Parental Alienation Family Lawyers

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation refers to behavior by one parent that is intended to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent in an effort to turn the child against the alienated parent. Either parent, biological and step parents may engage in this behavior. Parental alienation is a form of child abuse and a form of family violence.

Signs of parental alienation:

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Bad mouthing or making disparaging comments about the alienated parent to the child(ren)
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Impeding visitation, access or custody by the alienated parent despite court orders
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Making false claims of abuse about the alienated parent to the child(ren)
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Making the child(ren) feel bad or guilty for expressing affection towards the alienated parent or making them feel bad for wanting to contact/spend time with the alienated parent
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Telling the children the alienated parent doesn’t care about them as much

Is parental alienation recognized by the courts?

Yes, parental alienation is recognized by the courts in custody and access matters. Parental alienation is taken seriously by the courts and in cases where the alienating parent has demonstrated they will not support a relationship between the child and the alienated parent, the court may award sole custody to the alienated parent. The court recognizes the importance of healthy relationships between the child and both parents.

What is parental alienation syndrome?

When parental alienation goes on long enough and/or is especially intense, the result can be that the child develops parental alienation syndrome.

Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined in the 1980’s by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner. In this disorder we see not only programming of the child by one parent to denigrate the other parent, but self-created contributions by the child in support of the parent’s campaign of denigration against the alienated parent. In other words, the child has internalized the denigration of the alienated parent so severely that the child continues the campaign of denigration on their own. This syndrome arises almost exclusively in child custody matters.

Signs of parental alienation syndrome

Expressing anger with you without reason or in defense of the other parent
Refusing to spend time with you without good reason
Rejecting you and your family including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins without reason
Criticising you and using language beyond their age (and out of character) in their criticisms
Uncharacteristic outbursts of anger/tantrums
Finding fault with everything you do
Telling you the don’t care about or love you
Becoming withdrawn and no longer expresses affection towards you and denying they ever cared about you
Outright and absolute rejection of your new partner
Exhibiting symptoms of depression and/or anxiety
Disinterest in socializing with friends
Sudden poor academic performance
Onset of nervous tics or stuttering (without diagnosed speech impediment)
Decreased appetite and difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping

Can one parent stop the other parent from seeing the child?

A parent cannot stop the other parent from seeing the child. There are exceptions, such as, if there is genuine and serious risk of psychological or physical harm to the child or if there is reason to believe the other parent intends on abducting the child. Even in these cases, it is important to take the appropriate legal steps such as asking the court for an order restricting the other parent’s access to the child.

Is parental alienation grounds for changing custody?

Parental alienation may be grounds for changing an existing custody order. If the alienation is resulting in breaches of the custody order, for example, if the alienating parent is not abiding by the ordered access schedule.

What is malicious parent syndrome?

Previously, this syndrome was more narrowly defined as ‘malicious mother syndrome’. However, as more fathers are playing equal parenting roles, and family structures are evolving, the term has changed to include both genders.

Malicious parent syndrome is present when the custodial (primary) parent, engages in systematic parental alienation and/or interferes with the non-custodial parent’s visitation, access or custody. This syndrome is not a mental illness but is frequently found in parents who are suffering from various mental illnesses.

Signs of malicious parent syndrome:

Punishment of the other parent

    • Efforts to alienate the child(ren) from the other parent
    • Involving others in malicious actions against the other parent
    • Engaging in excessive litigation to financially damage the other parent, blackmail the other parent into compliance or to restrict access to the children

Interfering with the other parent’s custody and access

    • Regularly interrupting, changing or preventing visitation with the other parent
    • Denying or interfering with telephone or electronic communication between the child(ren) and the other parent
    • Restricting, denying or interfering with the participation by the other parent in the child(ren)’s school life and extra-curricular activities
    • Denying the other parent access to information about the child(ren)
    • Making important decisions about the child(ren) without the other parent’s consent

Other malicious acts against the other parent

    • Lying to the child(ren) about the other parent
    • Making the children feel guilty for caring about the other parent or wanting to communicate with or spend time with them
    • Lying to others about the other parent

Is parental alienation child abuse?

Many in the legal profession see parental alienation as a form of child abuse and a form of family violence. In extreme cases where the child(ren) are being harmed psychologically, a report to the Children’s Aid Society may be appropriate.

