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Children caught in the middle: parental alienation and implacably hostile parents

Posted: 16/05/2017

The use of the term “implacably hostile” when describing a parent is not a recent development in the family courts. It is a phrase often used to describe extreme, negative behaviour exhibited by one parent to undermine a child’s relationship with the other.

Many separating parents struggle to come to terms with the new dynamics and mutual respect that co-parenting apart entails. Most will promote a child’s relationship with the other parent even if, at times, it is difficult to set aside their own feelings as an ex-partner. Being an implacably hostile parent is much more extreme than this: the term should only be applied to a parent who will do almost anything to frustrate a relationship between the child and their other parent.

What is parental alienation?

Implacably hostile situations can often result in parental alienation. Parental alienation describes a situation where a child has been deliberately manipulated, coerced or otherwise pressured to align themselves to one parent by the other. The impact on children has been recently highlighted by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) as highly damaging and abusive. Chief Executive Officer Anthony Douglas said: “I think the way you treat your children after a relationship has broken up is just as powerful a public health issue as smoking or drinking.”

So what does parental alienation look like on the ground? Strategies employed include one parent constantly criticising or belittling the other, preventing the child talking about the other parent, limiting contact, removing any presence of the other parent from the life of the child, promoting the idea that the other parent does not love the child or giving the impression that the child must choose between parents or be punished, by way of threats or by withdrawing  affection and attention. Parents describe situations where they feel their children have been brainwashed against them so that any positive memories of their relationship have been erased.

What can the courts do to help?

Parental alienation is a big issue: CAFCASS estimates that around 80% of the difficult disputes about children in court involve a child or children who are being subjected to parental alienation.

How can the courts spot and curb it? Historically, the courts have struggled with the issues of implacable hostility and parental alienation. In recent years, there has been growing judicial emphasis on hearing and exploring the “voice” and “wishes and feelings” of the child when making decisions about their welfare. Courts faced with a child who expresses resistance to contact should be alert to the possibilities of implacable hostility and parental alienation at play. Judges will explore the domestic situation underlying a child’s expressions to verify their reliability. This is particularly the case where the hostile parent tells the court that they are supportive of contact but that it is the child who is resistant, thereby misleading the court into thinking that the problem lies with the child, rather than the causative behaviour of the parent.

Robust judicial control and case management is key to ensuring that the relevant issues are explored so that the reality of the situation is understood. The expertise of CAFCASS officers and independent social workers who are alive to how these issues manifest in the wishes and feelings a conflicted child may express in proceedings are invaluable in delving into the heart of the matter. But is enough being done to prevent or deter such impactful behaviour?

Some countries have gone much further in recognising the problem: in the US, third parties are put in place to help restore relationships where children have been alienated from one parent and in other countries punishments for parental alienation range from fines to lengthy prison sentences.

Of course, prevention is always better than cure. If a parent feels that their relationship with their child is deteriorating because of the extreme behaviour of the other parent, then advice should be sought from a specialist family lawyer. Not only will they be able to advise legally, they will work with the parent to find a specialist in the complex area of parental alienation to offer practical support for the alienated parent and child.

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