Divorcing parents could be denied contact with their children if they try to turn them against their former partner, under a “groundbreaking” process being trialled by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).
The phenomenon where one parent poisons their child against the other is known as parental alienation, the ultimate aim of which is to persuade the child to permanently exclude that parent from their life.
Cafcass said it had recently realised parental alienation occurred in significant numbers of the 125,000 cases it dealt with each year.
Sarah Parsons, the assistant director of Cafcass, said: “We are increasingly recognising that parental alienation is a feature in many of our cases and have realised that it’s absolutely vital that we take the initiative. Our new approach is groundbreaking.”
The new approach will initially give parents the chance to change their behaviour with the help of intense therapy. Alienating parents who do not respond will not be allowed to have their children live with them.
In addition, contact between the parent and child could be restricted or refused for a number of months. In the most extreme cases, the alienating parent will be permanently banned from any contact with their child.
Parental alienation is estimated to be present in 11%-15% of divorces involving children, a figure thought to be increasing. Other research has found that about 1% of children and adolescents in North America experience parental alienation.
UK judges are increasingly recognising the phenomenon. One wrote about a case where she was forced to transfer residence to re-establish a relationship between a child and an alienated parent. “I regard parental manipulation of children, of which I distressingly see an enormous amount, as exceptionally harmful,” she said in her summary.
Parental alienation occurs on a spectrum from mild to extreme, all of which can be extremely damaging to the children involved. Experts admit they are only now beginning to understand the range of ways it manifests itself.
Parsons said: “We have reached a much clearer position on parental alienation recently, which we want to send a very clear, strong message about.
“The current, popular view of parental alienation is highly polarised and doesn’t recognise this spectrum. We want to reclaim the centre ground and develop a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of what’s going on.”
Parental alienation occurs almost exclusively when parents are separating or divorcing, particularly when legal action is involved. It is, however, different to the common acrimony between divorcing parents and is internationally recognised as a distinctive form of parental psychological abuse and family violence, undermining core principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN convention on the rights of the child.
In the US and Canada, “parenting coordinators” are ordered and supervised by courts to help restore relationships between parents and children identified as alienated. In Mexico and Brazil, alienating a child from a parent is a criminal act.
Until now, cases of parental alienation in the UK have relied on Cafcass caseworkers recognising incidents on a case-by-case basis. Many parents, however, say their experiences of alienation have been missed or compounded by the social work and family court system, often leading to permanent estrangement from their child.
From spring 2018, all frontline Cafcass caseworkers will be given a new set of guidelines called the high conflict pathway, which will itemise the steps social workers must take when dealing with cases of suspected alienation. The pathway will spell out exactly when children should be removed from the alienating parent and placed with the “target parent”.
Alongside the guidelines, Cafcass has developed a 12-week intense programme called positive parenting, designed to help the abusive parent put themselves in their child’s position, and give them skills to break their patterns of behaviour.
A trial of it will start shortly, with 50 high-conflict families being sought across the country. After an evaluation in spring, the programme will be rolled out nationwide.
If it does not work, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts will be brought in. If the alienating parent continues to perpetuate the abuse, however, contact with their child will be limited to supervised visits.
In extreme cases, care proceedings will be initiated and the parent will lose contact with their child. “Our priority, however, is to preserve the relationship with both parents,” Parsons said.
Jerry Karlin, the chair and managing trustee of Families Need Fathers, said Cafcass’s new approach was “very welcome news”.
“The demonising of a parent has long been recognised as damaging the child not only at the time of separation, but reaching into his or her adult life,” he said. “Parental alienation is identified as the single biggest issue among those who come to FNF seeking help.”
Case study – Robert (not his real name)
“I’ve lived through and witnessed the inexorable alienation of my older daughter over the past five years, which has culminated in complete loss of contact. I will not have seen or heard from her for three years this coming January. We had a fantastic, loving relationship for the first 12 years of her life.
“I know from what my younger daughter has told me that in numerous insidious and not so insidious ways, my ex-wife put an intolerable amount of stress on my eldest daughter. It eventually became too emotionally traumatic for her to see me. She eventually sent me a short email, saying she wanted to break off all contact with me. I’ve not heard from her since.
“The pain of being subject to parental alienation as a target parent is a truly soul-destroying thing to live through. In my darkest days, I can remember being out driving at night and thinking that maybe I just wouldn’t turn the wheel when I came to the bend with the high stone wall. This is a horrible form of child abuse that is struggling to get out from under the rock of prejudice and ignorance.”