If you believe parental alienation, parental alienation syndrome or malicious parent syndrome is present in your family, you should seek professional advice immediately. Talk to family lawyers to find out what your rights are what steps are available to protect your children. Consider counseling or therapy for the child(ren) and yourself to help your family cope with and heal from the abuse.

In recent years there has been an increase in reported cases of parental alienation.

What happens if the child refuses to visit the other parent because the primary parent told them to refuse?

It is up to the parents to ensure compliance with custody and access court orders. This means that if there is an order for visitation and the child refuses, the parent may be found in breach of the court order. If the parent told them to refuse, this may amount to parental alienation. If there are concerns about the risk of harm to the child on a visit, it is best to consider seeking legal advice, contacting the police and/or making a report with Children’s Aid Society. The views and preferences of the child are frequently considered by the court, however, there are specific legal steps that need to be taken to have their voices heard.

Do you need a Family Lawyer?

Whether there is an existing court order in place or none at all, at Smith Law we will work strategically with you to create a legal plan that will promote your rights as a parent and help you restore and heal your relationship with your child(ren). 

  • We can represent you through the entire process or we can provide unbundled services to support you through your self-representation
  • We will help you understand the legal avenues available to you, including:
    • Filing an application for custody and access
    • Filing a motion to change an existing custody and access order
    • Filing an emergency or urgent motion

Legal strategy tips to deal with parental alienation

While many cases of parental alienation are legitimate, many are not and some parents use false claims of parental alienation to manipulate the other parent and to interfere with court proceedings.

Therefore, proper evidence collection and preservation is important if you are experiencing parental alienation and are seeking the assistance of the court to remedy it. At Smith Law we can work with you to prepare a detailed strategy to address parental alienation and this includes an evidence collection and preservation plan. 

Here are some general suggestions to optimize your position in a claim of parental alienation:

Keep a secure online journal

Keeping a record of events and incidents, noting the date and time is important to establish the magnitude of the parental alienation. Keeping this record online, via email to yourself (each time there is an incident) or with an online document system that includes date and time stamps, such as Google docs, helps to strengthen the authenticity of your document and the veracity of your claims. Your notes can be as extensive as you like, but should include the pertinent facts, follow the pattern: who – what – where – when.

Always make your requests to access your child(ren) in writing

Making access requests in writing will prevent the other parent from denying that you tried to see your child(ren). If you happen to make a request in person or on the phone, follow up with an email noting you made the request, include the date and time.

Inform the alienating parent in writing of your concerns

All communications with an alienating parent should be in writing, including any concerns or objections you have. If you happen to initially communicate in person or on the phone, follow up with an email noting you made the request, include the date and time. A good tip to help structure your communications is: always write your communications as though they will be read out loud in court.

Do not engage in reciprocal parental alienation

Parental alienation can be frustrating and emotionally devastating. It may be tempting to retaliate against the other parent and engage in the same behavior they are. Do not do this. First, this will only harm the child(ren) further. Second, it will not help your legal position, it will likely hurt it. It’s best to come to court with “clean hands”.

What is malicious mother syndrome?

Malicious mother syndrome is better understood as malicious parent syndrome as it can occur in both mothers and fathers. Parents with this condition engage in systematic parental alienation to undermine the child(ren)’s relationship with the alienated parent and/or intentionally interferes with the non-custodial parent’s visitation, access or custody.

Do fathers have the same rights as mothers?

Yes, a father has the same parental rights and obligations as a mother. This is true despite the fact that in 80% of custody arrangements the mother has sole custody. A court will only restrict a parent’s rights when it is in the best interests of the child to do so.

Fathers’ Rights

In Canada, the most common custody arrangement is for the mother to have primary custody with the father having access rights. This arrangement accounts for approximately 80% of all separated or divorced families. Sole custody to the father occurs in approximately 6.5% of cases and shared custody in 13% of cases.

Does this mean the courts are biased?

No, it does not, even if it doesn’t always feel unbiased. The above statistics are based on all families, not just the ones in which custody and access is court ordered.  

There are a number of reasons why custody is typically arranged with the mother having primary custody. Quite often, this is an amicable or negotiated agreement between the mother and father.

However, these statistics should not be interpreted to reflect on a father’s ability to be the primary parent. Nor should it dictate the outcome of a father’s application for custody.

