As part of our review of the Scottish child law consultation, our latest blog deals with the topic of turning a child against a parent. This is more commonly referred to as parental alienation, and we are increasingly seeing the issue of parental alienation being raised in the context of negotiations or court proceedings concerning children.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for one parent to feel that the other parent is attempting to distance them from their child. Examples of parental alienation can include:
- Parents talking negatively about the other parent to or around the child;
- A parent restricting contact with seemingly no justification;
- One parent forbidding a child to talk about their other parent, or creating the impression that they do not want to talk about the other parent;
- Allowing a child to think that their other parent dislikes or does not love them.
With reference to my colleague Sally’s blog on Parental Rights and Responsibilities last week (PRRs), parents have a responsibility to support, encourage and facilitate contact (where appropriate of course) with the other parent. If a parent acts in a way as described above, it could be argued that they are failing in that responsibility.
Where parental alienation is alleged, the impact on a child of being placed under such pressure is the primary concern of the court. The consultation draws our attention to research which suggests that the negative impact of being placed in such a position can have on children can include mental health disorders, a decline in academic performance, and at its most extreme, suicide. Of course if a parent perceives that their child is being turned against them this could have a negative impact upon their health too, and some account should be taken of this.
The consultation seeks opinions on whether the Government ought to take action to try and stop parental alienation. The answer to this seems simple: yes.
At the moment the court can make any order it feels would be in the best interests of the child. For example, if the court was satisfied that a parent who a child resides with is alienating the other parent to the child’s detriment, the court may decide that (especially where a child is younger) to change the child’s residence. However, disrupting the status quo when it comes to the care arrangements for children is not done lightly by a court. The most common outcome that we see, even where there is a fairly clear agenda from the parent with whom the child lives seeking to destabilise a child’s relationship with the other parent, is for the court to impose contact orders. Contact orders can be invaluable in preserving a relationship between parent and child that might otherwise have been lost, but they are not a perfect answer. Such orders give the other parent the chance to “debunk” the messages coming from the alienating parent, but can prove insufficient in disrupting long advocated negative messages.
It must be acknowledged that there are certainly cases where parental alienation is suggested, and proves unfounded. Unfortunately, in day to day practice it has become something of a “buzz word” and it is saddening to see parental alienation becoming a fashionable allegation to throw at a parent who is not prepared to simply capitulate on any contact sought, even if they have very good, child centred reasons for doing so.
To assist the courts in making decisions where parental alienation is a factor, the consultation suggests that additional welfare checklists could be implemented for courts to consider when granting an order in relation to a child (for contact, residence, or otherwise). Further specific training for child welfare reporters is also suggested, and it is of note that most reporters are also solicitors. Both of these seem to be sensible suggestions.
That said, as the impact of parental alienation on children is often psychological, in the absence of a professional opinion, it must be difficult for reporters to make recommendations and for courts to make orders. After all, solicitors and sheriffs are not medical professionals. If parental alienation is going to be a factor in the court’s decision, then surely we firstly have to be sure that that is in fact what is happening to a particular child?
Accordingly, in addition to the recommendations in the report, I consider that the involvement of a clinical psychologist (who would make an assessment for the court as to the impact of the parent’s behaviour on the child) is often necessary. In amending the legislation, it is my hope that the Government will allow the courts greater remit to actively encourage the involvement of clinical psychologists in appropriate cases from the outset.
The information and opinions contained in this blog are for information only. They are not intended to constitute advice and should not be relied upon or considered as a replacement for advice. Before acting on any of the information contained in this blog, please seek specific advice from Gilson Gray.