M and J. “Enmeshment refers to an extreme form of proximity and intensity in family interactions…In a highly enmeshed, over-involved family, changes within one family member or in the relationship between two family members reverberate throughout the system…On an individual level, interpersonal differentiation in an enmeshed system is poor…In enmeshed families the individual gets lost in the system. The boundaries that define individual autonomy are so weak that functioning in individually differentiated ways is radically handicapped”. Minuchin (1978)16 described how enmeshment varies in degree, with corresponding degrees of negative impact on child development.

The enmeshed or fused nature of the relationship between [M] and [J] is shown in the way that she does not clearly perceive [J] as a separate person with his/her own identity, wishes and volition. She sometimes confuses her own feelings with [J]’s. For example, she believes [J] to have been bullied at school, though the school did not agree. [M] herself was bullied at school and she was also in a conflictual relationship with the school, one in which she may have been both bully and felt bullied. Similarly, she said that [J] was afraid of going to the GP practice and would scream there but surgery staff had never seen this. Again, this was at a time that [M] was in conflict with the surgery. She believes [J] preferred “just mummy and me” and she apparently ended a relationship in order to focus on [J] though it was not clear to me why the relationship was in conflict with her role as mother.

If I am correct about the fused nature of the relationship, the danger is that [J] will not be easily able to establish an identity which is at odds with [M]’s own values, beliefs and preferences. It will be harder for him/her to separate and individuate with age and especially in his or her teens. This will apply to [J]’s gender identity. The fused nature of the relationship and [M]’s belief that [J] wants to be a girl is likely to push [J] in the direction of a female gender identity. [M] cannot see that [J] may be consciously or unconsciously trying to please her by assuming a female gender identity now that [M] has formed the view that this is [J]’s preference.

Her wish for emotional exclusivity means that [M] has removed [J] from a range of ordinary socialising experiences though she refutes this and believes that she has acted to protect [J] from bullying.

When stressed and distressed, [M] becomes controlling, forceful and antagonistic. This reflects her underlying anxiety. She is actually very frightened and upset. She tries to sooth herself by taking control of situations but her interpersonal style is counter-productive. She does not negotiate well. She finds it difficult to compromise and situations become inflamed rather than de-escalated. In situations of interpersonal conflict, she protects herself from loss of confidence or face by unambiguously perceiving herself as correct which means that from her perspective, the other party is wrong. To acknowledge her flaws, even to herself, feels crushing and devastates her self-esteem so she avoids this possibility by locating responsibility and blame elsewhere. When she is unable to achieve the outcome that she wants, she resorts to formal processes and/or higher authorities: complaint procedures, The Protection of Human Rights in Public Law, the European Court of Human Rights, Stonewall and so on.

The judge summarises, Dr Hellin clarified that M did not suffer from any disorder of personality or psychiatric condition. M was, Dr Hellin said, locked into a rigid and unshakeable belief structure. It was not likely to change nor was it receptive to therapy. In a way that I have noticed before, M only took the positives from this opinion in order to harness them for her own arguments. Of course Dr Hellin’s prognosis is extremely bleak. I am convinced that on an intellectual level M understands this but emotionally she appears to reject it. He says, M has traduced F and belittled him throughout the course of this litigation, at times, quite literally, snorting with derision.

The judge considers that contact with M distresses J, and that she leads him to say he is a girl though he would not unprompted. After seeing her, he wet the bed. Clutching at straws here, I imagine it possible that the child thought presenting female, which she wanted more than anything else, was impossible, so she could only maintain equanimity by blotting out the possibility, but the mother forced her to consider it; yet I don’t think that is the case.

I am convinced by the judgment that the mother has manipulated the child. I have met such controlling mothers. I had one. Mermaids, the charity for trans children, would not necessarily see this side of her, if they supported and accepted her view and her child’s apparent desire.

I have some trust in the system. Some professionals considered J was a girl, with gender dysphoria; others consider he is not. The professionals, and even the judge, seem not merely to discount the possibility but to consider the evidence and their own assessment. My only doubt comes from doubting the judge’s fitness to practice. But, he says, My experience in the Family Division leaves me with little doubt that some children, as young as 4, 5, 6 years of age may identify strongly with their opposite gender. Such children can experience rejection and abuse arising from ignorance both on a personal and institutional level. Though none of the parties referred me to it, I have read the House of Commons Select Committee report ‘Transgender Equality’, dated 14th January 2016, which investigates the challenges in securing sensitive NHS care and accessing affirming educational environments for transgender adults and children. It is important that such children are listened to and their views afforded respect but, to my mind, they are ill served by premature labelling.

The judge anticipates a happy ending. I formed the impression that he had not reached an absolute conclusion that J will continue to identify as a boy, though he thought this the more likely outcome. This struck me as neatly illustrating Dr Hellin’s view that F is a ‘moderate’ person able to ‘countenance…uncertainty’. F’s simple and instinctive position is that he loves his son unconditionally and will continue to do so however he turns out. F has, in his quiet, self-effacing manner shown remarkable resilience in extremely trying circumstances. He works with increasing confidence with the agencies who have let him and his son down so badly and he does so without bitterness or rancour. Throughout the entirety of the private law proceedings F’s character was traduced, he was excised from his child’s life, his concerns were not listened to by the professionals involved in the case. Many fathers in such circumstances would have walked away. He did not, he stood by his son throughout the seemingly endless proceedings and was ultimately able to rescue him. He has now earned the respect of all the professionals involved in this case to whose voices I add my own.

Social Services consider F is a good father and they need not take parental responsibility, but the judge requires their involvement. He decides that J would be hurt if he could not see his mother, but M may harm him by her incorrigible insistence that he is a girl. He proposes monthly supervised contact.

J has two very intelligent parents. F’s empathy and sensitivity enable him to offer his son a great deal. M’s lively and creative mind, her sense of fun and her powerful capacity to express herself are also gifts from which her son may derive very great benefit. Whilst Dr Hellin maybe right in her bleak prognosis about M’s capacity to change, human nature can be remarkably resourceful and resilient. The Family Courts sometimes sees changes in human behaviour which confound expert expectation. I hope for J’s sake that this is such a case.

Transphobes will take comfort from this case. Seeing a case where a mother has manipulated her child into transition, they will claim that all parents of trans children are like that. That is ridiculous. Parents often resist the child’s desire to present cross-gender: eventually the child’s insistence forces the parents to listen. However the position is not as simple as trans advocates might wish. Some parents really are that manipulative. Bertrand Russell: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.

The judgment.

This is what the newspapers had to say.

13 November 2020: there is now a crowdfunder to support the mother, and two other parents who have lost custody. She has sold her house to pay legal fees.

3 thoughts on “An enmeshed relationship

  1. I have just posted about this, Clare, in relation to another story, that of a 14-year-old trans boy whose devout Christian parents are taking their local authority to court.

    As you say, the transphobes are having a field day with the case of the 7-year-old, and the gutter press are trying to relate it to the above case. But as I point out in my article, far from being a victory for transphobes, both cases highlight that the only person who is an expert on their gender – whatever that gender may be – is the individual concerned.


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