Divorcing parents who poison children against their former partner could lose custody

'The demonising of a parent, usually by the one with whom the child lives, has long been recognised as damaging'

Charity Relate advise on how to talk to children about separation and divorce

Divorcing parents could lose custody or be denied contact with their children if they attempt to poison them against their former partner, under the rules of a new pilot scheme.

The “groundbreaking” initiative, being trialled by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), is designed to tackle the problem officially known as “parental alienation” where one parent turns a child against the other so they do not want to see them.

Cafcass - which has been criticised for being slow to tackle the issue - said the problem is widespread and occurs in a substantial number of the 125,000 cases it deals with annually.

Assistant director of Cafcass, an independent organisation which works to represent the interests of children in family court cases, Sarah Parsons, said: “We are increasingly recognising that parental alienation is a feature of many of our cases and have realised that it’s absolutely vital that we take the initiative.

“Our new approach is groundbreaking.”

From spring 2018, frontline Cafcass caseworkers will be issued with guidelines known as the “high conflict pathway” setting out steps social workers should take when dealing with suspected cases of parental alienation.

The pathway will spell out at what stage children should be removed from the parent responsible for the alienation and placed with the “target parent”.

A father who was the victim of alienation, speaking anonymously, told the Guardian: “I’ve lived through and witnessed the inexorable alienation of my older daughter over the past five years, which has culminated in complete loss of contact.

“I will not have seen or heard from her for three years this coming January. We had a fantastic, loving relationship for the first 12 years of her life.

“This is a horrible form of child abuse that is struggling to get out from under the rock of prejudice and ignorance.”

The organisation Families Need Fathers, which campaigns for the rights of dads following relationship breakdown, said the move was a positive step.

The charity’s director, Jerry Karlin, said: “This is very welcome news and we trust a measure of Cafcass’s good faith in this area.

“Parental alienation is identified as the single biggest issue among those who come to Families Need Fathers seeking help.

“The demonising of a parent, usually by the one with whom the child lives, has long been recognised as damaging the child not only at the time of separation but reaching into his or her adult life. It is not ‘normal’.

“We have pressed for many years for Cafcass and others involved in the family law process to inform themselves of the many faces of parental alienation but also stiffen their sinews in dealing with it.”

In a Parliamentary debate this week, MPs called for the end of “antiquated” divorce law which requires fault to be attached to one party.

Conservative MP Suella Fenandes told the Westminster Hall debate: “It is time for no-fault divorce. As the recent Court of Appeal case of Owens showed, not all marriages end because of fault. However, we have a law that promotes the farce of allocating blame, setting parties on a needlessly confrontational path that only fuels animosity and costs.”

Sir Oliver Heald, a Conservative barrister and family QC, sounded a note of caution when he said that not all cases of alleged parental alienation were genuine and there could be other reasons why children wanted to reduce contact with a parent.

Pointing to a 2012 study by Professor Liz Trinder of Exeter University which found that alienating behaviour from mothers was a factor in only around five per cent of 215 cases of enforcement applications relating to child contact orders, he said: “I do not for one moment wish to diminish the impact of parental alienation when it occurs.

“As I have already made clear, such behaviour is unacceptable, but it is important to understand that what may appear to be alienating behaviour by a resident parent may, in fact, be the result of other concerns. It is a mixed, complicated picture.”

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