Some comments on dealing with parental alienation

family law

The Roman Emperor Tiberius may have said that power has no limits, but he clearly wasn’t referring to the family justice system. Judges may have been granted certain powers, but, as I explained here on Monday, those powers certainly have limits, in particular when it comes to dealing with unreasonable behaviour by parties to family proceedings.

In the post I gave as an example of such behaviour the situation whereby the parent with care of a child does everything in her (or his) power to alienate the other parent from the child. I used this as a particularly bad example of litigant behaviour, although the post was about other types of bad behaviour as well – behaviour which, whether by design or not, impedes or frustrates the other party.

Picking up on the parental alienation point, commenter ‘Paul’ raised a number of points in the comments section to the post, that I thought I would respond to in another post. Please note that this post is not intended to deal with the issue of parental alienation in any detail. Parental alienation is a huge and horrendous issue upon which an enormous amount has been written. Even if I was qualified to do so, I could not possibly do it justice in one post. Instead, I just thought it might be useful to make a few comments of my own upon the matters Paul has raised, partly to give my own view, and partly to put these important issues out for further discussion.

The first point I would like to make is that I had no intention in my earlier post to trivialise the issue of parental alienation, as I fear Paul may believe. However, there are various ‘shades’ of behaviour that these days fall under the banner of parental alienation, ranging from the very bad to the (apparently) quite trivial, and it is really the latter that I was referring to in particular in my post. Constant, niggling, doing-down of the other parent for example is, with the best will in the world, extremely difficult to deal with. What is the court to do? Even if it makes some sort of order restraining the parent with care, how does it police that order, without watching that parent 24 hours a day? Yes Paul, this kind of behaviour is sadly quite common, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

Up to a point Paul and I are both singing from the same hymn sheet, accepting that such behaviour is unacceptable. Where we differ is that Paul says that my response (and therefore that of the courts) is to shrug my shoulders and ‘carry on business as usual’, on the basis that we can’t do anything about the behaviour, so why bother? I am most certainly not saying that. I believe that once it has been ascertained that a parent is deliberately trying to alienate a child from the other parent the court should do everything it can to address and deal with that behaviour. Unfortunately (and this is my point – the root of the problem), dealing with that sort of behaviour is easier said than done. Firstly, it may already be too late – the alienation has happened, and there is nothing that can be done to reverse it. Secondly, if the behaviour is still continuing, how does the court find out about it? And thirdly, if the court does find out and the parent with care persists then the only sure way to stop the behaviour would be to remove the child from their care, but often this simply isn’t a practical possibility, or even if it is, it may still be considered to be contrary to the welfare of the child.

Paul says that the system cannot deal with alienation. I both agree and disagree. The system does attempt to deal with alienation (see for example this case back in March), and often it succeeds. On the other hand yes, there are sadly cases where all efforts to deal with it fail, because the child is so set against the alienated parent that it is simply impossible to reintroduce the parent into their life without causing the child serious emotional harm. But is there any other system that could guarantee success in all cases? I think not.

Which brings me to my last point. I believe Paul is suggesting at the end of his second comment that we should have a non-court based system to deal with family (or at least children) disputes. It is an idea that has been raised on many occasions over the years that I have been writing about family law, and it is easy to see its attraction. It doesn’t seem right that private family matters, in particular matters relating to children, are dealt with by courts of law. Surely, there must be an alternative? Well, there may be, but the problem is that sometimes parties have to be forced to do things they don’t want to do, and only courts (or court-like bodies) have the power under the law to force people to do those things. That is why we have a court-based family ‘justice’ system, and why other countries do too. By all means press for change and improvement, but any future system will have to address the issue of enforcement, and that will inevitably mean using the courts, or something very similar.

Photo by Croswald9 via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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22 comments

Stitchedup - September 7, 2017 at 4:46pm

The courts are only too eager to act when a man is accused of something trivial, like talking or texting. The whole issue of DV has no become trivialised by women’s aid trivial definitions. Yet when it comes to something as massive as the alienation of a parent and breach of contact orders the courts are powerless to act against women.
. It simply doesn’t wash anymore John.

