Navigating parental alienation in family law: guiding principles, evidence & remedies

• by Samantha Rich

Originally published in the OFLM 2023-9 edition


Parental alienation is a complex phenomenon that arises in family law litigation proceedings, often occurring during high-conflict divorces or litigation involving parenting arrangements. Parental alienation can be found in family law cases where a child resists or rejects one parent in a disproportionate manner and does so seemingly without convincing reason, in the context of the previous parent-child relationship, as defined by leading jurisprudence on parental alienation. This article reviews recent cases relating to parental alienation and delves into the guiding principles, the role of expert evidence, and the remedies the courts have tailored to address findings of parental alienation.

What is Parental Alienation?

In simple language, parental alienation is a process where one parent's role is systematically eroded over time through a variety of maneuvers by the other parent (Farrell-Wadden v. Mombourquette, 2023 NSSC 164). Parental alienation has also been described as "a child's strong resistance or rejection of a parent that is disproportionate to that parent's behaviour and out of sync with the previous parent-child relationship” (Ciarlariello v. Iuele-Ciarlariello, 2014 ONSC 5097 at para. 3). But at its core, parental alienation is also “the notion that the child's decision to refuse to have a relationship with the targeted parent is without justification or without convincing reason” (K.F.M. v. K.G.T., 2023 BCSC 1347 at para. 259).

Guiding Principles of Parental Alienation

In J.C. v. R.P. (2022 ONSC 2751 at para. 15), in discussing the guiding principles of parental alienation, Justice Broad cited the British Columbia Court of Appeal decision of Williamson v. Williamson (2016 BCCA 87, paras 39-43):

  1. alienation can occur as an unfortunate side-effect of the breakdown of a relationship, but can also occur because of deliberate actions, both direct and indirect, on the part of a parent;
  2. the reasons for a child's decision to refuse to have a relationship with a parent need to be assessed with the particular personality and experience of the child involved. What may seem a thin or unconvincing rationale for one child may have a much more convincing force in the context of the personality and experience of another child;
  3. parental alienation must be distinguished from estrangement. The difference lies in the cause; estrangement occurs when the child understandably refuses contact with a parent because of that parent's behaviour, and there is a logical and rational reason for the child's rejection of the parent. In the case of alienation, it is said there is little or no objectively reasonable cause for the child's rejection of the parent;
  4. if a court finds a parent “guilty” of alienation, that finding does not pre-determine one particular remedy. Determining an appropriate response once a finding of alienation is made is an extremely important process since it can have an impact on both the short, and long term, well-being of the child involved;
  5. the legal responses to alienation will vary based upon case-specific enquiries. One response may be Court-ordered therapeutic intervention where appropriate, while recognizing "force-marching" a child to reunification may, in some cases, be unrealistic and harmful;
  6. the age of the child is relevant in determining the appropriate response to alienation. Once the child becomes a teenager, it appears that remedial options become increasingly limited; and
  7. the only consideration in determining what particular remedy is appropriate in an individual case is the best interests of the child. It is important to consider the child's best interest in both the short term and long term. (emphasis added)

These principles offer valuable insight and guidance into how courts approach cases involving parental alienation. They also emphasize the importance of tailoring remedies to the particular circumstances of each child and the family situation.

Additionally, it is important not to be constrained in an all-or-nothing approach. For example, just because one parent may claim parental alienation and the other claims estrangement, it does not mean that the court has to make a finding of one or the other.

For example, in K.F.M. v. K.G.T. (2023 BCSC 1347), the parents presented a lot of evidence for their diametrical positions on parental alienation. Nonetheless, at paragraphs 260 to 264 Justice Brundrett took a softer approach with the following findings:

I find that the claimant has not established K's unjustified rejection of him at anything close to a degree that would impact my assessment of the best interest factors as they relate to the allocation of parenting responsibility and parenting time. Rather, there are multiple interacting factors at play in the resist-refusal response of K that have contributed to the breakdown of the father-son relationship.

