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Followers of our blog might have recently spotted the Guardian’s front page article on 17 November  about a “ground-breaking” new trial that Cafcass were running, to tackle parental alienation. Parental alienation is the process, and the result of, psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent and/or other family members. The Guardian article contained substantial quotes from Cafcass’s Principal Social Worker, Sarah Parsons. The headline was very striking: ‘Divorcing parents could lose children if they try to turn them against partner – Measures being trialled to prevent ‘parental alienation’ feature penalties including permanent loss of contact with child’.

When we delve deeper into the article, the Guardian gave the impression that Cafcass is suddenly taking ‘ground-breaking’ steps against parental alienation as well as giving the confusing message that Cafcass, rather than judges, would be making decisions about the removal of children. The article also suggested that Family Court Advisers (FCAs) must, in future, take draconian steps when confronted with alienation, detailing that parents could be put on an intensive programme to encourage more positive parenting and discussing the ‘bringing in of psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts when this doesn’t work. The article then highlighted that children will be removed from an alienating parent as an ultimate sanction. However, the article failed to mention either that Cafcass provides an advisory service to court and it is the judge who takes these decisions (albeit often following recommendations from Cafcass), or that these courses of action are already available to judges.

Cafcass, perhaps recognising the somewhat sensational nature of this article, have recently updated their website to provide more accurate information about their new pathway and we would invite you to visit this for more complete information. This pathway identifies that parental alienation is not a discrete, singular issue but forms part of the broader picture of high parental conflict. The new pathway also enhances the existing practice tools, bringing all resources under one framework to promote a consistent, evidence-informed approach to help practitioners find an outcome which is truly in the best interests of all the children involved.

Chief Executive of Cafcass, Anthony Douglas explains that alienation rarely exists in isolation. It is more usually one set of behaviours among many and is best seen on a spectrum, from mild to severe. He acknowledges that there are perpetrators who family members need protection against because they threaten, abuse, coerce or tyrannise innocent family members but more commonly, everyone in the post-separation family feels victimised to a greater or lesser extent.

Harm and alienation can be multi-directional and, in these situations, it is the role of Cafcass to make sense of what is happening in terms of its child impact, and to differentiate between alienating behaviours on the one hand and when rejection of a parent by a child is more understandable due to a child genuinely being scared or deeply apprehensive about contact on the other.

The Domestic Abuse Pathway and the High Conflict Pathway aim to give Cafcass practitioners and courts a stronger framework to assess the powerful emotions that underpin these intractable disputes, offering a model of therapeutic jurisprudence (court ordered therapeutic help) which goes beyond the otherwise linear outcomes (dealing with the practicalities of contact) that have traditionally been ordered at court when either abuse, high conflict or both are the primary problems.

Whilst the new pathway is still a work in progress, information about new therapeutic help – the Cafcass Positive Parenting Programme pilot (PPP) – has been sent to the judiciary and is already underway. This pilot consists of a four-session intervention to be delivered by Cafcass guardians in 50 cases that are identified as “stuck” in high conflict. However, it will only be used where all the participants agree and will, ultimately, only be available in a minority of cases where a guardian has been appointed by the judge.

The Guardian article may have induced anxiety amongst many parents, particularly those who are worried that allegations of alienation can be used by abusive and controlling parents as a way of manipulating proceedings, and intimidating their ex partners. Parents who hold such concerns might also wish to consider the response by Emeritus Professor Jane Fortin who argued, also in the Guardian, for Cafcass’s plan to help abusive parents to change their behaviour with the help of intense therapy whilst also raising concerns over the risks of potential over-diagnosis of alienation (see here). Clearly there is a fine line to tread and Sarah Parsons from Cafcass explains, “We are clear the developments will not result in any draconian approach or in us over stepping the mark in court. The impact will be the opposite in that the guidance and training will raise understanding and quality of practice, as we’ve seen with the Domestic Abuse (DA) Pathway. There is a danger of people applying labels such as PA (parental alienation) and DA inaccurately and the pathway will help to avoid this.”

At Cambridge Family Law Practice, we look forward to the publishing of the new pathway and to a more enlightened and supportive court process in the future.

If you have any questions about what you’ve read here or any family law issue, you can call us on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Simon, Adam, Tricia, Sue, or Gail.