What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation (PA) has been a challenging issue for decades for many women leaving abusive partners. In recent years, the use of PA claims has risen.
A common claim by an abusive partner is that the mother is intentionally alienating the children from him when, in fact, she is engaging in protective parenting because of her concerns for the children’s safety. For example, he may paint her opposition to allowing him to have extensive, overnight or unsupervised parenting time – because of his threats to harm or not return the children — as a campaign to prevent him from having a relationship with his children.
At the same time, some abusive men themselves engage in PA as part of their abuse of their partner. In these cases, the father attempts to turn the children against the mother, presents her as inadequate, incapable or abusive to the children in family court proceedings and interferes with her time with the kids or the decisions she makes on their behalf.
In other words, abusive men use PA in two different ways in their ongoing campaign against their children’s mother by:
- Falsely alleging the mother is alienating the children from him
- Attempting to alienate the children from her
These cases often have poor outcomes for mothers and children; in some significant part because judges and lawyers do not have adequate education and training on intimate partner violence (IPV), including coercive control and parental alienation.
Banning parental alienation
In 2023, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women issued a report on parental alienation, in which she called for, among other things, countries to ban the use of PA claims in family court cases.
In Canada, there has recently been a call by a number of women’s equality and violence against women organizations for the federal government to amend the Divorce Act to ban PA in family court cases.
We are concerned that simply banning the use of the term “parental alienation” will not solve the problem for some of the following reasons:
- Abusers sometimes engage in PA as part of their pattern of IPV; a ban would prohibit the survivor from raising it in her case
- Banning the term without other steps being taken won’t stop the claims from being made; they will instead be made using different language
- Banning a term will not improve outcomes for IPV survivors and their children unless family law lawyers and family court judges receive adequate IPV education
Instead, we need a nuanced approach that includes judicial education as well as a stepped approach when a party in a family court proceeding wants to raise the issue of PA. Coupled with high-quality IPV education for judges and others in the family court system, this approach could work well to ensure that courts respond appropriately to PA allegations and lead to good outcomes for IPV survivors and their children.