11 Jul 2018

Parental alienation: Lee James' calls for greater Family Court therapy powers

From Afternoons, 1:26 pm on 11 July 2018

The Family Court should have more powers to direct children and parents to therapy when they have been alienated by another parent, a lawyer and author of a paper on the subject says.

sad son hugging his mother

Photo: 123RF

Solicitor Lee James has published a paper with the University of Otago on the negative impacts to children who have been alienated from a parent.

"It's where a child rejects or resists contact with a parent, usually as a result of the behaviour of one parent deliberately alienating a child against the targeted parent, and the child would normally have had a positive relationship with that targeted parent previously," she says.

The consequences for children's mental health can be severe, she says.

"There's studies have shown that children have suffered depression, attachment issues, self-esteem issues, it can result in alcohol and drug abuse."

There's also been studies showing a close association between parental alienation and personality disorders, she says.

And while the Care of Children Act requires that any decision the court makes is made in the best interests of the child, she doesn't think the Family Court reforms in 2014 helped.

She says there's gaps in the legislation.

"Firstly we're facing really significant delays, I think at the time of those reforms … it was suggested that would reduce the backlog.

"In fact there's been a recent direction by the chief judge that judges from the criminal jurisdiction be transferred over to the family court to help reduce the backlog it's got so bad.

"The other major issue … is the ability for the court to direct some kind of therapy for the child and also if alienation is present to direct some kind of reunification therapy.

"Those reforms have reduced the ability of courts to direct counselling, reduced the therapeutic assistance available."

Despite the need for such services, she says the Family Court needs to be very careful in juggling the risk that alienation could have taken place because the alienated parent is abusive.

"In the cases that I've analysed and assessed, they're around about half where there are also allegations by a parent of safety issues - violence, abuse, etcetera - then it is important to make sure that those cases are very carefully assessed."

"We don't really have great assessment tools in New Zealand to do that."

She says more is needed to help resolve some of these problems and make the courts' treatment of such cases effective.

"Resourcing is a significant issue, both in terms of the programmes and in terms of the courts."