Reunification Therapy (RT) is intended to transition a child or children back into the lives of their estranged parent usually due to a high conflict custody case. Reunification Therapy (RT) has many challenges, especially when parental alienation is involved. The Reunification Therapist must be highly trained and qualified in family systems, developmental psychology, high conflict custody and the effects of children and families, and the family court legal system. Reunification Therapists face many challenges working with these families since majority of RT cases are referred by the courts or DSHS, and the child(ren) have been estranged from one parent for an extended period of time.
Depending on the age of the child(den), the attachment the child(den) had with the now estranged parent, and the overall relationship with the child(ren) prior to the estrangement may determine the success rate of Reunification Therapy. Traditionally, children are not born to reject or separate prematurely from both parents. Children are born to love both parents, and it is only natural for children to want to spend time with both parents when a divorce or separation occurs. Sure, some children prefer to spend more time at one home (may be due to the strength of the relationship, convenient, in their school district, where their friends are, etc.), however, that usually does not preclude them from wanting to see their non-custodial parent. However, there are some children that have valid reasons for not wanting to see their non-custodial parent. Some reasons (not all) may be:
- 1. Estranged parent may have a drug and/or alcohol problem.
- 2. Estranged parent may have prior Domestic Violence and/or abuse toward the other parent and/or children.
- Estranged parent may be emotionally abusive and/or neglectful.
- Sexual abuse.
- 3. Estranged parent may not support the child in their extra curricular activities, and not allow them to participate in these (especially older children and teenagers) during ‘their parenting time.’
- 4. Estranged parent may have a mental health issue that has a negative impact on the parent’s parenting.
Although a child may have a ‘valid’ reason not to see their estranged parent, they still must see their estranged parent if it is court ordered, UNLESS A PROFESSIONAL deems the estranged parent not suitable for parenting time until they receive the help they need. Typically, children love their parents, and once the estranged parent receives the help recommended, and had a strong attachment to their estranged parent prior to their ‘issue’, the relationship will most likely resume after some RT sessions.
The children that struggle the most with seeing their estranged parent are the ones that see their estranged parent as ‘evil’, ‘crazy’, etc. and have no valid reasons to ‘hate’ or ‘reject’ their estranged parent. These estranged parent’s fall within ‘normal parenting’, and have no history of substance abuse issues, mental health problems, abuse; and they have been supportive of the child’s daily life. These children typically have their own ‘stories’, and they are not usually the ‘real story’, however, this is their story and their reality. In these situations, the children’s reality is re-written (distorted) in their mind usually by what they have been told by the other parent or family members. Another reason a child(ren) may reject a parent is the ‘favored’ parent may make it so difficult when the child(ren) visit their estranged parent by using guilt after seeing this parent, using them as a messenger, or a detective to spy on the other parent. In return, the child(ren) may find it ‘easier’ to stay with the ‘favored’ parent and avoid any backlash when they return from seeing the other parent. Eventually these children find their own reasons (justification) to avoid seeing their estranged parent, and the ‘favored’ parent validates the child’s reasons. In return, a vicious cycle occurs, and the once ‘normally attached parent’ becomes an unfit, abusive, crazy parent the child(ren) no longer want to see.
After the once ‘normal attached parent’ learns their child(ren) no longer will see them, they may seek help through a counselor or court. Or, the ‘favored’ parent may seek a modification to limit or phase out the ‘estranged’ parent because the child(ren) no longer want to see them due to RCW .191 restrictions (which there is no evidence). Regardless of the road taken, eventually a Reunification Therapist may be court ordered to reconcile these families. The RT that is court ordered begins their own evaluation of the family system and what factors caused the estrangement. In return, the question is ‘does Reunification Therapy work?’ There is no easy answer since there are multiple variables to the family equation. However, if the RT is able to rule out the estranged parent doesn’t have any RCW .191 risk factors, the estranged parent historically have been supportive of the child’s activities, and their is evidence of attachment in their early years; the RT can proceed with reconciling the children with the estranged parent.
Many factors are applied to reconciliation of the family. Some included are:
- Length of estrangement.
- How far apart the child’s story is to the estranged parent’s story?
- Is parental alienation a factor?
- How severe is the parental alienation?
- The hostility of the child toward the estranged parent.
- The support network from the ‘favored parent’ and that side of family
- Protective Factors vs. Risk Factors
- Are the children in Counseling with a trained therapist that understands RT?
Once the RT reviews the factors, they can create a treatment plan to help move the family to reconciliation. Reunification Therapy is challenging, and may take months to years working with these families to help guide them from their distorted history to making new memories with their estranged parent. Reunification Therapist’s must work with the whole family system, including the ‘favored parent’ and make recommendations either one or both parents may not support. The courts must back up Reunification Therapist’s recommendations or the process may potentially fail.
In the end, Reunification Therapy may work when the RT is trained and highly qualified. These type of cases ‘should not‘ be referred to Family Therapists with little to no training in RT. Additionally, Reunification Therapist’s must have a court order that spells out the expectations of RT, and the parameters the RT can work with. It is imperative the RT be allowed to provide recommendations about parenting time, provided the RT is highly qualified and understands the legal and emotional side high conflict custody cases. Therefore, RT is considered forensic since the legal system is part of the therapeutic process. Reunification Therapist’s must take their roles seriously, be empathetic, and be assertive in their role. In order to reunify children with their estranged parent, it will take a qualified RT professional to guide the family into a ‘new normal.’
Written by Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC, Reunification Therapist and RT Trainer