Further, K appears to have adopted his own moral views about the claimant, and in several respects those views do not align with the respondent's views. Fault for that circumstance, assuming such a consideration is relevant, does not lie solely or even substantially with the respondent, and there are elements of estrangement at play in K's context. I find that occasional poor parenting, and the claimant's adversarial focus (as evidenced by his recording practices) has itself led to disruption in the father-son attachment. I also find that the claimant's focus on parental alienation risks putting the pursuit of principle over intrinsic enjoyment of the parent-son relationship, making the child feel safe, and nurturing his development.

The facts in this case do not lend themselves to a clear finding one way or the other with respect to parental alienation or unjustified estrangement. I therefore find it unhelpful in this particular case to focus on who is to blame for the breakdown in K's relationship with his father. I would focus instead on a child-centered approach and the fundamental consideration of best interest factors

I would therefore reject an approach in this case that adopts alienation as a legal conclusion that places blame on one parent for disruption in the parent-child relationship. I do recognize that there is a pattern of resistance and refusal behaviour by K toward the claimant, that the child is aligned with the respondent, and that he appears to have sometimes expressed disproportionate hostility toward the claimant without reasonable justification. I also recognize that the parenting regime has sometimes operated unfairly for the claimant, like when he was falsely accused of assault and lost his contact with the child for several months. However, as noted, there are a multitude of factors at play, and the best focus is on K's long-term interests.

I find in this case that a careful assessment of the context and the characteristics involved in the best interests of the child is called for to determine the parenting issues here, rather than a judicial finding assigning blame for the attachment disruption -- a finding that is only likely to lead to further litigation and conflict. (emphasis added)

J.I. v. A.A. (2023 ONSC 2942) is another recent alienation case. In J.I., the father claimed that the mother was alienating the children from him. Justice Fryer took a more holistic approach and determined that the children's circumstances were much more complex and the relationship breakdown was not simply due to parental alienation. The Court held that this was not a case of parental alienation, despite the mother engaging in alienating behaviours. Rather, the children's rejection of their father appeared to have been more rooted in their need to shield themselves from the “unabating conflict between their parents”.

Therefore, parental alienation is an issue that should be guided by principles, but not so beholden to them as to overlook the more appropriate explanation for a child’s relationship to a parent.

Is expert evidence required in parental alienation cases?

In the case of Williamson v. Williamson (2016 BCCA 87 at paras. 47-48), Justice Stromberg-Stein found that because the parties disputed the existence and cause of the parental alienation, the parental alienation should be proved and supported with admissible expert evidence. Justice Stromberg-Stein held that, “[p]roof of such a serious allegation requires proper expert evidence to support a finding of alienation on the part of either party and to support that the [Family Reflections Reunification Program] was in the best interests of the children”.

In Testani v. Haughton (2016 ONSC 5827), Jarvis J. also held that, “There must be compelling evidence that the therapy will be beneficial”.

Justice Papageorgiou, in the case of Stavropoulos v. Stavropoulos (2021 ONSC 5753 at para. 23), added the following:

Although it may not be required in every case, given the contested record before me and the weak evidence of alienation, it is significant that Tomy has not provided any expert evidence or other persuasive evidence to demonstrate that there is alienation on the part of Betty. At the most, I have before me competing and contradictory affidavits from Tomy and Betty which have not been tested by cross-examination. In this case, in the absence of expert evidence, "there is no more reason to find alienation on the part of [Betty] than there is to find estrangement arising out of [Tomy's] conduct towards [Betty] and the children …” (emphasis added)

In Barrett v. Huver (2018 ONSC 2322 at paras. 17-18), Justice Shaw held that, given the lack of expert evidence, he was not able to make a finding of parental alienation.

It is impossible for me to determine on the competing, contradictory affidavits, untested by cross-examination, and in the absence of any expert evidence, the reason or reasons for the fractured relationship between Mr. Huver and Cohen, and the apparently deteriorating relationship between Mr. Huver and Ryah.

