Parental Alienation, Safeguarding, Schools and Local Authorities

Estimated reading time: 16 min

When two parents are at war (or in High Conflict…) the only safe ground for the children is often their school or children’s services. Likewise, for any alienated parent, the school and children’s services can offer a way to bridge the gap as they’re on the front line and can facilitate contact, keep the parent updated on news and events, and provide emotional and safeguarding support to the child.

That said, a number of our researchers have highlighted that a common thread in many of the Parental Alienation groups and emotional harm groups is that schools and local safeguarding boards are not recognising either Parental Alienation or emotional harm, and that large numbers of parents are concerned that these schools and local authorities are not trained to recognise what’s going on in front of them.


The Background

In 2016 Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives asked the Secretary of State for Education, whether her Department issued guidance to schools on how to identify and manage incidences of parental alienation.

Edward Timpson Minister of State (Department for Education) responded to say:

Protection from abuse and neglect is a fundamental right of all children and young people, regardless of their family situation, and the government will continue to review how schools, police, social services and other agencies work together to protect all children.

The Department published updated statutory guidance in 2015 on Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children. Schools and colleges must have regard to this guidance when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. All school and college staff should be aware of the various forms of abuse, including emotional harm, so that they are able to identify children in need of help and support and know what action to take. This would include recognising where children are suffering as the result of family relationship breakdown.

Mr Timpson answers the question about Parental Alienation by referring to Emotional Abuse which draws a connection between the two. It’s a useful connection and not one he has done on his own. Many others also refer to Parental Alienation as Emotional Abuse of a child. If Parental Alienation is Emotional Abuse, and we agree that it is, it means that the current safeguarding policies of all school and local authorities will address this.

It also means that the law is clear, and as the MoJ made clear in response to the petition to criminalise Parental Alienation, that there is no need as the law already exists and is sufficient to do so.


The Research

Our team of researchers have been hard at work for some months now making FOI requests to schools (both primary and secondary), to Local Authorities and to County Councils, to the NHS Trusts, to GP surgeries, to CAMHS services, and to SEND service providers for copies of their safeguarding policies and copies of any escalation pathways. Some of this research has been done publicly on WhatDoTheyKnow but much has also been done behind the scenes in private FOI requests and direct emails to individual schools and others to ensure that responses were received.

We have researched most of England, a few locations in Wales, and a number in Scotland. Our main thrust was England as this tied in with our research into Cafcass and their liaison (or lack of) with education and healthcare bodies.


Department of Education Guidance 2015

The original Guidance document that Mr Timpson refers to in his response was updated again in September 2016 so it’s more appropriate for us to link to that:

In this document the section on Abuse starts on Page 11 with the following statement:

All school and college staff should be aware that abuse, neglect and safeguarding issues are rarely standalone events that can be covered by one definition or label. In most cases, multiple issues will overlap with one another.

It continues on the same page to say:

Abuse: a form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others (e.g. via the internet). They may be abused by an adult or adults or by another child or children.

Emotional abuse: the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or ‘making fun’ of what they say or how they communicate. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children.

These may include interactions that are beyond a child’s developmental capability as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction. It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying (including cyberbullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, although it may occur alone.

Neglect: the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to: provide adequate food,  clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment); protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger; ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers); or ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

Which is a pretty clear statement of the types of emotional abuse and neglect that we are looking at, (and that Mr Simpson was referring to), and leaves little room for ambiguity.

The guidance draws a school’s attention to their statutory responsibilities and insists that “All staff should have an awareness of safeguarding issues” (page 12) and goes on to encourage staff to engage with other professional organisations for up to date and professional guidance and support on specific abuse issues, and provides a list of online links for school staff to utilise.

On page 21 the guidance addresses Children with special educational needs and disabilities and says:

Children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities can face additional safeguarding challenges. Governing bodies and proprietors should ensure their child protection policy reflects the fact that additional barriers can exist when recognising abuse and neglect in this group of children. These can include:

  • assumptions that indicators of possible abuse such as behaviour, mood and injury relate to the child’s disability without further exploration

In other words don’t assume that presentations on behaviour, mood, and injury, solely relate to a child’s disability. Explore this to make sure that the child is not suffering from emotional abuse or neglect.

The earlier pages within the guidance on abuse also refer teachers and school staff to Annex A (page 51) which says:

All children, regardless of their circumstances, are entitled to a full time education, which is suitable to their age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs they may have. Local authorities have a duty to establish, as far as it is possible to do so, the identity of children of compulsory school age who are missing education in their area. Effective information sharing between parents, schools, colleges and local authorities is critical to ensuring that all children are safe and receiving suitable education.

