parental alienation family law

Parental alienation occurs when one parent undermines the child’s relationship with the other parent, resulting in the child’s rejection of that other parent. The child’s rejection reflects the attitude of the alienating parent not the child’s own experience.

Parental alienation is emotionally damaging to children, with the harm often extending into adulthood, as well as being deeply frustrating for the other parent.

Common behaviours of an alienating parent include:

  • Sabotaging and interfering with communication between the child and the other parent
  • Making unilateral decisions in major areas regarding the child
  • Criticising and belittling the other parent in front of the child
  • Rejection of the other parent’s gifts and offers of help
  • Expressing hurt or anger if the child expresses positive feelings towards the other parent
  • Sharing details of separation with the child
  • Infringing on the other parent’s time with the child by scheduling activities or making excessive phone calls during that time

How do the Courts respond to parental alienation?

Since 2006 there has been a substantial rise in the number of cases with claims of alienation. However, less than half of these claims were substantiated, essentially due to the evidence being of the “he said, she said” nature, with no available independent evidence.

However, the Courts have sent a clear message that in cases where severe parental alienation is proven, residence may be reversed, even if such an Order contradicts a child’s express wishes.

In Irish & Michelle [2009] the Court held the children’s relationship with their father was being irreparably damaged. The reasons were varied but were predominantly directed at the mother and her reaction to the separation, the mother’s family and their encouragement of negativity by the children towards their father. The Court found it was unclear whether the mother’s behaviour was incidental to the alienation or otherwise, but the evidence clearly showed that the mother was incapable of repairing the damage caused. Despite being ordered by the Court to seek psychological support for the children, the mother failed to do so. The Court ordered that the children live with the father and spend time with, and communicate with, the mother half the school holidays and one weekend a month. The Court formed the view that the children’s views were orchestrated and that the children required psychological help that was only available in the care of the father.

In Wang & Dennison (No 2) [2009] the children alleged serious sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the father. The claims were unsubstantiated. The Court found that the mother had “purposely conditioned the children to believe they had been sexually abused by the father when they had not” and that the mother had done so “to cut the father out of the lives of the children”. Despite the findings, the Court ordered that the children live with the mother and spend no time with the father. The father could send letters to the children and see the children at their request. In this case, the views of the children were critical. The Court saw the children as self-assured adolescents who, if their views weren’t considered, were at great risk of self-harm.

In both the above cases the children did not wish to spend any time with the father and had threatened suicide if they were ordered to spend time with him. In both cases the Independent Children’s Lawyer supported the mother’s proposal that the children live with her and spend no time with the father.

Parental alienation has a negative effect on children. Often an alienating parent, usually because of mental health issues, will not respond rationally to Court Orders.

Most children desire a relationship with both parents.

Research indicates this is the case even where a parent-child relationship is abusive. Alienation leads to a loss of communication for a child with one parent and often their extended family. In circumstances where there are unfounded abuse allegations made by an alienating parent children may come to believe them.

What are the two main responses employed by the Court to respond to allegations of parental alienation?

Conflict reduction & resolution

Conflict reduction and resolution addresses underlying relationship issues and facilitates communication between each parent and their children. It involves mediation, counselling and post-separation parenting education.

This is considered the best approach for most cases but requires willingness by the parties to participate and engage meaningfully with the recommended programs and professional services.

Coercive legal responses

The Court may order that parties attend therapy and then bring the parties back in a set time period to review the progress. In severe alienation cases, the likelihood of positive outcomes for therapy is low. Often the remedy for violation of a counselling Order is not contempt, but change in residence. Contempt is punishment for non-compliance with a Court Order and may result in the contravening party being imprisoned. Contempt is reserved for serious instances of deliberate disobedience of Court Orders without reasonable excuse.

The Court may order that residence be reversed and that a child’s communication with the alienating parent be suspended for a period of time. However if the child is a teenager it is almost impossible to prevent communication with the alienating parent.

Alternatively, if litigation and communication with the other parent is putting too much stress on the child, a Court may order no communication with the other parent. In T and B [2006], a case characterised by high conflict and severe parental alienation, no communication or time was ordered for a father and his six year old daughter, despite alienation by the mother.

Determining which approach is best for a particular family depends on relationship dynamics, previous attempts at interventions and available community and individual resources.

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