Structured intervention trumps therapy in child estrangement cases

Reconciliation therapy is an intensive psycho-educational intervention that, when structured and delivered properly by specialists in the field, can be far more effective in cases of parental alienation than conventional therapeutic methods, says Toronto family lawyer Brian Ludmer.

The intervention technique is best suited for severe instances of family breakdown where one parent is almost or entirely rejected in favour of the other — much like a situation that recently played out in a Michigan case that made international headlines.

The case, which Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Gorcyca called one of the worst parental alienation scenarios she’d ever seen, made news after Gorcyca ordered the children, ages 15, 10 and 9, be sent to Oakland County Children’s Village — a juvenile detention, residential treatment and shelter care facility — after they defied her order to have lunch with their dad.

The siblings spent about two weeks at the foster-care part of the facility before being released and sent to summer camp while a custody battle between their parents continued.

In mid-August, the judge awarded temporary sole custody to the children’s father and ordered that the family participate in an unnamed specialized program of reconciliation therapy. The case will resume Oct. 5 for an oral hearing and update on progress and a report on a psychological evaluation of the parents and the children, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Ludmer, of LudmerLaw, says this type of intervention is colloquially known as reconciliation therapy, though there are no specific professional standards for how it is to be conducted.

Where properly structured and conducted by a specialist practitioner, this type of psycho-educational intervention is much more effective in treating broken families, as opposed to traditional therapeutic methods, he says.

Failed interventions for broken family systems

“In conflicted families, an unfortunate dynamic will often develop where the children completely reject or almost completely reject one of the two parents. They enter into what’s called a cross-generational coalition of one parent and child or children against the other parent,” Ludmer tells “It is that enmeshed cross-generational coalition that has long been recognized in the psychological literature as particularly harmful for child development in many ways. That family dynamic has, time after time, proven resistant to all kinds of conventional therapeutic interventions.”

Traditional methods fail for a variety of reasons, says Ludmer.

“First, conventional therapy is based on what’s called a therapeutic alliance, which is a trusting partnership between the therapist and the patient. It is meant to be a non-judgmental, supportive type of guidance where, through talking over time, therapist and patient will collectively come to a way to make the patient a better, happier person,” he says.

“However, when a child is resistant to doing something that is in their best interest, it’s ineffective, because what needs to take place is an intervention in a direct manner to reset all the family relationships and to break apart this coalition of parent and child and/or children against the other parent,” he says. “The process also needs to reset the child in the proper role in the family hierarchy and protect the child’s relationship with the rejected parent from the influences of the favoured parent.”

Another important reason why conventional therapy will inevitably fail, says Ludmer, relates to whom the sessions are directed at.

“It’s often focused on individual patients — it’s all about you and your fears and your needs and your feelings, whereas the problem is a family problem. It is the entire family system that is broken,” says Ludmer.

“Thirdly, as there’s no stated goal, no milestones along the way to get to that goal and no timeline to get to the goal, it just degenerates into an endless process of positioning and justification of positions, with years of limited, if any, progress. Meanwhile, their whole childhood is being lost.”

Also concerning, says Ludmer, is that in conventional therapy, “it’s in the interest of the favoured parent that it fail.” These parents often view their role as that of a protective parent who is advocating for their child against the other parent, he says.

Leading clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Childress, says Ludmer, put the current failed attempts at helping these families this way:

“Current practices in reunification therapy may involve simply listening to the child’s litany of complaints against the targeted parent, having the targeted parent apologize to the child for supposed parental failures (often exaggerated, distorted, or even fabricated by the child), and encouraging the further disempowerment of the targeted parent who must seek to appease the child, continually, and without success in altering the child’s rejection. In other cases where the ‘reunification therapy’ employs approaches that may be effective, tactics of the alienating parent and child, who postpone, reschedule, and fail to attend appointments, will delay and frustrate the goals. In other cases, the child and alienating parent engage in tactics to remove therapists who challenge the child to behave more appropriately, in favor of therapists who enable the child’s over-empowerment and collude with the family psychopathology that is manifesting in the child’s rejection of the targeted parent.”

“Most conventional therapists will look at a child’s relationship with a parent as a continuum with love and closeness on one end and rejection and no relationship on the other end. This is incorrect, because one of the tasks of childhood is to grow and develop your own individual critical thinking skills — not just act as an extension of one parent,” says Ludmer.

“It’s a logical error to equate closeness with health because many of those relationships are enmeshed, where a child’s critical thinking skills are impaired and they don’t have individuality of action or thought. You have to look at it as a continuum where health is in the middle and extreme enmeshment is at one end and dysfunction and complete rejection at the other end, and the job of the reconciliation therapy is to get the child in the middle. You have to break the enmeshed dynamic as much as you have to break the rejection dynamic.”

Needed interventions for broken family systems

In contrast to conventional therapy, “reconciliation therapy,” if properly conducted, he says, is meant to quickly break the enmeshed cross-generational coalition and help the family restructure appropriately.  Examples of these programs include Family Bridges (Texas, with locally-trained practitioners in many cities, including Toronto), Family Reflections (British Columbia), Transitioning Families (California), Conscious Co-Parenting Institute (California), Families Moving Forward (Toronto) and The Family Separation Clinic (London, UK).

“For the process to be successful, it takes a very skilled therapist who understands the sometimes brutally overt, but usually quite subtle, manipulation that goes on and who is prepared to take a stand – to be directive and demanding of good faith progress and openness from all members of the family, including the children,” says Ludmer. “There needs to be stated goals, timelines and milestones, with the authority to return the matter to court if progress stalls.”

In fact, says Ludmer, the process has no room for the traditional “therapeutic alliance,” as the “patient” is the entire family system.

“The therapist is there to open the children’s minds, repair their critical thinking skills and their ability to think independently of what they’ve been told and to explore the possibility that maybe they are not being fair and objective when it comes to the rejected parent,” he says.

Most programs have a requirement for a supportive temporary structural change in the family system. The process often involves a period of court-ordered separation from the favoured parent, says Ludmer, along with the intensive psychological and educational work.

Ongoing care by a specially-trained mental health expert will likely follow, he adds.

During this period, the children receive caregiving only from the rejected parent, says Ludmer, “enabling them to re-acquire the knowledge and understanding that this parent is a competent, loving and available caregiver.” The ongoing Michigan case is currently following this model.

Some of the leading specialized programs outlined above do have a developing record of success in reuniting children with their lost parents and helping the family to restructure in a more healthy manner, says Ludmer. There is an almost unlimited demand for these specialized services, he says, given the scope and magnitude of the problems being tackled.