The recent decision by the World Health Organisation to recognise parental alienation puts the spotlight on a contentious concept that is little acknowledged in this country.
The condition, which arises almost exclusively in the context of a highly acrimonious break-up of a relationship between two parents who are in dispute over custody of children, has been included in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, to come into effect at the beginning of 2022.
There’s no policy in Ireland on how to define, detect or resolve parental alienation. Broadly, it is where a child sides strongly with one parent and rejects the other parent without justification and despite a previous loving relationship.
The starting position must be to ask if the child has valid reasons for rejecting a parent, such as abuse or neglect
With no explanation for the rejection, the suspicion is that the preferred parent has “poisoned” the child against the other. However, critics argue that allegations of parental alienation can be used to protect abusing parents.
Another layer of complexity, at a time when there is more emphasis on hearing the voice of the child, is that notion of “brainwashing”.
But recognising how parental alienation could be at play in family disputes would be a start, as early intervention is essential to prevent long-term effects for children who are turned against one parent. The perpetrator can be either the mother or the father, with both the children and the rejected parent being victims.
"It is a concept that is often misunderstood," says Brian O'Sullivan, a consultant systemic family psychotherapist working in Dublin. He organised a recent conference in Trinity College Dublin to raise awareness of the condition among social, legal and mental-health practitioners, and enable "informed conversations and debate about what parental alienation is – and, more importantly, what it isn't".
The starting position must be to ask if the child has valid reasons for rejecting a parent, such as abuse or neglect. “If the answer to that question is yes, it’s not alienation, it’s something else,” he stresses. Nor does it apply in a situation where one parent may have been unavailable to a child due to a prolonged period of addiction, or working overseas without contact for years.
"In the most severe cases we are talking about psychological and emotional child abuse"
There is a five-factor assessment model that judges and other professionals could be easily trained in, O’Sullivan argues, to establish very quickly if there is parental alienation in the family case before them.
At the mild end of the spectrum, it’s one parent denigrating the other parent in front of the child. Pointing this out and providing information on the potential psychological damage can be enough to remedy the situation.
“Most parents will very quickly motivate themselves to change their behaviour and place their children first,” he says.
Whereas at the severe end of the spectrum, “there is one parent who is pathologically determined to erase the other parent out of the child’s life. Essentially that parent is unwilling, or unable, to place the developmental needs of the child ahead of their own in this conflict.” In such severe cases, “proactive and firm decisions that privilege the interests of the child” are needed.
“In the most severe cases we are talking about psychological and emotional child abuse and it needs to be viewed in that way and it needs to be responded to as we would with all other forms of child abuse.”
Even if a family law judge understands parental alienation, he or she is constrained in what they can do about it.
When a father is trying to alienate a child from the mother, he will often allege physical abuse and neglect; mothers are likely to accuse the fathers of sexual abuse and neglect
“At the moment there is no public funding for a solution,” says O’Sullivan who is advocating for the introduction of the Family Bridges programme for severe cases. Having originated in the US 30 years ago, it is a four-day programme with a 96 per cent success rate in reuniting children with the alienated parent, he says, and is used in various jurisdictions.
The effects of parental alienation on a child can include clinical depression, anxiety, fractured attachments, suicide ideation, deliberate self-harm, alcohol and substance abuse, premature sexual activity and academic underachievement. “They occur across the child’s life time and they travel on to the next generation of families, so when these children go on to become parents, these patterns repeat.”
Historically, parental alienation was seen as something that only happened to fathers. O’Sullivan has worked with alienated parents for nearly 10 years, and while at first it was all fathers, in the last four years it has been nearly all mothers.
Parental alienation can be even more insidious for women who, it seems to him, have less of a voice. “There are hundreds and hundreds of mothers in this country at the moment who have been erased from the lives of their children for no good reason,” he says.
