Parental Alienation Syndrome

Separating parents could be denied contact with their children if they try to turn them against their former partner

Where one parent poisons their child against the other this is known as parental alienation, the ultimate aim of which is to persuade the child to permanently exclude that parent from their life.

In the case of Re H-B (2015) His Honour Judge Wildblood held the following view:

“where two parents share parental responsibility, it will be the duty of one parent to ensure that the rights of the other parent are respected, and vice versa, for the benefit of the child”

He went on to say that:

“ it is the parents, rather than the court or more generally the state, who are the primary decision makers and actors for determining and delivering the upbringing that the welfare of their child requires….the courts are entitled to look to each parent to use their best endeavours to deliver what their child needs, hard or burdensome or downright tough though that may be…..the parents share the same responsibility of addressing those difficulties so that, in time, and maybe with outside help, the child can benefit from being in a full relationship with each parent….it is [not] acceptable for a parent to shrink their responsibility by sheltering behind the assertion that the child will not do, or even that the child is adamantly opposed to doing, something – and this, I emphasis, is so whatever the age of the child”

Separating parents could be denied contact with their children if they try to turn them against their former partner, under a “ground-breaking” process being trialled by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

Cafcass have realised that parental alienation occurs in a significant number of cases being dealt with each year.

It is anticipated that the new approach will initially give parents the chance to change their behaviour with the help of intense therapy. Alienating parents who do not respond will not be allowed to have their children live with them.

In addition, contact between the parent and child could be restricted or refused for a number of months.  In the most extreme cases, the alienating parent will be permanently banned from any contact with their child.

UK judges are increasingly recognising this phenomenon. One wrote about a case where she was forced to transfer residence to re-establish a relationship between a child and an alienated parent.

Parental alienation occurs on a spectrum from mild to extreme, all of which can be extremely damaging to the children involved.  Experts admit they are only now beginning to understand the range of ways it manifests itself.

Parental alienation occurs almost exclusively when parents are separating or divorcing, particularly when legal action is involved. It is, however, different to the common acrimony between separating parents and is internationally recognised as a distinctive form of parental psychological abuse and family violence.

Until now, cases of parental alienation in the UK have relied on Cafcass caseworkers recognising incidents on a case-by-case basis.  Many parents, however, say their experiences of alienation have been missed or compounded by the social work and family court system, often leading to permanent estrangement from their child.

From spring 2018, all frontline Cafcass caseworkers will be given a new set of guidelines called the high conflict pathway, which will itemise the steps social workers must take when dealing with cases of suspected alienation.  The pathway will spell out exactly when children should be removed from the alienating parent and placed with the “target parent”.

Alongside the guidelines, Cafcass has developed a 12-week intense programme called positive parenting, designed to help the abusive parent put themselves in their child’s position, and give them skills to break their patterns of behaviour.

A trial of it will start shortly, with 50 high-conflict families being sought across the country. After an evaluation in spring, the programme will be rolled out nationwide.

If it does not work, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts will be brought in. If the alienating parent continues to perpetuate the abuse, however, contact with their child will be limited to supervised visits.

In extreme cases, care proceedings will be initiated, and the parent will lose contact with their child.