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The damaging effect of parental alienation

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It’s been likened to a ‘nuclear weapon’ that can be employed by a parent who is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent the other parent from having contact* with their child(ren). ‘Parental alienation’ is one of the biggest topics in the debate over child contact, regularly raised as an issue in proceedings concerning arrangements for children following the separation of their parents.

Obviously, such a debate needs to be fully informed. It is therefore extremely welcome that Cafcass Cymru, the Welsh ‘branch’ of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), has just published a review of research and case law on the subject. The review was commissioned by Cafcass Cymru to provide an evidence base to guide their practice, and was written by a team in ‘Cascade’, the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre at Cardiff University.

One of the issues with ‘parental alienation’ is that there is no universally accepted definition of the term. It can, for example, be used to cover just cases where the ‘custodial’ parent has willfully turned the child against the other parent.

On the other hand, it can be used to cover any case in which the child does not wish to see the other parent, without necessarily any ‘coaching’ from the custodial parent. The review adopts the following definition:
“…unwarranted rejection of the alienated parent by the child, whose alliance with the alienating parent is characterised by extreme negativity towards the alienated parent. This happens when the actions of the alienating parent (deliberate or unintentional), adversely affect the relationship with the alienated parent.”

Note the words “deliberate or unintentional”. Parental alienation is often used as a label with which to demonise the alienating parent. However, sometimes their actions are not motivated by any desire to shut the other parent out of the child’s life.

Anyway, to the review. It begins with a summary of the relevant law, which might be very useful for anyone involved in a case in which the issue of parental alienation has been raised, or indeed anyone researching the subject themselves. Interestingly, and despite the impression one might gain by reading about parental alienation elsewhere, the review finds that: “Nothing in the published judgments suggests that alienation has become more common in England and Wales in recent years.”

Moving on, the review then explains its method, which it describes as “a rapid review approach”. This means that, due to time constraints, the review comprised searches of databases for literature and cases in which parental alienation was mentioned. Obviously, such a review may have limitations.

We then get to the meat of the review, looking firstly at the research found, and then at the cases uncovered by the searches. As to the latter, the review includes helpful lists of cases in which claims of parental alienation was unsuccessful, and of cases in which alienation was identified.

The review then sets out its conclusions. It found that the evidence base for parental alienation was very limited, because of a lack of “robust empirical studies”. This was partly because the term itself is contested, with no clear definition, and partly because the research literature is dominated by a small number of authors who tend to hold polarised views. As to case law, the review found that:

“Reported court judgments emphasise a proactive approach to ensuring that children have continuing contact with their non-resident parent. Where allegations or issues of alienation arise, early determination of the facts is seen as the essential factor in achieving the best outcome for the child.”

The review ends with a list of ‘key implications for practice’, including that: “Good practice in intractable contact disputes needs to include clear processes to investigate and analyse reasons where a child is him or herself refusing or resisting contact” and, lastly (but significantly), that: “There appears to be some misinformation in the media and amongst pressure groups on this topic”. Quite.

*I am using the old term ‘contact’ for reasons of simplicity. It has, of course, been replaced by the concept of ‘spending time with’ a parent, under a child arrangements order.

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, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers.

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  1. DD says:

    Many years ago I was alienated from my father by my mother, it was fairly straight forward, she refused contact, the court acted so slowly, that in between time every time his name was mentioned, there was a derogatory remark and when I asked if I could see him I was told he didn’t want to see me. Ultimately, as a child believes his mother, this is accepted as the truth. Job done. Forty five years on and nothing within the courts/CAFCASS has improved. I wonder how many children have lost contact with their fathers in those years, due to the slowness and ineptitude of our family courts. There are many people who should hold their heads in shame.

  2. Dr Grumpy says:

    If only CAFCASS FCA’s could recognise PAS even when it is so obvious! I put together a catalogue of acts by my ex over my kids. I even gave them a 17 point PAS scoring system as used in the Canadian Family Courts and they still failed to spot it!
    What is the point of a FCA advising that in their opinion a child has not been the subject of PAS when they haven’t had any experience or training in the recognition of PAS!

  3. AllyMac says:

    There are so few published cases because most get stuck in the merry-go-round of the Family Court at District Judge level & their findings aren’t published. Most at this lower level of court use outdated gender roles & believe inept Cafcass officers who couldn’t spot early alienating behaviours if they were hit over the head with them! And older teenage alienated kids are totally ignored by the courts. Once they reach early teens, their verbalised opinions are written down but their reality of being abused is not heard or even looked for. Children & rejected parents are being totally let down & the mental health system (Camhs & adult services) are massively overstretched as a result. And don’t even get me started on the lack of awareness or action by Courts & Cafcass when male domestic abuse has taken place – appalling in this day & age.