Rather than being a gendered phenomenon, it appears most likely to happen where a primary carer is in conflict with the other parent
When a father is trying to alienate a child from the mother, he will often allege physical abuse and neglect; mothers attempting it are likely to accuse the fathers of sexual abuse and neglect. In either scenario, the strategy is likely to be successful because, rightly, social services have to step in and investigate the allegations, which may take up to a year. “During that time, the innocent, rejected parent is not allowed contact with that child, so the alienation is perpetuated,” O’Sullivan says.
The way the family law system can contribute to the breakdown of the relationship between one parent and a child is highlighted in a research project conducted by Dr Roisin O'Shea and Dr Sinead Conneely at Waterford Institute of Technology. They term this "parental estrangement" – as opposed to parental alienation, which they define as "where there is significant conflict between parents and the child is encouraged by one parent to align to that parent and reject the other".
With Ministerial consent, the two researchers observed 360 cases in the family law courts over 14 days between March 2017 and April 2019. In cases where access to children was an issue, they identified parental alienation arising in 24 per cent of those disputes and parental estrangement in 13 per cent.
Rather than being a gendered phenomenon, it appears most likely to happen where a primary carer is in conflict with the other parent, O’Shea explains. Often the only mechanism the judge has to address it is to order a report.
“What happens then is the status quo is reinforced,” says O’Shea, who is a partner in Waterford-based Arc Mediation. “If one parent is withholding access from the other parent, that will remain in place until this report is done and that in itself creates estrangement. Even if the first parent wasn’t deliberately trying to do parental alienation, what happens is the same effect because the father or the mother doesn’t get to see the child. We still have little regard for the best interests of children.”
Women who stay with an abusing partner for the sake of the children can find them turning against her because they may feel safer siding with him
The most effective way to resolve parental alienation or estrangement, O’Shea says, is family mediation, to begin parenting arrangements that will break down barriers. “Waiting 12 months for a report to come into court is doing a disservice to children.”
They also noted the difference in how courts dealt with breaches of court orders, depending on whether maintenance or access was involved. “When it came to maintenance, they were pretty harsh,” says O’Shea. Nearly half (48 per cent) of breach of maintenance applications, all of which were brought by women, resulted in a summons or warrant and two fathers were jailed.
“When it came to the breaching of access orders, the same strength of sanctions wasn’t imposed.” Fewer than one in three (29 per cent) of breach of access applications, all of which were brought by men, resulted in a summons or warrant and nobody was jailed.
Both she and Conneely believe families need to be diverted away from courts and would advocate mandatory mediation. Meanwhile, O’Shea cites a “beautiful piece of law that nobody is using” when making applications for breach of access orders, namely section 60 of the Children and Relationships Act, which enables a judge to not only order compensatory time and/or costs for the parent denied time with their child but also to insist one or both parents attend mediation, a parenting programme, or counselling.
Parental alienation is not a term used at Women's Aid, says services manager Gillian Dennehy, "but it is something we find is used against women that we work with".
If a woman has to flee her home because of domestic abuse and can’t take the children with her, the father may prevent her from seeing the children and a battle for access and custody ensues. “The longer that goes on, the more rights he gets because the children will be longer with him,” says Dennehy, while the mother is at a disadvantage for access because she is homeless.
Even women who stay with an abusing partner for the sake of the children can find them turning against her, she says, because “they believe the abusing father’s script” and may also feel safer siding with him.
Women who believe it is unsafe to let their children go to access are liable to be branded as exercising parental alienation
At Women’s Aid they wonder how the criminal and family courts can act so separately, seemingly not linking abuse of a woman with potential danger for her child. “The family courts are making orders for access when there is an ongoing criminal case that is very concerning in terms of risk to the mother and that child.”
We know abusive fathers can kill the mother and the children, so it shouldn’t be seen as separate, argues Dennehy. “There shouldn’t be a presumption of contact.”
Courts might want to order supervised contact but there are no supervised contact centres – despite a successful pilot project of two in Dublin from 2011 to 2013, which were closed due to lack of funding.
Women who believe it is unsafe to let their children go to access are liable to be branded as exercising parental alienation. Abusive men, adds Dennehy, “will often cry wolf and play the victim to get what they want and it is scary how much more that is happening”.
