Reunification Therapy in Family Law Cases

It is an unfortunate fact of life that when relationships go sour, some parents cannot set aside their own pain. Instead, they prevent the children they have with the other parent from developing a meaningful relationship with the other parent. Sometimes, parents will not have access to their child for years due to the actions of the other parent. In these cases, reunification therapy is a good option to help ease the child into a meaningful relationship with their mom or dad.

The goal is to reintroduce the parent and child so that they can continue to build a relationship, and also to prevent any further cleaving of the bond. If the court orders reunification therapy in a family law case, then a therapist will be appointed to help counsel each party. Ultimately, successful reunification therapy means that the court can order visitation.

Children who have been separated from their parents are more likely to face emotional distress or difficulty in adjusting. They often exhibit self-hatred, low self-esteem, aggression, and lack remorse or guilt. Therefore, reunification therapy aims to ensure the child has the best possible chance to work through the issues they might feel with an absentee parent.

After a court orders reunification therapy, it is important for individual counseling to take place first. The therapist should meet with the child and each parent separately on a few occasions before beginning to have sessions with more than one party. The therapy will not be private or confidential, because the court will have a vested interest in reaching the goal to reunite parent and child. The therapist will be required to report any findings or issues that may be problematic in reaching the goal. Usually, reunification therapy sessions last between eight and twelve weeks with weekly sessions. It often occurs in conjunction with visitation and might continue after this time period, based on the recommendations of the therapists and finding of the court.

There are generally three stages of reunification therapy over this period: assessment, commitment and preparation, and integration. The assessment stage is generally where the individual sessions occur. The therapist gets the background information and primary concerns of the child and the parent who has been separated. In part two, commitment and preparation, the therapist is able to convey the process and goals for the parties. They will also lay out guidelines for each person so they know what to expect. Both parents should be involved in this process to help improve their communications with each other.

Finally, during integration, the therapist will hold group sessions between the parent and child. This will be a great opportunity for each of them to express their grievances or frustrations with the relationship, and the therapist will help serve as a mediator. They will also provide tools so they can learn to express themselves and reduce conflict in the future. This will also be when the therapist decides if more work needs to be done outside reunification therapy. For example, if the parent struggles with drugs or alcohol, external counseling might be needed in order for them to work through those other issues.

Reunification therapy will not stand a chance for success if both parents do not work together and if they do not trust their professional therapist. Therefore, they must try to find a therapist that they and their child trusts, and who understands the court system. So, if there is a parenting coordinator as well, the therapist needs to understand their role, the goals of the family courts, and work well with each. Parents must make decisions together and with the reunification therapist, and most importantly, follow through on those decisions. Unilateral decision-making is what caused the alienation between parent and child – it is crucial to not fall back into old habits (or take this opportunity as revenge). Reunification therapy is designed to build and encourage trust between both the separated parent and child, as well as between the two parents.

Once the reunification therapy has finalized, the therapist will most likely be required to submit a written report to the judge and each party’s lawyer. This will be essential to any rulings of the judge. It’s possible the therapist will also be called as an expert witness to explain the findings in their report and offer opinions or recommendations to the court. For parents about to go into reunification therapy, it is important to remember that while the therapist is there to help you, they are also witnessing your behavior and conduct, which could be reported back to the judge in your family law case.

Of course, reunification therapy might not be the best fit for each family. They can be expensive, as they are not covered by insurance. Other therapists might be needed. They can take a very long time, with sessions too far apart to be very effective. It can take time even after the reunification therapy concludes for the expert to provide their report. As an alternative, some courts have used what’s called intensive reunification programs. These programs are shorter and much more intense and have often been used in cases where the state has become involved due to delinquency, abuse or neglect. Often, these services are 5-20 hours per week and done within two or three months. Staff will be available 24/7 and on weekends. Of course, this can be incredibly overwhelming to all parties, especially if their separation has been extended. But, it has shown to be effective, as sort of a blitzkrieg style of reunification.

If you have questions or concerns about reunification therapy or alternatives in family law cases, get in touch with the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen today for a free, in-office consultation at 201-845-7400.

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Peter Van Aulen is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Attorney.

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