Law Reform: Parental Alienation and Coercive Control


Wadlow Solicitors

October 25, 2022

Earlier this month, the Legislative Council moved a motion in recognition of parental alienation as a form of child abuse and family violence. This follows recent efforts by the Hon. Sarah Game MLC to introduce a bill into Parliament addressing parental alienation in conjunction with current state and federal consultations on coercive control legislation by the Attorney-General’s Department.

Parental alienation and coercive control both play a significant role in family and domestic violence and involve a variety of physical or non-physical abusive behaviours. The insidious nature in which parental alienation and coercive control can manifest, often make it difficult for victims to escape and seek the legal protection they need. Despite studies indicating that millions of adults and children alike have been impacted by alienating behaviours, neither alienation nor coercive control are recognised as specific criminal offences in South Australian and federal legislation. The South Australian Attorney-General’s Department have released a discussion paper exploring prospective measures for criminalising coercive control in South Australia and have recently begun a consultation on their draft of the National Principles to Address Coercive Control.


What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when a parental figure conspires against another through an arsenal of coercive and aggressive behaviours to isolate them from their child.[1] Parental alienation can range from mild to severe and is often insidious in nature. Alienating behaviour may take form in a variety of ways, including requiring a child to be loyal to a particular parent, withholding information from another parent, physical violence, isolation, or abduction.

Estrangement from a parent can have a dangerous impact on a child’s emotional development in addition to the parent’s mental health. While a child’s right to maintain meaningful relationships with both of their parents is a core principle in the Family Law Act (Cth), there are no legislative measures currently in place to protect victims of parental alienation or for early intervention.


What is Coercive Control?

The Attorney-General Department’s draft on the National Principles defines coercive control as a ‘pattern of abusive behaviour… often a significant part of a perpetrator’s use of family and domestic violence’.[2] Akin to parental alienation, coercive control may range from mild to severe behaviours, and often involves ‘tactics of emotional and mental abuse which undermine the victim’s autonomy and sense of identity’.[3] Coercive control is often symptomatic of greater physical, sexual or financial abuse, and can discourage survivors from seeking help as they may not believe they are experiencing abuse.


Law Reform

September 2022, the Hon. Sarah Game MLC(SA) announced her intentions to introduce a bill addressing parental alienation – in particular, extending its scope to relatives. In an interview with FIVEaa’s Leon Byner (15 September 2022)[4], Ms. Game advocated for the South Australian Attorney-General’s Department to bring the matter to the South Australian Law Reform institute and for a Commission of Inquiry to be conducted. Following her recent motion in Parliament, she has begun consulting lawyers and organisations on how best to translate the matter into legislation.

Our Peter Bogatec will be assisting Ms. Game in her work on the matter. Parental alienation and coercive control continue to play a major role in family law disputes which many of our clients have fallen victim to. Peter will be working collaboratively with Ms. Game to draft a legislative response to the issue.

These efforts coincide with the Attorney-General’s Departments’ work to raise awareness of coercive control, improve police training on the matter, and for state and federal governmental recognition of the issue. Their recent draft of the National Principles to Address Coercive Control, seeks to create a national standard and shared understanding that supports community awareness of the issue, outlines systems reform issues, and helps frame prevention and early intervention approaches.

[1]Discussion Paper: Implementation considerations should coercive control be criminalised in South Australia, Attorney-General’s Department (2021).

[2]National Principles to Address Coercive Control, Consultation Draft,Attorney-General’s Department (14 September 2022).

[3]Discussion Paper: Implementation considerations should coercive control becriminalised in South Australia, Attorney-General’s Department (2021).

[4]Discussing Parental Alienating Behaviours with FIVEaa’s Leon Byner (15September 2022).