Judges should avoid ‘parental alienation’ term, report suggests
Parental alienation is a “highly controversial” concept and the use of the term in Irish legal settings should be treated with serious caution, researchers have said.
Though the term is being used increasingly often by Irish judges, they “do not appear to use an agreed definition of [parental alienation] and this is also seen internationally”, according to a report published today.
The research was commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2021 and has been published alongside the findings of a public consultation launched in May 2022.
The 159-page report notes that the concept of parental alienation emerged in the 1980s as a result of the work of US-based Richard Gardner, who was motivated by “his perceptions of an ‘epidemic’ of false accusations of sexual abuse being made mainly by mothers against fathers in custody proceedings”.
It sets out the “four main contested areas” as “the gendered nature of the concept, the intersection between [parental alienation] and domestic violence and abuse, the extent to which the voice of the child is taken into account in the courts and the scientific basis for the concept”.
According to the report, the Irish courts are encountering claims of parental alienation in family law proceedings, and the subject has been covered in the Irish Journal of Family Law, the Bar Review and the Law Society Gazette. The concept has also “been gaining support in the political arena in Ireland”.
The researchers consider that “greater precision is required when adopting the terminology of parental alienation in legal settings”, and terms like “estrangement” are often more appropriate.
They note that there is “little empirical evidence available on the nature or prevalence of [parental alienation] in Ireland and there is no objective information on demographic, social or economic factors associated with it”, with the literature around the concept “predominantly written by authors based in the United States”.
Commenting on the publication of the report, justice minister Simon Harris said: “The research report noted a number of areas for consideration to address the issue.
“These include reform of the family courts, focussing on improved assessments and greater precision in the use of the term, training, better signposting and referral pathways to interventions.
“The findings also point to the need for additional research on amongst other things, the relationship between alienation and DSGBV, the impact of family breakdown on children-parent relationships, and children’s views of the family law system.
“Overall, the research all suggested that the means to address parental alienation lie in improvements to the Irish family courts and family justice system.”
He added: “I am aware that parental alienation is a contested issue. I also recognise that for the many people who responded to the consultation, they feel that they have been alienated from their children.
“At the same time, we know that it can also be a feature of high-conflict and DSGBV cases, where people’s safety, security and protection are paramount.
“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.
“This is about placing children at the heart of the system which is further enabled to hear them, about supporting and training legal professionals to better understand and support families with their needs and improving what we know about family justice through better data collection.”
The Parental Alienation Association Ireland (PAAI), which supports the concept, said the report included “several mistakes” and that it was “clear that the authors worked hard on it but did not understand the ‘nitty-gritty’”.
Andries van Tonder, PAAI registrar, said: “Training of all the professionals involved should be implemented urgently and no untrained professional, including legal professionals, should be allowed to act in matters of parental alienation.”