The ’nuclear option’, when it comes to intractable contact disputes, is to transfer the child’s residence from the parent denying contact to the parent seeking contact. The recent case of Re B (change of residence; parental alienation) is an example of the court using that option.
The judgment in Re B is quite long, and includes a huge amount of evidence from the parties, witnesses and professionals involved in the case. It would be quite impossible to summarise the entire judgment here, so I am just going to give a very brief outline.
The case concerned a nine year old girl, ‘IB’. Her parents lived together from 2004 and married in 2006. There are two older children of the family, but they were not directly involved in the case. The marriage broke down and the parents separated on the 13th September 2013 when, in the words of Her Honour Judge Gordon-Saker, the following incident occurred:
“IB got up, went into her parents’ room at about 6am. She wanted her father to read or play with her. He asked her to go back to bed. She stamped her feet, so he picked her up and put her into bed. She struggled and, at some point, her leg was scratched.”
Following this incident the parents argued. The father then went to work and when he got home the mother and the children had left.
IB has been the subject of court proceedings pretty well ever since. Initially the father sought contact with IB. Considerable efforts were made to make contact work, but these were hampered by the mother who, as Judge Gordon-Saker found, was alienating IB from her father in an attempt to stop all contact. In particular, she alleged that the incident in September 2013 had traumatised IB and made her afraid of her father. Judge Gordon-Saker found that this was not the case.
Eventually the father gave up on his application for contact and in August last year he applied for a change of residence. This judgment deals with that application.
As I said earlier, the judgment covers a huge amount of evidence. Critical, I think, was what was said by a psychologist who had assessed IB in the course of the contact proceedings, and reported in June 2015:
- He had found that IB was not traumatised. She had suffered emotional distress, but this resulted from everything that had happened since 13th September 2013, and not as a result of it. He went on to say:
“My opinion is that the distress and emotional disturbance that this child is experiencing as a result of having a relationship, and I suspect secure attachment, with her father eroded away and finding herself in a situation in which she feels she has no choice but to reject him and align herself with her mother.”
Judge Gordon-Saker said of this:
“A mother reading that could go one of two ways in my view. She could either think “I’ve got to do something to repair this” or she could think “If I carry on damaging this relationship, there will be no contact at all”. I regret that it is the second route that has been gone down by [the mother].”
- The psychologist also said:
“From a psychological perspective there is no reason why [the father] would not be able to meet IB’s needs. I would therefore say that unless [the mother] does demonstrate a dramatic sea change and start meeting IB’s needs by properly supporting her in re-establishing a proper relationship with her father then I would have no hesitation in suggesting and supporting a change of residence to the father…”
Judge Gordon-Saker made the following findings:
- “This child is continuing to suffer harm in her mother’s care. If I leave her in her mother’s care with no contact that will not change. She will continue to suffer harm. She knows her mother’s story is not right and the outcomes of parental alienation identified by [the psychologist] will come to pass. It seems to me there has to be change.”
- “The risks of harm from IB not seeing her father are very clear. She will not be allowed a meaningful relationship if she stays with her mother. She is not a happy child and her mother has not put her welfare first. Therefore, she simply will not change. [If she continues to have] her main home with her mother, this child will continue to suffer harm. Her mother has shown she does not have the ability or willingness to put her daughter’s needs first.”
- “There are risks in a move to the father. It is possible it will not work. But IB, in my judgment, deserves a chance to be happy again and to have a relationship with her father. All of the evidence tells me he can meet her needs, including the need for a relationship with her mother. I know she will suffer harm if she stays where she is.”
In the circumstances Judge Gordon-Saker made an order for the immediate transfer of residence to the father. She also made orders relating to IB’s contact with her mother, and approved a suggestion that the parents attend a family separation clinic, which can help them rebuild relationships.
I hope the above brief summary does justice to this case. Transferring residence is an extremely difficult issue, and anyone interested in it would do well to read the full judgment, which can be found here.