On any application to court in relation to arrangements for children, the Judge will presume that the involvement of a parent in a child’s life will be positive and in the best interests of the child unless there is evidence to the contrary.
Children must always be protected from harm or the risk of harm. It impacts badly on their welfare and development.
Harm takes many forms but must be real and not imagined.
So, for example, violence, whether between the parents or inflicted on a child, is harmful but so too is controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour.
These behaviours take many forms but include psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse.
Parental alienation is a form of abusive behaviour which is harmful to a child.
It arises where one parent actively seeks to alienate his or her children from the other parent.
The children, in those circumstances, often refuse to see the other parent and it is difficult to persuade them to do so. This refusal, however, may be based more on the abusive behaviour by the parent with care rather than the true feelings of the child.
The court has to determine, at the outset, to what extent, if at all, parental alienation is an issue and, if it is, how best to deal with it.
The courts’ paramount concern is always the welfare of the child and not the parents.
The court will try to find outcomes which are in the best interest of the child. It will want to ascertain, as far as possible, the true wishes and feelings of the child, as opposed to the parents. This is not always easy.
The court may, if it is appropriate, appoint a guardian to represent the child in the proceedings. The child therefore has a voice which can be expressed independently.
There are numerous ways in which parental alienation, if established, can be addressed. The court has a broad range of options and, for example, could refer the parents to a Parenting Information Programme which, generally, is easy to access and free at the point of use. More intense work can be undertaken in family therapy or by involving social workers or other professionals. This however is dependent on resources, and, generally, comes at a cost which parents may be unable to afford. More dramatically, the court can make an order transferring the care of the child from one parent to the other. The court will not hesitate to do so where that is considered to be in the best interests of the child.
The bottom line is abusive behaviour, no matter what form it takes, is harmful to children. It should be taken seriously, identified early and dealt with.
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