New guidelines for difficult family disputes: tackling parental alienation.

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By Ruth Hawkins

When parents separate, arrangements for their children, can be hard to agree. It can be particularly hard where a child starts refusing to see their other parent.

This autumn, new guidance is being introduced to help with these cases. This will consider the possibility a child has been deliberately turned against one parent, by the other.

‘Parental alienation’, will be just one of the options the social workers (who work for CAFCASS, the Children and Families Court Advisory Service) who are sometimes appointed by the court, will consider.

It is a controversial issue.  There are undoubtedly many cases where parental alienation is suspected, sometimes proven in court, sometimes not proven and in some cases parental alienation allegations are shown to have been made for dubious reasons. It is also sometimes found to have occurred, not because of any overt behaviour by a parent, but sometimes for inadvertent or even unconscious reasons.

What is it? “Think of a child experiencing a separation, the mother or father bad mouthing, or withholding warmth and affection unless they agree with an argument,” says Sarah Parsons from CAFCASS.

“If it’s repeated it can have an invasive, intrusive effect on wellbeing. A child can think the only way to stay safe is to side with one parent and reject the other.” The recognition in the advice to CAFCASS workers does not mean other possibilities won’t be considered.

It is recognised that children might refuse to see a parent because of authoritarian or abusive behaviour from that parent, or because they feel naturally emotionally very attached to one parent.

Around 10% of separated parents have their child agreements made through the courts. Each year around 1,400 cases return to court in England seeking enforcement of contact orders.

The courts have a duty to consider the child’s best interests as their paramount concern, in any proceedings brought under the Children Act 1989, and its subsequent amendments.

Part of that means listening carefully to what children say themselves about their feelings.

The consequences of a finding of alienation can have a huge impact on a child.

The courts do have the power to make orders changing a child’s main residence, but this is rarely employed.

The domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid has also expressed concern this year that accusations of parental alienation may lead to a history of an abusive relationship not being given enough weight.

CAFCASS said it hopes its guidelines will help form a basis for its workers to explore what is happening with both parents, rather than attributing blame.

It is certainly a very difficult issue, and can be extremely difficult to get to the bottom of in a fair, child focussed way for the courts.

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