Divorce and paternity proceedings are difficult for the parents, but even more so for children because of losing the stability of an intact family. In a small number of cases, a parent may intentionally alienate the non-custodial parent from his/her children; and in some cases, this may occur because the parent moves away and through a variety of life circumstances, lose contact with his or her children. But what happens when the “absent” parent wishes to re-engage with his/her children. This blog covers the common solution the parties can seek inside and outside of court: reunification therapy.
What is reunification therapy? As the name may suggest, reunification therapy is therapy designed to heal the relationship between a parent and child where the child has been alienated by other parent or the non-custodial parent loses contact with the child for a protracted period of time. This is very important because studies consistently demonstrate that children are better off in every way (socially, academically, emotionally, etcetera) if they have both parents in their lives. Reunification therapy, then, is not merely a matter of trying to reunite a family, but is therapy designed to improve the lives of children through their parental relationship.
How do I select a reunification therapist? While several professionals may have training relating to reunification therapy, a number of forensic clinical psychologists have practices where a significant amount of their professional time is spent on reunification services. In addition, a forensic clinical psychologist is trained to assess alienating behaviors and, also, can conduct psychological testing. Selecting a forensic clinical psychologist who routinely handles such cases is always the preferred course because in addition to training, their experiences in reunification gives the insights into different reunification approaches. Ultimately, finding the right therapist is something you should work closely with you counsel to select.
How do I obtain reunification therapy? Assuming this is your situation, the best way to move forward is by reaching an agreement with the other parent as this sets the stage for a faster reunification though cooperation and dedication to the process. However, sometimes a custodial parent will not agree and/or has alienated the child. In these cases, the divorce court and paternity courts have authority to order reunification therapy and otherwise act to meet the children’s best interests, which in most cases is having both parents involved in their lives.
What if the alienating parent refuses to cooperate with therapy? While it is true that a small percentage of parents severely alienate their children and would not want to cooperate with reunification therapy, trial courts have contempt powers that they may use to force an alienating parent to cooperate in therapy. In fact, in the right set of circumstances, a trial court may find contempt and incarcerate the alienating parent for the contempt. While this is not a perfect solution to the reunification process, a parent order to jail, fined and/or ordered to pay the opposing party’s legal fees for non-compliance is a significant tool to enforce the reunification order.
What happens if reunification is not successful? In cases where a parent has just been absent from child’s life for a few years, and the child has no fear of the parent, reunification therapy has a high success rate. However, where a parent has severely alienated the children and continues to undermine the reunification process, this can form a basis for to modify custody, as the court must always consider the parent’s mental health and all over variables that factor into a child’s best interests. Clearly, a parent alienating the children from the other parent is not acting in their best interests and may be subject to a successful modification of custody.
Within the realm of family law, parental alienation is a complex problem to manage. However, there are numerous tools that are available to attorneys and judges to address parental alienation cases. The key is developing the evidence to show the alienation is real, intentional and then knowing what to ask the trial court to order to address reunification, including who pays for it. This blog is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle complex child custody cases across the state. This material is provided for general educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.