Irish & Michelle 2009 FamCA 66

Parents of children aged 9 and 7 years lived interstate after their separation.  The mother was the primary carer.  The end of the relationship was traumatic for the mother, and the mother’s distress was evident to the older child (empathy).  Dispute between the parents continued for a number of years.  The older child became emotionally estranged from the father and did not want to spend time with him (reluctant to contact), despite an order that the children spend time living with both parents.  The children had participated in a trial period of living for 12 weeks with their father, and communication improved.

A contact centre (supervision by agency) reported that the older child exhibited overwhelming feelings of anxiety, hurt, anger and rejection on seeing her father, leading to tantrums and self-harm.  The child considered that by spending time with her father she was being disloyal to her mother, and she asked that her mother not be told (loyal).

An assessing psychologist was asked to interact with the children and then to observe a handover (observe interactions).  The psychologist reported that the children were calm until the time for the handover approached.  Then the older child started to chant phrases objecting to the father’s presence, similar to a mantra.  The child calmed when asked to go to another room.  The child presented a list of complaints about the father including that the father had left the family, had a new girl-friend whom the child did not like, and that the father told lies.  The child did not appear frightened of the father, and the father did not become angry at the obstructive behaviour.  The mother was asked to collect the children from the supposed handover.

The psychologist commented that the mother needed help to learn to accept the importance of the children having a meaningful relationship with their father.  The psychologist considered that the mother sabotaged the father’s contact with the children, as the mother withhold emotional approval for the children to spend time with their father.  The psychologist considered that the mother lacked discipline over the older child, and that the older child dominated the mother (child domination).

The father showed photographs of the older child enjoying time with him, but the child denied the experiences.

The consultant noted that it is normal for children to state that actions taken by parents when disciplining them are unfair (fairness).  However the mother accepted remarks made by the child about alleged injustices by the father without any criticism.

Differences in parenting style were noted, with the father seeking more detail and being more directive, and the mother being passive and avoiding conflict (parenting style permissive, parenting style authoritative).

Both children expressed a strong wish to live with their mother.

The judge ordered that the children live with their father and spend time with their mother.



The court found that the term Parental Alienation Syndrome has not been generally accepted as a syndrome. In 1999, the Family Court established a taskforce to study children who had become estranged from one of their separating parents.  The results of the research indicated that children’s rejection of a parent can be for multiple reasons. The research of Dr Janet Johnson and others rejected Gardner’s theory of PAS and found “no convincing evidence to support his one-dimensional theory that an alienating parent is primarily responsible for a child’s alienation”. Similarly, they did not find evidence that “family abuse was primarily responsible for a child’s rejection of a parent”. The research of Dr Johnston and others is widely accepted in Australia and Dr Gardner’s PAS has been widely discredited.

The Court has rejected or alternatively has not accepted PAS as a concept and in the case of C & C [2004] FamCA 708 Justice Moore described the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” as a “descriptor unsuited to the discussion of complex dynamics involving at least three people and it is further unsuited because as a diagnosis it could lend itself to automatic or prescriptive treatments.”  Her Honour also observed at paragraph 84 “it is more that serving the interests of a child requires a solution to difficulties confronting that child to be tailored after considering a whole range of factors specific to that child, including but by no means limited to the child’s age, stage of development and temperament. One size does not necessarily fit all”.

In terms of the question of Parental Alienation Syndrome I have had regard to the decisions of the Family Court in Lane and Arthurs [2006] FamCA 87, Parker and Elliott [2003]FamCA 990, Summers and Nathan [2005]FamCA 1406 and in particular in this later case where the Court noted that the evidence of parental alienation had been previously recognised “as a substantially established area of knowledge” however concluded that “in light of the [reference] articles and a large body of recent literature, I am not persuaded that parental alienation syndrome has been established irrevocably within a substantial established area of knowledge allowing for receipt of expert evidence”.