11th Dec 2017

Parental Alienation and Divorce

By Daniel Coombes

In this blog Family Law in Partnership director Daniel Coombes examines the new initiative from Cafcass aimed at dealing with parental alienation.

The Guardian recently ran an eye-catching headline: ”Divorcing parents could lose children if they try to turn them against partner”. The article explained how Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) is launching an initiative to help identify and address instances of “parental alienation”. If parents cannot agree on the arrangements for their children when the parents’ relationship breaks down, Cafcass can be invited to report to the court and make recommendations on the arrangements for the children. Although Cafcass’s recommendations are not binding, they usually carry weight with the court.

There is no definition of “parental alienation”. Cafcass’s description is “a broad spectrum of behaviours with varying impact”. It reports that while it is not clear how many cases are affected by parental alienation, there is general agreement that “alienating behaviours sit on a continuum of mild to severe with varying impact”.

Sadly, the end of a relationship can give rise to a degree of acrimony (sometimes severe). Fortunately, cases of extreme parental alienation before the courts are rare. However, less extreme alienating behaviours can be more common.

Essentially, parental alienation occurs when a child is “turned” against a parent so that the child rejects that parent. It can be devastating for the parent affected – and, often, their wider family too. Examples of such behaviour might include some or all of:

  1. Denigrating the other parent in front of the child;
  2. Not allowing the child to talk about the other parent;
  3. Not passing on telephone messages, letters, birthday and Christmas cards and gifts from the other parent to the child;
  4. Not passing on letters, cards or gifts from the child to the other parent;
  5. Telling the child, or leading the child to believe, that the other parent does not love them and is not interested in them;
  6. Limiting contact;
  7. Deliberately moving away;
  8. Threatening legal action as a means of trying to prevent the other parent from maintaining a relationship with the child;
  9. Making the child scared of the other parent; and
  10. Excluding the other parent from important activities, such as school events.

Parental alienation is considered a form of abuse. In 2013 a judge commented: “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”.

Alienating behaviours can be deliberate, malicious and obvious, but they can also be subtle (and, therefore, hard for an outsider – including Cafcass – to spot). Sometimes the parent who is alienating the child genuinely believes what they are telling the child and does not recognise the harm they may be doing.

I acted for a father whose ex-wife would talk to their child, often in front of my client, about how my client had left ‘them’ – despite my client frequently trying to get his ex to understand that although he had chosen to leave her and the marriage, he was not leaving his child. Fortunately, after lots of work and a significant degree of patience on my client’s part, we secured an outcome whereby the child was to spend an equal amount of time with both parents. That is not to say that this case involved significant parental alienation – it did not – but it illustrates that parental alienation can involve a spectrum of behaviours and shows how some parents lose sight of reality when going through a divorce or separation. The mother found it hard to differentiate between my client’s decision to leave her and his views of their child. Had her behaviour not been checked, perhaps it would have escalated. Fortunately, we had the help of a very experienced Independent Social Worker (ISW).

Cafcass’ new initiative on parental alienation is part of a wider project – the High Conflict Practice Pathway (HCPP) – which is designed to help Cafcass assess cases involving high conflict parental behaviours. It comes into force in Spring 2018. However, this does not stop parental alienation from being identified and addressed before then. Indeed, there was a reported case this year in which a judge felt that a child had been alienated against her father by the mother, and the judge ordered that the child should immediately move to live with the father. The mother was prohibited from attending the child’s school for a period of time to help the child settle into living with her father.

Sadly, sometimes issues of parental alienation can be overlooked. Families who are fortunate enough to be able to afford it can sometimes persuade the court to sanction the involvement of an ISW instead. These professionals (often former Cafcass officers) can frequently spend more time on a case than Cafcass are able to, getting to know the family and really understanding the issues at play. Although one might think that the courts would grant permission for an ISW to report in any case where a parent is prepared to pay for it, that is not the case. The court may refuse permission (a report by an ISW means potentially longer hearings, which in turn means more expense and further pressure on the already overburdened courts). If you think having an ISW will help in your case, it is very important that the correct application is made in the right way and at the right time.

Parental alienation is often not obvious or clear cut. Hopefully the new initiative adopted by Cafcass will help Cafcass to recognise and address instances of parental alienation when previously they might have missed it. The Guardian article reports Sarah Parsons, the assistant director of Cafcass, as saying:

“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.”

As is often the case, education may be key: trying to get the alienating parent to understand the harm they are doing to their child. However, when education is not working, the system and the courts need to step in to protect the children.

Daniel Coombes is a director at Family Law in Partnership. He handles a wide variety of family law issues, with particular emphasis on resolving financial matters following divorce and applications concerning children. He has particular experience of high net worth and international finance cases and complicated children cases, including those involving children born into same-sex families, parents with mental health issues and international relocation cases. Daniel is a trained mediator and collaborative family lawyer, as well as a determined litigator when required. Contact Daniel at E: hello@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000.