Parental alienation allegations not a 'secret weapon' in court

By Kirsten McMahon, Associate Editor

Parental alienation — a method of manipulation often used by parents during a contested divorce — can include a range of behaviours in varying degrees of severity, Toronto family lawyer Gene C. Colman tells

“The literature establishes that the phenomenon of parental alienation is there and it does occur,” says Colman, principal of Gene C. Colman Family Law Centre. “It could be one parent filling the child's head with terrible stories and impressions of the other parent, or it could be an absolutely terrible parent who, through his or her actions, has caused the child not to want to have contact.

“More often, it's somewhere in the middle,” he notes.

A recent CBC News article describes allegations of parental alienation as a “battering ram” being misused in custody battles to divert attention away from allegations of child abuse or conjugal violence.

Colman says while this may be true in a very small number of cases, making allegations of parental alienation is not "a secret weapon response."

“In my own practice, I have done an extensive amount of research on parental alienation, and I do not allege it,” he says. “But what do I allege, in the appropriate cases on the appropriate facts, are observed behaviours and the effects on the child."

Colman says the behavioural markers of parental alienation can range from mild to severe.

“One could be that mom is scheduled to have the children on Saturday and then dad plans a fun activity the kids enjoy — it could be baseball tickets or a concert — for the same day,” he says. “Another is simply bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the children. Mom says, ‘Your father is such a loser,’ for example.”

More severe cases of parental alienation can involve a parent telling outrageous stories or planting false memories in the children. In some cases, Colman says the parent may not even realize that they are undermining or marginalizing the other parent, but children pick up on it.

“There are many different types of behaviours that parents unfortunately all too often engage in that are designed to malign the other parent. And it's very sad,” he says. “If a prospective client is a parental alienator, I won't represent them.

“If the other parent is engaging in parental alienation, you try to prove that these behaviours that Parent A has exhibited are harmful to the child and let the judge draw the conclusions,” Colman says. “I try not to even use the 'PA' term because it's so emotionally loaded. But if a parent is behaving badly and insensitively, they need to be held accountable for that.”

If the behaviour is blatant and ongoing, custody may be entrusted to the parent who is the target of the alienation. However, the offending parent could be warned judicially, ordered to seek out therapy or participate in a parental reunification program, he says.

“This will involve the child and each parent individually, sometimes together, to help them gain insights into their own actions and then also to help the child,” Colman says. “Some of these programs are quite expensive if they are residential while outpatient programs take much longer to complete and are much less expensive.”

A judge could make orders such as neither adult, in the presence of the child, shall malign or speak badly about the other parent, he says. “There are also multidirectional orders that specify very clearly what behaviour is and isn’t allowed.”

Colman says Dr. Barbara Jo Fidler has some of the most respected writing and research in this area and explains the phenomenon in a non-gendered, non-judgmental fashion.

“Dr. Fidler and others have done a great deal to add to the literature in a very complicated phenomenon,” he notes.

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