Parental Alienation: the new CAFCASS Guidance and the new Assessment.

Parental alienation is a form of psychological abuse against both the child and the rejected parent.  It takes place where one parent intentionally or unintentionally negatively influences the child’s view of the other parent. Nazmun Ismail looks at the new guidance issued to address the nebulous and troubling issue.

Parental alienation can have devastating consequences.

One of the difficulties is that there is no universally accepted definition of the term.  There can be varying degrees of parental alienation from mild to severe and can include the following common indicators:

  • A parent constantly bad-mouthing, belittling or being negative about the other parent
  • Limiting contact with the other parent
  • Forbidding or discouraging discussion about the other parent
  • Creating the impression that the other parent dislikes or does not love the child
  • Creating resentment in the child for the other parent
  • Not correcting the child from talking negatively about the other parent, or the other parent’s family or pets
  • Allowing the child to make decisions about contact
  • Downplaying the value of the other parent’s relationship with the child
  • Asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent
  • Using the child as a messenger
  • Not correcting the bad behaviour of the child towards the other parent
  • Escalating fears about the other parent

In October 2018, CAFCASS issued guidance which provides that it recognises parental alienation as being ‘when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent’.

There is now specific guidance available to CAFCASS officers who are responsible for reporting to the court on a suspected parental alienation case within family proceedings.  The guidance is referred to as the Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF). The service says that CIAF is a structured framework that sets out how children may experience parental separation and how this can be understood and assessed by CAFCASS to inform better outcomes for children and they would have been be expected to have been trained by March 2019.

For some parents who have experienced permanent estrangement, the guidance may not go far enough, however the guidelines do demonstrate CAFCASS’s commitment to tackling parental alienation cases which is thought to be increasing.

The guidance explains how CAFCASS seeks to deal with parental alienation which can be helpfully summarised as follows :

  1. The starting point of the assessment is the identification of risk of harm.
  2. The risk of harm includes emotional harm to the child if he/she is exposed to parental alienation behaviour.
  3. In preparing an assessment for the court, the CAFCASS officer will need to take into account of the risk factors, evidence-based assessments, diversity issues and the child’s resilience and vulnerabilities.  

The Guidance has been welcomed by many practitioners and it is heartening to read that CAFCASS are implementing a much-needed solution and a more defined approach to tackling this increasing problem.  

It is not yet clear how this will transpose itself into the everyday application before the courts, but in a relatively recent case, Mr Justice Williams considered wide-ranging issues, including submissions in respect of parental alienation. RE v MP (Appeal: Termination of Contact) [2019] EWHC 132 (Fam) brought to the surface the real problems in respect of the legal funding of such cases. Both parties were represented pro bono at the appeal. If parental alienation is to be properly dealt with then in my view proper funding for such cases will be essential. Not only by ensuring that Legal Aid is available, but also to ensure that appropriate funds are available for reports to be obtained and for the difficult solutions to be found in securing the right outcome for the child at the centre of the dispute.

Too many children have been damaged in the past by problems with funding such cases which causes delay. Judge’s cannot do these cases on their own. They need the help and input of advocates.  This case was an example in which the mother had made repeated allegations of physical abuse by the father. The Judge at first instance had made clear findings that the father had not caused physical or emotional abuse. The Judge had also found that the mother had not told the truth and had primed her son to make false allegations. The Judge found that the mother was implacably hostile to contact and had alienated the son from his father. On appeal Williams J concluded that indirect contact alone and a S91(14) CA 1989 order was the wrong decision. He said that the combined benefits of facilitating the re-establishment of contact and addressing the mother’s capacity ought to have led to the conclusion that further enquiries were required to address those issues.

It was held that the court at first instance should not have proceeded to a final determination that there should be no contact when there were still potential steps that could be taken to promote contact.

In my view, the CAFCASS guidance is a good start. Much more needs to be done. Not least  for there to be proper funding of such cases. Too many children and families miss out on relationships with the non-custodial parents and indeed with grandparents. Human beings are social animals.

To deny children the opportunity to see their families when parental alienation is used is a breach of those basic human rights.  

Central Chambers has a family team with experience in representing applicants and respondents in cases with elements of parental alientation.

If you would like to instruct Nazmun Ismail or another member of the family team, please do not hesitate in contacting the family clerks by clicking here or by calling on 0161 236 1133.