Peter Davies - September 7, 2017 at 5:24pm

Anthony Douglas recently remarked that the alienation experience for children was, ‘…like living in a cult’. This is a good analogy because cult followers can be de-radicalised. In much the same way so can alienated children and it is both wrong and misleading of John and the courts to suggest that alienation may have gone beyond the point of no return. It is just a lazy excuse for doing nothing when conventional therapies are ineffective and fail. Sturge and Glasser recognised the uselessness of these approaches in 2000. Can anyone tell me of another instance where the solution is perceived as consigning an abused child to more of the same?
Reunification is now well documented. It can and does work but there is a paucity of expertise in CAFCASS and the courts to find solutions and learn from mistakes. Sadly, the recent cases John has commented on here reinforce this view. Important lessons are simply not being learned neither in the lower courts nor by commentators.
Since 2003 the caselaw contains a great deal of useful guidance. Sadly, it appears that few judges or practitioners in the lower courts especially, have taken the trouble to read it.
The courts are essential in alienation cases. For alienated families they represent the last resort and very last chance. ADR in these cases is as much use as a chocolate chisel.

John Bolch - September 7, 2017 at 5:34pm

Bolch’s Law (as further amended, or perhaps Bolch’s Law #2):
Whatever you say about children disputes, no matter how even-handed, commenters will turn the subject to their own agenda, that the system is biased against men.

Seriously - September 7, 2017 at 7:35pm

On this subject, i.e. PA , the vast majority of PA is committed by women and therefore the court lends itself to be biased against men .

anon - September 9, 2017 at 9:23pm

Plenty of women are also alienated from their children as well. Normally when domestic violence abusers obtain residence of the child. The abuser with the help of those who are ignorant of his tactics will then carry out his threat that she will never see her children again if she dares to leave him. Narcissism is not fully understood, by police forces, CAFCASS and the courts.

La Riviere - November 9, 2017 at 8:48am

Its really true what you said about how Narcissism, Domestic Abuse, Parental Alienation is still so not recognised and not taken seriously in family courts. As a mother I am going through it and I feel really helpless to sit and watch the father(perpetrator) alienating my son by chipping him away on a daily basis.

Stitchedup - September 7, 2017 at 8:03pm

If there’s a will there’s a way just about sums it up really John. The appears to bucket loads of will to act against men but not a drip to act against women. The stats tell the story.

Seriously - September 7, 2017 at 6:19pm

Parental Alienation is recognised as a criminal act some countries.
The harmful act , often done by a mentally and unwell parent, of turning a once loving child against an equally loving , and often the well parent, should not be countenanced in a society which prides itself in believing in justice.
So why is PA not viewed in this country as an act of criminality at the present time ?
This is despite the fact that alienation of a child by either parent against the other parent is viewed a child abuse by Cafcass, after all it is at best emotional abuse and coercive control (that was often present within the relationship and carries on post separation, see section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015), and at worst a psychopathology or criminal act .
The judiciary needs to be better educated , especially in lower courts . Your stance John would appear to be one of oh well let’s give up and tell the children that it’s their choice to decide what they want, especially older children. Do we not as a society force children to attend school even if it’s against their own wishes , do we not fine parents who fail to enforce school attendance? !
The judiciary all too often with PA will more than frequently continue to assign the child to th alienating parent rather than be bold and remove the child from the poor influences of that parent.
The child is viewed as having the “right ” to make such decisions when in fact the child’s decision to reject the non alienating and loving parent is based on abusive influences by a hostile alienator. .
This best interest of the child should never be with someone who uses them and abuses them ! We don’t allow that to happen with children in care, they are not allowed to determine their own future until they are over 18′! So why as a society do we allow those children outside of care to remain in an abusive relationship . We all know of adults who go back to an abusive partner , because they are too weak to leave , they are aligned to them . In the case of children they revert back to a state of infertile psychological splitting through no fault of their own.
The child’s welfare should be the overall no1 priority, should be above their ascertainable wishes , especially indoctrinated ones . Very long term psychological damage is done if children remain with an alienating parent.
A fair and just judiciary should prefer to protect children, should prefer to never reward injustice. This is regardless of the difficulties of putting matters right .
The child has been deceived at a time when he/she is extremely vulnerable to negative influences in regard to the absent parent.
It is the parent that does not practice emotional abuse , rather than the alienator who is capable of acting in the best interests of the child by never alienating that child against anyone . Allowing the child to develop in life with self worth and stop the cycle, which is often generational, of shunning and coercive control .

