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Dealing with parental alienation: new CAFCASS guidelines

From this Autumn CAFCASS are hoping to release new guidelines for assessing cases which feature adult behaviours associated with high conflict.

From this Autumn CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), who represent children in family court cases in England, are hoping to release new guidelines to help staff to assess cases which feature adult behaviours associated with high conflict. One of these behaviours is commonly known as 'parental alienation'.

What is parental alienation?

The term was coined by Psychiatrist, Dr Richard A Gardner to explain a situation where one parent attempts to turn the couple’s child(ren) against the other parent. He defines it as: "...a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent."

Its recognition as a syndrome in the US is highly disputed in this country. The definition of 'parental alienation' in the UK remains under debate. However, there is a consensus that alienating behaviours can include denigrating or belittling the other parent, limiting or withdrawing contact, forbidding discussion about the other parent or creating the impression that the other parent dislikes or does not love the child. These behaviours sit on a continuum of mild to severe with varying impacts on the child, the most serious being the child aligns themselves with the alienating parent and rejects their relationship with their other parent without legitimate justification.

What is the effect of parental alienation?

Dr Edward Kruk reports that "the biopsychosocial-spiritual effects of parental alienation are devastating. For both the alienated parent and child, the removal and denial of contact in the absence of neglect or abuse constitutes cruel and unusual treatment. As a form of child maltreatment, parental alienation is a serious child protection matter as it undermines a basic principle of social justice for children: the right to know and be cared for by both of one's parents".

How do CAFCASS currently deal with parental alienation?

CAFCASS officers have to carry out at least an initial assessment and part of this includes identifying any risk of emotional harm to the child. The role of CAFCASS is to establish the impact of what has happened to the child concerned and to make recommendations to the court as to what, if anything, should be done to reduce or end any harmful impact upon the child.

What are the new CAFCASS parental alienation guidelines?

CAFCASS are in the process of developing a new framework inspired by the Domestic Abuse Practice Pathway, which will be referred to as the High Conflict Practice Pathway which will sit alongside existing practice tools such as the Impact of Parental Conflict Tool which includes 10 indicators which officers use in identifying and analysing the emotional impact of parental conflict on children.

CAFCASS hope that by combining the two under one framework it will promote a more consistent and evidence-based approach to assist officers in recommending an outcome which is in the child’s best interests, whilst keeping the child’s needs, wishes and feelings central to this. It is hoped the pathway will help to identify these harmful adult behaviours early on in a case and help officers to distinguish between those cases of parental alienation and those where there is a justified rejection of a parent, by a child, due to that parent’s harmful behaviour.

Cases will continue to be assessed on their individual circumstances and final decisions will still be made by the court in the absence of agreement between the parties.

How has this come about?

Those looking after the welfare of children have been aware of the destructive effects of parental alienation and growing interest from the public, social worker sector and the courts has put the issue centre stage. It is reported that 10% of separated parents have contact agreements made through the courts and each year around 1,400 of cases return to court for enforcement of such orders due to non-compliance by one parent.

Cases involving high conflict behaviours are not always being resolved at an early stage within proceedings and the idea of the systematic approach is that early identification of these behaviours should mean appropriate work can be put in place at an early stage to improve the situation for the families involved.

Will the framework be used in your case?

CAFCASS will only utilise the framework in cases they assess are suitable. If the framework is going to be adopted in your case CAFCASS will inform you of this and will provide you with a case plan which includes a plan of work and the tool being used.

What if you have concerns about parental alienation?

If you’re outside of court proceedings please take legal advice as to the options available to you and if you have real concerns about the welfare of your child(ren) then contact the Local Authority or the Police if there is an immediate risk. If you are within Children Act Proceedings you should discuss your concerns with the allocated CAFCASS Officer. There are a range of organisations and charities that can provide support to children and families.

In Rule 16.4 cases where children are made ‘a party’ to the proceedings with their own independent legal representation entirely separate from their parents, CAFCASS are currently piloting a Positive Parenting Programme. It is aimed at cases involving medium levels of parental conflict where both parents are open to working with professionals. The 12 week programme for families that aims to reduce parental conflict and emotional harm to children. CAFCASS say it encourages parents to place themselves in their children’s shoes to understand the effect of their behaviour and uses restorative principles to help children recover with the support of both parents where possible.

Use of the High Conflict Practice Pathway will help practitioners to identify those cases which might benefit from the Positive Parenting Programme, but it will not be suitable in all cases. Currently, the Positive Parenting Programme is not available to families outside of court proceedings.

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