Oklahoma Bar Journal
Reunification Therapy: A Mechanism for Managing the Chaos
By J. Parker Kempf and Britane D. Outlaw
FAMILY THERAPY CAN HELP IN FAMILY LAW
Courts dealing with custody disputes, family breakups, divorce and legal separations know the damage caused by these highly stressful situations, particularly the damage caused to children. While attorneys advocate for their clients and judges make difficult decisions, there is room for family therapy to improve outcomes for families and children. When done correctly and with willing parties, family therapy can be initiated in the interim to provide coping skills to survive the current challenges while also providing navigation toward a brighter future with healthy bonds and less animosity. The primary goals of family therapy during family transitions, such as court proceedings, are to mitigate long-term emotional and behavioral challenges for all parties, improve future and family relationships and improve coping with the changing family dynamics. Having a neutral third party to partner with and advocate for all parties in the situation will lessen overall stress and fear while improving the likelihood of success.
Family court systems have embraced mental health care in many forms to enhance positive outcomes for litigants. Among the most preferred and commonly used tools by family court systems are referrals for varying forms of family therapy. Family therapy can take many forms in divorce and custody cases and can have many goals including but not limited to improving co-parenting interactions, fostering healthy adjustments to the changing family and reintegrating or reunifying a child with an estranged parent.
PARENTAL DYNAMICS WARRANTING REUNIFICATION THERAPY
Successful reunification therapy referrals require courts to first recognize the dangerous dynamics taking place between the two parents or between the parents and children. While no custody or divorce case will be without tension and anger, the most emotionally charged family court cases may result in what is known as the “resist/refuse” dynamic. This dynamic comes in various forms and severities. The resist/refuse dynamic results in the child or children declining any relationship with one of the two parents. The resist/refuse dynamic can be divided into two originating causes: intentional parental alienation or a natural devolution from the resisted parent’s behaviors. Intentional alienation refers to when the primary parent involved in parental alienation often engages in insulting the alienated parent, purposefully gaslighting the child about their experiences with the opposing parent and intentional barriers placed between the estranged parent and the child. Incidental resist/refuse dynamics occur when the estranged parent’s behavior has had a negative impact on the child, such as behaviors from untreated mental illness or substance abuse disorders. Often, we see incidental estrangement occur when parents have previously had negative impacts on the child while under the influence, through exposure to unsafe situations or neglect or due to erratic behavior through the course of mental illness. When a court has identified a resist/refuse dynamic, they should consider a referral for what’s known as reunification therapy.
SETTING THE STAGE FOR SUCCESS
Courts should take special care when referring families for reunification therapy. Referrals should be highly specific regarding the goals of therapy, the desired length of therapy, the involved parties and the therapist’s roles and responsibilities. Therapists engaged in reunification therapy hold a unique role that they do not often face in other circumstances. They are expected to find the root of the relationship issues and treat the relationship issues, while also reporting back to the court with their findings and recommendations. Additionally, therapists are typically given a distinct responsibility to communicate with judges, guardians ad litem, individual therapists working with the family and each party’s counsel. Topics of communication include session attendance, progress, regression, barriers to the family’s success, concerns for the children’s welfare and recommendations or opinions on the custody situation. Satisfying these expectations requires clearly defined written court orders. To be clear, the Oklahoma Board of Behavioral Health requires that clinicians who are treating an individual may only provide fact witness testimony unless required by law or court order. Courts can clear up this issue from the beginning by including language in their orders directing the chosen therapist to provide opinions and recommendations through their course of treatment. From there, therapists will provide families with the appropriate documents to consent to treatment, release necessary information to the courts and each other and inform them of the clinician’s unique role. Combining concise and clear court orders with proper internal documentation ensures courts and families are best served by the unique reunification therapy process.
A CASE FOR REUNIFICATION THERAPY
Understanding the basis of reunification therapy will ensure appropriate referrals for well-suited families. According to Faust, “[Reunification] is most often conceptualized as a process wherein a child reconnects and rejoins their family of origin.” Thus, in situations where alienation is present, a family therapist can provide substantial aid by facilitating the beginnings of a new connection for family members.
THE CONTENTS OF REUNIFICATION THERAPY
Reunification therapy is a tapestry woven together of various techniques designed to address the family’s cognitive and emotional needs. A therapist will interview each member of the family, assessing their attachment styles, awareness of the changing family structure and communication capabilities. These considerations will guide the creation of the family’s treatment plan and prognosis in reunification therapy, ultimately creating a framework for success.
