McAtee: Reunification therapy tips for family law attorneys

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The relationship between a parent and child may be at risk of significant damage in highly contested divorce cases. A rift can occur between a parent and child due to alienation by the other parent, or due to a gradual distancing by the child due to other reasons. Thus, “alienation” and “estrangement” are not synonymous, as the former implies intentional acts of the non-alienating parent to drive a wedge between the child and the other parent. In both instances, reunification therapy is a tool that, when employed effectively, can make a world of difference for the parent-child relationship. The reunification counseling process will look different depending on the facts of the case and the age of the child.

As the attorney representing the parent struggling to reunite with his or her child, you may sometimes feel powerless when your client is trying his or her hardest to reconnect with his or her child with little to no apparent progress. The following tips may help ensure that the reunification process is as successful as possible.

Be specific with court orders

The area where family law attorneys can have the most influence on a case of parental alienation or estrangement is carefully drafting the proposed orders for the court addressing reunification therapy and its terms. The first step is to decide upon the mental health professional to assist the family. This requires confirming the therapist’s availability and rates. Once the therapist is selected, it is important that the proposed order be as detailed as possible. This includes specifying the frequency of sessions and responsibility for payment. To keep counseling underway and on course, you should request that the therapist provide summary status reports to the attorneys and/or the court.

Time is of the essence in these cases. To avoid delay in beginning sessions, the order should give a deadline for each parent to contact the therapist and pay his or her share of the retainer. Having these details in writing will give your client the recourse of filing a motion for rule to show cause if the “guilty” parent attempts to stonewall the process.

Be supportive

Our clients entrust us with protecting their rights. During the course of representation, we often learn a great deal about them and their families. It can be extremely difficult to see clients struggle, particularly when they are working hard to reconcile with their child under circumstances that they have little control over. Sometimes all we can do is support them with encouragement and advocate for them at every turn.

Be informative

In a 2013 article for Psychology Today, Edward Kruk, Ph.D., outlines the five reunification strategies of Elizabeth M. Ellis’ 2005 study: “Erode children’s negative image by providing incongruent information; refrain from actions that put the child in the middle of conflict; consider ways to mollify the anger and hurt of the alienating parent; look for ways to dismantle the coalition between the child and alienating parent and convert enemies to allies; and never give up on reunification efforts.” However, as Kruk comments, “(T)he primary response of the alienated parent must always be one of loving compassion, emotional availability, and absolute safety. Patience and hope, unconditional love, and being there for the child are the best responses that alienated parents can provide their children — even in the face of the sad truth that this may not be enough to bring back the child.”

The bottom line of long-term reunification efforts is “don’t give up.” I have sent articles such as Kruk’s to clients seeking practical advice. There are also support groups and online communities available for parents struggling to navigate parental alienation or estrangement.

Be strategic

From the case strategy perspective, clients should be encouraged to document efforts to contact the child appropriately and any alienating behavior of the other parent as much as possible. In addition, I often encourage individual counseling for one or both parents as part of the reunification therapy order. Enlisting individual therapists for the parents separate from the reunification therapist allows the mental health professionals to take a collaborative approach to helping the family heal. As Monica Logan writes in her February 2021 article, “Eleven Tips for Attorneys in Locating a Forensically Informed Reunification Therapist,” it is frequently most productive to have a therapist team in place if the case involves “resist-refuse dynamics.” She also advises that both parents be involved participants in the therapeutic process.

Be diligent

The requirement for diligence applies to the attorney as well as the alienated or estranged parent. The damaged bond between the parent and child can be restored with time, even without reunification therapy. However, this outcome requires the parent to be patient, supportive and consistent in efforts to maintain contact with the child.

Parental alienation or estrangement is never an easy obstacle to overcome. With the right support system of mental health providers, family law attorneys can achieve outcomes for their clients’ families that may have at one time seemed impossible.•

Nicole Makris McAtee is a partner in the family law practice group of Cohen & Malad LLP. You can reach her at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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