Parental alienation is a question of fact, not diagnosis

Allegations of ‘parental alienation’ arise quite frequently as an issue in disputes between parents over arrangements for their children.

The most common scenario is when one parent is seeking contact with a child, who lives with the other parent. The parent seeking contact will allege that the other parent has alienated the child against them, in order to thwart a contact application.

The ascertainable wishes of the child is one of the factors to which the court must specifically have regard when deciding any question relating to them. So if the child expresses a clear wish not to see one parent that can have a significant bearing upon the outcome of the case.

But there can be some confusion as to what exactly is meant by the term ‘parental alienation’. Some, for example, consider it to be a diagnosable syndrome (‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’, or ‘PAS’), akin to a medical condition, rather than just a question of the behaviour of one of the parents, and the effect of that behaviour upon the relationship between the child and the other parent.

There is, in fact, no ‘official’ definition of parental alienation. However, Cafcass use the term ‘alienating behaviours’, which it defines as: “circumstances where there is an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of one parent (or carer) that have the potential or expressed intent to undermine or obstruct the child’s relationship with the other parent.”

And comments by the President of the Family Division in the course of a recent judgment have further clarified the matter.

The case related to the use of an unregulated psychologist as an expert on parental alienation. The Association of Clinical Psychologists (‘ACP-UK’) were a party, and in their skeleton argument they stated:

“Much like an allegation of domestic abuse; the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the Court to resolve and not a diagnosis that can or should be offered by a psychologist. For these purposes, the ACP-UK wishes to emphasise that “parental alienation” is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through, what are termed as, “alienating behaviours”. It is, fundamentally, a question of fact.”

The President stated that this paragraph deserves to be widely understood and, he strongly urged, accepted. He said:

“What is important, as with domestic abuse, is the particular behaviour that is found to have taken place within the individual family before the court, and the impact that that behaviour may have had on the relationship of a child with either or both of his/her parents. In this regard, the identification of ‘alienating behaviour’ should be the court’s focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label ‘parental alienation’ can be applied.”

Obviously, if the Court does find that a parent has alienated a child then this will have a significant bearing upon the outcome of the case, and could even result in a finding that the child’s welfare would be best served by them moving to live with the ‘alienated’ parent.

You can read the President’s full judgment here.

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