Whilst we may hear the phrase “parental alienation” more now than in years gone by, in its true form, it is still uncommon. There is currently no agreed definition for the concept, but it can be summarised as one parent being so opposed to contact between a child and the other parent that they take active steps to try to make contact impossible. Parental alienation can be perpetrated by either parent, regardless of gender identification or sex.
The behaviours constituting parental alienation vary greatly but typically include an ongoing pattern of negative behaviours to influence, manipulate and/ or pressure a child into aligning themselves with one parent rather than the other. This may include denigrating, demeaning, ridiculing or dismissing the other parent by telling false stories to the child about their other parent, or withholding information from the child about their other parent which may show the other parent in a positive light.
Alienation should not be confused with low level hostility / resentment of one parent towards another which can be present immediately following a separation whilst emotions are running high. Rather, parental alienation is a consistent and deliberate attempt to undermine or put an end to a child’s relationship with their other parent.
The result of alienation is that a child has genuine fear and resistance towards contact with their other parent as they have been manipulated and led to believe that the parent is negative or presents a risk in some way or another.
If you are the parent who is the target of alienation, the most important thing is to act quickly. The longer a child is exposed to alienating behaviours, the more likely it is that harm will be suffered by the child. Court proceedings are not a quick-fix and complex matters can take several hearings to resolve.
Depending on the circumstances, the first step is to issue an application with the court for child arrangements order and make clear on the form you have concerns about parental alienation. The application should be accompanied by an Allegations of Harm form which provides a greater opportunity to elaborate on the alienation allegations.
When court proceedings have been issued, an officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) will be allocated to the case and you will have an opportunity to discuss the allegations with them. CAFCASS will then make recommendations to the court as to what the next steps should be.
This may be for CAFCASS to undertake a detailed report to ascertain any areas of welfare concerns including alienation as well as the child’s wishes and feelings. To achieve this, CAFCASS will likely speak to the child in question and assess why they have resistance to contact or talk to the other parent and try to understand whether the child’s view is likely resulting from alienating behaviours. CAFCASS may also recommend other steps such as attendance at a separated parents information programme.
In some cases, an expert psychologist may be appointed to assess the child and any emotional harm they may be suffering, but ultimately, the existence of parental alienation is not a syndrome to be diagnosed. What is important is identifying whether alienating behaviour has taken place and, if so, what emotional harm that behaviour has caused to a child and their relationship with the alienated parent and what can be done about it.
The court has the power to make various orders in relation to the time a child lives and spends with each parent. The court can also make orders to enforce such arrangements which may assist in some cases, but sometimes the court has to go further.
In serious cases of alienation, the court has demonstrated that it can and will order a change in residence of a child from the alienating parent to the alienated parent if that is in the child’s best interests. An order can then be made for the child to have contact with the perpetrating parent, but it may be that further safeguards and / or conditions are required to make that contact safe for the child and without undermining the alienated parent further. This can mean the involvement of supervision of contact and / or there being a break in contact between the perpetrating parent and the child to allow the relationship with the alienated parent to be re-established.
Support for parental alienation
Cases involving parental alienation can be complex and it is advisable to seek legal advice from a specialist in this area of the law. If you have questions about parental alienation, please feel free to get in touch so one of the team of family law experts at Furley Page can help.
About Joanne McDonald
Joanne joined the Family law team at Furley Page as an Associate in October 2021. Joanne is a member of Resolution for Family Law and adheres to a Code of Practice promoting a constructive approach to the resolution of family matters.
Joanne has always had a passion for family law and demonstrates this through her commitment to clients. She understands that the breakdown of a relationship can be distressing and strives to ensure that clients feel supported through the process. As well as relationship breakdown, Joanne advises clients prior to marriage in respect of nuptial agreements and clients who are making the decision to cohabit with a partner and want to ensure clarity of future arrangements.
Contact Joanne McDonald, Associate Solicitor in Furley Page’s family law team on 01634 828277 or email JLM@furleypage.co.uk.