A parent should never alienate a child from the other parent. The Act contains certain provisions that aim to prevent one parent from frustrating the exercise of responsibilities and rights by the other parent. Any parent who has care of a child and refuses to allow the other parent to exercise his/her responsibilities and rights contrary to a court order or properly concluded parental responsibilities and rights agreement is guilty of an offence, and will be liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year. In addition, the parent with whom the child lives must notify the other parent in writing of any change to his/her residential address. Failure to do so is considered a criminal offence and is punishable by a period of imprisonment not exceeding one year.
Threatening to lay criminal charges will definitely make a parent cautious about putting barriers in the way of the other parent. However, this is in fact a sledgehammer approach, because the arrest and possible detention of the primary caregiver will not be in the best interests of the child. Another concern is that the parent blocking contact may be doing so with good reason, for example if he/she fears that the other parent may be abusive or has evidence that the other parent abuses alcohol or drugs while the child is in his/her care.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a term that was first used by the late child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in 1985. Dr Gardner studied the behaviour of parents involved in custody disputes. He noted that sometimes children align themselves with one parent. While this is natural to a degree, Dr Gardner noticed that in some cases it was extreme to the point of bordering on a physiological disorder. He described this so-called disorder or syndrome as follows: ‘Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against the parent, a campaign that has no justification.
The disorder results from the combination of [either deliberate or unconscious] indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent.’ Actions that may be regarded as parental alienation include:
- inviting children to make choices about care and contact when in reality they have no choice;
- telling the child about the gory details of the separation to put the other parent in a bad light;
- refusing to allow the other parent access to school or medical records;
- blaming the other parent openly for the breakdown of the family;
- scheduling activities with the child in the other parent’s contact time;
- raising the question of changing the child’s name, or suggesting an adoption in the presence of the child;
- reacting with sadness when the child relates a good story about their contact with the other parent;
- asking the child personal questions about the other parent’s life;
- physically or psychologically ‘rescuing’ the child from the other parent when there is no threat to their safety; and
- listening in to the child’s telephone conversations with the other parent, and sometimes refusing to allow the other parent telephonic access to the child.