Custody & Access
The “Family Bridges Program” and Dealing with Parental Alienation
We’ve previously blogged about the unfortunate phenomenon of parental alienation, which frequently occurs during high-conflict, contentious divorces. This week, we discuss two recent decisions in which an Ontario judge awarded sole custody of three children to one parent as a result of the other parent’s deliberate alienation of the children, and also ordered the family to attend the Family Bridges Program in order to rebuild their relationships.
The former couple, X (the father) and Y (the mother), met in February 1998, and were married in May 1999. They had three children, A (born in 2002), B (born in 2005), and C (born in 2007). X worked as a Director of Marketing in the pharmaceutical industry, earning approximately $300,000. Y stayed at home caring for the children. The marriage lasted about 14 years, after which the couple separated, in January 2014.
The Positions of each Parent on Parental Alienation
Parent X- The Father
Throughout the custody proceedings, X claimed that A had withdrawn from him following the end of the marriage, due to a determined campaign of parental alienation carried out by Y. According to X, Y consistently cast him in a negative light, undermined his authority with the children, and eliminated any respect the children had for him. This occurred despite previous intervention by therapists.
Parent Y- The Mother
Y’s position was that A was jurtifiably estranged from her father, and suffered from PTSD resulting from the divorce, but was not alienated. Y further claimed that any negative views that A may have had towards her father arose from witnessing Y get arrested by the police after X phoned for them following an altercation in the home. A’s PTSD had been misdiagnosed as alienation, and she had been subject to a “misguided” reconciliation program as a result. Y denied, generally, that she had done anything to alienate A from her father. A was simply reacting to the divorce, as well as Y’s subsequent arrest, as any child would.
Justice Trimble found that Y had, in fact, alienated A from her father. The Judge’s decision was based on a number of factors, including the opinions of two expert witnesses: Ms. Geraldo (an experienced family counsellor), and Mr. Hurwitz (a section 30 assessor).
Differences between Alienation and “Justified Estrangement”
At trial, Mr. Hurwitz defined parental alienation as “a child’s complete rejection of a parent and uncritical favouring of the other, without justification”. He explained that, in such instances, the “favoured parent” encourages the child’s behaviour. The child’s rejection of the one parent also generally extends to rejection of that parent’s family. Alienation can be contrasted with justified estrangement, a situation in which there is some justification for the child’s rejection and no involvement by the other parent in fostering that rejection.
Common Clinical Features of Alienation
According to Mr. Hurwitz, some clinical features of alienation include:
- A “campaign of denigration” towards the rejected parent;
- “Weak, frivolous rationalizations” for the campaign of rejection;
- A child’s strong feelings towards both parents: one parent is idealized without recognition of any negative qualities, while the other parents is devalued without any regard as to positive qualities;
- Claims by the child that the thoughts towards the parents are his or her own, and not influenced by a parent;
- Support for the alienating parent in any conflicts between the parents;
- An absence of guilt over behaviour towards the rejected parent,
- A spread of the rejection to the rejected/alienated parents extended family and friends.
The experts testified that all these clinical factors were present in this case, and that, as a result, A had rejected her father and his family, sided with her mother, and had been encouraging her siblings to do the same.
Common Behaviours in Alienation
In addition, the experts identified 16 behaviours common in alienation cases, which were:
- Bad mouthing the other parent;
- Limiting contact with the other parent;
- Becoming angry if the child expressed positive feelings towards the other parent;
- Telling the child that the other parent does not love him or her;
- Forcing the child to choose one parent and reject the other parent;
- Telling the child that the other parent is dangerous;
- Confiding in the child about adult relationships with the other parent;
- Limiting photos of the other parent;
- Cultivating the child’s dependency on the favoured parent;
- Asking the child to spy on the other parent;
- Telling the other parent that the child does not love him/her;
- Referring to the other parent by their first name rather than mom or dad;
- Referring to another individual as mom or dad,
- Asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent,
- Changing the child’s name.
Eleven of these 16 behaviours were positively identified by the experts in Y and A’s conduct.
As a result of this alienation, Justice Trimble ultimately ordered the remedy of “last resort” and awarded the father sole custody of the three children. Y and her family were to have no access to the children until an additional court order was made. The family was also ordered to participate in the Family Bridges Program, intended to assist them in restoring a healthy relationship. Additionally, Y was ordered to continue counselling, with regular updates provided by her counsellor to Family Bridges.
The Family Bridges Program
Participation in the Family Bridges Program is sometimes ordered in situations where there has been alienation of a child/children following a separation or divorce. The Program’s goal is to provide all relevant family members with “the tools to re-form healthy, loving, respectful bonds between children and both of their parents, and teaching parents that they can parent children in a parallel way without denigrating the other parent”. The Program is intended to be non-litigious, but rather, educational. It provides written, visual, and oral materials to participants so that they can understand their motivations and actions, and the subsequent effect of such motivations and actions.
The professionals providing Family Bridges programs are specially and extensively trained in the Family Bridges process, and ensure that the messages and information given to every member of the family, and the assessment of every member of the family in the program is uniform and consistent. That professional, having been involved with all members of the family, is in the best position to determine whether all parties have actively and whole-heartedly participated in the program and met the milestones required.
The Program provided some milestones that Y was required to meet:
- A demonstrated knowledge of parent-child alienation and insights into her own alienating behaviors.
- A demonstrated compliance with Court orders;
- Willing acceptance and compliance with the Parallel Parenting Model.
The Family’s Progress in the Program
Upon receiving the first report from the Program, Justice Trimble noted the family’s positive progress.
A was initially resistant to the Program. Additionally, the Program identified the fact that B and C were more alienated than had originally been noted at trial. However, after about two days in the program, A began to change her behaviour towards her father. Overall, the children’s progress in the Program was described in the report as “nothing short of remarkable”. All three re-formed bonds with their father, settled into his new home in Toronto (their family home had previously been in Oakville, where the mother continued to reside), were excelling in their new school (which they had not been doing at their former Oakville school), and were making new friends. All three were participating in the extra-curricular activities they had participated in prior to trial.
Y stated that, under careful guidance of the professionals in the Program, she had “progressed remarkably”, becoming aware of her alienating behaviours and learning how to address and deal with them. She further stated that she is ready to begin a new relationship with her children while respecting X and encouraging loving, mutually respectful relationships between the children and their father.
Justice Trimble reflected:
At the time of [the custody decision], it was in the best interests of the children that the Family, including Y, participate fully and unreservedly in the Family Bridges process. Therefore I ordered that Y participate in the Family Bridges process, and comply with the directions of Family Bridges. It is still in the best interests of the children that all of the X/Y family members participate in the Family Bridges Program.
Not all judges are proponents of the Family Bridges Program, and participation in the program is not always ordered where there are instances of alienation. This family, however, had a positive experience with the Program, and participation in it was clearly beneficial and in keeping with the golden rule in family law of “best interest of the children”.