There’s a lot of uncertainty when parents separate. There’s uncertainty for all sides, including the child/children of the parents.
It’s certainly not an easy process and there’s a lot to think about and agree on; where the children live, how much time they spend with each parent, and the list goes on.
Social workers who look after a child’s interests in the family court have now been given new guidelines to provide them with some more assistance with cases in which the child starts refusing to see one of their parents.
Under these new guidelines, social workers will now start to consider the possibility that a child has been purposely turned against one parent… the other parent being the driving force behind that.
This concept is known as ‘parental alienation’.
Karen Brookes, Chartered Legal Executive at our Barnsley office in the family law department, said: “parental alienation is when one party does their best or manages to turn a child against the other parent by badmouthing them or telling lies about them.”
How to deal with parental alienation
Professor Liz Trinder, from the University of Exeter, has done extensive research into cases involving a high level of conflict between the parents.
She believes that cases of parental alienation must be treated extremely carefully, because the courts do have a duty to consider the child’s best interests, and carefully listen to what the child says and how they feel.
However, this is where it gets more complicated…
If it’s a case of a child being brainwashed by one parent to dislike the other parent, it becomes terribly difficult to trust what the child is saying to the court. The child may not say how she or he actually feels.
Professor Trinder spoke of this issue: “So if you make an accusation of alienation, it almost automatically casts suspicion on anything the child might say.”
Supporters of parental alienation often insist that the transfer of care and residency should be done (literally) overnight, Prof Trinder said.
“So the child is removed from the alienating parent and placed with the so-called innocent parent, and the child won’t have any contact with the first parent.
“For me, that feels like child abuse,” she added.
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) said that it hopes their new guidelines will help social workers explore what is happening with both parents in more detail.
CAFCASS believe that this would be beneficial, and avoids just attributing blame to a certain party.
Karen Brookes also pointed out that, with the spread of the phrase ‘parental alienation’, it is becoming increasingly common for parents to make allegations which turn out to be false. In these cases, the child genuinely just doesn’t want to see the parent making the allegation, because they’re simply not a good parent.
“That is a lot more common than actual parental alienation,” Karen explained.
She also spoke of judges’ tendencies to threaten parents who try to stop the other parent seeing their child, by suggesting a change of residence.
However, this may not be the best solution for the child, Karen said: “In most circumstances, this is not practical because it is difficult to place a child with a parent who they haven’t seen for a long time and who they’ve been turned against.
“This is more likely to harm a child.”