A child going missing from education is a potential indicator of abuse or neglect and such children are at risk of being victims of harm, exploitation or radicalisation. School and college staff should follow their procedures for unauthorised absence and for dealing with children that go missing from education, particularly on repeat occasions, to help identify the risk of abuse and neglect, including sexual exploitation, and to help prevent the risks of going missing in future.

Schools and colleges should put in place appropriate safeguarding policies, procedures and responses for children who go missing from education, particularly on repeat occasions. It is essential that all staff are alert to signs to look out for and the individual triggers to be aware of when considering the risks of potential safeguarding concerns such as travelling to conflict zones, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Further information about children at risk of missing education can be found in the Children Missing Education guidance.

This is really important guidance as the MoJ have published open data figures on convictions and sentencing which clearly show that parents guilty of truancy offences with their children are extremely likely to repeatedly re-offend and are also much more likely to be convicted for abuse or neglect offences. From the figures it seems that there is certainly a correlation between truancy or children absent from school and neglect and abuse. Whether one begets the other (causation) is a topic for another day.

The document itself is well worth a read through, especially if you’re a teacher or staff member at a school, but also if you’re a parent and you have concerns over the safeguarding guidance provided to schools.

Remember: truancy and/or absence of a child from school is a correlated indicator for emotional abuse and neglect.


Schools and Safeguarding

So the guidance from the Department of Education is clear on Emotional Abuse of children even if it neglects to specifically use the phrase Parental Alienation anywhere.

It’s also clear that safeguarding concerns do not fall solely under actual physical abuse, or the symptoms of emotional abuse – neglect and abuse can be hidden by children and by adults – and the guidance shows that schools should be aware of this, most especially in cases which involve neglect.

Remember that neglect covers “the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development” and thus a savvy and aware staff member could and should trigger this when they become aware that contact is being obstructed or other emotional abuse of the child is taking place.

Unsurprisingly the majority of school safeguarding policies that our research team gathered are very similar to each other and follow the same formula.

These policies are often (but not always) published publicly on the various school websites and you should be able to grab a copy from any of the schools in your area, or the area in which your children live. If they don’t publish it on their website a simple email or call to the school office will often get you a copy (some of the copies we obtained arrived a bit dog-eared and some weeks later after chasing but still, they arrived eventually)

Local Authorities and Safeguarding

Schools all fall under a Local Authority area and these areas (normally County Councils) publish their safeguarding policies for children in their area. This includes their duties to children reported through the safeguarding mechanisms at the schools and also any reports made directly by parents, healthcare professionals, and/or concerned members of the public.

Every single one that we have reviewed includes very clear guidance on emotional abuse, on neglect, and on the pathways that should be taken once this is reported to the Local Authority or directly to their Children’s services Teams.

Other Input

NICE was asked by the Department for Education and the Department of Health to produce information for professionals working with children across a range of settings including social care, schools, early years settings, medical centres or custodial settings.

“child psychological abuse” is defined as “non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.”

NICE says that adults working with children should be alert to abuse and neglect if a child displays behaviours that are not normal for the child or for their age.

Professionals should look out for signs like:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Wetting and soiling
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Withdrawing communication
  • Habitual body rocking
  • Indiscriminate contact or affection seeking
  • Over-friendliness towards strangers
  • Excessive clinginess
  • Persistently seeking attention.

The guidelines also say some signs are a matter of such concern that social services should be contacted straight away.


Criminal Consequences

Cruelty and neglect of children is covered by Section 66 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 where it amends Section 1 of the Children & Young Persons Act 1933 to specifically include psychological and emotional abuse.

Section 66 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 says:

Child cruelty offence

(1)Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (cruelty to persons under 16) is amended as follows.
(2)In subsection (1)—
(a)after “ill-treats” insert “(whether physically or otherwise)”;
(b)after “ill-treated” insert “(whether physically or otherwise)”.
(3)In that subsection, for the words from “(including” to “derangement)” substitute “(whether the suffering or injury is of a physical or a psychological nature)”.
(4)In that subsection, for “a misdemeanour” substitute “an offence”.
(5)In subsection (2), in paragraph (b)—
(a)after “to bed” insert “or at any later time before the suffocation”;
(b)after “drink” insert “or a prohibited drug”.
(6)After that subsection insert—
“(2A)The reference in subsection (2)(b) to the infant being “in bed” with another (“the adult”) includes a reference to the infant lying next to the adult in or on any kind of furniture or surface being used by the adult for the purpose of sleeping (and the reference to the time when the adult “went to bed” is to be read accordingly).
(2B)A drug is a prohibited drug for the purposes of subsection (2)(b) in relation to a person if the person’s possession of the drug immediately before taking it constituted an offence under section 5(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.”

