Courts have no penalties for divorced parents who ignore child access rulings, leaving some parents with few options to see their kids

Christine Giancarlo

Parental alienation is a well documented but poorly-recognized form of child abuse. It happens when one parent denigrates the other in order to turn their children against that parent.

It’s a serious issue because children alienated from a parent with whom they had a positive, loving relationship are more likely to be truant, drop-out of school, suffer poor health, and engage in at-risk, antisocial behaviours. The tragic result is known as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).

While there are programs in western Canada to follow up with parents who don’t pay child support (known as Maintenance Enforcement programs or MEP), there is no organization that addresses the issue of noncompliant creditors (that is receivers of Child Maintenance) in providing child access.

In Alberta alone, there are approximately 46,000 families engaged in high-conflict divorce and registered with MEP; parental alienation is likely a major factor in a large percentage of these.

I suffered through this. I saw, over 10 years, the deterioration of my spouse’s relationship with his three children from his first marriage. They had divorced 15 years ago and my husband had been an effective and engaged co-parent. He tried to gain access to his children through a six-year lawsuit. It failed. The accumulated stress of dealing with the broken family law system and being unable to help his children (all PAS) left my husband with diagnosed severe post-traumatic stress disorder and our marriage disintegrated.

Along with Rottmann, I decided to study 28 alienated parents. Our study found, in demonstrated legal evidence provided by each participant, that invoking the Family Law system did not resolve — and in most cases increased — the existing parental alienation.

In all cases legal involvement was initiated by alienated parents to help their children as a last-ditch effort, sometimes after many years of attempting to collaborate with the alienator (other parent). The legal cases served as a catalyst to increase alienation, sometimes even complete relationship severance from the alienated parent, since alienators used the court case to “show” their children how “mean” their other parent was.

Our research showed that non-legal, court directed professionals were ill-equipped to manage alienation clients and cases; in one case, the judge openly refused to read the affidavits of the alienated parents. In others, judges relied on incomplete, inappropriate, or incompetent “reports” from mental health professionals; and some lawyers in court reported hearsay from the alienator as evidence against the targeted parent.

Legal professionals, intentionally or not, maximized their profits by unduly prolonging their alienation cases.

Alienating parents are motivated to destroy their children’s relationship with the other parent so they were and are uncooperative in any resolution initiative ordered by the Court.

Resolution of this urgent issue will necessitate timely, appropriate and enforced intervention by social services and police. Prevention can only be achieved by educating parents of the potential damage done to their children should they engage in uncooperative parenting and especially by addressing the root causes of alienation: mental illness in the alienator, vengeance against the targeted parent, and financial benefit to the alienator.

Christine Giancarlo Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Mount Royal University. 

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