Following questions in parliament, our Head of Family Joanna Abrahams discusses Parental Alienation and Emotional Abuse

You will be forgiven for not logging religiously into parliament.uk. However, I made a concerted effort to so do further to a question asked by the Labour representative for South Shields, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck on 23 October 2018. She asked the Secretary of State for Education whether his department had made an assessment of the potential merits of adding parental alienation [PA] to the definition of emotional abuse in the “working together to safeguard children” guide.

The response was received one week later by Nadhim Zahawi, who holds the post of Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education) as follows: “We have not considered adding parental alienation to the definition of emotional abuse in ‘working together to safeguard children’. The definitions of different forms of abuse in that guidance are not intended to be exhaustive”

It would seem that this has, therefore, been closed down with yet again an inadequate answer.

There is a very specific reason for asking for parental alienation to be included in the definition of emotional abuse. The reason for this is that it is still not a recognised phenomena and, accordingly, those who are trying to suggest that it is happening can potentially find themselves in a situation in which they are told that it simply does not exist.

I myself have written an article asking why Parliament has not grasped the mettle on this and it is concerning that whilst debate has certainly occurred as regards reform, it has not progressed. Sir Oliver Heald QC MP, who at the time of his response on 15 March 2017 held the position of Minister of Justice, did make it clear that the Government was “considering” family justice matters with a view to “having a green paper” later that year. However, this has not happened. He rightly recognises that “like domestic abuse, it can intensify emotional harm to children”. However, what he goes on to say is that there are mechanisms in place “robustly” to address parental alienation when it features in cases before the Family Court.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case in my experience. In no way is it intended to bring any criticism of the very overloaded family Court system but, rather, the reality is that our judiciary are often presented with cases where PA has been embedded over a period of years and by the time an Application is brought to Court, a child is often entrenched.

The Court can have several options open to it to include a psychological report as to whether the alienated parent is able to promote the children’s time not only with the estranged parent but also with that person’s family, which is a point often overlooked. One must not forget that the welfare of the child is paramount – it trumps all, including the rights of the parents/grandparents. What of course should be considered are the rights of the child to have that relationship. My experience tells me that rarely are children moved by the Courts. The reason for this is the process and the reality of how long it takes. It can take a considerable amount of time for applications to progress, due to the enormous pressures on the judicial system as regards listings and then timescales where psychological assessments are carried out and then therapy started. Years of entrenched behaviour will not be undone by therapy overnight. In the meantime, children are simply getting older and, after the age of 14 (and I only speak from personal experience), I am finding that Courts are very reluctant to move children.

One of the key issues is the effect on the child of a removal, albeit the long-term benefits will nearly always outweigh the short-term disruption. Another issue is “holding” the child with the estranged parent. Transfer is (and indeed should be) only done as a last resort. Courts are sometimes reluctant to make the decision to move a child, even where the experts have clearly identified parental alienation, due to the practicalities of the matter.

We do not have any residential sites available on a private basis let alone state-funded, which would be ideal, where children could receive therapy with their estranged parent to rebuild their relationship following a mandatory order.

One of the key problems, of course, is funding applications to court and then funding experts. Legal Aid has been cut and there are no resources that I am aware of which offer financial support to litigants in person in order to pay for the services of experts. It is extremely important for the voice of the child to be heard but what is more debateable is whether that child’s voice is heavily influenced by one parent. Experts, including those from Cafcass, will certainly give their recommendations and views but there is nothing in place so far which defines parental alienation and so gives the Court a structure. Practitioners are immensely grateful to Cafcass for their Child Impact Assessment Framework, which collates guidance amongst its practitioners to assess abuse, including PA. It is very much welcomed but this should not allow Parliament to defer the question as to whether it can be defined in statute under the Children Act 1989.

When the Court is looking at the welfare of the child, it looks at a particular section of the Children Act (Section 1 (3) 1989), including the ability of each parent to respond to the needs of the child and whether that child has suffered any abuse. It is my very strong belief that a definition of parental alienation should be adapted to fit into that category so that there are clear guidelines. These would obviously be best drafted by mental health practitioners such as psychotherapists or psychologists.The cases where a child’s residence is transferred are still unusual enough so as to be reported and it is not uncommon for these decisions to be made by our top level judges after an appeal from the lower courts.This takes time and money and should only be considered as a last resort.

The issue is that the definition of emotional abuse is so open and wide, that the same facts could be before two different Judges with two different outcomes, which is why parental alienation really needs to be specifically defined.

I was, therefore, very gladdened to know that the matter was again being raised by Parliament, but am saddened and not surprised that a green paper has not progressed.

I spoke with my MP, Oliver Dowden, about this two years ago. He said he would address the subject but again it has gone by the wayside.

Both Mrs Lewell Black and Mr Zahawi referred to the ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children Guide’, put together by the Government, and it does indeed make provision for assessment of a child under the Children Act 1989; however, this only makes reference to local authority care and referrals and does not make reference to private children law proceedings (i.e. where the local authority is not involved in making any steps towards the child being removed to their care or away from their parents). There is a huge gap here for private children law, one which needs to be addressed. I cannot understand why it is being overlooked.

There is a debate which needs to be had given the long-term impacts of alienation primarily on the child but also on their estranged families, which is only now beginning to be understood.

If you need help regarding Parental Alienation, you can speak to Joanna on 0330 058 4012 or complete the form below.

Joanna Abrahams
Joanna Abrahams
Head of Family Law