Parental alienation – a “handy tool for abusers”?

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Family Law on Monday, September 18th, 2023

A study from the University of Manchester, published recently by the BBC, has revealed that dozens of children have been forced into contact with fathers accused of abuse. In all the cases, the fathers deflected accusations of abuse in the family courts using the controversial legal concept known as ‘parental alienation’.

Whilst it’s most commonly used to respond to accusations of abuse in court, the concept, researchers said, is also “quite often used by fathers to mean pretty much anything that is in opposition to their demand for a certain amount of contact.”

What is parental alienation?

The term parental alienation centres around the idea that one parent has turned their child against the other with no good reason using psychological manipulation tactics. This can be achieved through words, actions, behaviour and lies about the other parent.

For example, a parent who is guilty of parental alienation might criticise the other parent in front of their child, limit contact and phone calls with the other parent, or tell their child lies about the other parent, in order to destroy the child’s image of and relationship with them.

It most commonly occurs when parents are going through a relationship breakdown and are disputing child arrangements, and it can be highly damaging to a child’s health and welfare. A family court will always prioritise the health and welfare of any children above all else when deciding on child arrangements and will generally want the child to have a relationship with both parents where possible.

How is parental alienation proven in a court?

A court will usually require a ‘Section 7’ welfare report in parental alienation cases, which is designed to provide more information about a child’s welfare and what action is in their best interests. This might be prepared by the family’s local authority (if they are already involved with the child and are familiar with the family’s background) or Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).

The claimant might also put forward an expert witness, such as a psychologist or other related professional, to provide evidence in alienation cases.

Earlier this year, however, family court president Andrew McFarlane spoke of his concerns about the lack of regulation of some expert witnesses in a landmark judgement. While some categories of psychologist, such as ‘clinical psychologist’, may only be used by registered professionals, the term ‘psychologist’ “may be used by any individual, whether registered or not”, he said.

The Family Justice Council has also addressed concerns that evidence may be skewed by experts who, having given a finding of parental alienation to the court, stand to gain financially from recommended treatments and therapies that they or their business offer. Speaking of such conflicts of interest, the interim guidance says: “The court should be extremely cautious when asked to consider assessment and treatment packages offered by the same or linked providers.”

A “handy tool for abusers”?

So, we can see that parental alienation as a legal concept is designed to prevent one parent’s psychological manipulation of their child from destroying their relationship with their other parent. However, there is also concern over the regulation of psychologists and other experts used by courts to judge cases of parental alienation – in addition to serious potential conflicts of interest – which could play right into the hands of abusers.

Leader of the University of Manchester study, Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, labelled the concept a “handy tool for abusers” and said that its acceptance by courts is “a national scandal.” The concern is that parental alienation, rather than protecting children, is instead being used by abusers to explain away their child’s (only too natural) resistance or hostility towards them.

In some cases – like this one reported last year in the Guardian – the parent accused of alienation can have their child removed and full custody awarded to the other parent.

What can I do if I’m being accused of parental alienation?

As we have observed, the claim of parental alienation is often a tactic used to attain court-ordered contact with children and, in the case of abusers, to deflect blame away from themselves. 

So, if you and/or your children are victims of abuse and you are hearing this term raised during your divorce or separation, it is vital that you raise this with your solicitor so that they can help you counter these claims and ensure that your children stay safe from abuse.

On a more positive note, the Family Justice Council has published new draft guidance for consultation on how to respond to accusations of alienating behaviour, especially in cases of domestic abuse. With great emphasis on evidence, fact finding and child welfare, it is hoped that this step-by-step guidance – in addition to recent media publicity about the potential dangers of parental alienation claims – will lead to a more rigorous approach to this difficult and controversial issue.

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