By Jennifer Prizeman-Utara, Esquire
What is Reunification Therapy?
Reunification therapy is a type of intervention employed when a parent and child have become estranged. It is child-centered and conducted by mental health professionals, who typically have specialized training in this type of family therapy.
Reunification therapy can be ordered by the court in family law cases involving children. This often occurs after third-party assessments have been performed, such as child custody evaluations or individual psychological evaluations, or on the recommendation of a parenting coordinator. If a parent is non-compliant during court-ordered reunification therapy, this will normally be reported to the court.
The goal is to heal the relationship between parent and child, and help parents reconnect and reunite with children who are estranged. This process will look different based on the unique needs of each family and the reasons a parent and child have become estranged. The therapeutic techniques used in reunification therapy will vary depending on the age of the child and family dynamics. For example, young children may engage in play in order to facilitate parent-child bonding, whereas therapy with older children may focus more heavily on talk therapy. Ideally, each participant in reunification therapy will have an individual therapist they meet with separately. Among other things, they can develop skills that complement, and prepare them for, family reunification therapy.
“The main goal of therapeutic reunification therapy is to reintroduce a parent (or parents) back into a child’s life in a safe, controlled, and therapeutic manner. The process of reunification therapy can be a very long one, but it designed to ensure a safe environment for the children and parents involved to create a new and secure bond with one another under the close supervision of a clinician. The most important idea of reunification therapy is the long-term goal of reconnecting the parent and child for a long-lasting bond.”
– Maryland Courts, Circuit Court for Cecil County – Family Services Program
Reasons for Separation or Estrangement
In some cases, the parent-child relationship was adversely affected by divorce. However, parents and children can drift apart for many reasons.
Sometimes a parent moves away for work or personal reasons but fails to maintain contact with the child, and they drift apart over time. A parent’s struggle with drug addiction can also have a destabilizing effect on the parent-child relationship. In other families, it is less clear why a child has rejected a parent, and prior mental health and family services professionals involved in the case may not be able to reach a consensus.
In some cases, one parent will intentionally (and without justification) manipulate their child in order to strain their child’s relationship with the other parent. In severe cases, this effort is considered parental alienation.
Distinguishing between parental alienation and estrangement is difficult. Even experienced professionals can have difficulty accurately assessing family dynamics.
Unfortunately, there are situations where a capable, loving parent becomes alienated from their child(ren) due to the other parent’s efforts to manipulate their child so that the child turns against, or rejects, the “alienated” parent.
Actions of the “alienating” (or “aligned”) parent include denigrating, or making false accusations about, the alienated parent. Over time, the child’s trust in the alienated parent erodes and they can develop strong negative feelings toward the alienated parent, while becoming more strongly aligned with the alienating parent. The process of parental alienation often has negative effects on the child(ren) caught in the middle and is considered child abuse by many mental health professionals.
However, many psychologists recommend that despite the harm caused by the alienating parent, the goal should be, where possible, to involve that parent in reunification efforts and eventually co-parenting. The general consensus is that having the alienating parent’s support and participation in the reunification process is preferable, and can affect whether it results in a child having a healthy relationship with the alienated parent. Often family therapy will also involve education on co-parenting techniques to foster a better working relationship between parents and prevent issues in the future.
Therapeutic approaches to parental alienation vary, but the consensus and preferred approach is carefully structured and gradual exposure to the alienated parent. The child must feel safe in the process. The therapist will design an intervention and treatment plan based on the particular family in order to ensure the child feels safe, and can steadily rebuild trust in the alienated parent. Thus, most courts consider sudden custody reversal in favor of the parent who has been alienated to be a dangerous and disfavored approach.
Misuse of Parental Alienation Syndrome
While true parental alienation can be a devastating and painful experience, some abusers will use it to claim they are the true victim. Abusers will use the excuse that the other parent, who is rightfully protecting their child, has poisoned their child against them and fed the child lies. Of course, claims of abuse must be properly investigated and evaluated.
Psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. warns that with regard to parental alienation, “diagnosis and treatment can both be tricky“. It can be incredibly difficult to determine who is telling the truth. After all, a child’s vehement rejection of a parent can be consistent with abuse or with parental alienation.
In some cases, parents who are protecting their children from abusive parents are accused of poisoning their children’s mind. On the other hand, parents alienated by the other parents’ unwarranted campaign of lies against them are blamed for their children’s rejection. In researching this subject, you will no doubt encounter anecdotal examples of both. It is the cases with these challenging dynamics that often divide legal professionals, mental health professionals, and families.
If you are a litigant or attorney who suspects parental alienation, it is important to find a mental health professional with experience in this subject area, as parental alienation is a highly specialized field within family therapy.
When Reunification Therapy Is Not Recommended
Although other types of therapy may be recommended, there are circumstances where reunification therapy is not recommended, including:
- Where a parent has been abusive
- Where there is ongoing substance abuse by a parent
- If a parent has chronically and willfully abandoned the child
Reunification after Other Types of Separation
When children experience prolonged separation from their parents, for any reason, there can be long-term consequences. While many publications discussing reunification therapy focus on parental alienation, there are other situations where a child may feel estranged from their parents.
Migration and Economic Reasons
Parents may become separated from their children due to migration. Some parents migrate for economic reasons, whether within the same country or internationally. They may not be able to take their children with them. If children eventually rejoin their parents, this can prompt the need for family reunification therapy.
There are many reasons a child can be placed in foster care. It is not uncommon after a child has spent time in foster care to be placed back with their parents. Reunification therapy, especially after an extended time apart, can help parent and child reconnect.
There are many barriers that make it difficult to maintain relationships with children during and after incarceration. However, research indicates that more parent-child visitation during incarceration increases the odds of a successful reunification after the parent is released. It is often difficult to find housing and employment after release. Unstable or transitional housing may make it more difficult or impossible for a child to stay with their formerly incarcerated parent, thereby prolonging the separation from their child. Reunification therapy can help parents and children reconnect after being separated due to incarceration.