Published: 15 August 2016
Parental alienation (PA) is the process by which one parent turns the thoughts of their child against the other parent, causing the child to unjustifiably reject the targeted parent. Alienation almost exclusively takes place in families where the parents have either separated or divorced and, while it can happen deliberately and/or inadvertently, it has devastating consequences for children and parents alike. Where it is legally recognised it is treated as a serious form of child abuse.
There has been some controversy over whether parental alienation exists and should exist as a distinct medical and legal concept. The American psychiatrist Richard Gardner published an article in 1985 arguing for the existence of Parental Alienation Syndrome – a medical disorder suffered by the child as a result of the actions of a parent. The American Psychiatric Association initially denied the existence of such a syndrome, and only in 2008 revised this position to having no official opinion on the matter. PAS, if it exists, is the symptom and must be distinguished from parental alienation itself which concerns the actions of the parent in alienating their child from the other parent.
In 2010 Brazil became the first country to provide a statutory definition and criminalise PA, and it has since been recognised by many courts in the USA and Canada. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the judiciary of England and Wales who have been very slow to recognise it.
For a long time the courts have been of the opinion that it is inherently in a child’s best interests to have contact with both of their parents if this is safe and practicable. However, in cases where (as is common) the parents live apart following a split or divorce, this inherently provides an ideal opportunity for PA to occur, especially where the child spends more time with one parent (for example to enable them to go to school) than the other. As PA gradually comes to the attention of the courts it may be that attitudes change, but progress is slow.
For claimants the biggest problem with establishing PA during proceedings is a lack of expert witnesses. In the High Court witnesses are more readily admitted than in the County Court, where reliance is often placed on CAFCASS (Children And Family Court Advisory and Support Service) officers. With relatively little known still known about PA it is unsurprising that many CAFCASS officers do not have the detailed expertise that a court requires, and that only a dedicated mental health practitioner is able to provide. Gaining access to the High Court and instructing such expert witnesses is costly and time consuming, denying many children the protection they deserve.
As time and case law progresses it is hoped that more awareness and recognition of PA will occur. It is beyond doubt that more needs to be done to raise awareness of PA, to speed up the process and protect children and victimised parents alike.