Professionals working in family law and child protection have welcomed a public consultation on the issue of parental alienation.

The term generally describes a situation where one parent wrongfully influences a child or children against the other parent, often resulting in the family being torn apart.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the term is increasingly cited in Irish family law courts.

She is asking the public to help inform future policy or law in this area.

Solicitor Catherine Ghent, who has worked on many cases involving child protection, has welcomed the consultation and said Tusla should also get involved.

"Parental alienation is a child abuse issue. It's important that Tusla should have an integral role in the consultation process," she told RTÉ's This Week programme.

"There are occasions when children will reject a parent for valid reasons such as neglect and abuse. This is not that," said Brian O'Sullivan, a psychotherapist who has researched and worked with families torn apart by parental alienation.

"In the context of a separation, a child will suddenly and inexplicably reject a previously warm, loving normal range parent.

"They will also reject that parent's family, friends and even previously loved pets. We know that both mums and dads are equally likely to engage in alienating behaviours.

"It's very much a child welfare issue and needs to be responded to in the very same way we would respond to other forms of child abuse."

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Mr O'Sullivan said the impact of parental alienation is detrimental to children's mental health.

"Children experience chronic depression, substance abuse, premature sexual activity and academic underachievement.

"These impacts occur across the lifespan of the children. Additionally, when that young person goes on to have children themselves, these dynamics go on to repeat themselves."

So should parental alienation be classified as a criminal offence?

Ms Ghent said any decision will have to take account of the children at the centre of these court battles.

"Any attempt to criminalise or put it on the statute books will be very problematic," she said.

Ms Ghent said making a false report is already punishable by a jail sentence, but in cases of parental alienation it is quite often the children who are making the allegations.

"You don't want the children's emotional abuse compounded by an investigation," she said.

Child manipulation

She said that children are often manipulated into making false allegations and in some cases have had to go through several garda interviews and interviews with Tusla.

"That is abuse of the child and there should be some sanction for that," she said.

Mr O'Sullivan believes prosecutions for parental alienation would be useful for severe cases.

"What is required is swift, robust and definitive decisions by the judiciary. The children can reconnect very quickly with their previously loved parent. It's like flicking a light switch back on," he said.

But he feels putting it on the statute books would depend on the capacity of the courts to deal with such cases.

Ms Ghent worries that amid the flurry of false allegations made in family courts, allegations with substance can be lost.

"You have a scenario in family law proceedings where practitioners and judges are so used to allegations being made, this hides the fact that allegations in certain cases are true," she said.

Ms Ghent said judges who can deal with these issues are also in short supply.

"On a Thursday or Friday, certain family law lists for an entire country area are cancelled because there is no judge," she told the programme.

'Catastrophic' effect on parents

Mr O’Sullivan, who has set up the first post graduate award in parental alienation studies, said the effect on the alienated parent is catastrophic.

"Effects include suicidal ideation in parents who've found themselves unfairly criticised," he said.

Mr O’Sullivan said parents pushed away from their loved children suffer from depression, alcohol abuse, and substance abuse. Many are forced to give up their efforts to reunite with alienated children.

"Parents who are faced with observing their distressed or traumatised child - who is literally caught in the middle - feel that for the well-being of the child the best thing is to let go," he said.

"If there is no intervention, alienation lasts for a lifetime. There is no spontaneous reconciliation in future years."

Ms Ghent said it is important that people with lived experience contribute to the minister's consultation.

"It would be very helpful in cases where there has been intervention and children have benefited from that," she said.

Despite Tusla's already big workload, she feels the child protection body should also get involved.

"It is a child protection issue. It's a child welfare issue and it's really important that the statutory agency with responsibility for that comes in as the expert and is at the heart of that," she told This Week.

More information on how to make a submission can be found here.