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No common definition of ‘parental alienation’ – paper

25 May 2023 / family law Print

No common definition of ‘parental alienation’ – paper

A policy paper published by the Department of Justice has made several recommendations aimed at addressing what has been called ‘parental alienation’.

This follows the publication today (25 May) of the results of a public consultation and a research report on the issue commissioned by the department.

Parental alienation refers to a process through which a child becomes estranged from a parent as the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.

It may also refer to situations where one parent is wrongfully wielding influence to turn a child against the other parent.

Assessment ‘challenges’

The research found that, while there was evidence of the use of the term in Irish courts, there was no common definition or description of it.

The report also found that the scientific basis for the concept, and for studies identifying its existence, lacked methodological rigour.

It said that there had been “challenges” in relation to assessing parental alienation, particularly through the assessment or expert-report process used in family courts (often known as section 32 reports or section 47 reports).

The report found that the courts had ordered “a narrow range of interventions” in cases where parental alienation was alleged to have occurred.

These included family and parent-oriented therapeutic interventions and directions and, in other jurisdictions, transfer of custody.

Public consultation

The department has also published the findings of a public consultation on the concept of parental alienation.

It said that fewer than 20% of individual respondents called for legislative change on the issue, and that the nature of the suggested changes was mixed.

“Overall, the research all suggested that the means to address parental alienation lie in improvements to the Irish family-courts and family-justice system,” said Minister for Justice Simon Harris.

Contested issue

The policy paper’s recommendations include:

  • Give priority to children’s voices being heard and considered by the court, and support them in their journey through the system,
  • Examine how expert reports are conducted, what they contain and how assessors are appointed, and provide additional training for those tasked with compiling assessments,
  • Review assessment tools currently available to the courts, with a view to making recommendations to improve them,
  • Support and extend family-support services — including alternative dispute resolution — and make them more accessible,
  • Improve the training and awareness amongst legal professionals and others involved in high-conflict proceedings to increase their understanding of concepts and descriptors associated with behaviours of parents and children in these situations,
  • Actions to establish, and in some areas improve, data collection on family justice issues.

Minister Harris said that, while he was aware that parental alienation was a contested issue, he recognised that many of those who responded to the consultation felt that they had been alienated from their children.

“Reflecting the complex nature of the issue, the recommendations contained in the policy paper which I brought to Government this week underpin the need to see the matter through a broader family-justice lens,” he stated.

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