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Parental alienation: treading a treacherous path

A Bristol judge has decided to publish his decision in an exceptional case of parental alienation.

The Designated Family Judge for the Western Circuit, HHJ Wildblood QC, wanted the public to be aware how badly wrong things can go for a family when one parent chooses to alienate the children from the other parent. 

What is parental alienation?

There is no definition set out in law, however parental alienation is recognised by Cafcass as being "when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent". 

The court recognises that this is one of a variety of reasons why a child may be resistant to spending time with a parent and all other factors, such as domestic abuse, are also considered when trying to understand the reasons behind such behaviour.

Recent case

In this case (A (Children: parental alienation), the children's father had originally applied for contact in 2011.  Over the years there were 36 hearings, extensive professional input and public law proceedings.  The continued hope was that it would all lead to successfully re-establishing contact between the father and his children. 

However, the problem was identified too late and the extent of the children's alienation from the father had been underestimated. The damage had already been done.  A trial transfer of residence for the children to live with the father had failed badly and the children ran away.  Contact broke down completely and it became clear that it would never work for the children to live with their father, because they had been so alienated from him.  As a result, and in order to prevent further distress to the children, the father decided to withdraw the court proceedings.

Highlighting the severity of the mother's conduct, HHJ Wildblood QC pointed out that "parental responsibility… requires her to act in the best interest of her children… to promote the relationship between these children and their father ".  He went on to say "she had adult choices to make; the choices that she made were bad ones and deeply harmful to the children".

The message from the judge was simple: early intervention is essential in cases where parental alienation is suspected.  If such intervention is not forthcoming, or the problems spotted too late, it can cause significant long-term emotional harm to the children involved and cause irreparable damage to the relationship they have with their parents.

Historically, indirect contact (such as writing letters or messages) has been used as a form of maintaining contact between the "alienated" parent and children, but the judge gave the clear view that this was of limited use in such cases. 

Comment

The court's paramount consideration is the welfare of the child.  Whilst the mother's conduct was so severe as to warrant a change of arrangements for the children to live with their father, ultimately, that did not work and the children's welfare had to be put first - they could not be forced to live with their father showing such resistance. 

Some may say that the mother succeeded in her aim, given that the children's relationship with their father has now broken down somewhat irreparably.

Sadly, at TLT we frequently see cases of the most entrenched parental conflict and severe cases of alienation. All too often, parents come to us too late and a lot of damage has already been done, which will have far-reaching and long-lasting effects. 

Cases involving parental alienation can be extremely complex.  Many professionals can be involved and the entire family can be subject to numerous assessments, which in itself can have a huge impact on children.  The court will be all too aware that any decision it makes will have a long-lasting (and potentially life-changing) impact on all involved.

This recent case is one of the more extreme situations, but serves as a reminder of the untold damage that parental alienation can do and how, in such cases, there is never a happy ending for anyone involved.  Remember:

  • The court rarely holds the magic answer – the range of powers the judge has is extremely limited;
  • Early therapeutic involvement can limit the damage caused by relationship breakdown, for both parents and children;
  • Adults' feelings towards one another, and surrounding their separation, must be resolved or put to one side where the welfare of children is involved;
  • Fighting adult issues under the guise of children proceedings will do untold damage to the children involved; and
  • As children grow, they will develop their own views and make their own decisions – they will see the reality of the situation eventually.

If you or someone you know are concerned about the impact of separation on the children, do not put off getting legal advice. Even if things haven’t reached the stage of court proceedings, we can still assist your family in the round, including help with parenting plans and recommendations for therapeutic help.

If you find yourself faced with the possibility of court proceedings, or are already in court, do not be afraid to identify parental alienation as an issue, but be constructive – propose solutions early and remind the court of the range of powers that are available.

For more information, please do get in touch.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at November 2019. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms and conditions.

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