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Reunification therapy – junk science?

By March 19, 2019November 2nd, 2021No Comments

Reunification therapy faces a lot of criticism in the US, where family court judges can send alienated children and parents off to family reunification camps for as long as 10 months, costing families hundreds of thousands of dollars. Critics say it’s not evidence-based and is nothing but a junk science.

In Australia too, reunification therapy has taken off and is recommended to family courts by mental health experts and ordered by the courts to be undertaken. Here, the Family Bridges Program for Alienated Children (FBAC) was recently rolled out, to be ordered by the family courts in cases where there has been severe parental alienation and a child’s custody has been changed.

Reunification therapy is typically only ordered in the most severe cases of alienation, with other court-directed mental health interventions and remedies for repairing the parent-child relationship also existing, including family therapy, counselling, mediation and post-separation parenting education programs. Reunification is the most intense program and is often used to help kids transition if their residence has been switched and they have to live with a rejected parent.

Numerous reunification therapy models have developed over the past decade, with the most well-known being Richard Warshak’s Family Bridges Program, an educative and experiential program. Another model considered effective is Friedlander and Walters’ Multimodal Family Intervention, which provides different interventions for situations involving parental alignment, alienation, enmeshment and estrangement.

While the research is still being undertaken to provide validity to the theory, some studies exist, for example the Australian Institute of Family Studies notes that “court ordered therapy can be effective if judges can persuade parents involved of its value”.

But it’s still an experimental area and research evidence into the various programs’ effectivity is still very limited, which is where much of the criticism comes from. However, it’s clear our courts are sensitive to the controversy. For example, in a recent case (court-ordered pseudonyms Frangoulis & Xennon), the father sought an order that he and the child engage in reunification therapy. The order wasn’t made, with the judge instead displaying a cautious approach and demonstrating awareness of potential risk:

“For reunification therapy to be appropriate I consider that there needs to be an assessment undertaken that would satisfy the Court that the potential risk to the child of engaging in what can be an intensive program is outweighed by the reasonable prospect of a successful reinstatement of [her] relationship with her father.”

“The concept of reunification therapy is not a matter of abstract consideration but rather, should be the subject of evidence that it is a proper therapeutic process and will be undertaken by a practitioner with demonstrated expertise.”

While the reunification therapy was not ordered in that case, the father was directed to engage with counselling and therapy himself to deal with family violence and anger management issues, before his contact with his child could resume.

On the potential risk of reunification therapy, however, Dr Richard Warshak, the leading psychologist behind Family Bridges, says of his initial research:

“We found that those risks in general, the risks are overestimated, that the children will suffer depression, despair. What is underestimated is the gratification experienced at being able to finally move beyond a position of rejecting one of their parents.”

Parental alienation in Australia

The prevalence of parental alienation cases in Australia is not known as there is still no reliable data. But there’s certainly heightened awareness of the concept of by professionals, parents and courts. And although the family courts have apparently rejected “parental alienation syndrome”, there’s growing use of “parental alienation”. The concept remains just as controversial as the remedies developed for it, with some arguing the term has been weaponised in the family court by parents fighting over custody. Because of the term’s notoriety, some practitioners prefer to use the term “contact resistance” to describe situations where children have become rejecting of one parent for no apparently reasonable reason. Some of the reunification programs also implement a policy of not working with abusive parents.

For assistance with a parenting or other family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.


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