You may have heard about parental alienation in the news recently. It has been a hot topic in family law for many years now and, if you are in a custody dispute, it is important that you understand what it is and how it could affect you.
What is Parental Alienation?
In a nutshell, parental alienation is an unjustified smear campaign by one parent against the other through the psychological manipulation of the child or children. It results from the combination of brainwashing by the alienating parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent and often leads to long-term estrangement of the child from the target parent. In most cases, it involves a partial of full refusal of access to the children (whether it be the alienating parent who is restricting access or the alienated children who are refusing access). It is recognized by the Ontario courts as a distinctive and widespread form of psychological abuse with potential long-term negative repercussions. Some of the effects of parental alienation on children include low self-esteem, self-hatred, guilt, feelings of abandonment, feelings of being unloved and unworthy, simplistic or rigid information processing, inflated self-esteem and poor impulse control.
How do the Courts View Parental Alienation?
The Ontario courts consider parental alienation to be a very serious issue and have taken the view that a change of custody may be the appropriate response to findings of parental alienation, even in circumstances where thealienated child opposes the change and is a teenager (the age at which their wishes would normally be considered by the court). This means that if one parent is found to have engaged in parental alienation against the other parent, they could lose custody of their children as a result. In such cases, the former custodial parent often will have no access to the children (with some exceptions for the purpose of counselling).
Why have the courts ordered a change in custody in these cases of extreme parental alienation? It is because the maximum contact principle requires children to have as much contact with both parents as is consistent with their best interests. The ability of a person to act as a parent includes their ability to support the child’s relationship with the other parent. In deciding issues of custody and what is in the best interest of the children, the court must address each parent’s willingness to foster contact with the other parent.Any support or encouragement by one parent that the children not have a relationship with the other parent demonstrates the irresponsibility of the parent who has the children and demonstrates that parent’s inability to act in the best interests of their children. In such cases, the court may find that it is therefore in the best interest of the child to be removed from the custody of the alienating parent.
A succinct summary of the approach that the court will take in a case involving parental alienation can be found in the often cited comments of Justice Trussler’s in Tremblay v. Tremblay (1987) 1987 CanLII 147 (AB QB), 10 R.F.L. (3d) 166 (Alta Q.B.), paragraphs 9, 15 and 16:
- “I start with the premise that a parent has the right to see his or her children and is only to be deprived of that right if he or she has abused or neglected the children. Likewise, and more important, a child has a right to the love, care and guidance of a parent. To be denied that right by the other parent without sufficient justification, such as abuse or neglect, is, in itself, a form of child abuse.
- The court should not automatically change custody if the custodial parent refuses access or otherwise interferes with the development of a normal parent and child relationship between the non-custodial parent and the child of the marriage. However, where the parent refuses access, serious questions are raised about the fitness of that person as a parent. The refusal to grant access after it is ordered is a change in circumstances sufficient to satisfy s. 17(5) of the Act.
- In deciding questions of custody one needs to take into account the best interest of the child. It is in the children’s best interests to live with the parent who is prepared to be co-operative with respect to access in cases where both parents can equally well look after the children or, even if there is a divergence in parenting skills, as long as the co-operative parent is fit to look after the children.”
Parental Alienation can have serious long-term effects on children of separation and divorce. If you suspect parental alienation may be at play in your custody dispute, it is vital that you speak to an experienced family law lawyer.