Section 1 of the Children & Young Persons Act 1933 says:

Cruelty to persons under sixteen.

(1)If any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and [F1has responsibility for] any child or young person under that age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes him, or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement), that person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable—
(a)on conviction on indictment, to a fine . . . F2 or alternatively, . . . F3, or in addition thereto, to imprisonment for any term not exceeding [F4ten] years;
(b)on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding [F5£400] pounds, or alternatively, . . . F3, or in addition thereto, to imprisonment for any term not exceeding six months.
(2)For the purposes of this section—
(a)a parent or other person legally liable to maintain a child or young person [F6, or the legal guardian of a child or young person,] shall be deemed to have neglected him in a manner likely to cause injury to his health if he has failed to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid or lodging for him, or if, having been unable otherwise to provide such food, clothing, medical aid or lodging, he has failed to take steps to procure it to be provided under [F7the enactments applicable in that behalf];
(b)where it is proved that the death of an infant under three years of age was caused by suffocation (not being suffocation caused by disease or the presence of any foreign body in the throat or air passages of the infant) while the infant was in bed with some other person who has attained the age of sixteen years, that other person shall, if he was, when he went to bed, under the influence of drink, be deemed to have neglected the infant in a manner likely to cause injury to its health.
(3)A person may be convicted of an offence under this section—
(a)notwithstanding that actual suffering or injury to health, or the likelihood of actual suffering or injury to health, was obviated by the action of another person;
(b)notwithstanding the death of the child or young person in question.

Where an organisation or an individual suspects the abuse of a child they have a duty and a responsibility under to report it, not only to social services but also to the Police, and the Police have the law in place to act on this robustly and immediately.

[We’d like to see some comments from solicitors in the comments area below on how this can be addressed.]



So our research shows clearly that schools and local authorities all fail to recognise Parental Alienation as a “thing” but many of them do recognise it as a “term”.

In almost every single response we were directed to safeguarding policies on emotional harm showing that although they may not recognise Parental Alienation they do, in the main, all connect the term with Emotional Abuse, and that they all without exception have a mechanism for addressing Emotional Abuse within their existing policies and procedures.


The Problem

The problem is plain and simple:

Despite having these policies and procedures in place both schools and local authorities are failing to act to protect children from emotional harm and/or emotional abuse.

In many cases there is no local system for education and social services professionals to be able to compare notes, or even to find out whether a child is subject to any involvement by any other professional.

Our research team made literally hundreds of requests for details of any systems that would enable the professionals within a local authority to access a coherent record of a child’s support or referrals, including any for emotional harm or abuse, CAMHS involvement, or involvement in court cases within criminal or family law. No system is in operation anywhere that would enable this, despite the recommendations from the cases of Victoria Climbie, Baby P, and many others, showing that the biggest facilitator of abuse of children is the lack of communication between professionals involved with a child.

The scrapping of the national Contact Point system before it could be deployed was a disaster for children at the centre of cases that were the very cases that needed Contact Point and all the benefits it would have brought.

What this means now is that a school or local authority children’s services team are unable to easily compare notes – often they will have no idea beyond what a single parent tells them about any involvement from any other professional never mind access to any previous reports or history of a child and their safeguarding requirements.



Victoria Climbie

In 2000 in London, an eight-year-old girl, Victoria Adjo Climbié  was tortured and murdered by her guardians. Her death led to a public inquiry and produced major changes in child protection policies in the United Kingdom.

One of the biggest criticisms was around the communication (or rather the lack of it) between social workers and other professionals, and the reliance on what Victoria’s Aunt told social services rather than understanding what was actually going on.

Here are some quotes from the full report. You should read these quotes and ask yourself whether anything has actually been learnt by social services, social workers, children’s services, and local authorities since Victoria’s dreadful death:

It is important to understand what went wrong in the way individual social workers, police officers, doctors and nurses responded to Victoria’s needs, and how deficiencies in their organisations contributed to this

I am in no doubt that effective support for children and families cannot be achieved by a single agency acting alone. It depends on a number of agencies working well together. It is a multi-disciplinary task.

Current inter-agency arrangements for protecting children depend very heavily on the key agencies in health, the police and social services working within closely related geographical boundaries. This is no longer the case. Local authorities with responsibility for social services have been reorganised so they are now smaller and more numerous. Indeed, there are now 150 of them in England. In contrast, health authorities are now larger and fewer, numbering only 30. Front-line health services are provided by a growing number of Primary Care Trusts, currently over 300, while 43 police authorities cover England and Wales.

