“Parental alienation”: A dangerous and harmful concept

A Safe blog by Jenny Birchall, Senior Research and Policy Officer at Women’s Aid

Over the last few years, the terms “parental alienation” and “alienating behaviour” have been used more and more – in the family courts, in children’s social work, on social media, and even in debates about the new domestic abuse bill.

But why is “alienation” such a dangerous term when it comes to domestic abuse?

While there are no robust empirical studies to back up the concept of “parental alienation”, and no reliable data on its prevalence,[i] there is, as Adrienne Barnett discusses in our Safe blog, a growing, and increasingly robust evidence base demonstrating the ways that allegations of alienation are used in the family courts to rebut, obscure and distract from allegations of domestic abuse. Put simply, when mothers raise concerns about whether contact between a perpetrator of domestic abuse and a child is safe, they are accused of attempting to “alienate” the child from the father. They are also accused of making false allegations of domestic or child abuse. Devastatingly, the results can be that children are forced into unsafe child contact with an abusive parent, or even removed from loving parents and placed with perpetrators of abuse.

The treatment I’ve had is very cruel. I’ve been punished for speaking about abuse, and I had my children used as a punishment. It’s horrifically painful to have your children taken in any circumstances, like going through a bereavement but they’re still alive. You don’t know how you can still exist. It’s as though we have no rights. We’ve been silenced” (Survivor’s testimony, 2018).

At Women’s Aid, we are hearing these stories more and more frequently. In 2018 we conducted research with Queen Mary University of London on domestic abuse and the family courts. The majority of survivors taking part in the project had either been accused of some form of “alienating behaviour”, or were worried that they would be, as they tried to negotiate safe child contact for their children. Most disturbingly, several of the women had lost all access to their children as a result of parental alienation allegations made by their abusive former partner.

“He denied the allegations and he claimed I was manipulative, bitter. He said it was parental alienation. He used the term a lot – he’s a clever man, he knew what to say, how to act” (Survivor’s testimony, 2018).

“An ‘expert witness’ was chosen by my ex’s solicitor. I later found out he says mothers have ‘false beliefs’ in all these cases, and runs workshops on ‘parental alienation syndrome’. On reading about this I realised this was the tactic used against me and is a catch 22 I had no chance to defend against” (Survivor’s testimony, 2018).

Since we published our research, we continue to hear from women in similar, impossible situations. Below are just a few recent examples from survivors. Unfortunately, these survivor stories are very common scenarios:

After experiencing coercive control, as well as psychological, sexual and financial abuse, one survivor was advised by her GP and IDVA to flee with police support and protection. The case was assessed as high risk and went to MARAC. The survivor had a lot of evidence of the abuse, including police reports, IDVA/MARAC letters, and GP notes. However, when she raised this in the family court, she was accused by the perpetrator and his legal team of “parental alienation”. She was also accused of being mentally unstable. She could not believe it when, at the end of the hearing, it was decided that contact between the children and father should be reinstated as soon as possible.

When one of her children threatened to kill themselves if she was forced to have any more contact with her abusive father, one survivor sought help from social services and the case went to the family court. However, the Cafcass officer’s report did not discuss the father’s abusive behaviour, or reflect the concerns and fears of the survivor and her daughter. Instead, it accused the survivor of “parental alienation”. The court agreed, and all were ordered to have therapy together.

Last year the Ministry of Justice expert panel’s report identified the detrimental effects of the “pro-contact” culture of the family courts, which sits alongside a culture of disbelief and victim-blaming around domestic abuse. One of the results of these interrelated cultures and beliefs is that there is so much focus on children having contact with both parents, that valid concerns about domestic abuse and child safety are minimised and put aside. The concept of “parental alienation” is one of the tools used to do this. The examples below show how this happens.

One survivor was taken to the family court by her perpetrator after he had been convicted of assault against her. She had also made complaints of rape against him. Despite the fact that the children had seen the assault and the rape, and the involvement of Children’s Services, the perpetrator was assessed as no risk to the children. The survivor pleaded with the court not to allow unsupervised access, especially as the perpetrator had a new girlfriend and the children were likely to witness and experience domestic abuse again. However, the judge ruled that the survivor was putting her own anxiety and fears onto the children, and that this was deemed parental alienation. The judge ruled that the children should be removed and placed in the care of the perpetrator. The survivor was only allowed minimal supervised contact with her children.

We also hear from survivors who have been accused of “parental alienation” after raising not only domestic abuse against themselves, but also serious abuse against their children.

Another survivor explained how, after she fled from her perpetrator, he made an application to the family court for child contact. Despite the fact that the police had been called due to domestic abuse, and Children’s Services had previously been involved with the family due to allegations that the father was sexually abusing his young child, the family court judge refused to allow a fact hearing to take place. The judge viewed the survivor’s concerns about her child’s safety as “parental alienation”. They ordered unsupervised, overnight contact and the survivor was instructed to make her child available.

After each court-ordered stay the child was left with bruising and injuries/soreness in their genital areas. The survivor again raised her concerns with the court but was ordered to not make any further allegations either to the court or any other professional. She was again was accused of parental alienation and as having mental health issues, despite the fact that she had never been assessed for or diagnosed with any mental health problems.

Finally, after irrefutable evidence of child abuse emerged, the perpetrator was arrested. A new application to the court was made in order to vary the order and stop unsupervised contact.

The concept of parental alienation is not only being used within the family court system. Worryingly, it has crept into debates around the domestic abuse bill – as members of the House of Lords have tried to include it in the first-ever statutory definition of domestic abuse in this new law. Whilst the government has rejected these calls, there is still a real risk that the phrase “alienating behaviours” will end up in guidance underpinning the bill. This risks legitimising a concept that is not rooted in any robust evidence, but which has devastating impacts on women and children experiencing abuse.

The voices of survivors clearly show why concepts around “alienation” are so dangerous in cases involving domestic abuse. Before accepting any of these concepts, all professionals involved in making decisions about child contact, and decision makers establishing legislation, policy and guidance, must be aware of the dangerous and horrific consequences that occur when domestic abuse allegations are met with those of parental alienation.[i] Doughty, J., Maxwell, N. and Slater, T. (2020) ‘Professional responses to ‘parental alienation’: research-informed practice’ in Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42(1); Meier, J. (2013) Parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation: A research review. National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women

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