One of the most contentious accusations that can arise in family law litigation is parental alienation: the claim that the one parent has ‘turned’ the child(ren) against the other, so that the child(ren)’s vilification and denigration of the parent is a product of the parent’s behaviour. In Murphy v Murphy, 2009 CanLII 82663, Justice Gareau succinctly set out the legal seriousness of an allegation of parental alienation, stating: The allegation of parental alienation is a serious one. It goes beyond interference with access or non-encouragement of access and involves a systematic and repeated manipulation of children to alter their attitudes about the other parent. Parental alienation is a significant matter with significant consequences to the alienating parent. Considering the ramifications of an allegation of parental alienation, and the difficulty in proving the allegation in court, the decision of Justice Mackinnon in Fielding v Fielding, 2013 ONSC 5102, is a welcome contribution.
Fielding v Fielding was a contentious dispute between two acrimonious parents. The mother alleged that the father acted to alienate two of their three children from her, while the father alleged that the mother herself damaged her relationship with the children.At trial, the mother called an expert witness to testify regarding parental alienation. The expert presented 17 ‘alienating strategies’ that foster unjustified rejection of the other parent. These strategies are:
Interfering with communication;
Limiting mention and photographs of the targeted parent;
Withdrawal of love/ expressions of anger;
Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love him or her;
Forcing the child to choose;
Creating the impression that the targeted parent is dangerous;
Confiding in the child personal adult and litigation information;
Forcing the child to reject the targeted parent;
Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent;
Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent;
Referring to the targeted parent by their first name;
Referring to a step-parent as mom or dad and encouraging the child to do the same;
Withholding medical, social, academic information from the targeted parent and keeping his/her name off the records;
Changing the child’s name to remove association with the targeted parent; and
Cultivating dependency on self / undermining authority of the targeted parent.
The Court adopted these strategies as a “useful checklist” of parental misconduct which may impair a child’s relationship with the other parent, and which may be evidence of parental alienation.Because this case was very recently decided, we have not yet had an opportunity to see whether this checklist will be adopted into future decisions. Given the seriousness of an accusation of parental alienation, however, a judicially-recognized objective checklist such as this is sure to be of use to counsel and the bench alike.