What are the legal implications of parental alienation?

Co-Authored by Lisa Wagner and Ashleigh Middlin, Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers. Republished with permission.

Parental alienation is a term which is used to describe when one parent (the “alienating” parent) behaves in a certain way to undermine and damage the other parent’s relationship with a child.

Whilst this term is considered to be controversial and there is a reluctance by the Court to label certain behaviour as this, it is apparent that behaviour which falls under this definition is becoming more and more common, particularly when there are parenting proceedings on foot. The uncertainty arising from COVID-19, is likely to see an increase of these cluster of behaviours.

Case Law

In determining what is in the best interests of the child, the Court must consider primary considerations as set out in Section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975, being:

1.     The benefit of the child having a meaningful relationship with both of the child’s parents; and

2.     The need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence.

Although there is reticence for the Family and Federal Circuit Court to identify and label a parent’s behaviour as “parental alienation”, there have been numerous cases where the Court has recognised such behaviour and accordingly, made orders to change primary residence in circumstances where one parent poses an unacceptable risk of harm. 

In Lankester v Cribb [2018] FamCACF 60 (6 April 2018), the Mother was the primary carer of a nine-year-old child and it was alleged by the Mother that the Father of the child had sexually abused her.

During the course of the proceedings, evidence was produced demonstrating that the Mother had been frequently questioning the child about sexual abuse including, on one occasion, having recorded the conversation and the child’s complaints. Whilst there had been medical examinations of the child and an assessment undertaken by the Department which concluded there was no evidence of sexual abuse, it was the Mother’s view that the Father had sexually abused the child.

After the Family Consultant met with the parents and child, it was expressed by the Consultant that in their opinion as a result of the Mother’s behaviour, namely the unfounded allegations, the child would be “exposed to continuing distress and confusion about her relationship with [the Father] whilst she lives with [the Mother]”. Further, that as a result of the Mother’s behaviour, each changeover would be a “highly stressful experience” for the child which would likely affect the child’s emotional and social development, in turn impacting upon the child’s capacity to connect positively with her Father.

Although the Court recognised that changing a child’s primary residence may result in grief, loss, confusion and a high level of stress, these adverse consequences were considered to be outweighed by the risk the Mother posed to the child should the child continue to live with her. On the basis that the Mother posed an unacceptable risk of harm to the child while in her care, the Court ordered that the child’s time with the Mother be suspended for a period of six months, after which time there be a staged reintroduction of time (including planned supervised and unsupervised time) with the Mother.

Similarly, in Goldman v Goldman [2018] FamCACF 65 (12 April 2018), the Court changed the primary residence of the two children (aged 11 and 13) as a result of the Mother’s behaviour. This was largely based on the Single Expert’s opinion that the children had a “close dependent relationship” with the Mother which was “not conducive to good future mental health”. The Court also formed the view that the Mother was entirely focused on punishing the Father by “… turning the children’s affections away from him” which in turn caused emotional harm to the children and posed a continuing unacceptable risk of harm to them.

The consequences of parental alienation

As a consequence of the Mother’s behaviour, a change of residence was ordered which resulted in the children living with the Father. The Court also ordered that the children’s time with the Mother be suspended for a period of four weeks, after which the children spent supervised time with the Mother for one year, and thereafter in accordance with a gradual and incremental increase of unsupervised time. 

It is not often seen that the Court orders a change of residence for children from one parent to another. Where it is established, however, that one parent’s behaviour has (and will continue to) harmfully impact a child and/or their relationship with the other parent, the Court will consider such an outcome. This is the case even if such behaviour is not labelled as “parental alienation”.

Disclaimer:

These posts are only intended as an overview or comment on current issues that may interest you and are not legal advice. If there are any matters that you would like us to advise you on, then please contact Doolan Family Lawyers.