Prior to addressing familial needs, care should first be paid to the communication abilities each family member possesses to communicate needs. One would assume children would struggle most to communicate their experiences, which is true. Parents, however, also provide ample communication deficiencies that may limit connection with their child.
Once the strengths and weaknesses of the family members are assessed, therapists determine the attachment style of each family member. Attachment theorists suggest there are four major attachment styles across age groups:
- Ambivalent (also called preoccupied) attachment is expressed in children as distress due to separation from a caregiver that is not alleviated when the parent returns. In adults, this attachment style is likely to manifest as a reluctance to become close with others, stress about being loved by their partner or substantial difficulty accepting relationship changes.
- Avoidant (also called dismissive) attachment is often seen as a child who does not seek comfort or contact from caregivers largely due to estrangement or neglect. Adults exhibit struggles with intimacy, show little to no emotion in social relationships and resist sharing thoughts or feelings with others.
- Disorganized (also called insecure) attachment is seen in childhood as a mixture of anxious and avoidant attachment styles. This often results in the parentification of a child, where the child takes on the role of the family’s caregiver to meet the parent’s needs. Adults will display an inability to cope with a child’s fear or distress, possibly becoming irritated and yelling at the child’s distress.
- Secure attachment is expressed in childhood as being able to separate from parents for short periods of time and seeking consolation from parents when frightened. Adults tend to display good self-esteem, share feelings with partners and friends and seek out social support.
By evaluating each member of the family against these four attachment styles, specific needs will become evident to a trained professional. For instance, the initial focus will be to ensure maximum comfort and security for the children within the new and changing family.
Once the child’s basic needs are met, therapists will address the more complex attachment issues within the parents. For instance, if a parent struggles with an avoidant attachment, they will struggle to encourage the children to actively speak their feelings and know how to meet those voiced needs. Additionally, a child who exhibits disorganized attachment and has taken on the role of a parent will have a very difficult time experiencing a “normal” childhood going forward. They will have difficulty relinquishing leadership to their parents again or engaging in play/leisure activities.
REINTEGRATION WITHIN THERAPY
In circumstances where substantial alienation has resulted in a complete and total separation between the child and parent, reunification therapy can offer those families a structured system to reintroduce the alienated parent. Through the course of treatment, parents and children establish new shared activities, healthy boundaries, improved communication and more meaningful bonds. The therapist can offer recommendations to the court on when to appropriately begin supervised visitation, monitored visitation and therapeutically supervised visitation based on explicit observations of the interaction between parent and child. The therapist offers written reports at every level of visitation with regards to the children and parent’s reports as well as observations from within the session, thus giving the court more thorough information on when to increase the amount of contact between both parent and child. Therapists also provide recommendations for the individual treatment of each family member. This is especially true in situations of an organic resist/refuse dynamic due to preexisting mental health disorders in parents – disorders such as personality disorders or substance abuse. Reunification therapy is most likely to succeed when parents willingly address these root issues outside of reunification therapy while addressing their parenting behaviors within reunification.
CO-PARENTING WITHIN THERAPY
Moving past the assessment and reintegration stages, special care and attention should be placed on caregivers and their interactions. This stage of reunification therapy operates from the premise that you divorce a spouse but not a family. Co-parenting training works to help parents think of the child first. “Co-parenting training differs from family therapy or couples therapy because of a ‘best interests of the child’ perspective.” Efforts should focus on communication styles and a hierarchy within the family so that both parents can depict a unified front in discipline, values and decision-making. While separation and divorce result in an array of problems for separating parties, the idea of cultivating an appropriate parenting style between both parents is essential. This ensures children have a firm structure, which benefits their self-esteem, sense of security and ability to learn and absorb new information as they grow. Research indicates that “co-parenting consists of four dimensions: cooperation, agreement of care and education of the children, conflict, and triangulation.”
- Cooperation: the creation of an agreed-upon communication style for all parties in the family unit to communicate with each other with respect.
- Agreement of care and education of the children: the level of agreement of adults in matters related to the children.
- Conflict: the degree of parenting sabotage by the other parent using guilt, criticism and belittlement.
- Triangulation: the development of coalitions between a member of the co-parenting team and the child, which puts the child at the center of interparental conflicts.
Addressing each of the four components above provides an essential and often underserved part of reunification therapy. This is an effort by all parties to address hurt feelings and biases that will prevent the parents from effectively communicating about the best care for their children. Additionally, in both the conflict and triangulation stages, it becomes essential that the parents find a way to communicate effectively with each other, preventing the children from usurping the balance of power between child and parent. The failure of parents to maintain a structural balance for their children can result in the children developing behaviors and beliefs that hinder their ability to attach well to others and impair their awareness of other’s needs.
