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Parental Alienation

Louise Barretto's picture

Sometimes, if the children have experienced domestic abuse and high conflict between their parents they will align themselves with one parent, often expressing reluctance to spend time with the other parent. It is thought that this happens when the children have divided loyalties and find it easier to “split”. This is believed to occur as the child’s protection mechanism kicks in to try and avoid further conflict. Parental Alienation can occur when the child is psychologically manipulated by one parent against the other.

The courts have a duty to try everything possible to enable children to have a relationship with both their parents after separation unless it is not safe for them.

When a child refuses to go willingly to see the other parent, professional psychologists or psychiatrists are sometimes engaged to establish the root of that reluctance, and they may conclude that it is the behaviour of the parent with care that has consciously or subconsciously “alienated” the child from the absent parent. In some cases it will be obvious and intentional behaviour that leads to this reluctance. Those are the less complex cases. Where it is unintended and subconscious, things are rather more complex.

There have been many papers written about this subject and yet it remains one of the most difficult for our courts to resolve satisfactorily. There are really only a limited number of approaches that a court can take when faced with a true parental alienation scenario. The first is to make orders for contact, try and enforce them, and as an absolute last resort make an order that the child lives with the “absent” or “alienated” parent. The second approach involves therapy for the parents, the whole family and the child, usually with psychologists or psychiatrists.

Where there has been domestic abuse (by the absent parent) of which the children are aware, is the parent with care to blame for the children’s attitude towards the absent parent? I think not. Both parents need to take responsibility for the consequences caused by their behaviour and casting blame does not solve anything. My view is that of a solicitor dealing with these types of cases, and no doubt those better qualified in child psychology will say that I am over simplifying things.

Regardless of how the psychologists approach the therapy, either by revisiting the past, or looking forward, it has to be right that the therapeutic approach is the preferred one.

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Louise Barretto's picture

Louise is a partner in our Family Team and a solicitor specialising in all aspects of family law, with a particular emphasis on complex financial matters, including those involving business assets and those with an international element.

She is dual qualified in England and in South Africa. Although she now practices solely in England, she deals with many cases which have a South African connection.  She has  been called upon to assist as an expert witness on English divorce law in the High Court of South Africa.