Parental alienation – a phenomenon where one parent poisons their child against the other parent – has become such a feature of the most difficult family breakdowns that Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, is to offer targeted support for those affected following a government-funded intensive therapeutic pilot programme .
Distinct from the all-too-common acrimony between divorcing parents, the syndrome is an internationally recognised phenomenon. In America and Canada, “parenting coordinators” are ordered and supervised by the courts to help restore relationships between parents and children identified as “alienated”. In Mexico and Brazil, alienating a child from a parent is a criminal act.
Psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed the concept 20 years ago, defining it as “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrination and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.”
The assistant director of Cafcass, Sarah Parsons, said: “Parental alienation is responsible for around 80% of the most intransigent cases that come before the family courts … We already train our social workers to recognise the issue, but this takes helping families experiencing it one step further.”
Parental alienation is estimated to be present in 11%-15% of divorces involving children, a figure that is thought to be increasing. Other research has found about 1% of children and adolescents in North America experience parental alienation.
Miriam, a lecturer and artist, whose name has been changed, was packing to take her young son on holiday when her former husband emailed to say she would never see her child again. The boy was staying with his father for the weekend and, the email said, had made such serious allegations against his mother that he wouldn’t ever be coming home. It would be 592 days before Miriam next saw her son.