Shocking: Parental alienation – the stark reality of poisonous parents

1 August 2021

The issue of parental alienation has been gaining public awareness for a number of years as more and more cases come before the courts.

It is broadly defined as when a child who had a previously healthy relationship with their parent begins to reject this parent, seemingly without justification.

Alienated parents often claim that this rejection occurs due to the psychological manipulation of the child’s other parent.

Commonly, it occurs during parental separation.

Campaigners say that, sometimes, parental alienation is a continuation of domestic abuse, where the abusive parent turns their children against their current or former partner.

In other cases, parental alienation can occur during a high-conflict divorce, despite the couple having a previously healthy relationship.

Most importantly, parental alienation is not when an abusive parent is denied access to a child, or a child becomes estranged from their abusive parent.

While there is debate among psychologists, lawyers, and social workers about the use of the term ‘parental alienation’ and its effects, it is clear there are parents out there who are being unreasonably denied access to their children.

A support group called Alienated Children First has been campaigning for the Government to recognise parental alienation as a genuine issue.

In October 2019, the Report on Reform of the Family Law System was published, which called for changes to be made to family law in Ireland.

The report recommended that “consideration be given as to whether laws should be amended to take into account situations where one parent is wrongfully influencing their child or children against the other parent, thereby creating unfair and unwarranted alienation that can be destructive and life lasting”.

The report also pointed out that in other jurisdictions such as Canada, judges presiding over family law cases have yearly training on estrangement, parental alienation, and parental coaching.

The Department of Justice’s recently published Action Plan for 2021 says it will conduct research into the issue in quarter three of this year.

However, for many parents, this research comes too late, as they already feel like strangers to their own children.

Brian O’Sullivan, psychotherapist

Brian O’Sullivan, a psychotherapist based in Dublin, is one of the few people who has conducted academic research into parental alienation in Ireland.

He conducted a study into the phenomenon with ethical permissions from the Human Research Ethics Committee at University College Dublin in 2014, and he completed the research in 2016.

Mr O’Sullivan has acted as an expert witness in private family law proceedings where parental alienation is considered a factor. He is also a trained mediator.

“One of the key findings of my research was the pervasive psychological, emotional, and physical harm to the parents. The rate incidence of active suicidal ideation emerged very strongly from the data,” he says.

Mr O’Sullivan says that all of his participants were self-employed professionals, and all but one ended up losing their job or business. 

Many ended up abusing substances and becoming depressed. They lost everything.”

The participants said there was very little understanding of parental alienation. 

“When these parents reached out to social and mental health professionals, they were essentially disbelieved and misunderstood, and were re-traumatised.”

Mr O’Sullivan added that at the time of the study, participants claimed there was also little understanding among the legal profession. 

“The rate of legal fees paid by these parents [was very high] also. I had people who were paying €40,000 and above in legal fees.”

Another trend that emerged from the study was that, often, the extended family of the child’s alienated parent was also cut out.

Mr O’Sullivan says the alienation has a profoundly damaging effect on the parent and the child.

He is also keen to stress that parental alienation is not a gender-based phenomenon. “Men and women are equally likely to be victims or perpetrators.”

Mr O’Sullivan also explains that if a child has witnessed or been subjected to domestic violence and the abusing parent is denied access as a result, this is not parental alienation.

“In Ireland, we have an international evidence-based model of assessment, where we can identify whether we are dealing with a bona fide case of parental alienation.

“The good thing about having this model of assessment is that when an abusive or neglectful parent alleges that the healthy normal range parent is engaging in parental alienation, this can be examined.

“That is a perpetuation of abuse and a misuse of the construct and that cannot be tolerated. It does a disservice to the genuine parents who are suffering.”

Mr O’Sullivan also delivers an evidence-based model of intervention with families, and the aim is for the child to navigate back to having a relationship with both of their parents. “It’s about vindicating the rights of the child.”

He says early intervention is critical to prevent parental alienation from becoming permanent. 

This is real and it’s happening every day, but there is very little support nationally.”

