In family law, it is common to see children pulled into the centre of disagreements and divorces, with parents fighting over decision-making responsibility a common sticking point during mediation and court proceedings, especially in cases involving spousal abuse. Above all, the safety of children needs to be the top priority. So, what happens when one parent brings the increasingly cited, yet ill-defined allegation of parental alienation? Let’s look a little deeper.

While the term parental alienation has recently been highlighted in the press and civil rights organizations, including a call from feminist groups to ban the term in January, it’s often brought up in correlation with court cases that have resulted in the custody of children going to an abusive parent.

The article details concerns including the silencing of abuse victims through the use of the term as well as added complexity in these cases. The report also highlights uncertainty in the medical community of how to address the issue.

At Howard Nightingale Professional Corporation we believe that a ban on this term is more likely to have harmful effects not only on those involved in abuse or custody disputes, but it will also infringe upon the rights of individuals to receive a full and fair investigation or consideration in these matters.

Terminology doesn’t make a case. Facts do. Claims mean nothing without a burden of proof, so rather than blaming a word for the problem, we need to look at the full story. Don’t throw it out the window, instead demand that legal and medical professionals are diligent in their duty to provide proof that supports claims of parental alienation, just as they would have to for any other accusation.

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is used to describe the actions of a parent which would directly and deliberately affect a child’s perception of the other parent in a negative manner. This could be either parent,  and the types of behaviour encompassed are not specific, though they could include:

  • Speaking negatively about the other parent in the presence of the child.
  • Asking the child to respond in specific ways when asked about parenting time preferences.
  • Using stories or the threat of consequences to generate fear of the other parent.
  • Telling the child the other parent has negative feelings toward them or will hurt them.

In reality, during a separation or divorce, emotions commonly result in both parents saying or doing something which undermines the other, and this can take place within the extended family unit as well.

Obviously, when children are involved, from a legal perspective the first concern is always about safety. Separating emotions and allegations from actions and facts can be incredibly challenging, especially when dealing with young children.

Parental Alienation vs. Abuse in Canada

Where this term truly becomes controversial is in the context in which it is most often used. It is rare to see parental alienation used as a standalone accusation. Typically, one parent reports abuse, and the other refutes the claim, stating alienation as a way to nullify the abuse allegation.

Now, here is where the law can become cloudy.

Intimate partner violence is more likely to be experienced and reported by women in heterosexual relationships, and parenting time arrangements tend to favour the mother in a high percentage of cases. In contrast, many parental alienation allegations are being brought by men. We often see this in the context of a father accused of abuse or who faces loss of custody claiming that the mother is telling the child negative information to reduce their access to the child or to influence the child to refuse contact.

That said, this scenario could easily come to light with the man and woman in opposite roles. Studies also show an increased instance of physical or psychological child abuse in relationships where there is partner abuse occurring.

Interestingly, true alienation could be considered a form of coercion, which falls within the category of psychological abuse. Additionally, the impacts of issues between parents and exposure to abusive adult relationships can be profound even when there is no evidence of physical or psychological abuse toward the child specifically. So, a claim of this nature is and should be, highly concerning to legal and clinical professionals.

Separating Fact and Story in a Parent’s Alienation Claim

The interesting distinction is first in the foundations of the alienation claim or its iterations, such as the term “parenting access” also used to describe the term.

It’s just not as simple as he said, she said.

We first need to determine the reason for the use of this claim. The three primary reasons are:

  • A legitimate concern regarding manipulation or coercion of the child by one parent.
  • A deliberate effort by an accused to counter allegations or confuse legal proceedings.
  • An unwillingness to accept that a child may be more aligned with the other parent.

In family law, it is our responsibility not to take claims at face value, and instead to ensure the protection of you and your family by asking questions and referring family members to the appropriate mental health professionals to find the root of all claims, allegations, and accusations.

The Danger of Mishandling Parenting Time, Alienation, or Abuse

While it is important to take patterns and past cases into account when we look at any argument, from a family law perspective we must do the very best we possibly can for the specific people who have come to us for help.

The danger of banning terminology is similar to that of accepting statistics and even precedents as absolutes in that you open the door to systems and ways of thinking that are biased or prejudiced in one direction. This may result in children being placed at a higher risk for ongoing abuse or traumatic separations, as well as long-term psychological damage. When parents are focused on proving the other wrong or holding their own position, we have to be aware that the welfare of the child may not be at the forefront, as the child often becomes a bargaining chip between them.

A 2010 paper by Jaffe et al. EARLY IDENTIFICATION & PREVENTION OF PARENT-CHILD ALIENATION suggests that early intervention and a focus on underlying causes of conflict could help change legal and clinical suggestions from a reactive format to one that promotes a “parenting regime that focuses on the welfare of the child and not one that seeks to impose retribution against the alleged “alienator.’” The paper goes on to illustrate a compelling guideline for the handling of such cases.

In family matters especially, assumptions silence those who may need help the most, and we owe it to each and every person involved, and especially the child, to give them a voice. This means that we need to look at the current situation and its nuances, gain an understanding of the history of the family, find proof to back claims, and ensure all parties involved are receiving the support they need before we make legal recommendations that will have lasting effects.

Contact Us for Assistance Navigating the Legality of an Alienation Claim

Whether you are a concerned parent wondering if this dynamic could be affecting your relationship with your child, or you wonder how to ensure your child’s safety within your current relationship or decision-making responsibility arrangement, speaking with a legal professional is key to finding the support and resources you need. Our caring, professional team of experts is here to help.

Contact Howard Nightingale Professional Corporation to get started at our Toronto office at 416-663-4423 or toll-free at 1-877- 224-8225.

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