Parent-Child Reunification therapy tries to help parents and children explore and rebuild a lost relationship. Parent-Child Reunification therapy typically requires a court order naming a therapist and specifying the services to be provided. As a rule, the therapy begins with interviews with each parent that explore and plum the circumstances that caused the alienation of a parent and the need for reunification. The reunification therapist interviews the children, assessing their readiness for a series of parent-child reunification sessions. For families participating in a reunification therapy, therapists frequently refer the parent as either the “familiar” parent or the “unfamiliar” parent.
Alcohol and drug dependency, domestic violence, mental health issues, a new partner, non-payment of child support, and allegations of parental alienation — all are common barriers to reunification of an estranged parent and child. In most of these cases, communication between the parents has deteriorated badly by the time the family court intervenes and orders reunification therapy. One of the most serious challenges in the successful reunification is previous multiple, unsuccessful attempts at reunification.
When courts order Parent-Child Reunification counseling, very often one parent (called “familiar”) brings children in to counseling to reunite with the other parent (called ”unfamiliar”). The Reunification Therapist (RT) works from the assumption that children need and deserve a healthy relationship with both parents.
Reunification Therapy normally begins amidst a significant amount of stress and turmoil in the family. Reunification can be a complex and difficult process because parents past experience has eroded the ability of one or both parents to nurture, particularly in high-conflict divorces or separations where there are allegations of sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse of the children, domestic violence, or abuse of alcohol and drugs (and many times these issues overlap). The presence of any of these issues often results in one of the parents assuming the role of protective parent, and the other becoming estranged (e.g., absent or “unfamiliar”) from the child’s life. Courts normally aim for frequent and continued contact with both parents; however, this regime is problematic for the parent who has been raising a child without that other parent. The reappearance of a parent and contact with her child or his child causes great anxiety in the other parent.
Assessment, commitment and planning and reunification are the stages in the course of reunification therapy, which can last many months, according to Kimberly Von Bahr, MSW, LICSWA and a Family Reunification Therapist (RT).
In the assessment stage, which takes up to 30 days, the RT strives for a deeper level of understanding about the issues that have led to estrangement and any barriers to reunification. The RT questions both parents and meets with both parents and the children; however, the RT meets more frequently with the estranged parent in the first two stages. In this stage, the RT deals with issues that deranged previous attempts at reunification, such as addictions and domestic violence, and assesses the risk of recurring abuse should reunification occur.
In Commitment and planning stage, which lasts 30 to 90 days, the RT works to achieve acceptance and moving beyond blame because acceptance is the essential part of the reunification process. Acceptance means coming to terms with anger for past injustices. Children need to release any feelings they have of abandonment, self-blame, or guilt that they commonly adopt in order to rationalize the past. Planning establishes the rules and boundaries for contact. Parental roles are clarified, and an evaluation of the parenting plan is fashioned. In this stage, the RT notes the commitment to the therapy by the unfamiliar parent, as demonstrated by attendance and participation in therapy. In reunification, which can take from 60 to 120 days, visitation begins in and progresses along a continuum. For example, phone visitation may lead to supervised, in-person visitation, followed by unsupervised and overnight visitation. There is no blanket visitation plan or one-size-fits-all model. The type and frequency of visitation depends on many factors, and the spectrum can be wide.
Successful reunification requires time. Jumping hastily into integration before addressing barrier issues can damage children. Mental health disorders, an increased risk for suicide and other injurious behaviors, and an increased risk for experimentation and abuse of drugs and alcohol as adolescents and teenagers can result. Most parents seek to place a timeline on the reunification process. This is possible, but only after a thorough assessment (stage one) has been completed. The timelines prescribed above assume interaction with the RT once per week at a minimum.
Once reunification begins, the RT monitors how visitation affects the child by meeting with him or her before and after a cluster of visits. Early on in visitation, children commonly exhibit negative behaviors including derogatory statements about the other parent, refusing to go to the visit, or a younger child may display irritable moodiness or throw temper tantrums. Acting out at school may occur. Most children try to demonstrate loyalty to the familiar parent because it helps them process very confusing information. Negative behaviors and emotions typically subside, so parents must keep an open mind. It may take a child several weeks to months to adjust, and it is of paramount importance to the reunification process that the custodial parent allows this transition to happen.
The RT will discuss signs and signals that things are happening as they should or should not, with recommendations for improvement along the way. The RT addresses issues associated with what the “alienating behaviors” that are normally considered evidence of Parental Alienation syndrome.