Separation and Parental Alienation

In a recent BC Supreme Court decision, the court considered the effects of parental alienation on children whose parents are separated or divorced. In N.S. v. C.S, 2020 BCSC 48, the separated couple had three young boys, aged 16, 12, and 10. Following the couple’s separation, the three children refused to have contact with their father, despite interim court orders providing parenting time. To determine what orders should be made with regard to parenting time, the court looked to Williamson v. Williamson, 2016 BCCA 87, the leading case in BC on parental alienation.

Estrangement vs. Alienation

The court held in D.S.W. v. D.A.W., 2012 BCSC 1522 that parental alienation must be distinguished from parental estrangement. Alienation is a term used in the family law context to describe a breakdown in the relationship between a parent and child following parent separation or divorce. Alienation occurs where there is little or no reasonable cause for the child’s refusal to be in contact with the alienated parent. In this case, if the child does provide reasons for refusing to be in contact with the parent, the reasoning will often be greatly out of proportion with the decision the child has made. On the other hand, estrangement occurs where a child has understandable reasons for refusing contact with a parent because of that parent’s behaviour.

It is important to note that not all parental alienation occurs due to manipulation by the child’s other parent. Although alienation can occur because of deliberate actions on the part of one parent, it may also occur as an unfortunate side-effect of the breakdown of the family relationship (Williamson v. Williamson).

What are the legal consequences of parental alienation?

In N.R.G. v. G.R.G., 2015 BCSC 1062, the court determined that some of the legal responses to parental alienation might include the following:

  • Detailed case management and parental conduct orders with cost consequences for non-compliance;
  • Judicial advice urging compliance with conduct orders and emphasizing the emotional harm caused to children;
  • Court-ordered therapeutic intervention where appropriate;
  • Ordering supervised access/parenting time to allay any child anxiety and pave the way for further strategies to foster 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 it is deemed beneficial to the child; and
  • Terminating parenting time of the alienated parent where appropriate.

Ultimately, the action the court decides to take will depend upon the circumstances of each case. An appropriate remedy will be based upon what is in the best interests of the child or children, in accordance with s.37(2) of the Family Law Act. Determining an appropriate remedy is an extremely important process because it has the potential to impact both the short-term and long-term well-being of the children.

Among the considerations for the best interests of a child include: the child’s health and well-being, the child’s views, the nature of the child’s relationships, the history of the child’s care, and the ability of a person to exercise their parental responsibilities.

Additionally, the age of the children is an important factor in determining an appropriate remedy. Once a child has become a teenager, the options for remedy become more limited.

It is important to know the legal consequences of a family law dispute. To speak to a lawyer about your family matter, contact Richter Trial Lawyers at 604.264.5550.

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