New guidelines to deal with parental alienation
In a ground-breaking initiative that will be trialled by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) from next spring, divorcing parents could find themselves losing custody, or being denied contact with their children, if they attempt to poison them against their former partner.
The demonising of a parent, usually by the one with whom the child lives, has long been recognised as being very damaging to the child, not just at the time but often for years afterwards. Cafcass recently acknowledged that this behaviour, usually referred to as ‘parental alienation’, was a feature in a significant number of the 125,000 cases it deals with each year.
It can occur following divorce or separation, and often manifests itself in one parent deliberately trying to stop their child from seeing or establishing a relationship with the other parent, and is said to be present in between 11 and 15 per cent of divorces that involve children.
Parental alienation can be classed on a spectrum from mild to extreme, and can be exhibited in several ways. For example, if a child says they do not want to see the other parent, perhaps using language that clearly isn’t their own, then this could be a sign that alienation is taking place. It is regarded as distinctly different from the acrimonious way in which divorcing parents often act, and viewed as a subtly-different form of psychological abuse.
A new approach designed to change damaging behaviour
Under the new guidelines that Cafcass call the ‘High Conflict pathway’, parents who display this form of behaviour will be given the chance to undergo a 12-week intensive therapy course. This is designed to help them view their behaviour through the eyes of their child, acknowledge that it is harmful, and teach them ways in which they can change the way they think and act.
A failure to respond to treatment could culminate in them being prevented from having their child live with them. Contact between the parent and the child could be restricted or refused, potentially for several months. In the most extreme cases, the alienating parent could be permanently banned from having any contact with their child.
Making the best decisions for the child
It will be interesting to see how the trial works and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. It’s important to remember that in cases where parental alienation has been identified, Cafcass can only advise the court. It will still be up to the court to make decisions about which parent a child lives with. It is conceivable that the court, having been made aware that parental alienation has been identified, may still feel that on balance, the child’s needs are best served by them remaining with the alienating parent. In some circumstances, the non-alienating parent might not be able to care adequately for the child.
However, this trial is highlighting a very important and often under-identified area of family relationships following divorce or separation. It sends out a strong and clear message to parents that this type of behaviour will no longer be tolerated.