Concern over increasing use of ‘parental alienation’ in custody disputes in family courts

Children are being removed from their preferred parents into the custody of allegedly abusive parents, advocates warn

Children are being removed, against their wishes, from their preferred parents into the custody of allegedly abusive parents, warn advocates for abuse survivors in submissions to the Department of Justice.

Groups including Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) and the Men’s Development Network (MDN) are concerned about the increasing use of “parental alienation” (PA) in custody disputes in the family law courts, where domestic violence features.

In contrast, proponents of parental alienation welcome the increased awareness of what they say is a diagnosable syndrome, arguing it should be included as a “unique form of family violence” in the State’s domestic violence strategy. PA has the potential to damage children into adulthood as severely as sex abuse, they say.

In its submission, the Family Therapists Association of Ireland (FTAI) says PA can be perpetrated by fathers as well as mothers and is “not a gendered issue”. They say it is an “act of emotional violence perpetrated by the alienating parent on the ex-partner... through the intentional, though denied, effort to destroy and end the relationship between the child and the other parent”.

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The Department of Justice, which is completing a public consultation on PA to “inform the department’s thinking on whether any legislative and/or policy changes may be required”, has also just received an independent report, commissioned last year, on the issue. It could not say when either would be published.

Dublin-based family therapist Jim Sheehan wrote the FTAI submission which says where PA happens, the child rejecting access with a parent “usually had a positive relationship” with them before and their rejection is “not justified”. The submission describes how to “diagnose” PA and says it occurs in “about 5 per cent of the whole cohort of separating families”.

In “severe” cases where a child is “cut off from a parent for unjustifiable reasons” they are at increased risk of “self-harm, depression and suicidality”. The submission states PA is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

Both organisations, however, confirmed to The Irish Times they do not recognise PA as a mental disorder.

Opponents of its use are particularly concerned by the contention that a child rejecting a parent has been manipulated by the other, where domestic violence is an issue.

“Psychologising children’s feelings of hostility to the absent parent runs significant risks which can cause tangible harms to the child,” says the MDN. “Many of the diagnostic features of PA could easily be attributable to more typical run-of-the-mill hostilities or anxieties which pertain to the separation.”

The MDN continues: “The term is often used as a direct response to allegations of domestic abuse, has a chilling effect on women coming forward to disclose abuse, and, in such circumstances, the focus should centre on the crime of coercive control as the prevailing context.”

Women’s Aid says: “The application of PA in many custody and access cases in other jurisdictions has resulted in children being removed, against their wishes, from the parent they want to live with, and placed to live with the rejected parent.”

The Survivors Informing Services and Institutions (Sisi) charity says children here have been removed from mothers accused of PA after raising concerns about post-separation abuse of children, and placed in the custody of alleged abusers.

The Department of Justice says PA is a “complex issue”. It is expected the research and the public consultation would “create a deeper understanding” of it.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times