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Parental alienation - "My ex is turning our children against me."

View profile for Karen Johnson
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Since 2014, the law that the court must take into account when considering child arrangements establishes a presumption that it is in a child’s best interests for their parents to be involved in their lives and upbringing, so long as it is safe. “Involvement” might be direct or indirect, and whilst it does not mean that the care arrangements should be shared exactly equally between the parents, it is also important to appreciate that there is no presumption in favour of mother or father, and that the specific arrangements are determined with regards to the best interests of the child.

As a result of this presumption, parents who want to spend time with their children are likely to find applications to the court resolving child arrangements to be considered very favourably, as long as there is not any risk of harm to the child. For example, the parent does not suffer with mental health issues, drug or alcohol problems, or anything that could be a cause of concern.

However, this does not guarantee a favourable outcome and very sadly there can be circumstances where despite having done nothing wrong, a court might consider that contact should be restricted or even that there should be no contact. Cases of this kind are likely to involve various issues and are also likely to involve concerns as to parental alienation.

When considering what child arrangements are in the child’s best interests, one of the factors the court must consider is the child’s wishes and feelings. One of the warning signs of parental alienation is when a child is resisting or refusing to spend time with their parent. Sometimes, the behaviour is justified, particularly if there has been domestic abuse or neglect. It is important to appreciate that a child is a person in their own right and will form their own opinions based upon their own experiences.

Sometimes, the child feels torn between their parents, for example, not wanting to upset the parent with whom they live by showing that they want to spend time with the other parent, or that the child sees how upset the parent they live with is, now they have separated, and does not want to leave them. This can cause difficulties but can usually be addressed by the parents recognising the child’s concerns and providing appropriate reassurances by acknowledging and reinforcing the importance of the child spending time with both parents.

However, sometimes the resistance is not justified and is a result of psychological manipulation by the other parent. This manipulation may take various guises but can include badmouthing or belittling the other parent, limiting contact or doing or saying things that suggest that the child is disliked or not loved by the other parent. One example might be where a parent has another child with a new partner and the ex-partner suggests to the child that they will be forgotten or replaced, and the new baby will be loved more.

In cases where parental alienation is suspected, urgent action should be taken, and if matters cannot be resolved swiftly by agreement, whether through negotiation or through mediation, then an application should be made to the court. The longer that the manipulation continues, the more harm can be caused and the more entrenched the child’s resistance may become. The court must be encouraged to robustly case manage the application. If allegations of domestic abuse are raised that would impact upon the court’s decision as to the contact arrangements if proved, then these should be determined early on as part of a fact finding hearing. The court is also likely to benefit from expert evidence as to risks to the child and how those risks might be managed. This could be through therapeutic intervention for both the child and parents, and will also require an assessment of the alienating parent as to their capacity to meet their child’s needs, and capacity to change.

In the event that it is considered that a child has been subjected to parental alienation, then the court must balance the risk that is posed to the child by establishing the risk to the child remaining in the care of a parent who has caused harm, and will continue to cause harm as a result of psychological manipulation. Cases such as this where the court makes an order for no contact are fortunately very rare as the court, quite rightly, will be slow to terminate the involvement of a parent in a child’s life and is expected to explore all possible options.

If you have concerns or difficulties in relation to child arrangements, and would like some expert advice, please do not hesitate to contact us. Our divorce and separation lawyers offer a free, no obligation 15 minute chat. I am based in our Colchester office and can be contacted on 01206 217305 or Alternatively, you can complete our online enquiry form.

Karen Johnson is an accredited specialist family solicitor with over 16 years’ experience in assisting clients address issues arising as a result of relationship breakdown.