Parental Alienation – Hero v Villain

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“Parental Alienation” – a term that is often used loosely and without much thought as to the cause and effect. But whilst it is a term that we see thrown into a bitter dispute in a relationship breakdown, there are times when there is real harm caused by blatant and identified “alienation”.

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is recognised as the estrangement of a child from one parent and the rejection of that parent by the child as a result of the “psychological manipulation of another parent”. The estrangement has a number of unjustified manifestations including fear, disrespect or hostility towards the parent, and in some instances, the wider family members.

When a relationship breaks down, children are often the “go to weapon” with one parent alienating the children from the other. This can be in the hope that by doing so they will gain or retain control, or out of desperation and an emotional need to keep a hold on to something as a comforting factor – thereby manipulating the child into unquestioning loyalty to themselves. It is reported that mothers are more likely to make negative comments about fathers, and fathers are more likely to encourage disrespect and defiance towards the mother.

The issue of parental alienation is of growing concern within Family Courts. Under English Law, every child has the right to have a relationship with both parents and, where there are no safeguarding or welfare concerns, contact should be promoted and facilitated by both parents as they have Parental Responsibility for their children.

Paramount welfare of the child

Unfortunately, bitter disputes often mean that children get dragged into the battle. The recent case of Re A (Children) (Parental alienation), over which HHJ Wildblood was presiding highlights the real harm that alienation can cause children. The Judgement on this particular case has been published as it was in the public interest to see “how badly wrong things can go…where one parent alienates the children from the other parent”.  In this executional case, the father was forced to give up his fight to see his children after an eight-year long legal battle which included a number of professional opinions that confirmed contact should take place between the children and their father. HHJ Wildblood described the mother’s campaign as “demonising” and “alienating” the children from their father, leaving the children suffering “significant and long-term emotional harm.” It was noted in the Judgement that the children would not acknowledge cards or present, and expressed an “unjustified and illogical complaint about his [the father’s] letters.” The children were isolated from their paternal family and had “false memories” of how their father would behave towards them.  The Court’s paramount concern is the welfare of the children, in this case an order was made for them to reside with their father, such orders are draconian and only ordered in extreme circumstances. Ultimately however, the children showed unwavering resistance and therefore, could not be made to live with their father- it was in their best interests, given the circumstances to live with their mother.

The long-term psychological effects of this behaviour on children are dangerous. In the High Court case conducted by Mr Justice Keehan Re H (parental alienation), it was ordered that the child would move to live with his father after it was decided that his mother had alienated him from his father and did not support the father having a role in the child’s life.  Mr Justice Keehan stated in his Judgement that if the situation were to continue, “it will impede his [the child’s] ability to form meaningful and positive relationships now and in the future. It may cause him to suffer depression in later life.”

There are of course risks that the child will not settle when relocated (as was the case in Re A (Children) (Parental Alienation)) or will suffer trauma and stress. However, Mr Justice Keehan was satisfied that the child would be fully supported by his father and paternal family, and would have the support and guidance of an independent expert in the field. His former close relationship with his father would be restored in a short period of time and any trauma or stress would not last long as he settles into his father’s care.

How to identify Parental Alienation

The problem, as highlighted in the Judgement of HHJ Wildblood is identifying the alienation early in the proceedings – before the damage is done and the children have made up their minds. Failing this, the long-term effects on the children are irreversible.  The problem of course is the lack of knowing how to measure the extent of the alienation until the children are a lot older; by which time, it is probably too late. The obvious difficulty, HHJ Wildblood affirms, is how to approach the expressed wishes and feelings of an alienable aged child. If asked whether they wish to have a relationship with the other parent, their obvious response is going to be “no”. In cases like these, the approaches to the wishes and feelings of children has to be approached with considerable care and professionalism. Taking the child’s flat answer is obviously misguided and disingenuous, the lack of early enquiry into what was happening meant that there was no intervention and the children were able to reinforce the image for their father as a villain in their mind.

Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) have developed their Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework to identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of parental alienation. The starting point of the assessment is always the identification of the risks, which include emotional harm as a result of alienating behaviours.  Where alienating behaviours are apparent, the forefront of the assessment is whether or not it is safe and in the best interests of the child to have contact with one or both parents taking into account the risk factors, evidence-based assessments, diversity issues and the child’s resilience and vulnerabilities. The recommendations of Cafcass are reported back to the Judge to consider before making their final decision about what contact the child should have with either parent.

With divorce and separation on the rise and family dynamics changing to include blended families, the welfare of the children and the effects of alienation are paramount. There is only so much the Courts and professionals have the power to do. At the end of the day, these children will grow up and will be able to form their own unfettered opinions – the actual reality will be different to what they were made to believe was reality.

Contact IBB’s family law experts today

IBB Solicitors’ family law practice can provide  expert advice on all childcare and  other family law issues. To contact the family law team please email or call 03456 381381.