It is now a year since The Guardian published startling claims that Cafcass (in England) were introducing new polices and practice guidance that would ‘crack down’ on parents who were guilty of manipulating their children through ‘parental alienation’. It soon emerged, however, that any plans Cafcass had to address alienation were rather more vague than that, as discussed between The Transparency Project and Sarah Parsons from Cafcass here and here.

We are pleased to now be able to write an update on developments that have been, by and large, positive. Both Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru appear to be taking a considered and proportionate approach to problems that their Family Court Advisers might encounter regarding resistance to/refusal of contact – far from the dramatic headlines. The respective organisations have taken professional responses and research on board.

This is not to say that it I has become easy to make sense of parental alienation. In Part 2 of this blog post, we explain a newly published court judgment, Re D, that examines, at length, evidence of possible alienation in one family.

The Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF)

The CIAF, published by Cafcass last month, is a set of resources for practitioners to assess:

  • Domestic abuse where children have been harmed directly or indirectly, for example from the impact of coercive control.
  • Conflict which is harmful to the child such as a long-running court case or mutual hostility between parents which can become intolerable for the child.
  • Child refusal or resistance to spending time with one of their parents or carers which may be due to a range of justified reasons or could be an indicator of the harm caused when a child has been alienated by one parent against the other for no good reason.
  • Other forms of harmful parenting due to factors like substance misuse or severe mental health difficulties.

There are several documents available on the Cafcass website. It is anticipated that full training on these will have been provided by March 2019.

We are pleased to see that Cafcass has moved away from any suggestion that parental alienation is endemic, a problem that social workers should be commonly identifying, labelling and making decisions about. Instead, the guidance says that adult behaviours should not be described in terms of jargon or diagnosable conditions but only in terms of their impact on the individual child. The framework says that alienating behaviours are only one aspect of factors in children resisting contact, amongst other groups of factors: domestic abuse; harmful conflict; and harmful parenting.

One of the main concerns that we at The Transparency Project had about earlier drafts of the guidance was that they assumed that Cafcass practitioners had a role in deciding the truth in factual disputes about domestic abuse and/or alienation. The new guidance does not suggest this. It does say as follows:

Domestic abuse, conflict, alienation and other forms of harmful parenting may cause significant emotional harm to children. At the direction of the court, a primary task in Cafcass is to assess the level and impact of all types of risk to children.

Due to the complex circumstances that many children experience, it is likely that that the FCA will need to use tools and guidance from various case factors. The case factors are not designed to be linear pathways and FCAs should navigate fluidly between the different sections depending on the risks present within the case.

The only exception to this (moving fluidly between factors), is where there are features of domestic abuse and/ or harmful conflict. Domestic abuse and harmful conflict are two distinct behaviours and should not be conflated or referenced interchangeably. Where cases feature allegations or indicators of both domestic abuse and harmful conflict, FCAs must prioritise the assessment of domestic abuse and ensure that the risk is adequately reduced/ resolved before addressing harmful conflict. A screening tool has been devised to help practitioners distinguish between the two.

The Domestic Abuse Pathway has been retained in the format of a ‘pathway’ as we are familiar with this. The pathway has been updated as part of this work to bring it up to date.

The new guidance and tools on harmful conflict and child resistance / refusal, have not been set out as pathways to avoid them being overly ‘linear’ and repetitive.

There is therefore no ‘alienation pathway’, but rather an assessment framework that integrates alienating behaviours as a possible factor in the overall impact on a child. However, we can’t find an explicit statement in the principles that fact-finding is the courts’ function, not that of the FCA. We think this would be helpful, so we hope it is emphasised in the ongoing training.

Cafcass Cymru and the National Assembly for Wales

In May 2018, the Welsh Government Minister for Children responded to a petition taken to the National Assembly for Wales by Families Need Fathers as follows:

“The Welsh Government believes a child is entitled to a meaningful relationship with both parents following family separation where it is safe and in the child’s best interests. However, I am clear the welfare of the child should always be at the centre of our concerns.

“We recognise some parents can behave in a way that alienates the other from their child’s life, and that these behaviours can have a significant adverse impact on the emotional well-being of the child.

“We view parental alienation not as a syndrome or a classification, but as a set of behaviours. The most important issue for us is that these behaviours, when they occur, are appropriately dealt with using our family and parenting support programmes and the existing regulatory and legal frameworks.”

Although Families Need Fathers had previously claimed that Cafcass in England recognised parental alienation, whereas Cafcass Cymru did not, the position of both organisations now seems quite similar, in bringing the focus back from an adult agenda to the child.

Research

Cafcass Cymru commissioned a review of the research and the case law about parental alienation, which was published in April 2018 and can be accessed here.

A lengthy but very interesting research study, by Linda Neilson, on 357 cases in Canadian courts that featured claims of parental alienation has since been published.

We understand that both these pieces of work have been influential in the development of the CIAF. The judge in Re D applies the CIAF and the Cardiff research review to the evidence in the case. See part 2.

Community Care podcast

In August, Community Care made a podcast for social workers of an interview with Sarah Parsons from Cafcass (England) and Julie Doughty from Cardiff University, about parental alienation.

Why we need to be cautious about the concept of parental alienation

It is useful to remind ourselves of the origins of the whole concept of parental alienation, created by psychotherapy businesses in the USA, where unregulated ‘reunification camps’ are currently under investigation. This is the subject of a recent TV news report, ‘No oversght for programs advertising they reconnect chiildren with ‘alienated’ parents’.

Image: Hands – creative commons licence on Pixabay