Parental alienation: ‘It is critical social workers know how to recognise this’

Cafcass is currently developing a high-conflict pathway to manage parental alienation cases

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Photo: Photographee.eu/Fotolia

Sarah Parsons, principal social worker and assistant director at Cafcass, is explaining the family court advisory service’s new high-conflict pathway for its social workers in dealing with cases of parental alienation.

The concept of parental alienation is not an unfamiliar one to social workers in and out of Cafcass, but it’s tricky to measure its prevalence because it’s difficult to define.

“It’s quite a controversial concept,” Parsons says, referring to how it is an area that has proved difficult to define and measure.

Typically, parental alienation refers to where families have separated or are separating and one of the parents begins a manipulation campaign to turn their child against the other parent.

But there are plenty of nuances and complications. If a child grew up in a home with domestic abuse, this could result in a justified rejection of the perpetrator, which can then lead to denials and counter-accusations.

Emotional abuse

Parental alienation is more common in private law cases involving separations, but is increasingly relevant to social workers outside Cafcass because, as Parsons explains it is a form of emotional abuse.

“We don’t want to pin a label on it as such, but it is on the spectrum of emotionally abusive behaviours, so it’s possible it could be in some care cases, but the vast majority would be in the private law field.”

Prevalence is something else Parsons is reluctant to put a label on, again because of the difficulties associated with defining it.

Parental alienation can lead to severe, albeit rare, outcomes, Parsons says.

“In extreme cases the court may order the child to go and live with the [non-manipulating] parent, for instance. That is one possibility that is very rare, it happens in maybe a handful of cases a year across the country,” Parsons says.

“I have had experience of children being removed into care as a consequence of [parental alienation] at the extreme end, but again the numbers are extremely low,” she adds.

It’s the emotional harm parental alienation can cause, as well as its potential long-term impacts on development, identity and mental health, which makes it a vital area for social workers to know about, according to Parsons.

“It is critical that social workers know how to recognise this and how not to get swayed by the adults’ agendas, we need to step back and look at what is really happening to the child.”

Practitioner understanding

To try and give a bit more clarity to common, but complex cases, Cafcass is developing a high-conflict pathway for social workers to manage cases where it features.

The purpose of the pathway is to help practitioners have a clearer understanding of what exactly is happening for each child.

“There are a lot of myths and assumptions, a lot of misinformation, lots of black and white thinking from one group or another. We’re trying to cut through all of that and give our social work practitioners the opportunity to stand back, look at the evidence and have a clear set of guidance and clear tools and help them identify and assess what is happening for each child,” Parsons says.

The complex components mean there are different situations practitioners must navigate through. Hybrid, or mixed cases, where one parent might be manipulating their child, but the other is contributing by their reaction to this, is one example. Another is where children themselves contribute as they develop an affinity to one parent or another as they get older.

Parsons says: “The pathway guides the practitioner through how to identify these different characteristics – is it one thing, a mixed case, is a child contributing? And it [has] tools to help the practitioner assess exactly what dynamic is occurring.

“They come through to the end of the pathway to say how does that inform the recommendation to the court. You’ve made your assessment, you understand what is going on, but how does that help you report to court.”

Structured intervention

As well as a court recommendation, this can lead practitioners to what intervention they might need, such as the Positive Parenting Programme Cafcass is currently piloting.

Parsons explains its four sessions of structured intervention. “We’re trialling this to work with the parents and children to see if there is any way of resolving what’s been identified.”

The first 50 cases on the programme will be evaluated and compared to those who aren’t on the programme to see how the outcomes differ.

The pathway itself is still being developed and Cafcass is seeking views from the sector on its final version, which will be published on its website.

While most of its relevance will be for Cafcass practitioners working in private law cases, Parsons says there are “many settings where this kind of conflict will be playing out”.

“What our pathway is doing is providing a guidance of when you might be in that extreme circumstance: what are the things to look for, what might the impact be on the child, and give guidance around that eventuality.”

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6 Responses to Parental alienation: ‘It is critical social workers know how to recognise this’

  1. Terry Unicorn December 18, 2017 at 12:01 pm #

    The assumption that the resident parent is a paragon of virtue and the non resident parent is feckless needs to be reconsidered peremptorily by the professionals.

  2. Steph Hunter December 19, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    I think this is a worrying trend. The original work on parental alienation is incredibly weak. Most private law cases involve domestic abuse. There are issues with cafcass practitioners not considering the much more reliable work of Sturgeon and Glaser who acknowledged contact can still be used to re abuse. I try incredibly hard to move forward from our personal cafcass trauma in which police, school and other evidence overlooked. However since court the co ercive control continues, trackers on phone, turning up at house, breaching orders, sending newspaper articles with headlines about women losing Thier children and the old chestnut “you can go back to court” is all professionals say when it was harrowing and no one got a real understanding of the misuse of power taking place.I think more effort should go into thoughtful assessments. Genuinely listening to children whose voices are utterly lost. Ridiculous tick boxes, check lists and work books. When actually thoughtful child centred practice would go a long way to keeping children safe. This pathway will be misused by workers with axes to grind and good parents will lose potentiallt lose children. There really is much more to be done to protect children. Children’s rights to have a safe childhood are being lost.

    • karla gray December 19, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

      i have to agree with steph hunter.. The courts need to hear and listen to the children. they understand and know a lot of the truth. courts only seem interested in the $$$$$ not the real issues. it would solve a lot of heartache..

      • H kibs December 27, 2017 at 7:50 am #

        The court needs to listen to the children because this can turn into emotional abuse. In my experience there is a lot of assumption in the final decision making especially in respect of domestic violence

        Some parents

  3. Brid Featherstone December 20, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

    I too am really concerned about this development – the original work on parental alienation was comprehensively critiqued and was really weak in terms of conceptualisation and evidence – there was important work by Joan Kelly in this area which used the term ‘the alienated child’ to capture some of the practices that can occur and there are undoubtedly cases where some very troubling behaviours by parents are evident.

    Maybe there is a recent evidence base that I am not familiar with – would really like to see it and also to see how the links with coercive control are being understood and worked with.

    But not at all sure CAFCASS staff have the resources to do this work in the kind of depth that is needed. This needs a lot more thought and debate.

    • Leigh hyatt December 29, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

      Please contact me. I and my sons were victim of PA.
      Please contact me if you wish to know what formula worked regarding assessment to recognise PA.. recovery for children .. reunification .. work with target parent and lastly working with alienating parent to control disruptive behaviour. All this in one programme that works.