Parental alienation

The term 'parental alienation' has been around for some time and is often raised within intractable contact disputes.

On 17 November, the Guardian published an article that has generated extensive comment on the topic of parental alienation. The term 'parental alienation' has been around for some time and is often raised within intractable contact disputes. It is a scenario in which one parent aims to persuade the child (sometimes in an extremely subtle way) to exclude the other parent from their life. Essentially the child's wishes and feelings become inextricably linked with one parent's wishes and feelings to the exclusion of a relationship with the other. This most commonly occurs with the resident parent 'alienating' the non-resident parent.

CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) recently announced the introduction of a new programme which will seek to address parental alienation. Whilst we are yet to see material from CAFCASS on the same, it is understood that CAFCASS is introducing a new set of guidelines called the high conflict pathway, which will list the steps social workers must take when dealing with cases of suspected alienation. It will also introduce a new 12 week 'positive parenting programme' which it says is aimed at breaking the pattern of bad behaviour which leads to parental alienation.

Parental alienation is extremely damaging to the children involved and is internationally recognised as a form of psychological abuse. In some countries it is deemed a criminal act. However the courts in England and Wales have not yet attached the same weight to it. The consequences in cases where the court finds parental alienation has taken place, have included the court ordering that the child or children in question should change residence and go to live with the other parent as it is the only way of promoting the relationship between them. It is suggested that a change of residence and a temporary cessation of contact with the offending parent forms part of CAFCASS new programme. It seems unlikely, however, that this will be appropriate in all cases. Whilst the new guidelines will give CAFCASS and the court assistance in dealing with matters where alienation is prevalent, the court's paramount consideration is the welfare of the child and it is not imagined that such draconian measures will be implemented extensively. Current case law has only taken such steps after various experts have been involved and the parent has been given serious warnings of the consequences if there is no change in their behaviour. Removing a child from a home they are used to and a parent on whom which they depend on emotionally could potentially be every bit as detrimental to a child's welfare as the alienation it is intended to prevent.

CAFCASS's initiative seeks to involve psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health experts to work with the parties and CAFCASS, to ensure matters are being handled appropriately. However it remains to be seen who will bear the burden of the costs of such experts and what the position will be for parents who are unable to afford their involvement. In addition what happens if both parents are 'guilty' of seeking to alienate the other? Or when the parent who is the 'victim' of alienation cannot practically care for the child or has never shown any interest in being the main carer?

The Guardian article suggests care proceedings may be issued in extreme cases and this could be a powerful threat to parents, in the same way a change of residence will make parents think twice. Weighing these options, however, is a difficult balance within the context of what is truly in the best interests of the child. It is hoped that the guidelines and extensive commentary on this topic will send out a robust message to 'guilty' parents and deter them from causing such harm to their children and ultimately risk losing residence.

Meera Shinh is a solicitor in the family law team
Meera.Shinh@weightmans.com

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