The State of Parental Alienation in U.K. Courts

July 27, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Will wonders never cease? The Guardian newspaper has never been a friend to fathers or to reasoned discourse on issues plaguing family courts and the unfortunate parents and children who find themselves there. This article is different (The Guardian, 7/14/16). It’s a pretty sound piece on parental alienation. It gets the basics right and quotes calls for change in British courts. It quotes but a single loony PA denier only to rebut him in the next paragraph. All in all, well done.

Apparently, PA has become so endemic in British courts that the government has set up a pilot program to help children’s welfare professionals combat it.

Parental alienation – a phenomenon where one parent poisons their child against the other parent – has become such a feature of the most difficult family breakdowns that Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, is to offer targeted support for those affected following a government-funded intensive therapeutic pilot programme

The assistant director of Cafcass, Sarah Parsons, said: “Parental alienation is responsible for around 80% of the most intransigent cases that come before the family courts … We already train our social workers to recognise the issue, but this takes helping families experiencing it one step further.”

Parental alienation is estimated to be present in 11%-15% of divorces involving children, a figure that is thought to be increasing. Other research has found about 1% of children and adolescents in North America experience parental alienation.

If those numbers are even close to being accurate, they’re disturbing to say the least. The idea that as many as 15% of children of divorce are alienated is cause for alarm. Parental alienation, particularly in its worst forms, is clearly a form of child abuse. When a child – and particularly a young child – is told one parent doesn’t love it, is dangerous to it, is a criminal, abuses the other parent, etc. when those things aren’t true, the child is faced with a number of problems it’s likely to be unable to solve alone.

First, alienating parents are usually primary custodians. Only they have the time and opportunity to do the work of alienation. So the child immediately sees that its primary caregiver is bitterly opposed to the non-custodial parent. That means the child needs to take sides. All too often, taking sides is specifically demanded by the alienating parent. The threat – implicit or otherwise – is the loss of the love and protection by the primary parent. That’s usually too great a risk for the child to bear, so he/she complies and turns against the targeted parent. Such a betrayal of a loved and loving parent exacts a huge emotional toll on the child.

Also, when alienated, very young children enter a world in which their own observations are contradicted by the parent on whom they most depend for their well-being. They experience the non-custodial parent as loving and caring, but their primary parent demands that the child see him as dangerous, uncaring, a drunk or drug abuser, etc. If the child is of an age at which it can’t clearly distinguish fantasy from reality, the alienating parent’s narrative may become “true” in its eyes. But the sharp contradictions between that “truth” and the one it observes can create a kind of schizophrenia in which the unreal is real and the real unreal.

In short, particularly when it involves children under the age of about six, courts and children’s welfare workers must be prepared to put a stop to PA at the earliest sign.

Unfortunately, although rates of PA are high and may be rising, lawyers, judges and mental health professionals aren’t keeping up in their ability to recognize and deal with it.

Joanna Abrahams, head of family law at Setfords Solicitors, is one of only a limited number of lawyers in the UK who specialise in cases of parental alienation. She has seen a steady increase in cases in the past few years.

“Although awareness is increasing, I’m not convinced that judges or social workers have the training and exposure that enables them to identify parental alienation and act on it,” she said. “The only real chance a victim of parental alienation has to get their child back is to find a specialist solicitor who has the expertise to ask the court to order psychological assessments, directed therapy and, if necessary, a change of residence of the child back to the alienated parent.”

These are expensive interventions, however, and cuts to Legal Aid mean parental alienation is something only wealthier parents are likely to have recognised. She said it can cost as much as £50,000 to have parental alienation properly identified.

I’ve inveighed many times against courts’ failure to take timely action to stop PA. Often, by the time a judge gets around to figuring out what’s been happening, it’s too late. The child is by then so bitterly opposed to the other parent that therapy or a change of residence proves fruitless or even makes the alienation worse. Experts in the U.K. agree.

Karen Woodall, a specialist in parental alienation at the Family Separation Clinic, said there is a “lack of understanding in family courts, professionals and in family services in general”. Cases of severe parental alienation, she said, are rare but “absolutely terrifying”.

“We have a system that doesn’t do what needs to be done in these cases,” she added. “These cases go on for years, with the children getting more and more stuck. We should be applying differentiation at the start: is this rejection by the child justified or not? If not, intensive psychological help needs to be given immediately.”

When early intervention happens, we often see the children responding quickly and positively. After all, much of what an alienated child does is for the benefit of the alienator. That is, the child will pretend to hate the other parent just to mollify the alienator, but, when given a chance, will behave normally toward the targeted one.

The silver lining is that all specialists agree that children can recover very quickly, with the right help and, if necessary, separation from the alienating parent.

“I’ve seen it time and time again, even with children who have refused to see their alienated parent for as many as 10 years, or made allegations of horrific sexual abuse and even cannibalism,” said Woodall. “No matter what age the child is, if you put them back into a normal, family environment with the alienated parent, they ‘flip’ back to their former loving selves in an astonishingly short time.”

But when courts are too slow to act, the alienation can become permanent. The Guardian piece cites one alienated parent, Miriam.

Miriam, however, is losing hope that she will ever have a meaningful relationship with her son again. The criminal court dismissed the allegations of sexual assault, but after having no contact with his mother during those 592 days, her son will now only consent to supervised visits in a contact centre with his mother every six weeks.

“I have to be prepared for my ex-husband to tell my son that he doesn’t have to see me any more, and the visits to stop,” said Miriam. “My son has been so severely manipulated by his father that it may not be until he has his own children that he comes back to me. But in case he hasn’t come back by the time I die, I’ve put letters and videos for him alongside my will to tell him how much and how unconditionally I love him.

“I try to be hopeful,” she said. “But every night, I go to sleep crying.”

The court in her case failed her son and her.




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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