This article explores the recent judgment in Re A (Children) (Parental alienation)  EWFC. Re A is a long, drawn out case involving a mother’s repeated inability to promote the children’s relationship with their father. Professionals concluded that she had at best “allowed the demonisation of the father and, at worst, actively encouraged this demonisation on the basis that it is right to do so… She is unable to perceive herself as being an agent or a cause.” This case should act as a warning to the Court and practitioners as to the very harrowing consequences of parental alienation. Re A shows how complex cases become when one parent alienates children from the other parent.
This article explores the long drawn out case of Re A (Children) (Parental alienation)  EWFC. This case is one with a central element of parental alienation, an all too common issue before the Court. The case of Re A demonstrates a mother’s ability to allow the demonisation of a father without seeing herself as an agent or cause of that demonisation. Re A stresses the significant impact such actions have on children. It should act as a warning to practitioners and the Court of the need to be alert to the issue of parental alienation and identify it at the earliest possible opportunity. This hopefully will allow for the issue to be dealt with swiftly and efficiently. The consequences of not addressing parental alienation can leave a parent vulnerable to not having contact with their children. Re A shows how complex cases become when one parent alienates children from the other parent.
My Colleague, Marie Crawford has drafted an article discussing the recent case of Re H (Parental Alienation)  EWHC 2723 (Fam) which is worth reading in conjunction with this article. In Re H the court demonstrated their willingness to change residence where the mother had alienated the child from the father; https://becket-chambers.co.uk/2019/12/17/parental-alienation-are-the-courts-more-willing-to-intervene/.
In 2011, the father initiated private law proceedings which continued until 2014. In 2014, following a lengthy 3-year litigation battle, there was an intended final hearing where there was some limited evidence was heard. An order was made that the father should only have indirect contact with the children. I remind the reader of Section 1 (2A) of the Children Act 1989 as amended by Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 which states that Courts are to presume that, “unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare”.
In this case the father was described as being “smart, thoughtful, fluent in language and receptive to advice”. There were no concerns or even suggestions that there was anything about the father that rendered him unsuitable to having contact with his children. Therefore, the order to allow only indirect contact was somewhat draconian in nature.
Unfortunately, despite being a father who was described as one who “plainly loves his children”, it seems that the mother frustrated the court order. The lack of compliance with the 2014 order led to the proceedings being resumed in 2016. All experts repeated that the mother was alienating the father from his children. The mother was, to say the least, emotionally vulnerable. She allowed her views and perceptions of the father to be known by the children. HHJ Wildblood QC found that she was “aware of the consequences of her actions upon the children’s emotional welfare but considers that her actions are justified.” Her repeated demonisation of the father caused the children’s views to become totally dominated by that of their mother. The children unfortunately became entrenched in their views that they no longer wanted any contact with their father. As a result of this demonisation the children came to develop false memories of their father from the past.
Arrangements were made for the children to move from the care of their mother to their father in 2017. This was in the hope that the children would be away from the influence of their mother and be able to develop a relationship with their father. Following the hearing of evidence from witnesses and experts, it was ordered that the children should live with their father for a period of just over seven weeks on the basis that they would not see their mother during that time. Unsurprisingly, giving the mother’s resistance to the views of others, the handover went extremely badly. The children became extremely resistant to the attempts to place them with the father. Within a short period of time, the children ran away from their father several times, refused to eat and exhibited extreme distress. Despite expert views that the children would eventually settle with their father, less than a month later the children were returned to their mother. They have remained there since with the father having no more contact. In a display of the children’s refusal to have contact with their father (and portrayal of how damaged their views of him were), one of the children notified the Court that they no longer wished to engage with any of the professionals appointed to assist the family.
Interwoven with the private law application, public law proceedings were issued. At the time of initiating proceedings, all parties accepted that the threshold criteria was met on both limbs of section 31 (2). However, following the father withdrawing his applications, all parties submitted that the continuation of the public law proceedings and the making of supervision orders would serve no purpose now and, in the exceptional circumstances, would be contrary to the welfare of the children.
In 2019, with what can only be a broken heart, the father accepted that there were no longer any private law orders he could seek in relation to the children. The private law proceedings were withdrawn. One can only hope that in time the children recognise their father’s attempts to have contact with him.
HHJ Wildblood QC provided a very helpful judgment highlighting how very wrong these cases can go. Within his penultimate words, HHJ considered that there were ten factors which had contributed significantly to the difficulties that had arisen in this case:
- “There was a failure to identify, at an early stage, the key issue in this case – the alienation of the children from their father by the mother. By the time that it was identified, the damage had been done.
