‘Parental alienation’ is increasingly being recognised in family courts for its significant effect on children’s feelings and wishes, making it difficult for the court to accurately ascertain what a child truly wants free from undue influence or parental pressure. The issue has been brought to the forefront of the public’s attention in recent years due to growing interest and concern from courts, the social work sector and other key participants in family proceedings.
What is parental alienation?
There is no single definition, but CAFCASS recognises parental alienation ‘when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.’ This may cause children to adapt their own behaviours and feelings so that they become attached to the alienating parent.
Parental alienation is one of a number of reasons why a child might start resisting spending time with a parent or rejecting them, so it is important other options such as domestic violence are adequately considered to ensure the child’s safety.
Some examples of parental alienation include:
- a parent constantly badmouthing or belittling the other parent;
- creating the impression the other parent does not like or love the child;
- forbidding discussions about the other parent;
- limiting contact with the other parent.
The impact that parental alienation can have has been described by CAFCASS as abusive and highly damaging. Mrs Justice Parker considered this further in 2014, stating that ‘I regard parental manipulation of children, of which I distressingly see an enormous amount, as exceptionally harmful. It distorts the child’s relationship not only with the parent but with the outside world.’
What should you do if you’re alleging parental alienation?
When a party is alleging parental alienation, it is likely they will be applying for a section 8 order under the Children Act 1989. This order could be a Child Arrangements Order, specifying who the child is to live with or have contact with, a Prohibited Steps Order, preventing either parent from doing certain things or making specific trips without the permission of the other parent, or a Specific Issue Order, determining a specific question in relation to the child.
When an application for a section 8 order is made, the court can order a section 7 report to be carried out. This is ordered by the court if they want further information about a child’s welfare and what will be in their best interests, assessing relevant risk factors. This section 7 report is carried out independently by a social worker or CAFCASS officer.
If parental alienation is alleged to the court and a section 7 report is ordered, the person alleging parental alienation must insist that the CAFCASS allocated officer (a family court advisor) has undertaken the training for identifying parental alienation and using the CAFCASS Toolkit on parental alienation effectively. This must have been done in the preceding 2 years to ensure the officer can properly apply the CAFCASS parental alienation toolkit to the case. This is essential as it enables children’s genuine voices to be heard so their true intentions can be ascertained by the court.