  4. yvie says:

    My son had a shared residence order for his two boys,. Although my ex dil always refused to speak to my son, on the whole it seemed to work reasonably well. Alienation seemed to kick in, first with the older boy aged 15, when he informed his father he was the worst dad ever.. Prior to this he had an extremely happy relationship with his dad. Our second grandson continued to come as per the court order until the age of 13 when he abruptly stopped coming. He informed me around this time that he did not like his father, yet a few weeks prior to this he had said his dad was amazing. I have read in the literature that it is very unusual fort a previously loving child to quite suddenly stop loving a caring father, without the explicit intervention of a third party. I can only assume that this was the case. The timing I feel is because over the age of 13 or so, Courts do not intervene on the assumption that this is the wish of the child.

  5. Angela says:

    I see no value in this research. It hasn’t uncovered anything that wasn’t already known and it’s a bit bizarre that Cafcass Cymru would even publish this given that only a few short weeks ago both the Welsh Government and Cafcass Cymru acknowledged in front of the petition committee that PA is real and can cause emotional harm to children.

    It’s going to be Cafcass’ job to provide a definition and assessment criteria. Given it will be included in the next ICD and it is starting to recognised in the DSM… I suggest they get cracking instead of covering really old ground. In addition I understand from a knowledgeable source that the case law they uncovered was not a balanced set.

  6. Aaron Brown says:

    Unfortunately the system and bodies involved within the system makes parental alienation all too possible. I had an ‘expert’ telling me 2 weeks ago ‘Miss B (children’s mum) is positively promoting me (dad) to the children…..this week after youngest child’s 3rd birthday posts a video of child on social media then pleads with my best mate not too show me….doesn’t sound like someone who would be promoting me in a positive light to anyone let alone my children.

  7. Mr T says:

    It’s all rigged.

    Courts favour mothers hearsay. Social workers are predominately flexible jobs for single mothers. CAFCASS workers are flexible jobs for single mothers. Women’s Aid are flexible jobs for single mothers.

    How has nobody seen this and done anything about it?

    The courts are biased and they are not going to change the system because it makes far too much money. My child has been alienated for 9 months. They don’t care about her family courts are not about family or children or child abuse or false allegations of domestic abuse they’re all about money at the expense of abusing dads out of money and abusing children stopping them seeing their dads.

    Anything else is moot.

    It’s the crime of our time and it needs to stop ASAP too many kids over the generations (and god only knows how many it is now!) have been abused by not seeing both parents.

    It’s western societies epidemic. It’s causing generational mental health issues and also mental health issues with children. Read the news about non binary millenials and bad parenting. It’s right in front of everyone’s eyes they just don’t care. Apathy is the new trendy.

    • kalli says:

      Hi, mr t
      I agree with what your saying regarding the system, a big let down and there is absolutely no after care but believe me, it’s not only children getting manipulated against their fathers; it also happens to us mothers too and nothing can prepare you for the pain and the aftermath as the manipulation carries on well after the courts; as you watch from the outside your children grow into young adults.

      Never ending! The only experts in PAS are the ones who continue to live through the torture: if they survive it that is!

    • Aileen says:

