Parental alienation, at its most severe, has caused children to think their alienated father is a cannibal. This may be an extreme example but demonstrates the effect that parental alienation can have.
Parental alienation is a phenomenon whereby one parent damages their children’s perceptions of the other parent through brainwashing and demonising that parent. In other words, they effectively turn the child against the other parent and seek to exclude that parent from the life of the child.
It is thought that around 11-15% of all UK divorce cases involving children are affected by parental alienation. Needless to say, parental alienation can be very damaging to a child’s development and can adversely affect the child into adulthood. However, the role of the family court, and other professionals, in identifying this phenomenon is challenging because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish parental alienation from the issues that can arise in setting up successful contact arrangements, following a strained and bitter divorce i.e. where parental alienation has not taken place.
So what can be done for children, where alienation has already taken grip and has resulted in the child saying they do not wish to see the alienated parent?
As a starting point, parents should acknowledge the bitterness of the divorce and do all that they can to reduce the psychological impact of that conflict on their children.
Whilst the law says that the wishes and feelings of a child must be taken into account by the court, judges must be prepared to attach less weight to the child’s views where parental alienation has taken place. The general approach of the court will be to look to factors such as the age and maturity of the child; the older and more mature they are, the more weight the court may give to their wishes. With younger children this can be more complicated. The court has to bear in mind that what a child wants and what is best for their welfare is not always the same. The court’s duty to promote contact has been reiterated in a recent and important case (Re M (Children) EWCA Civ 2164), where it was confirmed that stopping contact with a parent really is a last resort and will only be ordered when it is clear that the child will not benefit from contact.
In this case, the Court of Appeal overturned an order for indirect contact between the children from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and their transgender father. The case confirms that the courts have to take into account the fact that contact is a fundamental element of family life and that it is almost always in the interests of the child. The issue here was the risk of the children being ostracised from their community if they had direct contact with their father, but the Court of Appeal recognised its positive duty to promote contact and acted accordingly.
Bearing in mind the court’s duty to promote contact, how can the court deal with an extreme parental alienation case ?
Ultimately, the court may have to use the fairly draconian sanction of changing the residence of the child such that he/she will live with the alienated parent. A starting point may be a suspended residence order, directing that the child reside with the alienated parent, whereby the order is made but suspended on the condition that the alienating parent does all that he/she can to ensure that contact takes place. The use of suspended orders is becoming more frequent by the court.
Whilst the change of residence sanction is infrequently used, such orders are made by the court in these cases and may increase in frequency as the spotlight on parental alienation continues to grow.