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U.K.'s fresh approach to parental alienation shows promise

Toronto family lawyer Brian Ludmer tells AdvocateDaily.com he’s cautiously optimistic that the U.K. will improve its approach to parental alienation following comments by a senior member of a government agency. 

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Sarah Parsons, the assistant director of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), an independent public body that gets involved in family law cases involving children, announced a new approach to parental alienation that she hailed as “groundbreaking.” 

“We are increasingly recognizing that parental alienation is a feature in many of our cases and have realized that it’s absolutely vital that we take the initiative,” Parsons said.

The article reports that Cafcass has identified the phenomenon, which sees one parent turning their child against another, often during high-conflict litigation, in a significant number of its cases. 

The agency’s new regime will offer alienating parents an opportunity to change their behaviour using therapy, but threatens to remove custody from those who fail, with the possibility of permanent denial of access in extreme cases, the article reports

Ludmer, principal of LudmerLaw, says that the article caused a stir in parental alienation circles as the U.K. is generally seen as lagging behind other jurisdictions when it comes to the issue.

“Cafcass’s sensitivity to parental alienation is a welcome development,” he says. “It sounds like an ‘aha moment' where they’ve had the insight that a revolutionary strategy is needed.”

However, Ludmer says enthusiasm was tempered by the lack of firm, finalized specifics about the agency’s plan for dealing with cases where parental alienation is a factor.  

“The devil will be in the details. Cafcass has been working on a project for dealing with high-conflict cases for a very long time, but until we see how they’re going to be training their front-line workers, the jury is still out,” he says. “In the meantime, we have to be cautious about whether this new approach is going to actually produce the needed change.”  

Ludmer explains that the assessment criteria Cafcass uses for diagnosing cases of parental alienation and its causes will be critical to the success of the new approach.  

He fears that improperly trained social workers may miss some warning signs of alienation. For instance, Ludmer says it’s common for observers to place too much weight on a child’s account of a relationship with the targeted parent when it concurs with that of the allegedly alienating parent.

“When a story is too perfect, it suggests there could be a rehearsed false narrative, but the typical social worker will say it appears highly reliable,” Ludmer says.  

Another potential problem could arise in the form of so-called “hybrid cases,” the name given to matters where some of the blame for the state of the parent-child relationship is placed on the alienated parent, Ludmer says.

“It’s easy for an alienating parent to hide behind a hybrid designation,” he says, adding that the label is often attached to cases where the targeted parent reacts in a maladaptive way to their children’s bad behaviour towards them.

“Targeted parents are going to make mistakes along the way when they are frustrated by kids refusing to share their birthdays with them or who act disrespectfully or cruelly towards them. It’s unhelpful to raise your voice or retaliate verbally in these situations, but it’s human and understandable,” Ludmer says.

“When it’s called a hybrid case, some will improperly asset the estrangement is justified, but it’s never justified. Regardless of what mistakes a parent has made, you don’t trash parent-child relationships, you fix them,” he adds.

Ludmer says the complex and dynamic nature of alienation situations means agencies like Cafcass have their work cut out for them.

“Until we see their training and analytics, it’s hard to judge whether they’re really recognizing the problem properly,” he says. “If they can avoid labels and become solution-focused, then it will be a positive thing.”

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