Parental alienation involves the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent and/or other family members. It is characterized as a distinctive and widespread form of psychological abuse and family violence. It occurs almost exclusively in association with family separation or divorce. Most commonly, the primary cause is a parent wishing to exclude another parent from the life of their child. Parental alienation may often lead to long term or permanent estrangement of a child from one parent and other family members and may even result in significantly increased risks of both mental and physical illness for children.
In a recent Ontario Court of Appeal case, namely, L. (N.) v. M. (R.R.), 2016 CarswellOnt 19110 (Ont. C.A.), there was clear evidence of alienation of the children by the mother. In this case, the father was granted an Order for custody of the two children permitting him to take them to the “Family Bridges Program” – an educational and experiential program which aims to resolve issues between parents and alienated children. The Order also required the Toronto Police Services to ensure the provisions of the Order.
As a result of the Order, the youngest child ran away to his older brother’s apartment. The police retrieved the child and returned him to the father, however, shortly thereafter he ran away again. When the father attempted to have the police enforce the other, the police declined and filed a motion to remove the police enforcement clause.
The mother brought a motion to change the custody Order but by the time the motion was heard the youngest child was 16 years old and living alone in an apartment whilst completing high school. The oldest child was now 18 years old and attending university. There was a clear material change in circumstances as both children were now quite independent and no longer wished to live with their father. The police were also unwilling to enforce the order.
Justice Perkins held that no person was to have custody or access rights over either of the children and access to information about each child was entirely within each child’s own control. It was concluded that nothing further could be done given the ages and wishes of the children.
The father appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal and was unsuccessful. The material change in circumstances was overwhelmingly obvious and the appeals court judge acknowledged same. Despite proved parental alienation on the part of the mother, the appeals court judge confirmed that the motions judge did not err in changing the custody order.
The Court of Appeal noted:
I agree with the father’s submissions that the jurisprudence indicates the wishes of the child and the best interests of the child are not necessarily synonymous. However, the motions judge referred to this existing jurisprudence as well as the jurisprudence that, as practical matter, older children will make their own residential choice: see, Supple v Cashman, 2014 45 R.F.L. (7th) 273 (S.C.), at para 17; Ladisa v. Ladisa, 11 R.F.L. (6ht) 50 (Ont. C.A.) at para 17. The motions judge carefully considered the father’s submissions and gave cogent reasons for rejecting them, having regard to D.M.’s best interests. In the absence of any palpable and overriding error in the exercise of his discretion, which has not been demonstrated, this court cannot intervene in the change of the custody order.
This case ended very sadly for the father who did everything in his power to have a relationship with his children in the face of parental alienation on the part of the mother. It will be interesting to see the application of this case in the future given the unexpected and unprecedented twist.