Warring parents are increasingly attempting to “brainwash” their children to get the upper hand in custody disputes, according to lawyers.
Solicitors specialising in divorce and child contact say they have noted a marked rise in allegations of one parents exerting undue influence on children to try to turn them against the other.
New mobile phones, computer games, designer clothes and even exotic holidays have been deployed in attempts to win children’s loyalty.
In other cases parents have openly resorted to trying to blacken their former partner’s name in the children’s eyes.
Naomi McGloin, a solicitor at Pannone, said allegations of “brainwashing” had become an increasingly common feature of acrimonious separations in her experience.
Parents desperate to keep their children have attempted to exploit a requirement on the courts to take a child’s feelings into consideration in determining where they should live.
But she said that courts were becoming increasingly wise to the practice and warned it has frequently backfired on parents.
About 90 per cent of the divorce and separation cases Pannone deals with involve children with about one in 10 spiralling into bitter legal disputes over custody or contact.
Almost three quarters of those have involved accusations of parents applying pressure in order to alienate children from the other parent.
“In our experience, allegations of this sort most commonly relate to intense periods of pressure shortly after parents separate, when both know that a decision needs to be made about where a child will live and how often the non-resident parent will get to see them,” she said.
“In some cases which I have dealt with, it has been referred to as ‘brainwashing’.
“It often manifests itself in children who have been subjected to such behaviour expressing very strong feelings about one particular parent.
“The views of older children carry particular weight in court because they are considered more likely to be able to decide things for themselves.
“However, the opinions of younger children are also relevant.
“It seems younger children can be especially vulnerable to attempts to sway them and, by doing so, influence the outcome of proceedings about residence or contact.
“It may well have been a factor in previous years but we have noticed a particular recent rise in the frequency with which these claims are being made.”
Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice showed that the total number of children involved in custody cases after separation had risen since the onset of recession, suggesting that financial pressure had made such disputes even more bitter,
But Miss McGloin warned that courts were increasingly sensitive to parents attempting to coerce children and that it had become a “high-risk strategy”.
“We have seen instances in which parents making all manner of complaints against their former partners have actually seen that partner granted custody or residence as a result,” she said.
“Just as courts have had to bear the wishes of children in mind in determining which parent gets custody, they have become increasingly attuned to attempts to alienate and how detrimental they can be to a child’s well-being.
“Sometimes parents get so caught up in their own disagreements they overlook the fact that their children’s best interests must be paramount .”