Parental alienation is a “handy tool for abusers” and a “national scandal”, a new study conducted by the BBC and the University of Manchester has suggested.
The BBC exposed dozens of cases where children were forced into contact with fathers accused of abuse, with some cases involving convicted paedophiles.
The BBC reported that the concept of parental alienation had also been cited in the deaths of five mothers, with some taking their own lives and others having heart attacks. Others amongst the 45 mothers reported health problems following family court proceedings that included miscarriages and suicidal thoughts.
Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, lead researcher on the project, pointed out the lack of support from the court for these mothers:
“Credible evidence of abuse was diminished or ignored completely – and when I say credible evidence, I’m talking about criminal convictions.”
She is calling for “emergency measures” to address the increasing prevalence of parental alienation claims in court:
“There are catastrophic health impacts with children and adult victims of abuse considering or attempting suicide.”
Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding Jess Phillips said it is “the biggest issue in [her] inbox”, comparing it to abuse scandals in Rotherham and the Catholic Church:
“This isn’t a bad judge. This isn’t a rogue court in one part of the country. This is a tactic of abusers that is being used across every part of our country.”
Phillips, who is arguing for the banning of unregulated experts testifying about parental alienation, said the presumption of contact “should be earned” in cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse, sexual violence, or child abuse.
This comes after President of the Family Court in England and Wales Sir Andrew McFarlane has said the parental alienation label is “unhelpful”.
Also commenting in the BBC’s report was the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales Nicole Jacobs, who says “too often courts consider claims of domestic violence and parental alienation simultaneously”, something she describes as an “unsafe approach”.
Women’s Aid added that the family court is “the number on issue survivors raise” with the charity, and that they have been campaigning on the “dangerous consequences of unsafe child contact decisions” since 2004. Lucy Hadley, the charity’s Head of Policy, said:
“Survivors are left to fight for their children’s safety in long, costly and complex court proceedings, often without support or access to legal representation.”
Hadley added that, despite the findings of the government’s Harm Panel that found numerous failings in the courts’ pro-contact culture – findings which the government accepted – survivors are “still experiencing discrimination, trauma and disbelief in the family courts” three years on.