Parental Alienation – Loosening The Gordian Knot

Two recent cases, Re A (Children) (Parental Alienation) and In Re H (A Child) (Parental Alienation), have once again highlighted the need for lawyers and courts to be live to the possibility of parental alienation.

Sir James Munby, recently called for a, “comprehensive international literature review of all the existing non-legal research into the existence, causes, and consequences, and means of identifying parental alienation…” given the lack of clear information about process and outcomes in private law proceedings.

Failure to identify and address these issues can, at best, leave the child’s needs neglected and, at worst, cause significant harm to the children involved. A recent research study by Dr Barnett of Brunel University [20.1.2020] calls into question the validity of parental alienation in many cases, arguing that parental alienation and domestic abuse are not treated as equal counterparts, and an apparent case of parental alienation may be put forward to obscure domestic abuse. Like Sir James, she comments that: ‘“It’s all very well to look at the reported cases in the study, but we really don’t know what is going on in the thousands of cases in the lower courts. We need to know to what extent parental alienation is being alleged, whether it is justified, how it’s being constructed and what its consequences are.”

Re A demonstrates the devastating effects of not identifying parental alienation at a stage in the child’s life when it could have been successfully addressed. By the time the case came to court, the relationship between the alienated parent and the children was irreparable. The judge commented that it seems highly likely that the resulting damage will have long-term negative effects on all of them.

Re H highlighted that professionals’ ability to identify parental alienation can be seriously lacking. Thankfully the court in that case was assisted by Dr Janine Braier, “one of the country’s foremost experts in the field of parental alienation”. She concluded that parental alienation had occurred, contradicting the social worker’s section 37 report which was found by the court to be “woefully inadequate”.

More than a year ago, Cafcass introduced a child impact assessment framework to help its family court advisers identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including parental alienation particularly where ‘a child’s hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.’

The problem with identifying parental alienation is all the more difficult when one, or both parties are unrepresented and absent appropriate expert evidence. Increasingly, this is the case with the limitations on the availability of legal aid in disputes between parents about arrangements for the children. This predicament has been decried by the current and past Presidents of the Family Division.

Sometimes an alienating parent may also have an underlying psychological or psychiatric disorder.

Alienated parents themselves are unlikely to be aware of the nature, complexity or, at times, subtle presentation of the issue, the chronic nature of the problem and the potential, serious, long-term effects of it on the child.

One of the key things for a parent who is the subject of developing alienation to bear in mind is to persist in seeking to maintain a relationship with the child, a principle now enshrined in the Children Act 1989. Sometimes the alienated parent may need specialist help to identify parental alienation and to rebuild the direct relationship with the child. And seeking support as soon as possible is one of the best ways to re-establish the child’s relationship with both parents.

Proceedings of this nature can be drawn out, and the alienated parent may have to face apparent, and at times entrenched resistance from their own child to seeing them, false allegations of physical or, even, sexual abuse, and professionals who may not be qualified or may fail to identify parental alienation.

The stakes are high in such cases, and, not infrequently, the only option left at the end of proceedings is for the child to be ordered to live with the alienated parent to prevent further psychological harm and to repair the damaged relationships.

Written by Barry McAlinden, Barrister and Anna Dannreuther, Pupil Barrister, at Field Court Chambers in London.

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