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Parental Alienation: yes it’s bad, but not in the way you might think

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Parental Alienation (PA) has become a buzz word amongst family court professionals. The general concept is that PA occurs in a post-separation context when one parent manipulates the children of the marriage against the other parent, creating a “targeted parent” and “aligned parent” dynamic, until ultimately the child rejects the targeted parent and refuses all contact with them. At this point the “targeted” parent cries PA, the family court orders the “professionals” to swoop in, and the children are forced into contact with the “targeted” parent and sometimes even completely removed from the “aligned” parent’s care with a no contact order imposed.

You may be asking, “Ok, but why is this a bad thing? If a parent manipulates their children into hating their other parent, that’s abuse!” Well, you would be right in thinking that; however, research has shown that more often than not, for children experiencing what are labeled the “high-conflict” divorces of their parents, what actually occurs is that abusive parents are using accusations of PA to deflect the court’s attention away from abusive conduct that has resulted in a justifiable estrangement from the children.[1]

When I first learned of the term PA I identified with many of the things so-called targeted parents were saying. My ex did speak ill of me to our children. He admitted it on many occasions, and it was well-documented by third party collaterals. Yet, when we first went before a judge I did not levy accusations of parental alienation. He did.

That was when I began to look at parental alienation differently, and I found a whole community of other parents who look at it differently as well. This viewpoint is backed by many well-respected domestic violence researchers.[2] While many of the “parental alienating behaviours”, or “PABs”, are very real, it is often those who engage in them that try to build a case around them in court. In this context we can see that these behaviours, along with allegations of parental alienation, have come to constitute a type of post-separation domestic abuse by proxy.

Domestic abuse by proxy is when a perpetrator of domestic violence uses the children or another individual to inflict abuse upon the intended target to whom they no longer have direct access.[3] Examples include having the children spy on the other parent, lying to the child about the other parent, speaking ill of the other parent, or allowing the child to read court documents. These are all considered PABs, according to PA proponents, and are all clearly unacceptable behaviour. More concerning, however, are PABs identified by proponents of PA that can easily be alternately explained as symptoms of trauma that are typical in domestic abuse survivors. Examples of these include rarely talking about the other parent, not having any photos of the other parent displayed in the home, refusal to hear positive comments about the other parent, portrays the other parent as dangerous etc. The complete list of PABs as identified by Fidler et al. (2007) can be found here.

In a 2022 Supreme Court of Canada decision, Justice Karakatsanis, speaking on behalf of the majority, found that not only is it untenable to suggest that the perpetration of domestic abuse does not affect one’s ability to parent, she also notes that it is notoriously difficult to prove because it happens in the privacy of the home, behind closed doors. It is not helpful to any family for professionals and the judiciary to deny their lived experiences of violence, adding a layer of institutional betrayal trauma and potentially exacerbating pre-existing symptoms.

Canadian research tells us two things that should be revealing about who is on the right side of the PA debate:

1. More women are killed by their intimate partners than men. [4]

2. More women lose their children due to findings of PA than do men. [5]

Pro-PA research tends to be circular. Researchers consistently reference one another in their work, and do not question judicial findings of fact. They base their studies off existing case-law without questioning how the judge came to make his or her findings of fact.[6] In many cases allegations of abuse are quickly dismissed. These researchers use this to declare that false allegations are frequently made and to criticize researchers, such as Joan Meier of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School, who have found that most allegations of abuse are truthful even if a judge rejects them. Think back to Justice Karakatsanis’ findings outlined above. Knowing what we know about domestic abuse, how can we assume that no judge has made the mistake of ignoring credible allegations of abuse because there was no tangible evidence?

Something that both sides of the debate agree upon is that the family court process is adversarial, and that aligned professionals can exacerbate conflict. Removing children from their preferred parent has been the court’s answer to parental alienations allegations for well over a decade, and the child victims of these custody reversals who have aged out of family court have been speaking out on social media about how abusive these decisions are, as have social media savvy teens who are currently the subject of these court battles.[7] They are publicly exposing the court appointed professionals who have ignored or minimized the abuse they have suffered, and who make a living off forcing contact between a child and the parent they say has abused them and/or their other parent.

In April, 2023, Reem Alsalem, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, released a report wherein PA was identified as a tool of abusers that is being used in family courts worldwide against women and children who have experienced family violence. While the pro-PA lobby has done a good job of attempting to discredit this report, including claiming that the UN has rejected it, their messaging has been rife with blatant misinformation. The report was not presented in its entirety due to a procedural order, whereby all reports are to be the subject of interactive dialogues rather than debates. [8] It was the subject of interactive dialogues during the 53rd session of the UN Human Right’s Council and the UN has not rejected its findings or recommendations.[9]

Given the controversy and the harms that are coming to light, our understanding of PA and domestic abuse must be re-evaluated. The fact that PA has been enshrined in caselaw should not preclude the court from examining the evolving understanding of these dynamics outside of the courtroom.

Footnotes: [1] For examples see the works of Joan Meier, Linda Nielson, Simon Lapierre, Elizabeth Sheehy, Susan Boyd and Adrienne Barnett. [2] See above. [3] [4] [5] Linda C Neilson (2018) Parental Alienation Empirical Analysis: Child Best Interests or Parental Rights? (Fredericton: Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research and Vancouver: The FREDA Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children) [6] Based on this author’s evaluation of the research methods used in these studies. [7] For examples see the following pieces of investigative journalism and social media accounts: [8] [9] A press conference held at the 53rd can be viewed here:

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