Should Parental Alienation Be Legally Recognised?

Should Parental Alienation Be Legally Recognised?

Parental alienation is estimated to occur in between 11-15% of cases of divorcing parents.

Divorce is a difficult time not just for couples but even more so for the children.  Each child copes with the separation in a different way, ranging from anger and emotional outbursts to feelings of guilt and sometimes even acceptance.  Research is clear however, a parent’s behaviour in a separation can greatly influence that of a child.

In many cases of separation and divorce, parents are unable to contain or hide their feelings towards the other, sometimes showing hostility which can affect their ability to co-parent in a responsible manner and put the needs of their children first.  In extreme cases a hostile parent may abuse their parental responsibility and coerce their child into alienating the other parent, through words, actions or even suggestions of abuse, leading to parental alienation (PA) of the non-hostile parent. This harmful behaviour can have serious consequences on a family and emotional harm on the child.

PA is now being more recognised and understood in the UK, both socially and legally, as a form of psychological abuse against both the child and the alienated parent.  Although there is no legal definition of PA, Cafcass now recognises it 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.’  Typically, a parent begins being rejected by their child when there was a previous loving relationship and there is no justifiable reason for the rejection.

Cafcass has issued guidelines in the Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework, which helps Family Court Adviser (FCA) to identify if children are experiencing parental separation and assess the impact of different case factors on them.  FCAs ‘will use their professional judgement to assess’ the safety of the child and give their recommendations to the court.

It is then however at the discretion of the court to decide whether there should be contact with one or both parents, and whether it is in the best interest of the child to remain with the hostile parent, have regular contact with a parent that has been alienated or even be removed from the hostile parent.

Following the introduction of controlling and coercive behaviour as a form of domestic abuse in the Serious Crimes Act 2015 and Theresa May’s introduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament, we asked family experts whether the Government should introduce similar definitions to identify similar behaviour towards children resulting in PA.

Elizabeth Edwards, partner at Amphlett Lissimore said:

“Understanding of how the relationship between a child’s parents impacts upon that child’s mental and physical health is constantly improving. Commonly children have to separate their own experience of their parents from the experience that their parents have of each other as former partners. This can be confusing for children when they are taught right and wrong as a black and white concept. It can be particularly difficult when a child’s experience of abandonment is shared with a parent – particularly with a parent with whom they have greater day to day connection and who they see as more vulnerable. However when one parent actively recruits the child to their narrative by alienating information and psychological manipulation it is not only confusing and difficult but beyond this is psychologically abusive. It causes psychological damage to the child. The law should act decisively to support the child to end that significant emotional harm.  A clear definition not only provides the benchmark against which such behaviour will, quite literally, be judged but will also assist all professionals dealing with the problem at earlier stages. As recently as a decade ago we were being told PA did not exist and that it was a male construct to exert control. Now we know it is a psychological device exerted by men and women. A definition will increase awareness so that more children are given support sooner. Training that will inevitably be undertaken by many professionals around a change in law and this will help those professionals identify alienated children whilst still appropriately protecting victims of other forms of abuse. A definition is not an end in itself but is an important step towards freeing children from this long misunderstood source of misery.”

Lorna Tipple, Associate Director at Thursfields further comments. She said:

“Arguably, PA is, by definition, in fact a form of controlling and coercive behaviour as it involves a parent controlling and manipulating the situation and their child, resulting in the child resisting spending time with the other parent.  It is heartening that Cafcass have now issued helpful guidance on the topic but to have a definitive definition by statute would make the situation clearer for all concerned, as well as having the effect of giving an unequivocal warning to a would-be manipulator parent”.

Melanie Hartley, partner at Ridley and Hall Legal Limited adds:

“Many parents have no idea what PA is or that they are potentially causing or being subjected to it. PA is a form of emotional and psychological abuse and can be presented to the court as such. If the definition was introduced it would improve knowledge but I also fear that it would be used as an accusation when there may be other underlying reasons for a child to become emotionally detached to a parent. I therefore consider that the work Cafcass is doing and potential seeking psychological evidence would be more appropriate.”


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