On the material before me, there is no more reason to find alienation on the part of Ms. Barrett than there is to find estrangement arising out of Mr. Hover's conduct towards Ms. Barrett and the children. (emphasis added)

In the case of A.M. v. C.H. (2018 ONSC 6472 at para. 17), Nickolson J. noted that “[p]arental alienation is a legal concept as opposed to a mental health diagnosis. As such, it is my view that the court can make a finding of alienation based upon an analysis of the facts alone without expert evidence”. (emphasis added)

Still, a parent’s bald accusations of parental alienation without any reasonable justification will likely have adverse legal implications for their case and therefore making such accusations is not advisable. For example, in Sadikali v. Sadikali (2023 ONSC 4639), the father claimed “violence against himself in the form of parental alienation” including that the mother’s “mental instability” was affecting the family and that the children were suffering from trauma. Justice Fowler Byrne held that the father’s demand for enforcing alienation therapy without any evidence and him being not willing to consider any other scenario was not meeting the needs of the children. Moreover, a court may agree that expert evidence is not necessary but still find an adverse inference against the parent that did not obtain it if the evidence was available. This point was alluded to in Hermilo’s v. Toshani-Levine (2023 ONSC 4120 at para. 29) where Justice Smith, at a motion, held the following:

Although expert evidence about parental alienation is not necessary, the Father nonetheless had the opportunity to participate in a parenting assessment, where his allegations of parental alienation could have been fully explored. However, he refused. On September 13, 2019, on consent, Audet J. ordered that the Father provide the names of three qualified assessors to conduct an assessment. The Father proposed three social workers to the Mother, all of whom were acceptable to her. Counsel for the Mother advised the Father that he reached out to the proposed assessors and obtained information regarding their availability and associated costs. The Father inappropriately objected to counsel's actions of contacting the proposed assessors. As a result, the Father decided that he was then no longer interested in pursuing an assessment. Had the Father been truly concerned with parental alienation, as alleged, the Court believes that he would have proceeded with the court ordered assessment. (emphasis added)

Furthermore, when an expert opinion is relied upon, a court must assess the basis of the opinion very carefully. For example, in R.E. v. S.J.L. (2023 PESC 1 at paras. 50-52), Justice Cann was not impressed with the expert and gave no weight to his opinion that parental alienation had occurred:

Expert opinions which are formed in part on the basis of factual assumptions lose validity if the factual assumptions prove unfounded. Moreover, in a forensic context, the decision to simply choose to accept a version of the truth, especially in the face of concerns of parental alienation having been raised, gives rise to concerns of a lack of objectivity of methodology (to be contrasted with impartiality), which substantially weakens the probative value of the opinion.

For essentially the same reasons, I am unable to attach weight to the finding that A.'s diagnosed PTSD is attributable to violence, abuse, and neglect on the part of the father. Effectively the same unquestioning and uncritical methodology was employed to reach this conclusion as was the case regarding parental alienation.

Further, cross examination of Dr. Mallia regarding his qualifications in respect of assessing parental alienation concern me. Independent of his approach to the information-gathering aspect, just discussed, I am able to attribute minimal weight to his conclusions… (emphasis added)

The above cases illustrate how the need for expert evidence with respect to parental alienation will depend on the circumstances of the case. Some judges will favour expert evidence to support a claim of parental alienation, while others will rely more on factual analysis. But at a minimum, judges should assess the very basis of the expert’s opinion and ensure that their conclusions are reached with sound methodology and sufficient expertise.

Is an interim motion appropriate to seek a remedy for parental alienation?

Justice Broad in J.C. v. R.P. (referred to above) discussed whether an interim motion is appropriate to seek a remedy for parental alienation. He found that while there is authority for a court to make a finding of alienation and to order reunification therapy on an interim motion, the threshold required to satisfy such a finding is high. That threshold was not met in J.C. as illustrated at paragraphs 63 to 66:

There are admittedly troublesome aspects to certain of the statements in the text messages from the father and step-mother referred to in the mother's evidence. However, they are not sufficient to satisfy the high threshold required to support a finding of parental alienation, particularly on an interim motion on a paper record.

The situation is complex and the exact causes of the child's current rejection of the mother are far from clear

Based upon the conflicting evidence, it appears likely that the parents share responsibility for the breakdown in the relationship between the child and the mother. The father may not sufficiently recognize the importance of the child maintaining a strong and healthy relationship with the mother and his responsibility to take positive steps to actively encourage it. On the other side, the mother may not recognize her own role in causing damage to the relationship through her conduct towards the child.

