Reunification Therapy and Child Custody

Reunification therapy is a controversial tool some judges use to try to resolve bitter custody battles. Learn how it works, the potential benefits and dangers, and what happens when kids won't go along.

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If you believe your ex has turned your child against you, you might be thinking of asking the judge to order reunification therapy. Or maybe you're on the other end of the stick—fighting your ex's request for reunification counseling. Although it comes in different forms, reunification therapy is aimed at strengthening and repairing a child's relationship with a parent who's become estranged from the kid. But it has become controversial, especially with news reports of teenagers being violently dragged away to a reunification camp.

If you're fighting with your ex about custody or visitation, you should know how reunification therapy works, its risks and potential benefits, and how to get help when the issue comes up.

What's Behind Reunification Therapy?

Requests for reunification therapy typically come up in high-conflict custody battles—during a divorce or afterwards—when children resist spending time with a parent. There are many reasons kids may not want to visit a parent, ranging from personality clashes and problems with blended families to claims of sexual or physical abuse.

Often, however, parents asking for reunification therapy claim that the other parent has alienated their kids from them by manipulating and lying to them. Parental alienation is a controversial theory. Many experts and domestic violence advocates argue that it's a discredited, pseudo-scientific concept, often used as a tool to enable abusers to continue their abuse. Other experts persist in using the theory to recommend reunification in custody cases—and some judges still take claims of parental alienation very seriously.

How Does Reunification Therapy Work?

Reunification therapy involves a variety of different methods, from traditional counseling sessions to more intensive workshops or camps. In addition to aiding with communication and conflict resolution between a child and parent, traditional counseling sessions can also include counseling between both parents in order to work on improving their relationship as well.

Reunification therapy done through a workshop or camp can last from several days to several weeks. Typically, this form of reunification therapy involves just a child and the estranged parent—often with restrictions on any contact between the child and the other parent during the program.

When May Judges Order Reunification Therapy?

A parent may ask a judge to order reunification therapy as part of an effort to enforce visitation or change custody. Judges may also decide on their own to order the therapy if they conclude that it could help resolve an ongoing custody dispute.

In order to facilitate the process, the judge may adjust parenting time and restrict or completely prohibit contact between the child and the "preferred parent" for at least the duration of the reunification therapy or camp. If either the child or the parent doesn't obey, the judge may extend the orders or impose penalties on the parent for violating a custody order.

But when participation in reunification therapy requires a change in the current parenting plan, the judge may need to follow the state's requirements for modifying custody orders. Those requirements vary from state to state. Typically, however, the parent making the request must show that there's been a significant change in circumstances since the existing custody orders were issued, and that the modification would be in the child's best interests.

In one California case, for instance, a judge ordered two siblings to participate in a reunification program with their father. The program included a 90-day "aftercare" period when the children couldn't have any contact with their mother. Since the children lived with their mother, the practical effect of the order was to change the current parenting plan. The appeals court reversed the judge's order because there wasn't evidence that the circumstances had changed or that removing the children from their mother was in their best interests. (Johnston-Rossi v. Rossi, 88 Cal.App.5th 1081 (Cal. Ct. App. 2023).)

Pros and Cons of Reunification Therapy

As noted above, reunification therapy is controversial. On the one hand, its advocates (especially the therapists and programs that provide these services) argue that it has many benefits, including:

  • helping the child develop a more balanced perspective of both parents and develop a stronger bond with the alienated parent
  • improve the family's skills in communicating and dealing with conflict
  • removing the child from an environment that could be contributing to parental alienation
  • providing motivation for a child to obey court orders so that things go back to normal, and
  • if the favored parent is involved, helping that parent address and change distorted or rigid thoughts.

On the other hand, critics argue there's little to no scientific evidence that reunification programs actually work in the long term. They also point to several potential problems with reunification therapy, including the risks of:

  • pressuring a child to spend time alone with and embrace a parent accused of abuse
  • actually increasing conflict in the family, and
  • traumatizing kids by forcing them to go to a camp against their will.

In response to some of these problems, the federal government and several states are taking steps in order to address this issue. In 2022, the U.S. Congress passed Kayden's Law (as part of the Violence Against Women Act), which increases funding to states that have laws limiting the use of reunification programs in cases where there have been accusations of domestic violence or abuse, by:

  • requiring scientific proof of the programs' safety and effectiveness
  • barring the use of any treatment that requires cutting off contact between a child and the preferred parent, and
  • requiring that the programs address the behavior of the parent accused of abuse.

As of 2023, Colorado adopted legislation based on Kayden's Law, and several other states are considering similar measures.

What If Children Refuse Reunification Therapy?

If a judge enters an order for reunification therapy, parents are obligated to get their children to cooperate—or at least try everything they can to make that happen.

In any custody disputes, including when children refuse visitation, judges may sometimes take into account the child's wishes. But when an order for reunification therapy is based on a claim of parental alienation, that typically means the judge believes the child has been lied to or manipulated into rejecting a parent. In that situation, the judge isn't likely to place much stock in the child's stated wishes.

Still, kids who are particularly persistent in their refusal might sway a judge into listening to their concerns. In one widely reported case, two teenagers barricaded themselves in their bedroom (and livestreamed their plight) to avoid being forced to go to a reunification camp with their father, whom they had accused of abuse. After two months (and a lot of publicity), the judge finally delayed enforcing the change in custody pending a criminal investigation into the child abuse allegations.

Who Pays for Reunification Therapy?

Typically, a judge will order the costs of reunification therapy to be split evenly between parents, although this isn't always the case. In cases when one parent earns substantially more than the other, for instance, a judge might order the higher earning parent to take on more of the costs.

Getting Help With a Request for Reunification Therapy

Custody battles can be expensive and stressful for everyone involved—especially the kids. Sometimes, custody mediation can help you avoid having to go to court to resolve your differences. In fact, many states require parents to participate in mediation of any legal custody disputes.

However, by the time a parent asks a judge to order reunification therapy, the fights about custody have usually progressed to the point where there's little chance that both parents can communicate and work together—which is necessary for mediation to work. Also, mediation generally isn't appropriate in custody cases involving domestic violence or child abuse. So if you're requesting reunification therapy to deal with ongoing custody or visitation problems—or you're opposing the other parent's request—you should strongly consider speaking with a family law attorney.

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