Parental alienation is a term that was first used in the 1970s to describe the scenario of a child being alienated from one parent by another. British courts tend to prefer the term ‘implacable hostility’, although this is arguably not quite comparable. Parental alienation is a condition that is located within the child who becomes rejecting of the alienated parent, whereas implacable hostility describes an intransigient conflict between parents.
A review of research and case law on ‘parental alienation’ (commissioned by Cafcass Cymru), has just been published (Doughty et al, 2018). The review suggests a paucity of robust emprical evidence, poor generalisability of studies to date on the topic, and much confusion and disagreement around definitions of the term itself. The review can be accessed through this link:
A Review of Research and Case Law on Parental Alienation
This review was brought to our attention by an adoptive parent who explained that parental alienation was experienced by their child whilst they were subjected to discrimination and extreme hostility from adversarial parties in care proceedings. They relayed how the corporate parent, with whom parental responsibility was shared, was in effect a powerful alienating parent who had been able to systematically destroy their relationship with their child and continually put forward negative views about them. Contact with their child, who was cared for by foster carers after the adopters had reported safeguarding concerns, was constrained, and restricted. They explained that at the beginning of the care proceedings their child had wished to come home, but by the end of the proceedings their child had come to totally reject them. The proceedings, which took nine months, concluded with a costly contested hearing, which they tried to avoid, through the appointment of an adoption expert, to bring about shared understanding. They were thwarted at every stage by other parties purporting to represent the child’s ‘best interests’, and had no legal assistance. All the judge could do in the end was use their application for discharge of the Care Order to pressurise the local authority to identify another foster care placement, when the fourth foster carer had handed in their notice just prior to the final hearing. Their previously looked after child was completely de-stabilised and has since had to move foster carers again, even though the case only concluded in March. He has been excluded from school and now lives in a residential care home. He has two loving parents who sought help – but the corporate parent refuses to work positively and supportively with them.
It seems highly unlikely this tragic case of a broken adoptive family is an isolated one, based on our experiences; based on other cases we are hearing about, and based on the findings of a survey we conducted in January 2018 on parental and caregiver stress. We identified that family time/ contact arrangements, with a previously looked after child who was not living with parents or the special guardian, was a significant source of stress for 48/290 adopters and special guardians who answered this particular survey question (remaining respondents ticked ‘Not Applicable’).
|Family time/contact time if child is living away from you – N=290|
The weighted average was a stress score of 2.14, putting it slightly above ‘coping with your child’s issues, problems or challenging behaviours’, which respondents had scored at 2.13.
When contact arrangements put in place by the local authority/corporate parent are causing more stress to parents and caregivers living apart from their children, than the challenging behaviours of their children, we need to ask questions about what exactly is going on – especially when cases have gone to court. It is deeply distressing to be judged against problematic thresholds such as ‘Beyond Parental Control’ in courts of law when parenting or caring for a child with mental health problems, which make them very difficult to ‘control’ for anyone. Many adopted and special guardianship children re-entering care will be on Section 20 Care Orders – a voluntary order that must be used to access respite, which is not provided under the Adoption Support Fund unless it has a therapeutic component for the child. Sometimes it seems the Adoption Support Fund is not properly thought through.
Our children can so easily have earlier traumas of family separation re-evoked by going back into care. This is such a difficult time for our children and us, and we need sensitivity and understanding, not adversarial pressures from local authorities who may have other agendas – in terms of covering negligence, failure to support, or misunderstandings about us due to the ‘prism of risk’ (see BASW enquiry), through which we are seen, and which can be so harmful. It is far too easy to look at the behaviour of a troubled child and attribute the problems to lack of parental capacity – in the teenage years.
If the corporate parent is, under austerity measures social care, becoming an adversarial and alienating one towards adopters and special guardians, then this is something that needs to be considered by policymakers and legislators to ensure vulnerable children, especially children who are previously looked after, and may have pre-existing attachment problems, are safe and protected.
SG&AT is trying to raise awareness of what can go wrong in adoption and special guardianship – and to work together with others to try to find creative solutions to difficult problems.
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