Paul - September 7, 2017 at 6:45pm

I like this new approach to the blog where questions are raised and you respond. This is very much in the best spirit of Blogging. Its far far better than throwing out a comment and observing the aftermath. Not just because you have been kind enough to respond to me. Im not so vien. We may fundimentally disagree but we can still be civil and debate. Gentelmanly conduct no less.
All in one statement you have managed to say that the courts are woafully inequiped to enforce law an at the same time that any future system would have to depend on the courts for enforcement, there is some delicious irrony in their somewhere lol.
The waoful inadiquacy of the courts to enforce seems very much at the heart of this one.
What good is putting this man in jail ultimatly going to do to the family and the kids? The man is going to be royally alienated by the time he leaves prison. Is enforcing blind obediance so important that we dont worry about what harm is done?
It is going to render him unemployable for a start.
Using measures like jail in family situations is disproportionate and counter productive I would say. In most cases. I don’t advocate jailing alienatimg women either. Jail is the punishment for crime and criminals not mummys and daddies. This is a resounding reason why a noncourt based system is ultimatly need.
Big point to make where I massively disagree with you.
ITS NEVER TOO LATE TO DEAL WITH ALIENATION. To say its too late to deal with alienation is a kop out statement. Its like saying its too hard or expensive to fix so why bother. No psycologist would ever come to that conclussion. At their heart a child always wants their parents. The parents always want their kids. Their os always a possability to reconciliate. ALWAYS.
There were two major studies done in the US where a reversal of custody was used to reverse the effects of alienation. They were both the most successful treatments.
Knowing that. Do you think British courts use the option of a reversal of custody enough ?
I would argue that British courts avoid it because of the old fassioned mummys parent the best attitude.
Wandering off point why are new measures of identifying and treating alienation not been commissioned in the uk. Why is our system not trying to evolve and meet this challenge ?
Unfortunatly John I fear its because of legal professionals like yourself (not forgotten you have retired) who are inflexible or content with what they are doing. Not open to new ways of working.

Paul Apreda - September 8, 2017 at 9:23am

I agree wholeheartedly with Paul about the change of approach from John. This is to be warmly welcomed.

John Smith - September 7, 2017 at 11:48pm

What is wrong with some of the blokes who make these comments? Of course we are all concerned (including some of professionals) with the way things can go in the family courts so why ruin a good point by playing gender politics? Why assume mothers get residency and alienate poor fathers who are all perfect and non- abusive! Some mothers get residency and some fathers get residency. Both sexes can be alienators, abusive, corercive, stalkers or have personality disorders.

Of course it plays out differently depending upon whether or not it is a man or woman who is the abuser and whether or not the professionals have inadvertently handed the children over to the abusive parent or not.

In this day and age men get residency as easily as women. Abusers can be resident or non-resident parent.

Children should never be used as hostages by any parent and so surely we should be having serious debates not just rants about how to find new ways of improving the system. Quite right that its not good enough to just shrug and give up. John you need to give us agruments based on research papers on psychology, stalking corercive control, hostage like situations, cognative bias, etc etc. not just say its hard…. everything in life is hard… doesnt stop the can do people from inventing new ways forward… if we all shrugged our shoulders, slavery would still be acceptable, so would hanging and sending people steeling food to australia, along with children working in mines and factories….

Paul - September 8, 2017 at 11:23am

Well John Smith. Its very straight forward. I know I am in no way abusive. Im clean living. No drug or alcohol problems. I work and I have been a committed father to my children. I had a clean criminal record upto thr point where my expartner decided to alienate me from my kids.
I have been falsely convicted of harassment. I over turned this at the crown coutt. I have been alienated from my children and have not seen them in 3 years.
I have never harmed or threatened a woman in my life. Goes against everything I beleive. There is NO evidence that I have.
But because I did not pay for the ‘assistance’ of a soliciter in my final hearing for the princely sum of £32-34000 pounds which I was quoted the court still managed to reach a verdict of ‘no contact’ except birthday cards.
The term ‘abussive’ is banded about like confetti. Today with the current legisation in place you can get anyone convicted by liberally using the term ‘abussive’
Because women are incentivised to make allegations of ‘abuse’ real perpatrators are not be reached. Your criminalising 10 in the hope you will get one. Its not acceptible.
My pressumption of innocence was completly by passed. I was assumed guilty and told to prove my innocence. This is happening to hundreds of men up and down the UK.