Additionally, parents will receive robust coaching and practice a decision-making process that includes practicing the “pause” or Purvis method to stop and consider the situation from the perspective of the child. When used correctly, this will result in the child feeling heard and having a greater example of empathy. A further necessary feature of the counseling process is helping the parents look past their own injuries and not force the children to take sides. The antidote for this problem is the parents working to become partners with the children, ensuring their needs and concerns are being adequately addressed. Through this process, a new communication between both parents is born and ensures that the “child first” thought process becomes the primary goal instead of a mere afterthought. Therapists achieve this by assisting parents in finding healthy outlets for both parents to express their frustrations appropriately and not with the children, establishing a functional means of communicating through electronic communication via text/email or co-parenting apps. This allows for a less confrontational way to relay information regarding upcoming events and requirements for the children and develops new communication styles for both parents to better assist the children in new changes or transitions between homes.
Successful reunification therapy results in a remodeled family dynamic. The adjustment recommended and made will create an open environment for the children to be heard by both caregivers, for parents to communicate effectively and for children to have strong and healthy bonds with each caregiver. Additionally, parents and children will end therapy with decision-making plans to assist in moments of impasse regarding parenting matters to avoid unnecessary returns to the courtroom for small disagreements.
The overarching goal of reunification therapy lies in the family learning to communicate needs and express feelings in a safe and respectful way. Needs left unsaid become exaggerated disagreements that result in resentment and hateful comments. Further, in younger children, this may foster resentment and confusion toward one or both parents that lasts into adulthood. Parents will receive training and practice in encouraging their children to speak their truth even when it’s painful for a parent to hear. This selfless act by parents allows children to feel heard and understood and results in a greater likelihood of positive communication going into adulthood. Lastly, in successful reunification therapy, parents will equip their children to seek solutions even in complex and stressful situations.
THE CLOSING ARGUMENT
Reunification therapy is a highly targeted and surgical approach at the disposal of family courts, which can be tailored to each individual family. Cases involving severe alienation or organic resist/refuse dynamics can benefit from reunification therapy through a direct and concise order outlining the goals and roles of the referral. Difficult cases often show promise through the therapist’s efforts to improve attachment, create trust and improve co-parenting relationships. Additionally, therapists serve as a point of contact for the guardian ad litem and the bilateral counsel of each party. Additionally, therapists are charged with the duty of educating the court on the specific case’s dynamics and offering insight into the family’s best interests through regular written reports and, when necessary, testimony. Without a doubt, when it comes to families in litigation, improved outcomes occur when all parties feel heard, understood and fairly represented.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
J. Parker Kempf is a mental health practitioner in Oklahoma. He has worked as a therapist and a vocational rehabilitation counselor. Mr. Kempf operates the Navigation Resource Center LLC and holds certifications in trauma-related therapies to better assist children in identifying the traumas that drive behaviors difficult for parents to understand.
Britane D. Outlaw is a licensed professional counselor, certified rehabilitation counselor, certified life care planner and certified case manager. She serves as a clinical director and direct practitioner and is frequently called upon in litigation for consultation, life care plans, expert reviews and expert testimony.
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 A referral for reunification therapy does not indicate that intentional alienation has occurred. Therapists and courts should take special care to avoid confirmation bias when determining the cause of resist/refuse dynamics.
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 For therapists to maintain good standing with the Oklahoma Board of Behavioral Health, they must have explicit instructions from the court to fill the dual role of a treating clinician while offering opinions and recommendations.
 Internal documentation by the therapist will include but is not limited to the following forms: releases of information, limits to confidentiality and patient rights and responsibilities.
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 Commonly used therapeutic methods for reunification therapy include but are not limited to integrative family systems, family systems therapy, solution-focused, client-centered, trust-based relational interventions and parent child interactive therapy.
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 Therapists should take special care to identify underlying mental health disorders in parents and include that in their assessment of visitation appropriateness.
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 Triangulation is often a dynamic at play during parental alienation cases and causes significant barriers between the child and parent.
 Karyn B. Purvis, David R. Cross, Donald F. Dansereau and Sheri R. Parris. “Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI): A Systemic Approach to Complex Developmental Trauma.” Child Youth Serv. October 2013; 34(4):360-386. doi: 10.1080/0145935X.2013.859906. PMID: 24453385; PMCID: PMC3877861.
 Reunification therapists can serve as “observers” on parenting apps to better assist with real time communication coaching.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 95 Vol 9 (November 2023)
Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.