One of my favourite television programmes at the moment is Silent Witness. In case you’re not aware, Silent Witnessis a drama series (now on to its 23rd series) about a team of forensic pathologists who through the wonders of science and technology go about solving various crimes and misdemeanours, played out over two night on BBC One.
In a recent episode entitled “Seven Times” shown for the first time on 20 January 2020, a woman’s body is found on railway tracks in London and a post-mortem reveals signs of domestic violence. During the drama of it all, the audience is taken away to a scene being played out before a supposed family judge, with the mother in the scene being assisted by a McKenzie friend, trying to explain why she hadn’t made her children available to their father to spend time with him, who it is assumed is the applicant and has then applied for a Child Arrangements Order to have contact then with them. In the background, pen in hand, quietly working away but with no speaking part, is one assumes the legal advisor for the father.
Before the scene starts, the audience is immediately sympathetic to the plight of the mother; the audience beforehand is shown scenes depicting the mother as having been a victim of domestic abuse and or violence, living in a refuge and with her two children and living in fear of what then might happen next. The villain of the scene, the judge, without much to do, there and then, makes an Order that provides for Social Services to ensure contact arrangements with the father do in fact take place, failing which, the mother will go to jail, because of a clear belief that the mother through “parental alienation” has had a part to play in the children’s unwillingness to see their father.
There is much to say about that scene and what then follows, but in many a Child Arrangement’s case, the issue of “parental alienation” is often pleaded by one parent or carer as an explanation as to why a child or children may not want or wish to spend time with another person.
When a child is resisting or refusing to spend time with a parent or carer post separation, there may be a number of reasons or causes for this such as to appropriately justify rejection; for example, where a child has been harmed by a parent or carer and so is frightened of them, because of domestic abuse or other harmful parenting, such as neglect or substance misuse but if appropriate justified rejection does not appear to be a factor as to why a child is resistant or refusing to spend time with another, then “parental alienation” may be in issue.
The term “parental alienation” has no single definition in law but Cafcass recognises parental alienation as “when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
If left unchallenged, alienating behaviour(s) can have a significant and detrimental impact upon the welfare of any child as the extreme case recently of Re A (Children : Parental alienation)  EWFC B56 (24 September 2019) demonstrates.
Briefly, this is a case whereby the father sought by way of court order a contact order (now a Child Arrangements Order) that would allow him to spend time with his children. The proceedings took place before the Family Court in Bristol and for the most part more recently by His Honour Judge Wildblood QC. The father had first applied for such an order as far back as the year 2011, which, since then, the Family Court had considered the application and issues over the course of at least 36 hearings and had the benefit of extensive professional input which included the children being separately represented by way of a Children’s Guardian and the subject children of public law proceedings, with the continued hope and expectation that by the end of the litigation, the father would be able to spend time meaningfully with the children.
As HHJ Wildblood QC recognised “No professional has suggested that there is anything about this father that renders him unsuited to have contact with his children; there have been consistent recommendations throughout the eight-year history of these proceedings from a wide spectrum of professionals that contact should take place between the father and the children. All professionals involved in this case have concluded that the mother has alienated the children from the0father. In an exceptional but accurate use of language [the expert] Dr Berelowitz said this: ‘the mother has done very much more than simply not promoting the children’s relationship with their father. Indeed, it is my impression that she has, at best, allowed the demonisation of the father and, at worst, actively encouraged this demonisation on the basis that it is right to do so… She is unable to perceive herself as being an agent or a cause.”
Highlighting the severity of the mother’s conduct, the Judge pointed out that “It is beyond doubt that, in the long-term, what has occurred within this family will cause these children significant and long-term emotional harm, even if they cannot understand that now. I have said it and so have all the experts in this case. I am afraid that the cause of that harm lies squarely with this mother; whatever may be her difficulties, she is an adult and a parent with parental responsibility for her children. That parental responsibility, which she shares with the father, requires her to act in the best interests of her children. It also required her to promote the relationship between these children and their father. She has failed to do so. She had adult choices to make; the choices that she made were bad ones and deeply harmful to the children.”
Unfortunately, the issue of parental alienation was identified too late in the case; the true extent of the alienation from the father had been underestimated and the damage to the children was said to have already been done such as to prevent then any significant change in arrangements being arrived at.
Whilst the case is undoubtedly an extreme example of the impact of parental alienation, it nevertheless is a stark reminder of the untold damage that can be caused if parental alienation isn’t dealt with quickly and head on; the Court doesn’t have a magic wand and has a limited range of Orders available to it to try and help bring about a change in circumstances, but as this case does show, even with the best will in the world, the Court doesn’t always have the answer.
If you are parent or carer who believes that parental alienation may be an on-going issue, please contact Andrew Wraith, Solicitor, at Prism Family law for more information on 0191 269 6871 or email Andrew.Wraith@prismfamilylaw.co.uk for help. Sadly from having acted for parents, carers and even children, we have experience of dealing with parental alienation and early intervention is essential to limit what damage might have already been caused and with a view to then bringing about a change in arrangements, if appropriate.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.