Stitchedup - September 8, 2017 at 4:40pm

Ditto, our stories are almost identical. Apart from some details, e.g. I was convicted for talking to my ex hence in breach of a dodgy non mol. The courts actively contribute towards parental alienation through heavy handed treatment of divorcing/separating men, treating them as a mortal threat to women and children… The destruction of men’s lifes is just collateral damage in the eyes of the courts.

Paul - September 9, 2017 at 8:27pm

Im about sick of it mate to be honest. Im about ready to ignore the no contact court order and just go an see my kids.
Whats the differnce between been locked in a cell or having no money (CSA) in a capitalist society ?
There is no differnce at all. You have no freedom. If they want to persue this course of injustice then lets let it run its natural course an they can jail me for nothing.
If the trials I experienced in s’bro are anything to go by I will be in good company an probably surounded by blokes who have done sweet fxxk all. So screw it. Im off to jail.

anon - September 9, 2017 at 9:47pm

No you can’t get anyone locked up for just calling them abusive. On the contrary the police are constantly failing victims of abuse.. I doubt if you will be interested but it takes 5 times on average asking for professional help , before any is given.
[Link removed – See moderation policy]
LJ Wall said some years ago that a man who could be violent to the mother could not be considered a good father.
That said Court orders should be obeyed, if not the whole system is pointless. I really cannot on the whole see it being the child refusing contact, without adult input stopping them or encouraging them to say no.. After all, we all as children had to visit boring relatives, we may have moaned but we went. I don’t think that most children visiting their non resident parent would class them as boring as an afternoon spent with an aged uncle or aunt.

Paul - September 11, 2017 at 1:48pm

If the system is mad. Then only madmen will follow it. Your working on old information. Police are failing hundreds of DV victims is a strap line from the 90’s most likely this is what has caused this mess. Now they will charge you based on an allegation. The courts do not listen to evidence and you cannot cross examine your accuser. I have spoken to hundreds with experience of this new femanist backlash. The DV statistics have gone through the roof because women who claim DV get free legal aid.
The majority of DV claims are false. Gaining leverage over an ex in custody disputes. Nobody will say it out loud but we now know for a fact women are blatently LYING and making false DV accusations. We also have something called ‘victim oriented policing’ so accusations are always trrated as fact and NEVER scrutinised for truth.
Take nothing away from real victims. DV is awful. You are right men who hit women are not fit to be fathers.

Yvie - September 8, 2017 at 7:35am

I agree with John that alienation can be difficult for anyone to deal with including the Courts. In some forms it can be a subtle denigration of the character of the other parent over a period of years, which gradually wears down the child until he adopts the same opinion. Inevitably it becomes one parent is always right and the other parent is always wrong. A determined alienator will also erode the precious time that the child spends with the other parent by continually texting the child and disrupting their activities. An example of this, as in my son’s case, my ex dil and her husband were texting my grandson to come home early as they had bought him the latest game for the xbox. This is despite a clearly defined shared residence order. They would justify this behaviour by claiming it was the child’s choice as he is now 13. This seems to be the age when alienators start to increase their activities, as the Courts tend to adopt a wishes and feelings of the child attitude.

Paul - September 8, 2017 at 12:02pm

I disagree Yvie. I think Alienation can be dealt with effectively. We know alot about it now. I just feel like their is a collective lack of will to deal with the problem. I think the potential expense of dealing with it is stopping courts from doing anything.
For a start the threat of reversal of residency would be much more effective than the threat of prison.
A change of residency is the very last thing an Alienator would want. So if you said to a potential or suspected ‘Alienator’ you must make sure your kids see their father X amount of days a month. If you fail to do that or the children show any level of reluctance or anmimosity towards the father we the court would have to investigate this and would consider moving the children to the fathers care perminantly. I think that would carry more weight than the threat of jail.
Of course this only works if the courts are prepared to go through with it.

