During the often stressful process of separation and divorce, children can distance themselves physically and emotionally from one parent or the other. Families experiencing parental alienation are some of the most difficult families to work with in these situations because of the nature of reject and refuse dynamics (RRDs). On one end of the continuum, children may legitimately reject a parent and refuse parenting time due to the presence of abuse or neglect. On the other end are situations in which a parent is rejected, seemingly without warrant. Because the impact of parental alienation can be devastating and have a lasting effect on families, some courts now recommend reunification counseling.

The excerpts below are taken from a conversation with attorneys Connie Thacker and Allison Sleight. Randy Flood, Director of the Men’s Resource Center and an evaluator at the Fountain Hill Center for Counseling and Consultation, describes the reunification counseling process when RRDs are present and the important role attorneys and the courts can have in facilitating successful results. A custody and parenting-time evaluator for the courts since 1992, Flood has also spoken with Thacker-Sleight about the custody evaluation process and domestic violence assessments.

Court-ordered Reunification Counseling

Thacker: Why don’t you give us a little bit of insight of what really is reunification…what are we trying to reunify and what does that all mean?

Flood: When reunification counseling is ordered, usually there’s a reject and refuse dynamic that’s happening. The children are, for legitimate reasons, not wanting to be around a parent who has been proven to be ineffective, incompetent, abusive, neglectful, having a significant substance abuse problem, mental health issues. The children have, in their experience of that incompetency, pulled away from that parent and the courts have become aware of that. That’s one situation where children are rejecting and refusing.

The other side of that is when there’s an alienation dynamic. And that’s when a child for invalid reasons, unfounded reasons, is rejecting a good enough parent. Where there has been a base rate relationship prior to the divorce, where the children have a reasonable relationship with the father or mother and then in the stress of the divorce the child is rejecting a parent.

The Role of a Court Order

Sleight: How important is the court order and what are the contents you like to see in the court order for reunification?

Flood: Well, when reunification counseling is ordered, it’s important that everybody is given directives as to what to expect and the authority that the reunification counselor has. And, particularly what’s important is that the judicial oversight is a part of that order. As we proceed in the reunification, it’s fairly common that you’re going to get resistance from a parent or the children in not proceeding with the next steps of the reunification process. …And then sometimes we have to go back before the judge.

Thacker: Which is really an accountability issue, right? We need the court to hold the parties accountable for participation in the process. How does the process start? What’s the protocol?

Flood: Usually, a good reunification referral, before it comes to me, there’s been some type of an evaluation process that has determined what is going on: Is it an alienation case or is it an estrangement case? There’s been a diagnostic kind of clarification about what are the dynamics, so I know, as a reunification therapist, what I’m working with. And that is really, really important to have that diagnostic prior to it.

Complications in Reunification

Thacker: What are some of the complications that you see in some of these cases with kids who just don’t even want to participate in the process. I mean, what do we do? How do you change their psyche to turn it back around to say “o.k., now I do want to spend time with this parent because generally what the sabotaging parent has been telling me for all these years isn’t true.”

Flood: One of the best things for courts to do is to act quickly in these cases because the longer a child is in a situation where their mind’s being poisoned, or the well is being poisoned, toward the other parent, the more difficult it is to reunify the families. So it’s really important for the courts to be expeditious in getting these cases to us before it goes on too long.

Sleight: And how long does the process go on. I mean at what point to you make that evaluation of where do we go from here?

Flood: These cases can have quite a shelf life. I’ve worked cases up to a year-and-a-half to two years. But you know if you get them early in the process…I’ve had cases where we’ve had successful reunification within three to six months.

Support for the “Unfavored” Parent

Flood: If you have a child rejecting a parent for illegitimate reasons, then one of the complications is the defensiveness and the hurt that a rejected parent experiences and then their reactivity to that becomes problematic. A lot of times, if you’re working with a rejected parent they require a lot of support, coaching, counseling.

Those of us who have children can maybe imagine what it’s like to have this flesh and blood that you’ve loved and you’ve had this incredible attachment with all of a sudden this kid’s coming to you and says “I hate you,” “I want nothing to do with you,” and “I don’t want to be with you,” “Wish you were dead,” … And this is devastating to a parent and in that hurt and pain they sometimes get reactive and then they come across to the professionals involved as an angry parent and they play into the hand of the alienating parent.

Levels of Reunification Counseling

Sleight: Are there different levels of intensity of the reunification therapy?

Flood: The cases where the kids haven’t marinated in this kind of reject and refuse dynamic and they can more expeditiously get to us, those cases can respond to out-patient treatment where you’re doing like weekly sessions and maybe some traditional talk therapy and getting them involved, getting reacquainted with a parent. The ones that are more severe cases tend to not respond well to talk therapy and we have to use more intensive services and those tend to be more experiential.

Thacker: What do you mean by that?

Flood: Getting them out of their heads. And getting them out of their narrative of kind of “my parents are all bad, they’re terrible, there’s nothing good about them.” And getting them into experiences with their parent that can awaken that preexisting attachment that they had that was good.

Reunification Takes Teamwork

Thacker: So, with the reunification is there usually a team associated with it. Because some of the cases I’ve seen, you know we have a therapist for Mom, a therapist for Dad, a therapist for the kids. I mean how does that usually work in sort of the team approach.

Flood: Oftentimes reunification therapy can be so complicated and difficult that you want to work as a team. And so we have, for example, Amy Van Gunst and myself will often work together and then Tracy Thompson will be working in the corral with us as the equine specialist. And sometimes the children will have their own therapist as well. And then we’ll be coordinating with the therapist and working together collaboratively.

Thacker: I see some judges and some lawyers who say, “well I don’t want to put it all in one warehouse” so to speak. One building where all the therapists are together. But my experience has been that’s been really beneficial. And, I’ve often seen times where the team doesn’t always agree, right? And the team challenges each other in terms of “what’s really going on here?” trying to understand it.

Flood: Right. We argue with each other. We’re in a location where we can have the chance to argue with each other. Just because you assume that because a professional’s 10 miles away in another office, you’re not going to collude with that person, or not have a group-think process? You’re collegial. This just gives us a chance to work with each other and challenge each other in our meetings about what we’re seeing.

For example, a therapist working with an abuser who was abusive to the children and to the co-parent goes into some type of counseling and the counselor says well he or she is making all kinds of great steps in counseling. Then the parent coordinator can say “well, it’s not showing up in parent coordination because he’s still being abusive and calling her names. He might be a good student in your group but he’s not making actual changes.” So that coordination with each other can be helpful in cases like that.

Reunification and the Litigation Process

Thacker: What impact does litigation have on the process?

Flood: Well, I think it’s mixed. The judicial oversight can be really helpful. … But sometimes attorneys can get into your litigious paradigm and then that can be problematic for this more conciliation process of moving things forward and holding parents accountable. Trying to help facilitate this reunification process can be helpful if we work together as a team.

Thacker: And so it seems to me that it’s really important for clients to have lawyers that understand the reunification process and then hire the therapists who’ve done reunification before. You can’t just go out and willy-nilly pick some therapist off the list and say we’re going to send this reunification case off to them. They need to have been involved in them and doing them and sort of know what they’re doing.

Flood: Right. It’s really important to be working with therapists who understand those dynamics and are trained in it otherwise they can unwittingly do more harm.

Feel free to contact Randy Flood at the Men’s Resource Center for more information about family court evaluation and counseling services, including reunification counseling.