We do not judge who is right or wrong after a relationship breaks down. Our role is to establish the impact of what has happened on the child concerned, and to recommend to the courts what should be done to end or lessen any harmful impact.
For a long time now, those charged with looking after children’s welfare have been aware of parental alienation in family law proceedings. However, growing interest and concern among the public, the courts, the social work sector and other key stakeholders has brought it to the fore in recent years.
The definition of parental alienation itself as a concept in family court cases and its scale remain under debate, which means we do not have clear data as to its extent. Despite differing views on the terminology, there is general consensus that alienating behaviours sit on a continuum of mild to severe with varying impact.
Extreme examples of parental alienation are generally accepted as being a small percentage of the cases that come before the family court. More common are ‘hybrid’ or mixed cases which feature a combination of child and adult behaviours and attitudes leading to the child rejecting or resisting one parent.
Alienating behaviours can include: a parent constantly badmouthing or belittling the other; limiting contact; forbidding discussion about them; and creating the impression that the other parent dislikes or does not love the child. At the extreme end, it can become irrational contact denial – trying to force the child to reject the parent to make the ex-partner an ex-parent as well.
In our work, we try to help parents (and courts) understand the impact on the child and what they need to recover. This requires the support of both parents, who sometimes need help to exercise their parental responsibility
The starting point of our assessments is the identification of risk. This includes risk of emotional harm. At Cafcass we are developing a new framework, the High Conflict Practice Pathway (HCPP), to help our practitioners systematically assess cases which feature adult behaviours associated with high conflict. This includes but is not limited to parental alienation. We expect to launch this in spring 2018.
Even the most alienated child will hold strong views of their own in addition to those they may have been coached to hold. We are very clear that where a parent is being alienated, it is usually in the child’s best interests to use the authority of the court to restore the relationship. The court must carefully balance its decisions to ensure that both children and adults are kept safe, and ensure that children are able to maintain relationships with both parents where this is safe and in the child’s best interests.