Late on Friday The Guardian reported, under the headline ‘Divorcing parents could lose children if they try to turn them against partner’, that Cafcass is about to trial a “groundbreaking” process to prevent ‘parental alienation’. It was an eye-catching headline, and no doubt caught the attention of many with an interest in the family justice system, particularly fathers’ rights groups, who may have hopes that the process represents a new dawn for the system, at last tackling head on the scourge of parental alienation. I am not so sure, and I thought I would set out my thoughts on the report.
Before I go on I should say that I am only commenting upon the contents of the Guardian report. In particular, I have not read, or even seen, the draft Cafcass ‘High Conflict pathway’ guidelines that the report mentions. The guidelines will apparently itemise the steps which Cafcass caseworkers must take when dealing with cases of suspected alienation. I understand that they are expected to be published in February or March of next year.
The first point I wanted to make was the suggestion in the report that judges in this country have only recently begun to recognise the phenomenon of parental alienation. This is of course nonsense – judges been recognising the phenomenon for years, long before the term ‘parental alienation syndrome’ was coined back in the 1980s.
The main point I wanted to make, though, was about that headline. As I indicated, it no doubt sounds great to some, but just how realistic is it that children will be removed from parents found ‘guilty’ of parental alienation? Firstly, it is not of course up to Cafcasss whether they are removed, it is up to the courts. Cafcass can only advise the courts, and make recommendations. Secondly, whether or not there is evidence of parental alienation the courts are still governed by the principle that the welfare of the child is paramount – it may very well be that, even if there has been parental alienation it is still the case that the welfare of the child would best be served by remaining with the alienating parent. You simply cannot have a rule that says ‘if there has been parental alienation, the child will be removed’.
The same goes for the suggestion that ‘alienating’ parents will have their time with their children restricted, or even curtailed. Such things are up to the court, not Cafcass, and will be determined by reference to the welfare principle.
Another aspect of the welfare principle is that the parent is able to meet the child’s needs. In many cases, the ‘non-alienating’ parent (referred to in the report as the ‘target parent’) will simply not be in a position to look after the child. What happens then? The report mentions the possibility of care proceedings being instituted, but realistically how often will a child be taken into care because of parental alienation?
My very strong feeling is that the number of parents who have their children removed from them because they have been ‘guilty’ of parental alienation will be very small, and the number who will be stopped from having any contact with their children will again be a very small proportion of that number. In other words, much of this will amount to little more than bluff, hoping that the fear of ultimately having their children removed will be sufficient to bring ‘alienating’ parents into line.
But I am not entirely negative about all of this.
I like, for example, the idea of a “positive parenting programme”, an intense 12-week programme designed to help the abusive parent put themselves in their child’s position, and give them skills to break their patterns of behaviour. This could be an excellent addition to the court’s ‘toolbox’ of options to deal with parental alienation.
I also like the idea of a more nuanced understanding of the ‘spectrum’ of parental alienation that the report mentions. I clearly recall myself from my years practising that parental alienation took many forms. Some of these were so ‘minor’ that the term ‘parental alienation’ was never applied to them, but ‘minor’ ‘offences’ can add up, and ultimately have a similar result to the more extreme manifestations of parental alienation that we all know.
And despite my expectation that the ‘stick’ of removing children from ‘alienating’ parents will very rarely be applied, perhaps the new process will send out “a very clear, strong message” to parents, as Sarah Parsons, the assistant director of Cafcass, mentions in the report. If so, and if that message is heeded, then the process will have been a success.