The World Health Organization (“WHO”) will decide whether or not it will add “parental alienation” to its list of diseases and other health issues in May, as it votes on the revised version of the International Classification of Diseases (“ICD”) diagnostic manual.

The WHO sets out the purpose of the ICD as follows:

“ICD is the foundation for the identification of health trends and statistics globally, and the international standard for reporting diseases and health conditions. It is the diagnostic classification standard for all clinical and research purposes. ICD defines the universe of diseases, disorders, injuries and other related health conditions, listed in a comprehensive, hierarchical fashion.”

The ICD is used to monitor the incidence and prevalence of diseases and keep track of diseases, injuries, symptoms, factors that influence health status, and external causes of disease.

Parental alienation is an issue that can be raised in the course of divorce, custody or access disputes. One Canadian children’s rights organization describes “parental alienation” as follows:

“[P]arental alienation is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parents indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent. The alienation usually extends to the non-custodial parent’s family and friends as well.

Many children involved in divorce and custody litigation undergo thought reform or mild brainwashing by their parents. This disturbing fact is a product of the nature of divorce and the disintegration of the spousal relationship in our culture. Inevitably, children receive subtly transmitted messages that both parents have serious criticisms of each other.

Parental alienation, however, is much more serious. It involves the systematic vilification by one parent of the other parent and brainwashing of the child, with the intent of alienating the child from the other parent.”

The term “parental alienation” does not specifically appear in Canadian legislation; however, it has been recognized by Canadian courts in many cases. Courts have recognized parental alienation as a term that has been used in the context of divorce and separation cases to describe a breakdown in the relationship between a child and one of the separated parents. Some courts have said that alienation can occur as an unfortunate side-effect of the breakdown of a relationship, but can also occur because of deliberate actions, both direct and indirect, on the part of a parent.

In custody or access cases, the court will decide the issues based on the best interests of the child. Where the child is old enough to express a preference, the court may take their opinion into consideration when awarding custody or access to parents. Therefore, where parental alienation is present, the child may express a preference that is the result of manipulation by one parent to alienate the other.

In addition to impacting legal decisions, some research has shown that the effects of parental alienation on children may include:

  • Self-hatred and self-esteem issues
  • Higher rates and risks of depression, relationship difficulties and substance abuse
  • Loss of guidance and support of one parent
  • Loss of relationship with extended family
  • Inability to develop and sustain healthy relationships

A court may make several types of orders in response to a finding of alienation, including:

  • Detailed case management and parental conduct orders with cost consequences for non-compliance;
  • Judicial exhortation urging compliance and emphasizing the emotional harm caused to the children (generally only effective in less severe cases of alienation);
  • Court-ordered therapeutic intervention where appropriate, while recognizing “force-marching” a child to reunification may in some cases be unrealistic and harmful;
  • Ordering supervised access/parenting time to allay any child anxiety and possibly pave the way for further strategies to achieve positive relationships;
  • Suspension of child or spousal support as a sanction to enforce more engagement with the other parent;
  • Transferring custody from the alienating parent to the rejected parent where expert testimony establishes the long-term benefits will outweigh any short-term emotional trauma to the child;
  • Terminating access by/parenting time of the alienated parent when the alienation is so entrenched that the “cure is worse than the illness”, recognizing that children do sometimes resume a relationship with a rejected non-custodial parent after a long period without contact, albeit perhaps only in later years.

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At Feigenbaum Law, our goal is to help you move forward following the breakdown of a relationship while retaining as much financial stability as possible and ensuring your children are provided for. Mark Feigenbaum is able to counsel his clients on all potential risks that may result from a family law dispute, not just those related strictly to the breakdown of a marriage. Contact Mark online or call him at (905) 695-1269 or toll-free at (877) 275-4792 to book a consultation.