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Justice Brownstone on parental alienation

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April 29, 2009 at 1:11 PM EDT

"Several recent court cases have focused on the serious problem of parental alienation," Justice Harvey P. Brownstone wrote Saturday in his Globe essay on what he described as "a prevalent concern in high-conflict custody litigation."

He wrote: "Mental-health professionals debate the definition of parental alienation, and whether it is a clinical 'syndrome,' but few would disagree that the problem exists.

"In simple terms, 'parental alienation' refers to a parent's persistent campaign of denigrating the other parent to their child (sometimes called 'brainwashing' or 'poisoning' the child against the other parent), which causes the child to unjustifiably reject the other parent.

"Alienating conduct can take many forms: badmouthing the other parent's personality and conduct; portraying the other parent as dangerous, abusive or as having abandoned or not loving the child; withdrawing love and affection from a child who expresses positive feelings about the other parent; and denying the other parent contact with the child.

"While some mean by 'parental alienation' only the misconduct of custodial parents, we judges often see high-conflict cases where both parents badmouth each other to the children, cruelly placing them in conflicts of loyalty. Moreover, such conduct is not in the exclusive domain of mothers or fathers; both engage in it.

"In my view, the term 'parental alienation' incorrectly identifies the target parent as the victim.

"The true victims are the children, who are innocent in parental break-ups. Every child has a right to enjoy a loving relationship with both parents. Since it is the child's right that is being violated by a parent's alienating behaviour, it is the child who is being alienated from the other parent.

"However you name it, there is no doubt that children are at risk of emotional harm when they become weapons, pawns and spies for bitter, angry, vengeance-seeking parents who turn custody disputes into battles for power and control — battles that often focus entirely on the parents' needs and not at all on the children's."

"There is widespread dissatisfaction among parents with the family justice system. Among the most angry are non-custodial parents desperately seeking to enforce access to their children.

"Judges hear daily from heartbroken parents who say that the legal system vigorously enforces child support but does not care about enforcing access. I see their point, but it troubles me when people liken the enforcement of a parent-child relationship to the collection of a debt.

"Children are not pieces of property that can be 'seized' or 'garnisheed. They are vulnerable human beings.

"Decisions affecting a child's emotional well-being must be carefully made, always with a view to making a child's life better, not worse . . .

Justice Brownstone concludes: "Parents can have new partners, but no child gets a second childhood.

"Children learn about relationships and parenting from observing their own parents. No one should forget this."

Whether you agree or not, it's a provocative essay, so we at are pleased that Justice Brownstone will be online Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. ET.

Join the Conversation at that time or submit a question in advance.

Your questions and Justice Brownstone's answers will appear at the bottom of this page when the discussion begins.

When Justice Brownstone was appointed to the bench in Ontario in 1985, he came with a rich understanding of the family law area.

After graduating from Queen's University in 1980, he worked as a legal aid lawyer and later joined the Ontario Legal Aid research facility, where he focused on family law.

He later joined the Minister of the Attorney-General as director of the Family Support Plan, a branch which is responsible for administering child support and spousal custody orders.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Darren Yourk, editor, Thanks so much for joining us today Justice Brownstone. We have plenty of reader questions, so we'll get right to it.

John Dunn from Ottawa Canada writes: What can parents do when those engaging in parental alienation are the child protection authorities and/or their staff members as opposed to actual parents?