Mr O’Sullivan says that while there are debates about the term, he believes that parental alienation should be considered a form of psychological and emotional abuse. “Professionals and practitioners need to respond to it as they would with other forms of child abuse.”

Mr O’Sullivan says, anecdotally, there has been more interest in the issue from the legal profession in the past two years. 

“There are a significant minority in the judiciary and legal profession who are determined to draw upon evidence-based best practice and make the firm, proactive decisions required to optimise the interests of the child.”

Anne O’Neill, solicitor

Anne O’Neill, principal of Anne O’Neill Solicitors in Cork, says parental alienation “is much more common than anyone realises”. She wrote an article about parental alienation for her website, and after this was published, she was contacted by numerous parents.

She says the issue affects both mothers and fathers and adds that many alienated parents are in such turmoil they cannot get help or access the legal system.

“Unfortunately, most parents who come to me have been in the system for years, and were embittered, upset, and didn’t have much hope,” she tells the  Irish Examiner.

Ms O’Neill says early intervention is critical to prevent parental alienation from becoming entrenched. 

“We need to get couples into alternative dispute resolutions at a very early point.”

She adds that the longer the alienation goes on, the more likely the child will be harmed. 

“I think it does become a form of child abuse… research has shown that children who are caught in conflict have worse outcomes.

“When people’s relationships break down, they may not be able to respond in a healthy way. They will convince themselves that their partner is a bad person and should not see their children.”

However, Ms O’Neill adds that, in some instances, there can be an element of abuse. In her experience, alienated fathers can be subjected to psychological abuse or “mind games”. For alienated mothers, she says they have often experienced violence and threats, as well as psychological abuse.

The Cork solicitor says a whole range of specialities, such as psychologists, solicitors, and social workers need to come together to first recognise the scale of the problem and then work towards a solution.

“We need a holistic approach. The judiciary is only catching up. Many psychologists and social workers are still not entirely convinced [that this is an issue].

“Expert help is not really there, except for a few psychologists who are working in this area. We need more psychologists who are trained on this issue, they need to be able to make reports and come to court.”

She adds that she wants to be able to offer clients more than the court system. 

“The court system is a blunt instrument. These situations can deeply affect people, and it’s hard to say ‘we need to be objective, we need to strategise’. Losing a child is very emotional.”

She says mediation, family and individual counselling should be a starting point for couples who break up.

Ms O’Neill also explains that a child has the right to know both their parents under Irish law. 

When we go to court, what we are actually arguing about is the child’s rights.

With regards to going to court, Ms O’Neill says there is a provision in the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 which could help parents experiencing parental alienation.

The amended section 18A allows for an enforcement order to be made when a parent is “unreasonably” denied access to their child by another guardian or parent of the child.

The enforcement order can only be granted if it is in the best interests of the child.

The terms of the original court order can also be extended to provide additional access, to make up for lost time.

The amendment also has a provision for ordering the respondent to reimburse the legal cost of the applicant (the alienated parent).

People can also be court-ordered to attend counselling, parenting courses, and mediation.

However, Ms O’Neill says this law needs to be used more. 

“The act is quite advanced. It allows the judge to sanction for failure to obey orders, and it’s not about locking the other parent up. There are always ways in between to solve these issues.”

Angela’s story: I have been without my children for seven years

Angela’s children are now all over the age of 18, but the parental alienation started when her children were younger teenagers.

After her marriage broke down, she separated from her husband. “There was alcohol and domestic violence.”

Angela says she still wanted her children to have a relationship with their father. “I wanted to be amicable for the sake of the children. I didn’t realise that he was planting the seed in their heads.”

She said her eldest son started becoming very confrontational with her.

Her daughter started to turn to her father when her mother said no. “He was giving her money, new mobile phones, I couldn’t compete with it.”

After her grades started to slip and their relationship became strained, Angela’s daughter moved in with her father permanently. “I just wanted her to be happy, and was hoping her schoolwork would improve. I was hoping she’d come and go between the two houses.”

Eventually, her other children also moved in with their father.

Angela and her younger son would have been close. 

One day he said to me his father was coming to collect him, but he meant he was going to go live with his father. I nearly smashed the car with the shock.

