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'Playing the Parental Alienation card': Abusive parents use the system to gain access to children

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Estranged fathers with an alleged or proven history of domestic abuse can use Parental Alienation claims to discredit mothers and gain parenting time with their children, a new study shows. 

Parental Alienation (PA) is recognised by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) as ‘when a child’s hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent’. 

A researcher at Brunel University London examined all 40 reported and published private family law judgments in England and Wales, from 2000 to 2019, in which parental alienation was raised. They found that PA has become part of a shrewd rhetoric in custody battles concerning children, including those who experienced domestic abuse. These cases may be the tip of the iceberg because the vast majority of private family law judgments are not published in the law reports.

Findings from those reviewed cases also showed mothers had little to no success when claiming PA, despite evidence that the fathers were abusive and controlling, suggesting a one-sided dimension to PA.

The research identified a pattern of abusive parents, usually the father, accusing the parent with custody of alienating the children against them. In some instances, this became grounds for transfers of residence of the child. The research also raises questions about the purpose and use of PA in private law proceedings in the family courts. 

“Domestic abuse perpetrated by ‘political’ and or ‘irrational’ fathers was generally condemned by the courts, and their claims of PA rejected. However, abuse by seemingly ‘normal’ fathers was frequently filtered out of the proceedings and they have been increasingly successful in PA claims,” said Dr Adrienne Barnett, who conducted the research. 

The study reveals that raising a PA claim dominates family law cases to the exclusion of all else. Allegations of domestic abuse are often not properly investigated and could even be viewed by courts and professionals as ‘evidence’ of PA.  

The research speculates fathers’ rights groups, like ‘Fathers4Justice’, contributed towards the increased use of PA in the courts, linking it with the image of the ‘hostile mother’. Mothers were expected to be enthusiastic and self-denying in encouraging contact with the father, whatever his behaviour might be. PA claims also make it harder for courts to consider other reasons why a child would reject their parent. 

“Playing the Parental Alienation card is proving more powerful than any other in silencing the voices of women and children resisting contact with abusive men. PA is not an equal counterpart to domestic abuse, it is a means of obscuring domestic abuse, and should be recognised as such,” said Dr Barnett. 

“We need to find other ways of talking about children’s welfare that recognise children’s interlinked vulnerability, agency and relationships before any further harm is done to them.” 

The work comes as part of a special issue of articles which focus on the challenges of PA. Dr Barnett and Prof Felicity Kaganas will be holding a two-day grant capture workshop on the 29-30 January 2020. Participants will include international academic researchers, barristers, solicitors, psychologists and charities such as Women’s Aid, Rights of Women, Barnardos, and Support Through Court. The investigation into the use of PA in the family courts is ongoing. 

“It's all very well to look at the reported cases in the study, but we really don't know what is going on in the thousands of cases in the lower courts. We need to know to what extent parental alienation is being alleged, whether it is justified, how it's being constructed and what its consequences are,” said Dr Barnett. 

The full study – A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales – was published in The Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 1.  

Reported by:

Simone McNichols-Thomas, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 265219
simone.mcnichols-thomas@brunel.ac.uk