Abusive parents are using the Family Law system in order to gain access to their children, by making what is known as “Parental Alienation” claims. Parental Alienation is defined as the deliberate actions of one parent to disrupt and prevent a child’s ongoing relationship with their other parent, including such actions as:
- Denigrating the other parent in front of the child.
- Condemning aspects of the child’s appearance or conduct as being just like the other parent.
- Expressing anger if the child speaks positively about the other parent.
- Preventing communication between the child and the other parent.
According to a Brunel University London article, new research shows that in the UK, estranged fathers with an alleged or proven history of domestic abuse can use Parental Alienation claims to discredit mothers and gain parenting time with their children.
The study examined all 40 reported and published private Family Law judgments in England and Wales, from 2000 to 2019, in which Parental Alienation was raised. Some of the study’s findings included:
- Parental Alienation has become part of a shrewd rhetoric in custody battles concerning children, including those who experienced domestic abuse.
- The research identified a pattern of abusive parents, usually the father, accusing the parent with custody of alienating the children against them.
- Findings from the reviewed cases also showed mothers had little to no success when claiming Parental Alienation, despite evidence that the fathers were abusive and controlling, suggesting a one-sided dimension to Parental Alienation.
- Allegations of domestic abuse are often not properly investigated and could even be viewed by courts and professionals as ‘evidence’ of Parental Alienation.
Dr Adrienne Barnett, who conducted the research, states:
Playing the Parental Alienation card is proving more powerful than any other in silencing the voices of women and children resisting contact with abusive men. Parental Alienation is not an equal counterpart to domestic abuse, it is a means of obscuring domestic abuse, and should be recognised as such.
We need to find other ways of talking about children’s welfare that recognise children’s interlinked vulnerability, agency and relationships before any further harm is done to them.
In Australia, mothers who defy court orders to expose their children to further abuse by their father face escalating consequences of education courses, fines, imprisonment and reversal of custody, with restricted and supervised contact.
Generally, the court presumes it will be in the child’s best interests for both parents to have equal parenting responsibility. In cases of Parental Alienation claims, the courts often value the child’s “right to contact” with both parents over their “right to safety” from abuse. Paradoxically, this failure to properly protect children from parental violence creates the circumstances where mothers are increasingly choosing to run away with their children, rather than handing them over to their abusive partners. This in turn is used to justify a reversal of custody.
Legislative reform to the Family Law Act to privilege children’s safety, alongside the establishment of a national child protection service, are two necessary steps in improving outcomes for children from families with histories of domestic violence and child abuse.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse or family violence there is help available. Call the Domestic Violence Hotline on 1800 656 463, or visit the NSW FACS website.
If you need legal assistance with any Family Law matter, then contact Greg Martin or Jacqueline Wainwright on (02) 9687 9322.