I am not satisfied on the record before the court that parental alienation on the part of the father has been proven … (emphasis added)

In Hazelton v. Forchuk (2017 ONSC 2282 at para. 2), Justice Gray noted that where parental alienation is found, it is critical that it be addressed quickly on an interim motion:

Regrettably, there is no real alternative other than to deal with this issue by way of an interim motion. If there is anything everyone agrees on, whether it be lawyers, experts or judges, it is essential that a parental alienation case be dealt with quickly. As a practical matter, if it is to be dealt with quickly it must be resolved by way of a motion, long before trial. That means, of course, that a judge must deal with the matter on the basis of a less-than-perfect record. As is usual, affidavits markedly conflict and there is no cross-examination. What emerges from the motion is an order that is likely to be final in many respects, in practical terms, while interlocutory in form. (emphasis added)

In O.M. v. S.K., Justice Bell reaffirmed Justice Gray’s position and held that:

A finding of parental alienation can be made at the interim stage and on a written record, particularly when the evidence overwhelmingly points to this conclusion. The urgency raised by parental alienation necessitates early and decisive intervention by the court. (emphasis added) (2020 ONSC 3816 at para. 45)

However, at the interim stage, courts should be cautious of accepting the expert’s opinion even with expert evidence. This was exemplified in K.K. v. M.M. (2022 ONCA 72) where, as a result of an incorrect interim decision, the mother had her children removed from her for six and a half years. In K.K. v. M.M., the Court of Appeal dismissed the father’s attempt to overturn the trial decision despite him having been initially successful in having interim custody of his children based on an expert report by Dr. Sol Goldstein.

At trial, Dr. Goldstein failed to appear as a witness despite being served a summons and thus his evidence was given no weight. Dr. Goldstein’s original opinion was that due to the mother’s mental health, the children should immediately be removed from her based on parental alienation. However, six and a half years later, the trial judge found that there was "an abundance of evidence” that both children have been subjected to verbal, emotional and psychological abuse by the father. The trial judge finally awarded custody to the mother and the Court of Appeal affirmed that decision.

What remedies can the court award?

In the case of W.C. v. C.E. (2010 ONSC 3575 at para. 130), Dr. Barbara Jo Fidler provided evidence on four courses of action that can be taken when parental alienation is found:

  1. Do nothing and leave the child with the alienating parent;
  2. Do a custody reversal by placing the child with the rejected parent;
  3. Leave the child with the favoured parent and provide therapy; or
  4. Provide a transitional placement where the child is placed with a neutral party and therapy is provided so that eventually the child can be placed with the rejected parent.

Justice Sherr, in F.S. v. M.B.T. (2023 ONCJ 102), emphasized that the court has the authority to order reunification counseling pursuant to subsections 28 (1) (b) and (c) (vii) of the Children’s Law Reform Act and such orders are often made in cases of parental alienation.

Notably, in the case of Testani v. Haughton (2016 ONSC 5827 at para. 18), Justice Jarvis held that reunification therapy orders should be made sparingly and that, “[t]he request must be adequately supported by a detailed proposal identifying the proposed counselor and what is expected.”

Justice Noble, in the case of L.M. v. J.B. (2016 NBQB 93 at paras. 135 - 137), also discussed the importance of keeping siblings together when tailoring a remedy:

N.B. is so closely bound to his siblings he could not and should not be separated from them …

An order requiring N.B. to live with his father while his siblings continue to live with Ms. M., would be unfair and unreasonable for them all. It would not take the existing ties between the children into consideration. To do so would not be in his or their best interests. (emphasis added)

One of the most intensive remedies for parental alienation cases is the program called Family Bridges. The genesis of the program was explained by Justice Loo in W. (J.C.) v. W. (J.K.R.) (2014 BCSC 488 at para. 39).

The Family Bridges Program is based on scientific principles from cognitive psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, social neuroscience, and multimedia learning. The Family Bridge Program has been peer reviewed by psychologists and other such professionals, and is recognized as a highly successful reunification program.

