Most disagreements between parents can be resolved either through mediation, legal advice, or by a court application. Occasionally there are challenging parental disagreements which have lasted for years and where outside individuals may be struggling to help the family make progress. A handful of these will require consideration as to whether there is so called “parental alienation.” Family practitioners are well aware of the term but to others it may not be widely known or understood. However, despite its lack of notability outside of family law, 'parental alienation' is becoming more of an issue in many cases. It typically appears in cases where the relationship breakdown has not been amicable and where there is hostility and ill feeling between the parents.
What is parental alienation?
There is no single definition of parental alienation, and it will usually arise in a family where there are multifactorial difficulties; however, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) defines parental alienation as “when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.” CAFCASS has devised a tool called the CAFCASS Child Impact Assessment Framework to help Family Court Advisers identify where children may be experiencing parental separation, and to assess the impact of different case factors on them including parental alienation. See the link: Parental alienation - Cafcass - Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to explore further.
What does parental alienation look like, and what does recent case law tell us about the court’s approach to such cases?
In A and B (Parental Alienation: No. 1, No.2, No.3 and No.4)  EHWC 3366, the court considered whether there should be a transfer of residence to the father’s care on the basis that the mother had alienated the children from him. A shared care order had been made, however this arrangement began to fail following a number of allegations made by the mother against the father resulting in Child B refusing to go to the father’s home. A child psychiatrist and psychologist agreed that the mother had alienated the children from the father, and that the children would be at risk of significant harm if this alienation were to continue. Keehan J ordered a transfer of residence to the father, and determined that there should be a period of therapeutic support to repair the emotional damage that the children had suffered. In light of the continued risk posed by the mother, Keehan J set out a roadmap which involved very restricted contact with the mother, and set out how contact with the mother could increase over time depending on the progress made.
In the case of C v D (private law – domestic abuse – parental alienation)  EWFC B60, examples of the mother’s alienating behaviour included:
- not sharing significant information with the father about the children’s health, education and welfare
- calling the police to check up on the father rather than speaking to him directly as a co-parent
- asking the children lots of questions following contact with the father
- creating an environment for the children whereby they consider that their mother’s home is their only safe space
The father was found to be a perpetrator of domestic abuse towards the mother during their relationship; however he was not considered to pose a current risk. The court determined that there would be a risk of harm to the children if their relationship with the father would not be allowed to develop, and that the benefits of having a relationship with him outweighed any possible risk of harm to them. The court ordered regular contact with the father.
In the more recent case of A & B (Parental Alienation by the Non-Resident Parent)  EWFC B8, the local authority issued care proceedings due to their concern about the children’s emotional and psychological safety. The children had been living with their mother but ran away to their father’s home on a number of occasions. The children became increasingly hostile towards their mother and made it very clear that they wanted to live with their father and have no contact with their mother. There were concerns for the mother’s and the children’s safety and the children were placed separately in foster care under an interim care order.
The experts were in no doubt that the children had been influenced by their father because they were using adult language and terminology when speaking about her and their hostility towards her was disproportionate to anything the mother was alleged to have done to them. When an expert asked the eldest child why he hated his mother, the child would only say that she was annoying.
Examples of the father’s alienating behaviour included:
- speaking about the mother in a derogatory manner
- encouraging the children to be secretive around the mother and enforcing the idea that they were part of a team that mother is not a part of
- encouraging the children to misbehave with their mother and make allegations against her
The court made a final care order with the children to remain in long-term foster care whilst the family received therapeutic support. The experts recommended that there should be no contact between the children and their parents as the children needed space and time to recover, and this plan was endorsed by the court. The plan was for the children to eventually return to their mother’s care following the period of rehabilitation should this be in the children’s best interests.
Thoughts and conclusions
It is clear from the case law that these cases are complex and that there is no “one size fits all” approach to cases where parental alienation is an issue. We know these cases are always challenging for the family but also for the professionals, including the lawyers. These cases will usually require expert assessment and, where the children have suffered harm, some form of therapeutic intervention for the children and the parents in order to repair the relationships and the damage caused. Ultimately the courts are prepared to take a robust approach and are not reluctant to change a child’s residence or restrict contact with parents in order to safeguard children from further harm.