Who is most guilty of parental alienation, the custodial parent, usually the mother, or the access parent, usually the father?

Answer: In his Globe and Mail essay, Judge Harvey Brownstone writes, “We judges often see high conflict-cases where both parents badmouth each other to the children, placing them in conflicts of loyalty. Moreover, such conduct is not the exclusive domain of mothers or fathers; both engage in it.”  

What really matters is that parental alienation – when parents attempt to turn the child against the other parent by making negative, disparaging comments – in a sense, “brainwashing”- is extremely harmful, and in clear contradiction to the current, child-centred policies that make children our first priority, as encoded in Bill C-78, which received and passed its third and final reading in February, 2019. This new legislation officially replaces the terms child custody, custodial parent, and the idea of child custody and father’s rights or mother’s rights with “parenting orders,” referring to the parent who is given responsibility for the child’s well-being and with whom the child will live, and also replaces the older term, access, or access parent with “parenting time.”

The new bill is founded on the belief that even in divorced or separated family situations, children thrive best in cooperative parenting arrangements that place the child’s considerations as their primary focus. Clearly, Ontario courts do not look kindly on parental alienation. When it occurs, judges are often guided by psychological reports from experts and can recommend avenues such as education, counseling and family counseling correctives in hopes that there is good will in another wise misguided parent. In extreme cases, they can give custody and access (to use the older terms for familiarity) to the aggrieved parent in order to protect the child from further harm.

Solomon the wise and Judge Brownstone

The ancient Biblical story of the wisdom of Solomon tells of a mother and a false mother, each claiming a child to be hers. To resolve the conflict, they appear before the wise Solomon, who suggests cutting the baby in half so that each woman will have half the child. One agrees, but the other refuses, offering to give up the baby. Solomon then gives the baby to her, understanding that only a real mother would make that sacrifice for the child, i.e. placing the interests and well being of the child ahead of her own.

Accordingly, Judge Brownstone’s reminder merits attention: he reminds us that the real victims are the children who are caught in the cross-fire. Parents must genuinely place their children ahead of their own interests and our courts must ensure this: to the extent it is possible, taking into account the age and maturity of the child, judges can also hear what the child has to say. Using skilled, court assigned psychologists is another way that judges and lawyers can ferret out the factual situation to know best how to work with the family, and to do so on a case by case basis.

An excellent resource for parents is Parental Alienation, Family Court and Mothers: a discussion,provided by The Law Foundation of Ontario, funded by Ontario. * Its advice, despite the title’s mention of women only, is good for either parent. For example, it advises that in the best interest of the child, parents should avoid being negative about the other parent, should not involve the child in legal discussions and should not use the child as a go between carrying messages. In addition, for those fearing being falsely accused of parental alienation, it suggests keeping notes, documents, emails, all of which can help prove their innocence if charged.

Courts can appoint professionals under “Section 30 Assessment” to “assess and report” how well (or not) the parents are meeting the needs of the child; judges can limit or increase the parenting or access time of the parents, they can require supervised visits, order no parental contact, change the parenting orders and even require parents to pay for the court-ordered assessment.

At all times, the preference is for parents to resolve their issues out of court, with or without expert help, but as the Law Foundation document advises, if these attempts show signs of failing and parents are likely to end up in court, they should prepare for it and seek legal advice.

Parental Alienation and Family Violence

Given the complexities of dealing with the issue, I’ve focused this blog strictly on parental alienation, but unfortunately, it can extend into the realm of family violence: parent A might actually be guilty – in a sense – of parental alienation but doing so while trying to protect the child from an abusive ex-spouse, or perhaps parent A is not at all guilty, but Parent B, accused of family violence and subject to a court order, falsely accuses Parent A in order to detract attention and mitigate the court’s involvement. This becomes complex enough for a second blog to look at parental alienation and family violence together.

In the meantime, if you are dealing with issues of parental alienation and in need of legal counseling, please contact Howard Nightingale Professional Corporation. We are centrally located in the Dufferin and Finch area; please call us at 416 663-4423 or toll free at 1-877- 224-8225. We look forward to working with you.

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