In M.S.R. v. D.M.R. (2022 BCSC at para. 330), Thomas J. reaffirmed the benefits of using the Family Bridges program and described it as an intensive counselling period at a third-party location followed by a period of no contact of at least 90 days from the favoured parent.

Another similar program that currently exists is offered by Dr. Barbara Fidler, called “Families Moving Forward”. It is a multi-day family intervention and is composed of two phases. The phases and costs were outlined in Barrett v. Huver (2018 ONSC 2322 at para. 44):

The materials from Families Moving Forward include the estimated costs of a multi-day family intervention. The estimated costs for "Phase I: Referral, Clinical Intake Consultations and Pre-Intervention" range from $2,700.00 to $6,800.00. The estimated costs for "Phase II: FMF Multi-Day Intervention (3 days at vacation location in Ontario)" range from $17,050.00 to $28,050.00. The estimated costs for "Hotel Accommodations" for two parents, two children and three therapists, inclusive of clinician meals, is $4,725. The total estimated costs for Phase I, Phase II and Hotel Accommodations range between $24,475 and $39,575.

In T. (C.) v. M. (M.M.) (2023 ONSC 7247), the father brought a motion to involve the Families Moving Forward program. Justice Mitrow noted that the father’s proposal was an extreme solution and should not be ordered on a motion as it would remove the children from their mother and maternal family and be significantly destabilizing for both of them. Instead, the court held that the children should continue with their existing counselling. The court’s reasoning included the finding that it was unable to conclude that the children were alienated and that it was still a triable issue.


Parental alienation is a complex phenomenon in family law litigation proceedings, generally found in cases of high-conflict divorce. The jurisprudence canvassed above gives lawyers, judges and child psychologists alike a good framework within which to approach cases of parental alienation.

The guiding principles provided by the current jurisprudence on parental alienation shine light on the somewhat murky waters judges have to navigate when examining conflicting testimony provided by parents. We see how essential it is to look at a child’s particular personality, age and unique experience and family situation when tailoring an appropriate remedy. We see the importance of carefully distinguishing circumstances which give rise to a finding of estrangement as opposed to parental alienation.

It is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for findings of parental alienation. The key consideration in all parental alienation cases is the best interests of the child, both in the short and long term.

We see a divergence in judicial opinion on whether expert evidence is required for judges to make a finding of parental alienation. Some judges favour expert evidence to support a finding of parental alienation, given the seriousness of such an allegation. Other judges are inclined to make a finding of parental alienation based upon factual analysis alone. All this being said, bald accusations of parental alienation will not be looked upon favourably by the courts. Moreover, expert evidence will be assessed carefully to ensure that there are no concerns regarding a lack of objectivity in methodology.

We also see the vehicle of an interim motion being used as a way to speedily resolve cases of parental alienation. That being said, it appears that in order to be successful on an interim motion, the evidence needs to overwhelmingly indicate parental alienation is present. In clear cases of parental alienation, an interim motion is indeed the most appropriate route to seek resolution, as waiting until trial would likely not be in the best interests of the child.

The jurisprudence has outlined a number of avenues which a court may take when granting a remedy in cases where there is a finding of parental alienation. There is no one-size-fits all solution. A court may simply do nothing; order a custody reversal by placing the child with the rejected parent; leave the child with the favoured parent while the child undergoes therapy; or a transitional placement may be ordered along with therapy with the goal that the child eventually be placed with the rejected parent. The jurisprudence affirms the importance of keeping siblings together where possible.

In cases of parental alienation, judges certainly have their work cut out for them. Parental alienation is a complex and emotionally charged phenomenon, and courts have to delicately assess family situations and tailor remedies that are child-centered and child-focused. The best interests of the child are the ultimate deciding factor when tailoring a remedy.

The jurisprudence has indicated that judges are to avoid assigning blame in cases of parental alienation. The assignment of blame will only damage the family dynamic further and would certainly not be in the best interests of the child.

The ultimate goal is for a child to have a healthy relationship with both of their parents, wherever possible.