Paul Apreda - September 8, 2017 at 9:42am

Some excellent points raised in this discussion. PA is technicallly illegal in the UK under s66 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 where psychological abuse has been criminalised by extending the provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. I have no idea whether any prosecutions have yet taken place under that legislation naming PA however.
The correlation around gender is clear but I understand that some find that problematic. The impact of PA on parents impacts most commonly on the excluded or marginalised parent. We know that c90% + of ‘primary carers’ are mothers – so the correlation is straightforward around gender. Professor nick Bala also stated that his caseload represented around 83% of alienated parents being male.
PA is in some ways similar to DV – in that there are claims that it impacts disproprotionately on one gender than another. I think that is important to recognise – but I doubt whether many advocates for fathers would wish to adopt the parallel position that is being taught by SafeLives, Women’s Aid and others around DV being a result of the ‘Patriachy’ and a ’cause and consequence of gender inequality.
In terms of what can be done – which to be fair is I believe John’s original point – I feel that the Family Justice system is culpable. We have made specific and detailed proposals for a Practice Direction specifically on PA. This would address the problems often cited in judgements in the Higher Courts that by the time the case reaches there it is often too late.
I do appreciate that PA – as John mentions – can cover a spectrum of behaviours from very mild to extreme and that this inevitably creates problems for Courts in identifying and addressing the issue. In that respect I think it is also helpful to see PA in a similar light to DV and learn from the approaches being adopted there eg Fact Finding hearings, and the ways in which the alienating parent might be treated in a smilar way to the abusive parent when PD12J is finally published.

Paul - September 8, 2017 at 11:37am

Technically illegal does not mean anything Paul. Investigation has become financially unsustainable to the police so if a crime is ‘difficult’ to prove or the likely hood of sustaining a conviction is reguarded as small then the police or CPS will take no action. Essentially they cherry pick crimes.
This is why these horrendous information notices came from. They don’t have to investigate anything. If they don’t investigate their is a good chance they will get it wrong.
Its a cheap fix to police budget issues.
They are wrong. On many levels.
If John would accept my challenge to check the statistics to see if their is a gender bias. We could lay the matter to rest. I know there is gender bias. Ive seen it in action.
A probation officer said to me.
”The problem with domestic violence is men”
If thats not showing bias then I don’t know what is.
Femanists wanted equality. We won’t acheive that until we have it in the court room.

Peter Davies - September 8, 2017 at 5:00pm

Hi Paul.
On the face of it s.66 looks like a step forward but I’ve been unable to find evidence of a single prosecution under this Act. Compare and contrast this with the application and early prosecutions under s 76. The reasons are simple. Terms like psychological injury and suffering are not defined, neither in the Act nor the explanatory notes. At para 261 the explanatory notes are unhelpful and vague:

‘261. Subsection (3) makes it explicit on the face of section 1 what is already implicit, namely that the section 1 offence applies regardless of whether the suffering or injury caused to a child as a result of one or more acts of abuse or neglect was physical or psychological in nature. ‘

Without proper definition the terms are not much use to anyone other than for their placebo effect. Unlike, s.76, the cps have had very little (if anything) to say about s.66. Section 76 has monopolised media coverage and public attention and, as you know, does not apply to those under 16 who are claimed to be protected by s.66!

Paul - September 9, 2017 at 8:14pm

They have ‘grudgingly brought in legislation to deal with very hard to prove psycological harm and manipulation. But they have not trained or retrained judges and courts to apply these new fandagled charges into every day court cases. If a litigant goes to the expense of bringing along an ‘expert witness’ to talk the court through the reasons why this law might apply in the case they will ‘grudgingly’ entertain the idea. But the are very warry of increasing the nessesity for ‘expert witnesses’ or ‘psycological’ expertese in every case.
You can be very sure courts have powers they will not entertain. They won’t entertain these new ideas until there is some kind of financial insentive to do so. Just a hunch 😉 We might see an increase in use when older judges step down an new judges step forward. But I don’t believe court officials are trained retrospectively.

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