- Overall, there has been significant delay within these proceedings.
- At the early stage of the private law proceedings, the case was adjourned repeatedly for further short reviews. I have counted that there were eight orders for review hearings in the first two years of the private law proceedings alone. That occurred, of course, before the current Children Arrangements Programme (PD 12B of The Family Procedure Rules 2010) came into force on 22nd April 2014. Paragraph 15.3 of that Programme now states: ‘While it is acknowledged that an interim order may be appropriate at an early stage of court proceedings, cases should not be adjourned for a review (or reviews) of contact or other orders / arrangements and/or for addendum section 7 reports, unless such a hearing is necessary and for a clear purpose that is consistent with the timetable for the child and in the child’s best interests.‘ Therefore, I think it very unlikely that there would a succession of review hearings like this now; this is an example of just how necessary the changes made by the Programme in this respect were.
- At no point prior to my involvement in 2017 was there a full hearing on evidence to determine what was going on in this family. There were underlying and important allegations of fact that needed to be resolved but my comment is not limited to the absence of a fact-finding hearing. In my opinion, it was essential that there should be a definitive judgment explaining the difficulties within this family so that future work with the family members could be based upon that judgment.
- The use of indirect contact in a case where there is parental alienation has obvious limitations, as this case demonstrates. The father’s letters, cards and presents were being sent by him into a home environment where he was ‘demonised’, to use the terminology of Dr Berelowitz. They served no purpose in maintaining any form of relationship between the father and the children. It is regrettable that there was not more perseverance in the earlier private proceedings to resolve the obstructions to contact.
- These proceedings have seen a vast number of professionals. I have counted 10 and I am sure that I have omitted some. The difficulty that that creates is obvious. Each new person brings a new, personal and different insight into a case of this nature. Family members (especially children) are embarrassed about speaking of personal issues with strangers, develop litigation fatigue and learn to resent the intrusions into their lives by a succession of professional people. As the children have done, people reach a stage where they say: ‘no more.’
- A particular difficulty in this case has been the absence, at times, of collaborative working by professionals. A particular example of that occurred when an attempt was made to move the children to the father’s care. The professionals involved with the court process and the schools had not had sufficient dialogue before that move was attempted and now have very strong and opposing opinions about what occurred and the merits of moving the children from the mother. Pre-planning for the move was inadequate, in my opinion. If professional people show their disagreements, as happened here on the day of transfer, it undermines the process and allows cherry-picking by family members of what they want to hear.
- Early intervention is essential in a case such as this, in my opinion. It did not occur in this case. It took years (probably five) to identify the extent of the emotional and psychological issues of the mother. By that stage it was too late for there to be any effective psychotherapeutic or other intervention in relation to her, the children’s views having already become so entrenched.
- There is an obvious difficulty about how to approach the expressed wishes and feelings of children who are living in an alienating environment such as this. If children who have been alienated are asked whether they wish to have a relationship with the non-resident parent there is a likelihood that the alienation they have experienced will lead them to say ‘no.’ Therefore, in this type of case, the approach to the wishes and feelings of children has had to be approached with considerable care and professionalism. To respond simply on the basis of what children say in this type of situation is manifestly superficial and naive. The children in this case have been expressing wishes that they should not see their father for many years now. The lack of an effective and early enquiry into what was happening within this family meant that there was no effective intervention. That, in turn, has led to the children’s expressed wishes being reinforced in their minds. It has also resulted in the mother being able to say ‘we should listen to the children’, rather than addressing the underlying difficulties.
- It was unfortunate that the joinder of the children to the second set of proceedings was so delayed. I was due to embark upon the first final hearing before me two years ago with these two parents appearing in person. It is fortunate that the case was adjourned for other reasons and I was able to take that opportunity to join the children. Any attempt to conduct these proceedings without the joinder of the children would have been even more complex and unsatisfactory.”
It is the duty of both the Court and practitioners to recognise at the earliest possible opportunity when the issue of parental alienation arises and address this issue accordingly. It is hoped that if the key issue is addressed early enough, it will avoid any damage which is caused by the delay. Practitioners must also be mindful of the limitations of indirect contact when there is an issue of parental alienation. In such cases, clear expert evidence will be required. Practitioners must persevere in the early stages to resolve any obstructions to contact. Whilst these points may seem basic, they are often forgotten in the desire to have a swift conclusion to cases.