Parental alienation, contact problems and the Family Justice System

Parental alienation, contact problems and the Family Justice System

Nick Bala

This presentation discussed issues of parental alienation and contact within Australia’s family justice system.

Although in high conflict separations some children maintain good relationships with both parents, many children become resistant to contact with one parent. Cases with contact problems pose great challenges for courts and other family justice professionals, in terms of ascertaining facts, understanding complex dynamics and making decisions about how to intervene in managing parent-child relationships.

In some cases the child's rejection of a parent is justified by abuse, poor parenting or tensions within a stepfamily (estrangement). Alienation occurs if one parent undermines the child's relationship with the other parent, resulting in the child's rejection of that parent based not on the child's own experiences with the rejected parent but rather reflecting the attitude of the alienating parent.

This presentation will include an analysis of reported Australian decisions on parental alienation (n=74). The decisions and the range of responses reflect the complexity and variability of these cases, as well as the challenges of finding effective interventions.

While there are various sanctions and responses available, in more severe cases, often the most effective response to alienation is a clear message that residence may be reversed; in appropriate cases the best interests of the child requires a reversal of residence arrangements, even if contrary to the wishes of the child.

While Australia has more publicly funded services than most jurisdictions, there is a need for better Court directed mental health interventions to allow for better responses to the highest conflict cases with contact problems. There needs to be early identification and assessment of high conflict cases, and case management of these most challenging cases by the most experienced family law judges.