Parental alienation can be devastating not just for the targeted parent who is being alienated or unjustifiably distanced from their child but critically, for a child whose relationship with a loving and caring parent might be irretrievably damaged. Here we will discuss:

  • The concept of parental alienation, an increasingly common feature in child arrangements proceedings in the context of divorce and separation
  • The steps to take if you think parental alienation is occurring
  • How the courts approach cases of suspected parental alienation

Many of our clients are unfamiliar with the term parental alienation. If it becomes a factor in child arrangements proceedings it’s sometimes unclear how best to approach it – whether you are the parent being accused of alienating a child from the other parent or you are the targeted parent making the allegations of alienating behaviour.

If you have concerns about the way your child has started to behave towards you, and you believe your co-parent is alienating the child from you, it’s important to get legal advice as soon as possible. Early intervention is the most effective way to prevent such a situation developing and deteriorating before it’s too late. You can call Brookman on 44 (0) 20 7430 8470 for an initial discussion.

What is parental alienation?

Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) describes parental alienation as follows:

‘when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of a psychological manipulation of the other parent’.

So parental alienation is when one parent undermines the child’s relationship with the other parent with the result that the child stops wanting to spend time with that parent. Sometimes alienating behaviour can be unintended.

There will be occasions when a child has a justifiable reason for not wanting to spend time with one parent. For example, there may be instances of abuse or domestic violence that discourage the child from being with one parent. The complex nature of the parental – child relationship and the need to safeguard it where possible means that allegations of parental alienation should be taken seriously. As we discuss below however, allegations alone (without some kind of concrete evidence) are unlikely to persuade a court alienation has occurred or that it needs to be addressed.

What steps should I take if I suspect parental alienation

In our experience signs of parental alienation can include

  • One parent engaging in generally negative comments about the targeted parent
  • Where one parent discusses details of court proceedings or child contact issues directly with the child
  • Accusations that the targeted parent does not love the child
  • Criticising the targeted parent in meetings with Cafcass and other agencies that may be involved in the case
  • Restricting contact or refusing to divulge contact information
  • Removing the child from the area
  • Talking negatively about the targeted parent with others in the presence of the child

If you feel that your child is being distanced from you and is being manipulated by your co-parent you should get legal advice as soon as you begin to suspect that parental alienation is taking place. The longer you leave it the harder it will be to undo the detrimental effects of the alienation –whether or not you are ultimately successful in getting a positive decision in court.

At Brookman we are members of Resolution so we will always try to find a workable solution to the situation,. If the matter does end up going to court it is likely that Cafcass will become involved.

What do the courts say about parental alienation?

There’s no statutory definition of parental alienation and it is an uncertain area of law. That said, if parental alienation is suspected courts do have a broad duty under the Children Act, 1989 to always make the child’s welfare paramount in any decision relating to his or her upbringing. The courts also have a duty to make every effort to assist children in having a worthwhile relationship with both parents after separation – unless there are issues around the child’s safety.

If the courts do become involved in a case of suspected parental alienation, they will usually ask Cafcass to intervene and assess the case on its facts. The agency represents the interests of children and young people in the family court. Its role is to independently advise on what is safe for children and in their best interests. By focusing on children’s needs, wishes and feelings, Cafcass seeks to ensure that children’s voices are heard and are at the heart of the family court’s thinking and decision making. Over many years Cafcass had developed a framework for assessing suspected alienating behaviours. Staff do this by working directly with children, reporting to the court and making recommendations.

Ultimately the Court has the power to order the removal of a child from the alienating parent’s care and placed with the targeted parent to prevent their relationship suffering more and increasing the emotional damage to the child. It’s important to note however that before making a decision removing the child from one parent’s primary care and placing it with the other, the court must be satisfied that the alienating parent’s behaviour is likely to cause significant emotional damage to the child in the long term.

Comment

The concept of parental alienation is increasingly raised in child arrangement proceedings. Because there is no legislative framework cases are decided on their specific facts on a case by case basis with input from Cafcaas and, somewhat controversially, by expert psychologists.

All of this can lead to uncertainty and some difficulty in providing concrete advice to a parent who believes they are being alienated form their child. It’s crucial to discuss concerns at an early stage to prevent the alienating behaviour affecting the child. While the courts and Cafcass play a critical role it’s important to bear in mind that by the time a case reaches court and Cafcass have made a report the alienating behaviour is likely to have been occurring over a long period of time and it could be difficult to undo the effects.

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