Parental alienation: Why we need to protect the innocent victims of divorce

child divorce

By Richard Higham

Let’s be honest – no matter how civilised you try to make it, the process of divorce is never likely to be pleasant. Amicable, perhaps. Necessary, maybe. In some cases, certainly, a blessed relief. But not something you’d choose to go through voluntarily.

In many cases, of course, by the time divorce has been identified as the only viable solution, the relationship between the couple has become so toxic that any attempt at even a show of civility is largely futile.

But whilst it’s always better to be clear-headed and rational as you go about the business of dismantling your marriage, some couples have travelled so far beyond objective reasoning that they will do almost anything to punish each other for every emotional, physical and financial transgression, whether perceived or real.

In these cases, the stakes are raised to a new and potentially damaging level when there are children from the marriage who are affected by the divorce and they are used by one spouse as a weapon against the other.

This poisoning of children against one parent is formally known as parental alienation and it’s common enough in modern divorce proceedings to be of such significant concern that earlier this year the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) introduced measures to bring an end to the practice.

Under the provision of its High Conflict Practice Pathway (HCPP), Cafcass now provides a framework within which the risk of parental alienation and its negative impact on the child can be assessed and appropriate action taken, if necessary.

The HCPP guidelines, announced early in the New Year and expected to be implemented in the next few months, could mean that in extreme cases separated parents who manipulate their children against a former spouse could lose the right to contact with their child or risk having their child removed from their custody.

Parental alienation is by no means rife, but it is nevertheless estimated to be a contributing factor in 11-15% of divorces – equating to between 11,000 and 16,000 affected families.

Whilst most divorce and family lawyers across the UK have welcomed the move, there remains, as one might expect, some debate around exactly what tests will be used to determine whether parental alienation is an issue in any given situation.

Inevitably, some symptoms will be more apparent than others. A child’s sudden aversion to seeing a particular parent would be an obvious red flag, whilst alienation that triggers the slow erosion of a relationship between a child and a parent will be harder to spot.

It’s certainly true that in order for HCPP to be effective, the process that is ultimately adopted across the UK to determine evidence of parental alienation must be consistent.

As importantly, if not more so, is that education of divorcing parents must also have a role to play in eradicating a practice that has far-reaching consequences for the emotional wellbeing of children involved in a marriage break-up. There are many parents who will genuinely perceive their ex-spouse – or soon-to-be ex-spouse – to be a damaging influence on a child and who will consider steering that child away from its other parent to be in its best interests.

HCPP is a positive first step in reducing cases of parental alienation – but it will only be by having the right resources and working closely with the parents that divorce solicitors will be able to play their part in tackling the problem effectively.