What is Reunification Therapy?
One of the more recent innovative concepts by family court for the facilitation of more positive parent/child relationships is reunification therapy. In many family cases, particularly in contentious divorces, a child(ren) may be estranged from one of their parents. A reunification therapy order is issued so that a mental health professional can mend the estrangement of the parent-child relationship.
I consider reunification therapy to be a form of family therapy with the goal of reuniting the entire family in the best interest of the child(ren). As such, it requires the cooperation and participation of both parents to be effective. Indeed, failure to cooperate with the process by either parent is the most frequent cause for failure.
There are a myriad of reasons for parent/child estrangement from child abuse, neglect or abandonment on one end of the spectrum to parent alienation on the other. (For an informative review of parental alienation in the family I refer you to Family Court Review Volume 58 #2 Published in April 2020) and Silverman, Wade, Parental Alienation. Florida Chapter Association of Family and Conciliation Court, July 2017, http://flafcc.org/parental-alienation.
Irrespective of the causes of estrangement, protecting the child’s physical and emotional well-being is paramount. Thus, I recommend the following steps designed to complete the process and safeguard the best interest of the child. First, the therapist needs to interview each of the parents to assess the probable causes of estrangement. Second, the child is interviewed to determine his or her reason(s) for feeling estranged. Third, the therapist decides whether it is better to proceed by working individually with the parent and the child or with both in the same session. Fourth, the reunification therapist may choose to initiate an intermediate step between individual and joint sessions in which he/she would invite the child’s therapist to attend at least the first reunification session.
After successful completion of the reunification process the therapist would invite both parents to a termination session(s) to cement the reunion of the family. During this last session, he/she would address how to maintain a positive co-parenting process.
If at any point in the above process the reunification therapist suspects parent alienation, he/she should suspend the reunification process and alert the Court as to this serious issue. Also, he/she should offer suggestions as to how to address this process.
Who pays for reunification therapy?
The court assigns the therapist and assigns how much each parent should contribute towards the professional fee. The process is effective as long as both parents agree that the child(ren) should have both parents actively participate in parenting.
What happens when reunification therapy fails?
The process fails if either parent does not cooperate. If the residential parent does not cooperate, the child will not be motivated to engage in the process. He/she will either be late for appointments or the residential parent might say, “I can’t force him/her.” The process also fails if the estranged parent continues the behavior that causes fear, anger, or humiliation in the child. As an example the estranged parent may continue to criticize the other parent during reunification therapy, despite the therapists efforts to stop this behavior and the child’s discomfort with it. If the reunification fails, it is because one or both parents are not dedicated to the process. In this case, the judge or magistrate may have to appoint a Guardian Ad Litem or sanction the non-cooperative parent.
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