As a result, Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs), the organisations with responsibility for co-ordinating child protection services at a local level, have generally become unwieldy, bureaucratic and with limited impact on front-line services. I was told that in the London Metropolitan Police area, there are 33 local authorities with social services responsibilities and 27 Area Child Protection Committees. In Liverpool, there are five ACPCs, while in Essex (with a population of over one million) there is one. Such wide variations in geographical areas and populations served by the ACPCs must inevitably lead to equally wide variations in the co ordination and quality of services offered to vulnerable children. A new arrangement is needed

The future lies with those managers who can demonstrate the capacity to work effectively across organisational boundaries. Such boundaries will always exist. Those able to operate flexibly need encouragement, in contrast to those who persist in working in isolation and making decisions alone. Such people must either change or be replaced. The safeguarding of children must not be placed in jeopardy by individual preference.

Improvements to the way information is exchanged within and between agencies are imperative if children are to be adequately safeguarded. Staff must be held accountable for the quality of the information they provide. Information systems that depend on the random passing of slips of paper have no place in modern services. Each agency must accept responsibility for making sure that information passed to another agency is clear, and the recipients should query any points of uncertainty. In the words of the two hospital consultants who had care of Victoria:

“I cannot account for the way other people interpreted what I said.
It was not the way I would have liked it to have been interpreted.”
(Dr Ruby Schwartz)

“I do not think it was until I have read and re-read this letter that I
appreciated quite the depth of misunderstanding.”
(Dr Mary Rossiter)

The fact that an elementary point like this has to be made reflects the dreadful state of communications which exposed Victoria to danger

Effective action designed to safeguard the well-being of children and families depends upon sharing relevant information on an inter-agency basis

The management of the social care of children and families represents one of the most difficult challenges for local government. The variety and range of referrals, together with the degree of risk and urgency, needs strong leadership, effective decision-making, reliable record-keeping, and a regular review of performance.

Sadly, many of those from social services who gave evidence seemed to spend a lot of time and energy devising ways of limiting access to services, and adopting mechanisms designed to reduce service demand.

In addition to promoting better practice immediately, I hope that this Report will be used for the training of future generations of social workers, police officers and doctors and nurses. There is a huge task to be undertaken to ensure that in each of the services, staff are trained adequately to carry out their duties in the care and protection of children and support to families. A balance between theoretical teaching and practical training should be guaranteed on all training courses. All staff appointed to any of the services where they will be working with children and families must have adequate training for the positions they will fill.

Sadly, the Report is a vivid demonstration of poor practice within and between social services, the police and the health agencies. It is also a stark reminder of the consequences of ineffective and inept management. Too often it seemed that too much time was spent deferring to the needs of Kouao and Manning (Victoria’s Aunt and guardian), and not enough time was spent on protecting a vulnerable and defenceless child. This must change.

The report can best be summed up with this final quote:

It is the hope of the full Inquiry team that the horror of what happened to Victoria will endure as a reproach to bad practice and be a beacon pointing the way to securing the safety and well-being of all children in our society


Protecting the Child and Children’s Services

In all of this that you’ve just read where is the Child’s best interests? Where is the Welfare Checklist? And why has nothing changed on the ground?

Why is it that despite policies and procedures there is such a reluctance of social workers to act in the best interests of the child? Remember that the social workers we’re highlighting within children’s services across the country are the same social workers that get involved in Public Law cases. They’re the same social workers who are supposed to help Headteachers and SENCos support the children in their care. They’re the same social workers who suggest any safeguarding referrals for Parental Alienation and Emotional Harm are taken back to the Family Courts.

Why is it that yet again we see the very organisations that are supposed to protect children fail them so miserably? Is it because, as with Cafcass, that we’re looking at social workers who can’t recognise or accept when they are out of their depth with a case?

Social workers across the UK have a duty of care to the child, and NOT to the parent.

It’s time they remembered that.

If you’ve experienced incompetence by social workers from your local authority or children’s services please comment below or contact us. We’re specifically interested in hearing from parents whose children have been ignored by children’s services despite evidence showing the likely presence of parental alienation, emotional harm, emotional abuse, or neglect.

Further Reading

The Madness of Parental Alienation by Peace not PAS

Children’s Social Services do not recognise parental alienation as a form of abuse. From personal experience, I have asked their front line staff and their only answer is “we recognise the term.” It doesn’t matter how many times you ask them, their answer is always the same. They cannot bring themselves to outrightly state that they recognise this as a form of abuse. Unfortunately for my three children, my case has now been passed over from Cafcass to Children’s Social Services…. 

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