Unless we have a legal definition of parental alienation children and parents will continue to suffer
A Family Law practitioner’s perspective
Parental alienation (“PA”) is a deeply misunderstood subject that falls between the world of medical experts and legal professionals. The process through which a child becomes alienated from a parent is an emotive topic that has a profound and negative impact upon children, parents, and the wider family. PA is profoundly counter-intuitive and requires specialist diagnosis – most non-experts and therapists simply are not skilled in dealing with it or recognising it.
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (“CAFCASS”) works with over 100,000 children every year going through the family courts who are at risk of parental alienation. The generally accepted definition is that of CAFCASS,
“When a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent”.
As practitioners specialising in Child Arrangement proceedings, we have seen first-hand and felt the pain of many clients (both mothers and fathers) facing significant resistance from their children, leading to months of litigation and sizeable legal expense in a struggle to secure the most basic contact with their child. These parents will have, prior to the breakdown of the relationship, enjoyed a strong bond with their child and we often hear grief-stricken parents say:
“…. I left the relationship not my child…”
We have spent months tirelessly working on cases to re-establish those ties and have controversially ceased acting for clients who have made false allegations of abuse to prevent the other parent from having contact. Such parents advance allegations of abuse through the family courts which when pressed upon have no merit. It is clear in such instances that the real motivation is to destroy the relationship between the non-resident parent and the child without justification.
The Domestic Abuse Bill (“DAB”) is a welcome framework to assist professionals and the courts in raising awareness on the various types of abuse arising within the domestic setting and it should be all encompassing. However, it simply does not go far enough to ensure PA is understood and defined in law as a form of abuse – where both a child and targeted parent suffer psychological harm, and need support and protection.
An absence of a legal definition helps enable PA
To date PA continues as a form of abuse without any legal recognition in the UK.
PA’s lack of definition builds upon the wide discrepancies that already exist within the Family Courts which is regularly exercised by judges and CAFCASS – with no proper assessment framework and legal definition, family courts’ arguments are circular and time-consuming, which causes further harm to children. A definition would give the courts a standard clear steer, which could be applied in all cases where PA is alleged. This in time, would be refined upon by case law.
The current omission of PA from the DAB undermines the profound effect on the wellbeing of children and the targeted parent. There is a large body of research which tells us that a fractured parental relationship can create difficulties for children which pervade their life, mental health, and future relationships; there is also a detrimental effect on the targeted parent and wider family, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In order to ensure better outcomes for those children and families served by the Family Justice System, inclusion of the PA is required.
Amendment to The DAB to recognise PA
On 20 January 2021 at the committee stage of the DAB at the House of Lords, Baroness Meyer, Baroness Altmann, and Earl Lytton raised an amendment to DAB to ensure that in cases where one parent alienates a child from their other parent, which harms the child’s welfare, this is treated as a form of domestic abuse of the other parent.
The amendment sought to give a statutory definition to PA as, “the situation where A, being one parent of a child, acts in a manner or takes steps, deliberate or otherwise, so as to sever, damage, hinder, delay, harm or otherwise negatively affect the child’s relationship with B, being another parent of the child, thereby negatively impacting the child’s welfare.”
Baroness Altmann highlighted the “prevenient problem” of PA which entails psychological or emotional abuse impacting on many parents and their children, calling for the Bill to explicitly recognise PA and that it does inflict long term damage on children.
Baroness Meyer questioned if it is sensible to distinguish between domestic abuse and child abuse. She noted that when a child is converted into a weapon in an abusive adult relationship it is surely not right to draw such a distinction.
Unfortunately, there was significant resistance to the amendment which was ultimately withdrawn for further debate ahead of the report stage on 8th March where there is hope for the amendment to be repositioned.
Allegations of Parental Alienation are not going away
The real surprise is that CAFCASS were not involved in this Bill, nor the Judges who often witness and opine on PA. Compounded by the government’s continuing refusal to recognise PA as a form of abuse, the debate has become clouded by debate around false allegation and gender – a misleading stance when ultimately there is no difference between the genuine devastating experiences we see of victim mothers and fathers.