Using Claims of Parental Alienation as a Tactic of Post-Separation Abuse

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Parental alienation has become a common defense used by domestic abusers in family court, especially in contested custody cases following relationship breakdown and separation, and research increasingly shows that abusers will often make false or exaggerated claims of parental alienation as a tactic aimed at maintaining control and inflicting further abuse on their former partners post-separation.

When relationships characterized by intimate partner violence end, the abuse often does not. Studies show that the period following separation poses increased risks, as abusers seek to regain power and control over their former partners through tactics like harassment, stalking, and manipulating legal and family systems. Making false or misleading claims of parental alienation allows abusers to achieve several post-separation abusive aims. It allows them to continue negatively impacting the other parent’s relationship with their children as a means of punishment. It prolongs contact and legal conflict, re-traumatising survivors through drawn-out court battles. And it aims to undermine the other parent’s credibility with evaluators and authorities as part of an image-tarnishing smear campaign.

Research finds that parental alienation claims are disproportionately made by fathers with a history of perpetrating intimate partner violence and abuse. While the phenomenon of parental alienation is gender-neutral, empirical analyses reveal that women are significantly more likely than men to genuinely encourage positive relationships between children and both parents following separation. Abusers, conversely, tend to lack insight into how their abusive behaviors may have damaged family relationships and inhibited children’s relationships with the abused parent. Rather than engage in self-reflection, they strategically level unfounded alienation accusations as a means to regain power and shift blame onto survivors.

When investigating parental alienation claims, research stresses the importance of examining the context of relationship dynamics and history of intimate partner violence. Indicators that should raise suspicions about the validity of an alienation defense include a lack of evidence supporting the claims, an absence of acknowledged domestic violence history, an unwillingness to accept any personal responsibility for relationship problems, and an overly hostile and coercive approach towards the other parent. Professionals must be aware that claims of alienation may simply reflect a perpetrator’s attempt to maintain control through further abuse of the legal and family systems, rather than representing reality-based concerns about a child’s wellbeing or attitudes.

For survivors of abuse, defending against false or overstated parental alienation allegations is emotionally and financially draining. It prolongs legal involvement with formerly abusive partners. It sends the message to survivors that their abusers’ interests carry more weight than safety concerns and lived experiences of abuse. When evaluators and courts fail to properly investigate relationship context or give undue credence to alienation defenses, it essentially tells survivors that they are not believed and that their abusers will not be held accountable for the full extent of harms caused. This re-traumatises survivors and deters other abused individuals from seeking help through legal avenues out of fears that they too may be disbelieved or blamed.

Overall, research is making increasingly clear links between domestic violence, coercion, and false or overstated parental alienation claims made post-separation. To avoid inadvertently enabling ongoing abuse, professionals working with custody cases should carefully scrutinise allegations of parental alienation for indicators of abuse and manipulative litigation aims. When concerns arise about the validity or proportionality of alienation claims, a trauma-informed approach is needed that centres survivors’ safety, credibility and experiences rather than presuming abusers’ statements as fact or prioritising speedy legal closure over ensuring accountability. With awareness of how abusers may strategically misuse parental alienation allegations, courts can help avoid prolonging abuse and deter future harms.


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