Mothers who have experienced intimate partner violence are often accused of being “alienating” in family court. In December 2022, the National Association of Women and the Law submitted a brief to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to fight back against this phenomenon. Twenty-eight Canadian organizations endorsed our submission!
What is the problem with “parental alienation” accusations?
“Parental alienation” theory refers to the belief that, when a child does not want to see their father, it is because they have been improperly influenced by their mother. This belief system, which lacks a scientific basis, is increasingly being used to punish mothers who are seen as “hostile” or “vindictive”, or who oppose contacts between the child and the father. Research shows that, while “parental alienation” presents itself as a gender-neutral theory, it is mothers who are more likely to be found alienating, and that victims of intimate partner violence are particularly at risk. Indeed, a mother who reports family violence, who asks to be the primary caregiver, or who expresses concerns about the father’s parental capacity is often suspected of alienation, even if she has done nothing to denigrate the father. This phenomenon is of particular concern to NAWL given that it can have a chilling effect on the reporting of family violence.
The logic of “parental alienation” leads to victim-blaming: victims of intimate partner violence are blamed for the father’s violence or for its consequences. A finding of “parental alienation” can lead judges to place children in the care of abusive fathers, even when intimate partner violence is proven or admitted by the father!
The assumption in these court cases is that mothers should be responsible for the quality of the father-child bond. This expectation places victims of intimate partner violence in multiple double binds:
- If the child fears or rejects the father, the mother is suspected of hostility or alienation. If the child loves the father, the mother is blamed for asking for primary parenting time despite a positive father-child bond.
- If the mother does not voluntarily grant additional parenting time to the father, she is framed as intransigent and alienating. If the mother voluntarily grants additional parenting time to the father, her safety concerns are seen as exaggerated (she also risks being blamed by child protection services for not being able or willing to protect the child if the father ends up being violent towards the child).
- If the mother does not go out of her way to foster a positive father-child bond (which may not even have existed pre-separation), she is blamed for not prioritizing the father-child bond. If she does, her allegations of violence or lack of paternal parental capacity are not credible.
- If the mother acts unilaterally (e.g., by relocating with the child or refusing to allow parenting time with the father), she is harshly judged and even punished. If she instead goes to court, her legal positions are taken as evidence of hostility or alienation, even in the absence of denigration of the father.
Our brief about “parental alienation” accusations
Ending violence against women is one of NAWL’s priority areas, and one of the ways we are doing this is by fighting the use of “parental alienation” theory against protective mothers. In December, we submitted a brief to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Our brief explains that the problem of “parental alienation” accusations is even broader than it appears, and that it has become extremely prevalent in child protection and child custody cases, leading to dangerous outcomes. To address this problem, we suggest a belt and braces approach, which includes both preventing accusations and findings of “parental alienation” and improving the legal system’s response to family violence more generally.