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.