AZ lawmakers move to ban ‘reunification’ treatment in child custody cases

Tori Nielsen is a reunification camp survivor. Throughout her 13-year-long family court case, she and her younger brother have repeatedly reported the abuse they have endured at the hand of their father to anyone who would listen, only to be ignored and told their claims of abuse were lies. 

She said that the court fabricated reasons to give her father custody of both children, ignoring their wishes, and his past domestic violence convictions, or his violent and neglectful tendencies. 

As a result, Nielsen said in May 2021, she and her brother were “illegally kidnapped and trafficked across state lines” as they were taken from their Arizona home to a reunification camp in Ventura, Calif., by four strangers, later revealed to be private transporters hired by the court. Once there, they were barricaded in a hotel room and forced to stay the night with the transporters.

Nielsen said the camp was secretive, and used threats of being sent to a “wilderness camp” and brainwashing tactics to get the children to cooperate. Afterward, she and her brother were turned over to their father’s care for what was meant to be 90 days, as the court order stated, but in fact turned out to be much longer. 

While Nielsen was able to leave when she turned 18, her little brother, Marcus, remains in the care of their abusive father. 

“Children are human beings and deserve to have an opportunity to voice their wishes as to where they want to live regarding their parents, especially if they are reporting abuse consistently,” she said.



Family court judges order reunification under the guise of reuniting children with an estranged parent after the child has indicated that they want to remain in the care of their other “preferred” parent. However, experts say that it does more harm than good.

And that’s why some Arizona lawmakers are looking to join the national effort to put an end to the practice and are considering a pair of bills that would effectively end the practice here.  

Senate Bill 1372 would ban reunification treatment in Arizona if it requires the use of private transport services; an overnight, multi-day or out of state stay; a transfer of custody, either  physical or legal; or a no contact order between the child and their preferred parent. 

And Senate Bill 1373 would require courts to consider the wishes of a child in the custody decision making processes if they are at least 14 years old and of “suitable maturity.”

In many cases, these children are often forcibly taken from home against their will and subjected to “treatment” that negates their experiences of abuse. Afterward, they are placed in the care of their rejected parent, with a no-contact order isolating them from their preferred parent and anyone connected to them.

I’ve had clients come out of these camps being told that they are sociopaths, that they are liars, that they are going to lose everything if they don’t apologize to their abusive parents. The brainwashing and the programming actually happens in the camps.

– Dr. Catherine Barrett, clinical forensic psychologist

Reunification is typically ordered in response to claims of “parental alienation syndrome” against the preferred parent, a concept that experts say isn’t valid. 

“Abusers have figured out that, if the child has suffered any kind of abuse, and the mother comes forward with the allegations, the abuser can say, ‘She’s alienating me,’ and use that in an attempt to not be held accountable for anything he’s done,” said Coercive Control Educator Dr. Christine Cocchiola.

Coined by Richard Gardner, the term “parental alienation syndrome” describes a situation where one parent uses their influence to turn their children against the other parent. 

But it is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or any other scientific organization, nor is it based on any legitimate, peer-reviewed research. Instead, its foundations are Gardner’s opinions and beliefs – and his work has been refuted and denounced by experts since his death in 2003. 

Once claims of alienation enter the case, courts sometimes call for reunification therapy to undo what judges believe is brainwashing done to damage the rejected parent’s relationship with the children. 

“They use language like, ‘We need to deprogram the children from their brainwashing,’” said Dr. Catherine Barrett, a clinical forensic psychologist. “Nowhere in the field of psychology do we talk about humans in a way of ‘deprogramming’ them. That’s Gardner’s language.” 

Barrett told the Arizona Mirror that Gardner’s theories have evolved into a pseudoscience, where self-proclaimed “alienation experts” — which Barrett says can’t be legitimate, as it’s impossible to have an expertise in something that hasn’t been validated — have convinced the court system that there are “benchmarks” that indicate parental alienation. Those benchmarks, she said, ignore the rejected parents’ personality, parenting style and whether there has been abuse in the home.

Tina Swithin is the founder of One Mom’s Battle, a community dedicated to supporting parents going through contentious divorces and custody battles, and an advocate for protective parents facing reunification. 

In a statement to the Arizona Mirror, Swithin said that when she first heard the term “parental alienation” 15 years ago during her own custody battle, she assumed that there had to have been a mistake. 

She said that even in cases like hers, where there has been documentation of abuse from the rejected parent, claiming alienation can change the entire situation. 

“Anyone in today’s system knows to play the alienation card if they are being accused of abuse,” she said. “My children are safe, and they have been for years, but if we were in today’s present system, I can almost guarantee you my children would be in the hands of their abuser.”

