This is an update on a case I wrote about in September last year – ‘Choosing the course which is less stressful to the child’. The hearing before Mrs Justive Lieven last summer concerned applications for care orders by Warwickshire County Council in respect of X and Z – then aged 10 and 12 respectively. The new published judgment of a hearing in mid February is published on The National Archive as Warwickshire County Council v A Mother and A Father and X and Z  EWHC 399 (Fam).
Noteworthy aspects of last year’s decison were Mrs Justice Lieven’s no-nonsense approach to earlier findings of “parental alienation” and her pragmatic focus on the best interests of the children (the older child in particular being in a distressing situation at that point).
Briefly, in February 2022, HHJ Watson had ordered a 90 day “reunification plan” recommended by an independent social worker (ISW). The children were to be removed from their mother to live with their father, his partner and her child – and the ISW was to move into the father’s house. As Lieven J puts it, ‘this plan went extremely badly’ (as described in my earlier post). The judge adds:
It is the clear view of the LA and Ms Geraghty [the Cafcass guardian] that the Reunification Plan was misguided and the role of Ms Barry-Relph [the ISW] unhelpful. I note that neither the social worker, Ms Rayworth, nor Ms Geraghty were involved at the time when the Reunification Plan was put in place and enforced. It also must be acknowledged that hindsight is always a wonderful thing.
Consequently, in her August judgment, Lieven J decided that Z, who had run away to her mother, would stay there, X who seemed settled with her father, would stay with him, but that contact between Z and her mother and sister must be reintroduced. Although X was saying she wanted to return to her mother, she stayed with her father and his family, happily it seemed, for nine months. However, in January this year, on a day when X saw there was no one at the school gate to collect her, she took the opportunity to go to her mother’s home. Drama ensued. This action by X was unexpected by all the adults but was resolved to some extent by X moving to live with Mr and Mrs H, the parents of her mother’s partner. There is an observation in the judgment that Z and X had a good relationship with their mother’s partner and her two children.
The good news is that both parents had shifted their positions consderably during the three-day hearing last month to the point where they both agreed with the plan put forward by the LA and the guardian. Basically Z is to live with her mother, with a child in need plan; X is to live with Mr and Mrs H under a care order, contact is to be reviewed and carefully increased, and there will be continuing therapeutic help for the family. Lieven J says:
It is to the credit of both of the parents that their positions moved so far during the course of the hearing. This gives some optimism that the parents are capable of listening and making decisions that are focused on the best interests of the children. I very much hope that this progress is maintained 
The judge’s comments on ‘parental alienation’
Lieven J again cites Re S [Parental Alienation]  EWCA Civ 568 as the guidance on dealing with this type of allegations, although qualifies it in the context of X and Z’s family. She helpfully adds:
There are a number of cases concerning alleged “parental alienation”. This is a highly fact specific scenario in which labels and generalisations are not in my view helpful. In a very large number of cases that appear before the Family Courts, particularly concerning private law, the parents have some degree of animosity towards each other and whether consciously or unconsciously may influence the views of the children about the other parent. It must however be remembered that children are autonomous human beings who have their own feelings and their own perceptions. That becomes particularly true as they become older and begin to wish to assert their own personalities separately from parental control 
I fully accept Judge Watson’s judgment and the facts that she found. I also accept that I have the immense benefit of hindsight. However, I do not think that the label of parental alienation is at all helpful, indeed in this case it has been thoroughly unhelpful, by embedding conflict and a sense that one parent is right and justified, and the other parent wrong and has acted inappropriately. This case is an example of how the adversarial process of litigation, particularly when combined with lengthy delays, serves to entrench positions and produce poor outcomes for the children 
Lieven J met Z, who is Gillick competent and had her own legal representation:
I met with Z before the proceedings commenced. What she said is of course not evidence. However, it was clear that she was an articulate and intelligent child, very much with thoughts of her own. She has her own very clear perceptions of the rights and wrongs of what has happened to her and X. However, distorted some of Z’s narrative may be, it is very strongly embedded. 
As well as noting the dangers of attaching a label of PA to a child who can form her own views, the judge was unhappy about other consequences of identifying an ‘alienating parent’. While the mother ‘accepted she had made mistakes and must change’, the judge said:
Some of the criticism of the Mother’s conduct was not merely unfair it bordered on the inhumane. The Mother was denied any contact with her children between March and July 2022. When she was told in June that X was at the school fence very much wanting to see her mother she went and gave X a hug. She was criticised in cross examination for acting inappropriately by breaking “the rules”. I consider that the Mother acted as any loving parent in her situation would have done. Somewhere in the history of this case we have lost our humanity. Ms Tyler submits that this paragraph may be taken to justify parents breaching safe contact arrangements. That the Mother breached an order may be clear, but the failure to understand why she did so, and judge it with some humanity is what has been lacking in this case 
and regarding the father (who seemed genuinely to have believed X was happy living with him for nine months):
I do think that he found it very difficult to put himself in the position of the girls, or understand their perspective and the impacts that his actions and choices had had on them. His focus was remorselessly on creating or preserving their relationship with him. He put that relationship above their relationship with each other, or with their mother, and justified this by suggesting that the situation was the Mother’s fault for not engaging properly at earlier stages. The Father sought to justify his decision making on the basis that it had been supported by professionals, such as Ms Barry-Relph. Although I understand the Father’s viewpoint, it is essential that he takes responsibility for his own decision making and the impact it has on his children. 
While this judgment is of course fact-specific, as Lieven J says, I hope its publication may well have some influence on future practice because of ‘the possibility that some lessons might be learnt by what has gone wrong in this case’ . Somehow, humanity was lost when both the father and the mother – as well as the children – got caught up in the bizarre reunification plan put foward by an ISW who was to be closely involved in the treatment, and endorsed by the court, despite the doubts of the social workers who knew the children best.