Statistically, mothers are twice as likely as fathers to be found to have engaged in parental alienation. Fathers are three times more likely to have a parental alienation claim not upheld by the court. Both these statistics must be considered in the context of the typical arrangement of mothers having primary custody. 

In family court, custody and access is determined on the basis of the best interests of the child. In each case, it must be demonstrated to the court that a claim for a particular custody arrangement is in the child(ren)’s best interests.

What rights does a father have if the child was born outside of marriage?

Parents have the same rights regardless of whether the child was born within or outside of marriage. Parents have equal rights with respect to custody and access. They also have the same obligations with respect to child support.

Can a father be denied visitation rights?

The court makes visitation, custody and access decisions on the basis of the best interests of the child and the principle of maximum contact. The courts follow the principle that children benefit from as much contact with each parent as possible. However, a parent may be denied visitation rights if it can be demonstrated that it is not in the child’s best interests for the parent to have visitation, such as, if this puts the child at risk of psychological or physical harm.

Can a mother terminate the father’s parental rights?

No. A mother does not have greater parental rights by virtue of the fact that she is the mother. Neither parent can unilaterally terminate parental rights. Based on the principles of the best interests of the child and maximum contact, courts are reluctant to terminate a parent’s rights. Only in extreme circumstances where the child’s interests and well being are at risk, will a court restrict a parent’s rights to visitation, access or custody.

What do the courts do about parental alienation?

The Supreme Court of Canada has held:

“The importance of preserving the child’s relationship with his or her psychological parent has long been recognized by this Court … There is a growing body of evidence that this relationship may well be the most determinative factor on the child’s long-term welfare.” (Gordon v. Goertz)

It is an unfortunate reality that some parents will use a variety of tactics to alienate the other parent from the children. Parental alienation is not tolerated by the courts. In a 2010 Ontario case, Bruni v. Bruni, a mother had intentionally damaged a relationship between a father and child beyond a repair. The court went so far as to call her actions “evil” and reduced her monthly child support to $1.00 as punishment.

In the 2012 case, Hong v. Rooney, the mother removed the child from the home when she was 20 months old and refused to let the father see her or even know where they had moved to. The father was unilaterally cut out of his daughter’s life for over a year. The father went to court to seek custody of his daughter. The mother made unsubstantiated claims of sexual abuse of the child and spousal abuse by the father, which the court called “nonsensical allegations”. The court found the mother was dismissive of the father and unable to support a relationship between the father and child. In contrast, the court found the father demonstrated the ability to support a relationship with the mother and child. As a result, the court ordered sole custody to the father with access to the mother.

In cases of parental alienation, the court may make orders to redress the alienation and promote relationships between the children and alienated parent by ordering:

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The parents and children participate in therapy (although this may require consent)
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That the parents participate in parenting courses or training
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Supervised access
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A plan for steadily increasing access for the alienated parent over time to rehabilitate the relationship, or
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Transferring sole custody to the alienated parent.
If your rights as a parent are being violated, the law is on your side and you have legal options available. Ontario family law principles of Maximum Contact and the Best Interests of The Child explicitly support parents rights.

Maximum Contact:

This legal principle is codified in section 16(10) of the Divorce Act and states that when making custody orders:

“the court shall give effect to the principle that a child of the marriage should have as much contact with each spouse as is consistent with the best interests of the child and, for that purpose, shall take into consideration the willingness of the person for whom custody is sought to facilitate such contact.”

Best Interests of the Child:

The is a multi-criteria legal test the courts employ in making decisions related to custody and access. The test requires the court to make decisions that promote the best interests of the children, regardless of the wishes of the parents. The principle of maximum contact is one of the criteria the court must consider in this test.

Top Takeaways
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Parental alienation is behaviour by the other parent intended to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent
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Parental alienation is a form of child abuse, by some professionals
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Parental alienation syndrome occurs where the child has internalized the denigration of the alienated parent such that they continue the campaign of denigration on their own
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Malicious parent syndrome is present when the primary parent engages in systematic parental alienation and/or interferes with the non-custodial parent’s access or custody
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If you are experiencing parental alienation, keep a detailed record of the events, ensure all communications with the alienating parent are in writing, seek professional assistance and refrain from engaging in reciprocal parental alienation
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Even though in Canada, 80% of custody arrangements involve the mother having sole custody, father’s have parenting rights and can make claims for sole custody
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The principles of maximum contact and the best interests of the child support parents rights and custody decisions are made in accordance with these principles
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