Swithin said that she has seen an “explosion” in the prevalence of reunification and alienation in the family court system in the past 5 years, and as a result, the system she once thought of as a cottage industry developed into more of an industrial complex 

“The ‘alienation’ seed is typically planted by attorneys as a legal strategy or the rejected parent that makes the accusation. Once that seed has been planted, it’s invasive and takes over,” she said. “The professionals who work in the alienation industry assess how much money a parent has, it will determine how targeted they are, and how ‘alienated’ their kids are.” 

Reunification “therapy,” which the American Bar Association has said is not legitimate psychotherapy, is usually the first effort by the court to force a relationship between the child and their estranged parent. Sessions can cost anywhere from $100 to $300 an hour, and are not covered by any insurers. 

If therapy fails, judges can order families to send their children to a reunification camp — a more intensive, often multi-day treatment that can cost anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000. 

“I’ve had clients come out of these camps being told that they are sociopaths, that they are liars, that they are going to lose everything if they don’t apologize to their abusive parents,” Barrett said. “The brainwashing and the programming actually happens in the camps.” 

Most camps utilize private transport services to forcibly take kids from their home if the parent with custody does not comply with the court order. 

In 2022, a viral video showed private transporters violently ripping 16-year-old Maya Liang and her 12-year-old brother, Sebastian, from their California home and to a reunification camp with their estranged mother more than five hours away from their home. 

In the video, both children are crying, screaming and resisting against the adult transporters as they are forced into the car. Maya’s head is hit against the car door in the process, while police stood by and facilitated the court-ordered altercation. 

One Arizona parent told the Mirror that, while he spent eight days in jail last year for refusing to bring his three kids to a reunification program, transporters went to his home and took his two sons. His eldest daughter, however, hid and later ran away to escape the treatment. 

She remains missing. 

The professionals who work in the alienation industry assess how much money a parent has, it will determine how targeted they are, and how ‘alienated’ their kids are.

– Tina Swithin, One Mom’s Battle

After attending a reunification camp, children are typically placed into the custody of their rejected parents for 90 days. During this time, the children are barred from having any contact with their preferred parent, as well as with anyone else connected to that parent, including extended family or community members. 

However, in many cases, the children don’t return to their preferred parent when the 90 days ends. Instead, the process can be repeated as many times as the court sees fit. Swithin said that children typically spend at least a year in the care of their rejected parents. 

As part of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022, President Joe Biden signed The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act, or “Kayden’s Law,” which offers additional federal funding to states that pass legislation to improve their child custody laws by limiting reunification treatment. 

“Researchers have documented nearly 800 child murders in the United States since 2008 committed by a divorcing or separating parent. More than 100 of these child murders are known to have occurred after a court ordered the child to have contact with the dangerous parent over the objection of a safe parent or caregiver,” Congress found.

In November, California unanimously passed Piqui’s Law, similar legislation aimed at ending reunification treatment named after five-year-old Aramazd “Piqui” Andressian Jr., who was murdered after being placed back into his father’s care despite evidence of abuse. 

Piqui’s Law effectively bans reunification camps in the Golden State by prohibiting judges from ordering reunification treatments, including camps and workshops, that involve the use of “private youth transporters or private transportation agents, as specified, a no-contact order, or a transfer of physical or legal custody of the child.” 

Bolick’s SB1372 aims to accomplish the same goal as Piqui’s Law — ending reunification statewide — although the California law goes a bit further by requiring additional judicial training on domestic violence and child abuse for family court professionals.  

When the bills were considered last week by the Senate Transportation, Technology and Missing Children Committee, Arizona lawmakers were horrified to learn about the realities of this system. 

Nielsen’s moving testimony evoked a strong response from Sen. Catherine Miranda, who said that, as a mandatory reporter and elected official, she would be contacting leadership at the Arizona Department of Child Safety to help remove her brother from the abusive situation. 

Both bills passed through committee with a vote of 6-1 and will next be considered by the full Senate.

The sole opposing vote came from Sen. Christine Marsh, a Phoenix Democrat, who said that she is looking forward to supporting the legislation once some of her concerns about the wording of the bill are addressed. In particular, Marsh said she was concerned that limiting some of the protections to children who were at least 14 years old would arbitrarily leave other children in danger, particularly those who are just months away from turning 14.

In response , one speaker suggested an amendment to SB1373 that would expand the bill to require courts to consider the wishes of children of all ages. As the legislation moves forward, advocates say they are hopeful it will be a first step to making sure that no more of Arizona’s children are victimized by the system. 

“I look forward to the day where I can post a mugshot for one of these individuals who state they are a professional, because this is criminal activity, this is child trafficking,” Swithin said.

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