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.
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.”
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.”
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.”