      Wow perfect, you can feel the emotion. These, mainly, woman and I believe mainly for a more favourable division in divorce settlements, will do anything. If they can justify in their own heads the abuse they are doing to their very own for money gains they are capable of anything. I have experience this as the step mum. The ex wife was clever enough to turn her girls against me and not their dad.
      The first 5 years was a battle to see the kids, we basically had to have them whenever she said or she would take them away. As my partner would give in to her this ended up with us having them 5 days a week when I had two babies under 1 year old. She would phone the police to my house but still continue to send her children round. Quite bizarre. When she eventually came back for a consent order some 10 years later after leaving with 75k. Myself and my children living in the house was not what she wanted, a judge was more likely, after 10 years, to let my children stay until they were out of education. Hence the turning on me which meant dad (my partner ) turned on me too. Since I was the one doing his solicitor paper work and the reason he might need a more sizeable portion of the house we had lived in for 10 years. (That he bought, that when she left with 75k he had 30k equity.) So to remove me and my children had always been her plan, she has phoned the police to my address repeatedly for 10 years. Her daughter have lied, stolen, cut their half sister hair, ripped clothing, delete text message/emails and gone into our Facebook accounts, deleting important court documents. Eventually her daughter emitted to phoning her mum whom was phoning the police for no reason. Their dad was not allowed to ask any questions and he basically had to agree to everything they said or they wouldn’t see him again, this went on for about 6 month before dad gave in because he just wanted to see them. If anything went missing in the house when they stayed which was lots of stuff unfortunately, we were not allowed to look through their bags. They basically had free rain to do anything they wanted because they knew their dad wanted to see them more. She use to show her daughter text message although we have not been aloud her phone number for 6 years. She now shows them solicitor letters. But their dad still believe they have done nothing, despite the deleted emails missing items that never turn up, unbelievable bad excuses every single time they cancel, the drama every time they come, it is never just, we are coming up see you at the weekend and it all happens. There is alway always a drama.
      She is untouchable and it is disgusting!
      The law need to change. Ever child should have the right to see their parent, for so many reasons. Her two daughters are now cutting themselves, but they still rarely come down anymore, they believe their mum is a saint and protect her, even stating I’m not going to let you talk to my mum like that. (It’s like we’re coming after her house after 10 years and spending75k not the other way round) We use to have them 5 days a week until her eldest by another turn legal babysitting age. I notice the change just before they left nearly 6 years ago now, they didn’t even tell their dad they were moving 250miles away. Ss know as I have told them, but they don’t seem to care, they believe her phone calls to my house rather than the scares on her daughter legs. When will the laws see the damage. The obvious manipulation. Come on now!
      Ps I have also had to watch my partner become withdrawn and fundamentally removed from his family here right in front of him. He is unsure of his own truth, he is a grown man who’s children and ex have made him questioning his own judgment. He obviously blames me for the relationship with his daughter which is insulting as they were treated better than my own. This was a 10 year process by the mother, not doing anything in the first couple of years, portraying to, Dad, that she was a woman of her word. Ending every conversation with a nasty word about me causing issues. Making out she was earning well and not fraudulently claiming off the benefit system.
      This was the reason for the refusal of a consent order, apparently they didn’t need one and she continued to tell her children I was pathetic and causing issues, she actually filed a harassment order on me to stop me asking about a consent order. Even when I was proven right and she did come back for everything me and my partner had work for over 10 years, whilst she spent the lot on horses and got her self a council house before starting the proceedings. All possible with this fantastic court system. Thank you. We also did get a child consent order, she moved to Somerset a month later. Waste of time and money, again thanks.
      Every Christmas, birthday, father day we are given a days notice, sometime not even that, it is usually cancelled last minute and when they thought the final hearing had arrived they stated me as the reason they didn’t want to come anymore. I believe the only reason Ruth sent them down was to keep an eye on the house and to try and split me and their dad up for a greater portion of our asset. It is father day and they have just cancelled again for this weekend. Our final final hearing is in 2 weeks, hence the change of mind to come up one last time and to text all week that they might be able to come for father day. Oh no we can’t. 2 year marriage 1 year on the sofa apparently giving a dying woman her wedding day. I actually don’t believe that bit either now especially when you hear how she got her doctor to sign the insurance paper work. Should of been alarm bells ringing when she moved herself out with an insurance payout you helped her to get and carried on claiming every disability benefits she could, including a car, wasn’t dead after 15 years but apparently given 6 months to live, ummm. But still she is the honest one apparently, this is how brain washed someone can get from this.
      The manipulation started with the mother and now the children participated like it’s normal behaviour and they don’t care. They still hate me but for no reason as me and my daughter have asked. Apparently they don’t hate dad though lol yeahhh right! Just willing to delete enough court paper to make sure their mum gets all his/our money.
      I hope no one ever had to go through what this woman has put my kids myself and even her own kids through. They are self harming !!!!

  8. BillyO says:

    This is just another way that courts are failing children.
    The cost in time, stress and expense makes raising these allegations not worthwhile. Once again the system would slowly grind away with ridiculous processes.
    By the time anything has been ascertained the alienated parent has lost contact and the damage to the child is huge.
    Whether the alienation is deliberate or not it is still abuse and should be dealt with rapidly by the courts. Of course this doesn’t happen.

    I think any alienated parent would find Johns article insulting and condescending.
    However we have become to expect this writing style from one of the nations “top family law bloggers”.

