The Development of Parental Alienation in the UK Family Law System

Intractable contact disputes are among the most difficult matters that come before the Family Courts and in most instances, the issue of parental alienation will be brought up by one party in such cases. It is only in the past five years that parental alienation has gained significant attention in the UK media and family law system. It remains highly controversial, with some experts arguing that parental alienation can be diagnosed and treated, just like any other ‘syndrome’ whilst others believe parental alienation is often used as a means to obscure domestic abuse.

parental alienation

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when a child persistently and unjustifiably vilifies and/or rejects one parent and this is partly or wholly due to the influence of the non-alienated parent.  The term Parental Alienation Syndrome was coined in 1985 by a child psychologist, Richard Gardner who provided the following definition:

“….the systematic denigration of the non-resident parent by the resident parent with the intent of alienating children against the non-resident parent. The pattern of PAS behaviour is common to some degree or other in all custody disputes.

Children who have been alienated will claim that it is their own decision to reject the non-resident parent. Once this happens, it could be several years before the non-resident parent will see their children again.”

In the UK, the early to mid- 2000s saw a small number of cases involving ‘political fathers’ (notably Fathers4Justice) arguing that mothers ‘poisoned’ their children’s minds against them, and as such the children had developed Parental Alienation Syndrome as per Dr. Garner’s research. 

Dr. Adrienne Barnett, in her article “A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales, comments on this period as one where:

“In response to strong representation from fathers’ rights groups and pre-father MPs, the political and legal terrain become populated with images of ‘obstinate’, gate-keeping mothers who were portrayed as the primary obstacle to contact. The issue of domestic abuse was transformed into one of ‘false allegations’ being made by mothers to frustrate contact and exclude fathers”.

However, in 2011, Dr. Kirk Weir, a highly respected expert child and adolescent child psychiatrist gave evidence in the case of Re S [2011] 1 FLR 1789. HHJ Bellamy summarised Dr. Weir’s evidence thus:

“There are children who show an extraordinary degree of animosity towards a parent with whom they once had a loving relationship. Most of these children will show some or all of [a cluster of psychological responses]. Within an individual child (and between children in the same family) the presence of the features can vary rapidly over time and place, but in their full manifestation are so surprising and unique as to be unforgettable. The proposed term “Alienation” applies only to the cluster of psychological responses in the child with no need to presume a deliberate campaign of denigration by one parent. There is now research data supporting a multifactorial aetiology for “Alienation” following parental separation, involving contributions from both parents and vulnerabilities within the child.'”

What is the stance today regarding parental alienation?

By 2016, parental alienation was firmly acknowledged by the legal profession with numerous articles and blogs on the topic being published by top Family Law Solicitors and Barristers. MPs followed suit, with Simon Danczuk leading a 2017 debate in the House of Commons where he referred to parental alienation as a form of child abuse.

In 2018, CAFCASS introduced guidance around identifying a range of reasons why a child might unjustifiably resist or refuse contact with a parent. It defines parental alienation as:

“When a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.’ It is one of a number of reasons why a child may reject or resist spending time with one parent post-separation. All potential risk factors, such as domestic abuse, must be adequately and safely considered, reduced or resolved before assessing the other case factors or reasons.”

The World Health Organisation in 2019 accepted the current version of ICD-11 which contains within it the index term parental alienation for the code QE.52 Caregiver-Child Relationship Problem. 

Parental alienation was clearly illustrated in the tragic case of Re A (Children) (Parental alienation) [2019] EWFC B56, where expert evidence showed that the mother’s campaign to alienate her children from their father resulted in the children’s memories regarding the paternal relationship becoming far removed from reality.  Judge Wildblood Q.C. concluded that the mother’s actions were “deeply harmful” and would cause significant and long-term harm to the children concerned. Certain professionals involved were also criticised for not identifying parental alienation swiftly enough, meaning that by the time intervention occurred the damage had already been done.

In summary

Although parental alienation is now treated as a serious matter by the Courts, it still has its critics. An abuser with a personality disorder such as narcissism or psychopathy may well try and claim parental alienation in order to continue to see their children. If such a claim was successful, the emotional, mental, and physical risk to the children involved is immense. Allegations for parental alienation should never be decided in isolation – it is vital to obtain a holistic picture of the family dynamics before any contact or residence orders are made.  Furthermore, let us not forget that although it is undoubtedly possible that a child, especially one who is vulnerable due to growing up in a dysfunctional family, can be ‘brainwashed’ into despising or being fearful of one parent, sometimes that child does not want a relationship with a parent for a very good reason.

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