Or: How do you resolve the problem of the alienated child?
The family courts are regularly criticised for failing to deal with the issue of parental alienation. Not only do they fail to deal with it, say the critics, but often they appear to be positively rewarding the ‘guilty’ parent. The recent case Q v R (intractable contact), however, demonstrates the difficulties that the courts have in resolving this awful problem.
Q v R concerned two boys, S and T, who are now aged twelve and eight. Their parents separated in 2011, the boys remaining with their mother. For a short time the boys had regular contact with their father, but difficulties arose in or around August 2012. A month later we get a telling glimpse of what is to come:
“In September 2012 T’s nursery made a referral to the local authority concerned that ‘mum appears blinkered and appears focused on dad and not letting him see the children’.”
In the following month the father applied for a contact order. Sadly, the parents have been involved in court proceedings ever since. There is too much to summarise all of the subsequent events here, but some of the most important ones were as follows:
- At the first hearing in December 2012 the judge ordered that the children should have staying contact with their father on alternate weekends. The contact only lasted for a month, the mother suspending it after reporting that she had overheard the children discuss which one of them the father hit hardest.
- The next month the judge ordered that contact between the boys and their father should be reinstated. Again, the mother stopped the contact about a month later.
- In April 2013 the judge again order that contact be reinstated, this time on a weekly supervised basis. In a rare hopeful moment, we are told that the contact that followed was “positive”, such that the social worker recommended a shared care arrangement, with the children spending alternate weeks with each parent.
- It will probably come as no surprise that the mother did not accept that recommendation. The sequence of the mother stopping contact and the court reinstating it continued.
- In September 2013 T alleged that the father had ‘strangled’ S. This allegation was repeated subsequently, although for a time the boys still clearly said that they wanted to see their father. That changed in around March 2014, when the boys refused to see him.
- Very significantly, in April 2014 S told a story at school about the time he saw his father smash his mother’s teeth out, and that he had been about seven at the time. This assault did happen in 2007, but S was only two at the time, and did not witness the assault in any event.
- In April 2014 the children’s guardian submitted his report which recommended the children have indirect contact only with their father.
- A final hearing of the father’s contact application took place in May 2014. The judge found that the children did not wish to see their father, and that this was their own view – the mother had not coached, brainwashed them or influenced them. He also said that both parents had chosen to submit their two boys to a ‘toxic atmosphere’. He ordered indirect contact only, although his order recited that “the Court expects direct contact to the father to be resumed within or soon after six months”.
- This did not happen, and in January 2015 the father applied to re-establish direct contact. A final hearing took place in March 2016, at which the parties agreed a contact plan which was to start with a lunch at Pizza Hut the next weekend and build up to overnight staying visits within six weeks.
- Some overnight contact did happen in April 2016, but this soon stopped, and the matter eventually went back to court, in May and June this year. The present judgment relates to that hearing, before Her Honour Judge Vincent.
The position of the parties was that the mother was clear that she wanted no order for contact. She said that the wishes of the children should be respected, and that she had not influenced them against their father – their wishes were based upon their own experiences of him. The father wanted contact to be re-established, asserting that the mother was fundamentally opposed to the idea of him seeing the children, and that for many years she had acted in a deliberate and manipulative way in order to frustrate any contact that happened. The position of the children’s guardian demonstrated the difficulties that HHJ Vincent faced:
“The guardian does consider that the mother has influenced the children in a number of different ways to hold a false belief system about their father, and that she is incapable of promoting any kind of relationship between them. The guardian regards the mother as falling seriously short in terms of her ability to exercise the responsibilities and duties of a parent. However, the guardian is of the view that, even if based on a false belief system, the boys’ views are genuinely held, and should be listened to and given weight. On this basis the guardian considers that the proceedings should be brought to an end and orders for indirect contact only be made.”
Further to this, HHJ Vincent had the benefit of a report from a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr Misch. He said that in his view the mother had repeatedly sabotaged contact, and he considered that the mother’s extremely negative views of the father were picked up by the children. However, he agreed with the view of the guardian that any order for contact would be very likely to repeat the same cycle as before – the children would then continue to be caught up in the parental dispute and the overall effect upon their well-being would be overwhelming negative.
HHJ Vincent made adverse findings regarding the mother, which she summarised as follows: “she has in my judgment failed her children by allowing and encouraging them to build up in their minds the idea that their father is a dangerous man and that they are not safe with him.”
Notwithstanding this, HHJ Vincent decided against re-establishing direct contact. She explained:
“After very careful consideration I have come to the conclusion with a very heavy heart that I should not force the boys to have contact against their wishes. My reasons are as follows:
(a) I have to have regard to the views of the very experienced children’s guardian and Dr Misch, both of whom advise me against this course of action. Both have come to their final recommendations after very careful consideration. Their opinions were based on sound evidence and their own robust professional assessments and I have no good reason to depart from their views;
(b) I am satisfied there is a real and significant risk of emotional harm to the boys in the ways described above if they are forced to see their father when they have consistently said they do not want to see him;
(c) There is a real and significant risk in this case that this is what I characterise as a ‘running into the road case’ by which I mean because the children have expressed such strong views that they do not wish to be with their father they might put themselves in harm’s way if made to see him against their wishes”.
HHJ Vincent did make an order for indirect contact with the boys, including writing to them six times a year and, as they get older, contact via phone, email and social media. She said of this:
“I appreciate that these suggestions are meagre and visit a grave injustice on both the father and the boys. I appreciate he may feel the mother who has been found to be at fault nonetheless has her way. I have however come to my conclusions after anxious and careful consideration and in the particular circumstances of the case I regret to say that this is the limited extent to which I am able to grant the father’s application, having regard at all times to the welfare of the boys as my paramount consideration.”
The full report of Q v R can be read here.