    In my view the report was a total waste of money.
    Everyone knows that ots common for a parent with care to alienate a child from the other parent. To the point where the child feels he/she is letting the parent with care down if they don’t take sides.
    That in itself may not be full blown PAS but it is still child abuse.

  9. James Franklin says:

    Quote “One of the issues with ‘parental alienation’ is that there is no universally accepted definition of the term. It can, for example, be used to cover just cases where the ‘custodial’ parent has willfully turned the child against the other parent.”

    The definition should be clear and simple. ” The wilful, deliberate behaviour of a parent through deeds or words so as to block contact between the non-resident parent and thier child(ren). The actions may not be openly intented to create such alienation, but where they do Parental Alienation has occurred”

    Quote. “Moving on, the review then explains its method, which it describes as “a rapid review approach”. This means that, due to time constraints, the review comprised searches of databases for literature and cases in which parental alienation was mentioned. Obviously, such a review may have limitations.”

    May have limitations, are you serious? This is a waste to public money paying for meaningless nonsense. If I had ever turned in research that was ‘a rapid review response’ I would have been rightly reprimanded for such unprofessional and likely unethical works. That is a disgrace.

    Quote. “The review then sets out its conclusions. It found that the evidence base for parental alienation was very limited, because of a lack of “robust empirical studies”. This was partly because the term itself is contested, with no clear definition, and partly because the research literature is dominated by a small number of authors who tend to hold polarised views.”

    Seriously, of course it is polarised, it is emotive and anyone undertaking meaningful research will be seeing first hand the emotional distress this causes alienated parents and children. The “lack of robust empirical studies” is because most organisations in the UK which deal with such matters are institutionally anti-cancer due to social, political and instinctive bias. As a result attempts to conduct such research are blocked, lack sufficient funding or any conclusions have been ignored.

    Quote: “that: “There appears to be some misinformation in the media and amongst pressure groups on this topic”. Quite.”

    Again, seriously, any report on this subject that ends in such an insulting, blinkered, misinformed and unprofessional statement is clearly not worth the paper it is written on.

    Solicitors and the Family Court system can wax lyrical all they like about how unbiased they are, but the reality is hugely different. I appreciate those on the wrong end of any legal judgement have some bias in thier thinking, but the reality is in support of how poorly, mostly but not always, father’s are treated.

    The Samaritans estimate that anmually between 1000 and 1500 male suicides between the ages of 25-55 are the result of father’s being deliberately blocked from seeing thier children, yet the system, and the Government, do nothing, year in year out.

    Even if you take into account the fact that some may be justified in being kept from thier children, this will be a very small percentage of the total.

    There is an automatic assumption that woman make better parents, and whilst in some cases this may be accurate, it cannot be correct in every case, yet society persists under this myth.

    Under s.76 Serious Crime Act 2015 Parental Alienation is a crime if the authorities bother ready the law as it is written instead of with blinkered bias.

    I am doing an OU Law Degree at the moment because I was a victim of PA, but only after a Public Access barrister became involved and I was suddenly threatened continually with None Molestation orders for asking to see my children. He believed he was smarter than me, he felt he could use his legal knowledge and experience to bully me into agreeing no contact. Well I still have a job and his career is in tatters. I read the law, I explained, in detail, why I was not committing an offence, but that he was and if he continued I would take three actions.

    1. Raise a formal complaint of Harassment under s.2 Prevention from Harassment Act 1997 with the local Police.

    2. Raise a formal complaint of unprofessional behaviour with the Bar Standards Council

    3. Apply to the High Court to have him recused as my ex-partners legal counsel based on the above complaints and threats made in recorded phone calls and in letters.

    He answered 2hrs later that I was now threatening him and he would consider a None Molestation order against me to prevent direct contact by myself with him.

    He was arrested the following day, and within 9 weeks was convicted, removed as my ex’s lawyer and barred from working as an independant Barrister for 5yrs. He has to work as an aid to another and cannot represent clients in court for that time.

    You see people, the system may seem rigged against males, whether it’s intentional or accidental, but by staying calm, getting even and not angry, you can win.

    I have just returned from 6 days camping with my kids in Snowdonia, so don’t despair ladies and mostly gentlemen, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Think smartly and fight fire with fire because you can win.

  10. Jonny says:

    I believe that the term ‘unwarranted rejection’ perfectly summarises the situation that I have been in with my eldest son for the last 5 years (he’s now 19). Our relationship was very good until I had to take his Mum to court to get a contact order organised.. suddenly things changed dramatically and he stopped communicating with me almost over night.

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