Following her divorce in 2014, R Swathi, an engineer from Bengaluru, won the custody of her seven-year-old daughter. About six months later, the child fell ill and was hospitalised. Her ex-husband used this as an excuse to blame Swathi of being irresponsible and forcibly took the child’s custody during a visitation.

Swathi has been fighting to get back her child since. It has involved a police case, several petitions to a Bengaluru court and an appeal in the High Court. “I have held back from marrying again because I feel this will be used against me in the courts,” she said.

She is worried that by now her child may be “completely brainwashed” into taking the father’s side. “She is very unattached and wants to be with her father,” Swathi said, adding that the frequency of her meetings with the girl has come down.

This is a classic case of what psychologists describe as Parental Alienation Syndrome, defined as an attempt by one parent to brainwash the child into hating the other parent, often for the sake of custody.

In India, the very concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome was decisively recognised, by the Supreme Court, only this year. There is hardly a mechanism to address the challenge, with the heavy burden of cases making family courts almost ineffective.

British approach

The term Parental Alienation Syndrome was coined by the celebrated American psychiatrist Richard Alan Gardner in 1985. In an essay in the Academy Forum, he defined the syndrome thus:

“The parental alienation syndrome is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against the parent, a campaign that has no justification. The disorder results from the combination of indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent.” 

In contrast to India, the United Kingdom is now moving decisively to deal with this problem. Last week, the country’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, or Cafcass, which represents children in family court cases to safeguard their rights, announced a trial project aimed at tackling the growing incidence of Parental Alienation Syndrome: it will impose severe restrictions on parents trying to alienate children during family disputes. Parents will be warned against any action aimed at alienating children from their mothers or fathers. Where the syndrome is established, the agency will put the erring parent through a 12-week intensive therapy. If the person still does not stop with their actions, the child could be removed from their custody for a few months. In case the alienation process continues, the parent could lose custody of the child forever.

According to the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, an estimated 11%-15% of all divorce cases involving couples with children face the problem of Parental Alienation Syndrome, which translates to about 1,25,000 cases a year. The syndrome, Cafcass said, has a profound effect on the child; indeed, it is seen as a process of indoctrination.

The Guardian reported last week that Cafcass’ trial project will commence with 50 high-conflict families starting early 2018 and the progress of the programme will be monitored closely.

The United States and Canada have trained “parental coordinators” to help resolve cases identified as Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Situation in India

In India, there’s hardly any legal recognition of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Family courts routinely hear cases of children being forcibly removed from the parent declared as the legal custodian. More often than not, the mother is at the receiving end, and as proceedings in family courts drag on for years, the father gets time to alienate the child. When the court finally decides to go by the child’s wishes, the father usually gets the custody given that the child has grown emotionally dependent on him.

The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, which defines guardianship for a majority of India’s population, empowers the courts to decide on custody, keeping the child’s welfare as the primary consideration.

In February this year, the Supreme Court for perhaps the first time explicitly recognised the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Explaining its effect, Justice AK Sikri said:

“First, it puts the child squarely in the middle of a contest of loyalty, a contest which cannot possibly be won. The child is asked to choose who is the preferred parent. No matter whatever is the choice, the child is very likely to end up feeling painfully guilty and confused. This is because in the overwhelming majority of cases, what the child wants and needs is to continue a relationship with each parent, as independent as possible from their own conflicts. 

Second, the child is required to make a shift in assessing reality. One parent is presented as being totally to blame for all problems, and as someone who is devoid of any positive characteristics. Both of these assertions represent one parent’s distortions of reality.”

This particular case involved an 8-year-old girl forcibly removed from her mother when she was only 21-months-old. After several rounds of litigation, the matter reached the Supreme Court when the mother launched contempt proceedings against her ex-husband for flouting court orders to return the child to the mother. But by the time the Supreme Court interacted with the child in November 2016, she was firmly on her father’s side.

Family law expert Sudha Ramalingam said almost every case of divorce involving couples with children encounters the problem of alienation. “Sometimes, the child itself comes up with rude remarks on one parent because she wants to please the custodial parent,” the lawyer said.

Ramalingam said there is a “serious scarcity” of trained child psychologists in family courts in India, making it difficult to deal with children facing Parental Alienation Syndrome. But while it is important to amend the law to recognise the problem legally, she added, the life of a child is much more than just plain legality.

An effective way to counter this problem is for family courts to expedite such cases. The more time the child spends exclusively with one parent, the greater the possibility of alienation.

Family law experts, though, are not keen on adopting the British approach to treating alienation as a sort of a crime. They point out that western countries have strong social institutions to take care of children outside the family but India doesn’t. “In India, leaving children in institutions is far worse than PAS itself,” Ramalingam said.