Eight indications that a child may be a victim of parental alienation
Denigration: a child repeatedly complains about the rejected parent.
Frivolous rationalisation of complaints: Silly reasons are given for never wanting to see the other parent again.
Lack of ambivalence: One parent is seen as totally bad, while the other is all good
Declaration of independent thinking: child goes out of the way to says these are his/her own views and not influenced by the other parent
Automatic support: Child always sides with the preferred parent, regardless of topic or situation
Absence of guilt: Shows no qualms in doing or saying horrible things to rejected parent.
Borrowed scenarios: Describes situations in exactly the same way as the preferred parent.
Spread of animosity: The child's hate extends to all family on the rejected parent's side, such as grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Source: derived from parentalalienation.eu
Nine-year-old Mary kissed her mother goodbye on the way into school 11 years ago, excited that her father was going to collect her later to spend a week with him. “Little did I know that was the last kiss I was going to get,” says that mother, Sheila (not her real name), in giving her account of how she believes her daughter became a victim of parental alienation.
She had left her husband after threats of physical violence. A business owner, she didn’t look for maintenance, set up her own home and “never stopped him seeing the young one”.
Everything was fine until she started a relationship with another man. When she and her daughter moved just over 90 minutes’ drive away, she says her ex would not travel to see the child or even agree to meet halfway.
Then out of the blue she got a call from him asking if he could take their daughter for the first week of Easter school holidays, which was part of the access agreement.
Sheila discovered that her ex had brought the child to a professional 'who wrote pages and pages of absolute rubbish about me, having never even met me'
Mary rang her mother in the middle of that week and said she was having such a great time and hadn’t seen her father for so long, could she stay an extra few days. Sheila agreed reluctantly but stressed she had to come home after the weekend.
After there was no sign of Mary on the Monday and Sheila couldn’t get him or her on the phone, she went with her court order to his local Garda station saying she wanted her child back as per the custody agreement.
The gardaí tracked him and Mary down to a social work department in a nearby town, where a social worker told them they were having to make sure the child was not at risk with her mother. After local social workers vouched for Sheila, the gardaí said they had to return the child to her mother.
“The next thing she was screaming at me saying ‘I hate you; I don’t want to be with you’. I was standing there looking. The social worker said [to ex] ‘don’t allow your daughter to speak to her mother like that’, but he was encouraging it.”
It was only after the arrival of Sheila’s father that Mary went with her mother. “She wouldn’t look at me, she wouldn’t talk to me, so my Dad had to come and calm her down for the week.”
There was a court hearing scheduled and when she arrived, she says her own barrister asked what she had done to the child. A report had been compiled alleging that Sheila had been physically abusing Mary.
Sheila discovered that her ex had brought the child to a professional “who wrote pages and pages of absolute rubbish about me, having never even met me”. However, on the basis of that report, the court flipped the access order – giving her just every second weekend with Mary.
Distraught, Sheila ranted at the judge about why, if it was believed she was an abuser, would they give her the child at weekends? It defied logic. She was told she could appeal the decision.
So began a succession of court hearings and compilation of other reports. “Nobody was asking why was the child saying this,” says Sheila, who eventually got a judgment vindicating her. (It later transpired that Mary’s complaints as a pre-teen about her mother was that she was forced to do chores and be in bed by 8.30pm.)
But by then it was felt the child could not be forced to see her mother if she didn’t want to. Mary is now a young adult and the absence of contact continues.
Meanwhile, Caroline (not her real name) is another mother who is still fighting to see her two teenage children. She hasn’t seen her son in five months and only has infrequent time with her daughter – yet she has a court order to have them with her four nights a week.
Nothing is done about the breach of that order and again it is said children of that age cannot be forced to go back to a parent. She believes they have been “brainwashed” during the time her ex-husband tried, without success, to make allegations stick about her being an unfit mother through Tusla, the Garda and having his current partner testify in court.
Caroline is in contact with many other parents, both mothers and fathers, in a similar situation but, she adds, "without enforcement orders, we're on a losing battle".