Both parents of a child have equal rights and responsibilities provided that they have Parental Responsibility for that child pursuant to Section 2 of the Children Act 1989.There is a misconception that a mother automatically has more rights than a father because she gave birth to the child. When a child is involved in a divorce/separation, it is easy for the parents to forget that a child has a fundamental right to have a loving relationship with both parents. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was developed by Psychiatrist Richard Gardner almost twenty years ago and, for those who are unaware of this concept, it is the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unfounded fear or hostility towards the non resident parent following a divorce/separation. It is becoming a more recognised concept and one which is considered as a form of emotional and psychological abuse of a child.
Social workers, teachers and other professionals involved in a child’s life need to learn to recognise the symptoms of PAS. These could be in the form of a parent telling a child the details of their separation and blaming the non resident child for the breakdown in the relationship. This is destructive for a child as they will naturally think less of that parent and have sympathy for the other parent. It could also be in the form of a parent preventing the non resident child from accessing medical records or being involved in school life; or a parent listening in on their child’s phone calls with the other parent. A severe symptom of PAS, and one which is not as rare as we would hope, is when a parent informs the child that the non resident parent abused them as a child either physically, sexually or emotionally. These methods of parental alienation have a significant psychological and emotional impact on a child.
Milder forms of PAS are commonly more recognised in lengthy private law proceedings between parents. CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) have confirmed in an article dated November 2016 that 5% of children involved in a divorce/separation experience PAS. The resident parent will tell the child that the non resident parent is creating difficulties and being forceful about his contact with the child when, in fact, the non resident parent is simply fighting for the opportunity to have meaningful and regular contact with the child. The effect on a child is a feeling of guilt- guilt that they have caused the hostility between their parents which has resulted in a lengthy Court battle. The result of this could be that a child has to give evidence in Court about their wishes. This, in itself, is emotionally traumatic for a child without the fear of ‘favouring’ one parent over the other in the Court room.
Other countries have implemented fairly new legislation to prevent PAS. There is no current legislation in the United Kingdom however family lawyers, who are experiencing more and more cases involving issues of PAS, hope that the UK will follow suit. In Mexico, a parent who is guilty of parental alienation can receive a 15 year custodial sentence and, in Italy, a guilty parent can receive a fine. In spite of the lack of legislation to prevent PAS here in the UK, Judges are beginning to recognise it within family law proceedings both private and public. It has even been considered as grounds for the Local Authority issuing public law proceedings and removing the child from the parent under a Care Order which gives the Local Authority Parental Responsibility for the child. In order for the Local Authority to be able to remove a child from a parent, they have to prove that they can meet ‘Threshold’ under Section 31 (2) of the Children Act 1989: “A Court may only make a Care Order or Supervision Order if it is satisfied- (a) that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and (b) that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to (i)the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or; (ii)the child’s being beyond parental control.
If a child is subject to a severe form of PAS by the resident parent, the Local Authority can view this as that child being exposed to ‘significant harm’ and removal into foster care (or an appropriate family placement) is justified. Expert witnesses who carry out psychological and psychiatric assessments on parents or children within public proceedings now have to have a specific accreditation to deal with PAS. It is considered a very complex and destructive concept that could cause long term damage to a child which warrants Local Authority involvement.
Family lawyers who specialise in PAS believe that Mediation could avoid parental alienation. The Family Procedure Rules practise direction 12B (5.3) state that it is compulsory to attempt Mediation before making an application to Court (unless there is a qualifying exemption). Mediation provides parents with an independent forum to discuss their concerns about the other parent without involving the expense and formality of the Court system. Mediators are trained to encourage compromise between parents and to have empathy for the other parent. Every child wants a positive relationship with each child and feelings of hatred do not come naturally to children- they have to be taught. Family lawyers can live in hope that Mediation will prevent the development of PAS with the help of organisations such as Parental Alienation Awareness Organisation (PAAO)- a charity who focus on combating the syndrome.
For more information on PAS or to speak to one of our Sheffield based solicitors, call us on 0114 218 4000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.