Parental alienation refers to a process in which a parent, commonly the one with the day-to-day care duties for the child, acts or speaks in a way without legitimate justification that causes the child to not want to maintain a relationship with the other parent.

The legal and practical issues arising from parental alienation have come under review in recent years, with many sharing the opinion that it is “a form of child abuse that should be dealt with like any other form of neglect or abuse”* and should be treated as a criminal offence.

Unfortunately, parental alienation is a concern amongst many separating families, and the court is increasingly having to tackle the issue and take effective action.

Although the recent judgement of Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568 provides for a good working definition of parental alienation, and a useful warning to practitioners on the impact delayed proceedings will have on parental alienation being further ingrained and too late to reverse, the case of Re H (Parental Alienation) [2019] EWCH 2723 (Fam) is useful in highlighting the trauma children can suffer from being alienated from a parent, and the drastic measures the Court will take to ensure that a child’s welfare interests are met.

The case of Re H, involved an application made by the father of a 12 year old boy for a change of residence on the basis that his mother was demonstrating alienating behaviours towards the father.

The parents of the child had been separated for many years, and up until early 2018, the child had enjoyed regular contact with his father and his paternal family. However, since the parent’s separation in 2007, there were continuous court proceedings in respect of the child, and many attempts by the mother to frustrate the father’s contact with the child, including making allegations of domestic abuse against the father, that were dismissed.

In and around May 2018, direct contact with the father stopped, and it became apparent from the dramatic change in the child’s messages to his father that he was reflecting the mother’s conflictual relationship with the father, and was prioritising her needs above his own.

Upon hearing the evidence, including that of Dr Braier, an expert in the field of parental alienation, the Hon Mr Justice Keehan found that the mother had alienated the child from his father and accepted the child was “triangulated within his parents conflictual relationship” and that “therapeutic intervention aimed at restoring his relationship with his father whilst in the care of his mother was ill advised”.

On this basis, Justice Keehan made a child arrangements order for a change of residence, and placed a three month embargo on the mother’s direct contact. Although Justice Keehan recognised that a change of residence would cause the child distress, this, in comparison to the trauma he was suffering from the alienation of his father, would be of short duration.

In his judgement, Justice Keehan recognised the traumas and harm children suffer as a result of alienation and deemed that if the child’s alienation from his father continued, this could damage his mental and emotional wellbeing, including among other behavioural issues such as:

  • Poor self-esteem or inflated self-confidence;
  • An inability to form meaningful and positive relationships;
  • Depression and anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and
  • Identify diffusion or identity crises.

In her evidence, the expert witness Dr Braier expressed her concern for the need for experienced practitioners with specialist training to take on cases in “the area of implacable hostility and alienation”. As such, the court was critical of the social worker, who had no experience of cases involving alienation, and called the s.37 report “woefully inadequate”. Furthermore, the NYAS Caseworker was criticised for giving “no consideration at all of the adverse role of the mother…or the extent to which the mother had alienated the child against the father”.

The case of Re H demonstrates the need for practitioners to be live to t he issue of parental alienation, and the repercussions it can have on a child, if left undetected. Not only does Re H highlight the need to carefully consider the facts of each case where parental alienation may be an issue, but also the need to gather expert opinion from a trained professional, early on in the proceedings. Practitioners must be mindful to resolve any obstruction of contact with the view and hope that if addressed early enough, any further psychological damage to the child may be prevented.