She assumed her children would move between the two houses. “I was getting to see my youngest son less and less, and eventually I wasn’t getting to see him at all.”

One time when she was dropping off her younger son, her ex-husband threatened to take away her children for good. “That’s exactly what he’s done.”

She adds that she didn’t have the money to go to court to fight for sole custody. In any case, because her children were older, they could express their wishes about which parent they wanted to live with. “I knew they could be coerced into speaking against me.”

Angela says for the majority of her children’s upbringing, she always looked after their educational, health, and wellbeing needs.

Initially, she thought she had somehow failed her children by not giving them enough time and attention. “I was a single mother trying to hold down a full-time job and pay the household bills.

“I did not realise that my children were very subtly brainwashed behind my back into treating me with contempt and disrespect.”

She had to leave work due to the stress. “It’s just horrendous, I have been without my children for seven years.”

After she went to Women’s Aid for help with the domestic violence, she found out there was a name for what was happening to her. “A woman working there told me what I was going through was parental alienation — but they weren’t able to give me specific support for it.”

Angela feels like there is a stigma when parental alienation happens to a mother. “People think ‘she must have done something to deserve it’.”

Angela met her daughter and younger son before Christmas, but because so much time passed, it is hard to reconnect. “I am looking at them and they are all grown up now.”

She adds that it must be hard for her children too. “By eroding me, they are having to deny a part of themselves.”

For years, it was too painful to look at their photographs. “Some days you wake up and think, ‘did I even have children’? It’s like a living bereavement.”

Sam’s story: I am shut out of my children’s lives. I basically don’t exist anymore

Sam experienced domestic violence from his wife during their marriage.

He has not lived in the family home for a few years, but he says his wife started turning their children against him before they separated.

“I was isolated from the family meals, watching TV, birthdays, Christmas, schooling, medical matters, and hobbies.

“I was basically alienated from nearly every part of their lives unless it suited her, but that was rarely.”

Sam says his living situation became very emotionally abusive. “The psychological abuse was very subtle initially and then became very volatile after she started the separation.

“She got all of our children involved. It created peer pressure; they were all just ripping into me, humiliating and mocking me. Other times they completely ignored me and would not even look in my direction.”

Sam says the pictures of him with their children were taken away from the home. “She used to take the kids away at Christmas so I was on my own. She was also having affairs.”

While Sam tried to go to court to fight for access to their children, nothing changed. “If the children are older, their wishes are taken into account. They could be convinced to speak out against the alienated parent, so the court process can end up rubber-stamping the alienation.”

Sam also experienced false accusations of domestic abuse and safety concerns, but the authorities did not investigate as they did not believe the accusations were credible, and Sam already had a protection order against his wife for his own safety.

Sam says he knows of other alienated fathers and mothers who were also wrongfully accused.

“If the allegations are serious enough, they have to be investigated, and the parent often will have to leave the family home and won’t be able to see their children.

“By the time they are cleared, it is nearly too late, as a lot of damage can be done to their relationship with their children by then.”

He adds that this does a disservice to both women and men who are real victims of domestic abuse.

Sam feels that he didn’t receive much support from services. “I pleaded for intervention several times to stop the abuse and alienation, but I felt like they didn’t want to know.

I felt like I was the wrong gender, nobody seemed to care about male domestic abuse or the fact that the children were being involved in the abuse.

Sam says his entire family of origin were also alienated from his children.

“I feel completely helpless. I am completely shut out of our children’s lives, I basically don’t exist anymore.”

Sam has very limited contact with his children. He has tried texting them and sending them money and cards on their birthdays and at Christmas, but to no avail mostly.

“I have not been allowed to buy them gifts for years. Sometimes, cards I gave them were torn up and put in the bin.

“I think in six years I got a happy birthday text once or twice, but no cards. I don’t get a Father’s Day text or card, I have been told that I am not their father any longer.”

He adds that the impact on children should be central to any discussion of parental alienation. “It’s happening to them as well,” he says.

“It is crushing to be honest, it is like torture being alienated from your children, especially when state services fail to intervene appropriately to stop it.”

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