Divorce is an emotionally, mentally, and physically draining experience — not only for the spouses involved, but also for any children caught in the crossfire. The scars that are inflicted during the course of the divorce process may linger in the minds and hearts of children for years to come.
Reunification counseling (also known as reunification therapy) is designed to help mend the strained (or broken) relationship between parent and child in cases of divorce, abuse, or neglect. Reunification counseling can be very beneficial to the lasting health and well-being of a child, but it can also be very stressful in the moment. An experienced family law attorney can help you to successfully navigate the complicated emotions and legal ramifications of reunification counseling.
What is Reunification Counseling?
Reunification counseling usually refers to court-ordered therapy after a high-conflict divorce. The therapist takes steps to re-establish (or “reunite”) a relationship between a child and a parent. Since studies have demonstrated time and time again that children are better off in virtually every aspect of life when they have both parents in their inner circle, more and more courts are mandating reunification therapy between alienated or estranged parents and their children.
While no two cases are exactly the same, reunification counseling is often prescribed when there’s a “refuse and reject” dynamic between a parent and child. This type of therapy is often implemented in one of the following situations:
- The child is estranged from a parent for legitimate reasons. Perhaps the parent has a history of being ineffective or incompetent as a provider, or the parent has demonstrated abusive or neglectful behavior in the past. Social Services may have even removed the child from the parent’s care. Now, there’s reason to believe that the parent has turned over a new leaf, but the child is unwilling to engage with the parent. In this situation, the court may order reunification counseling between the two.
- At the other end of the spectrum, a competent, well-meaning parent may be suffering alienation from a child due to a contentious divorce or other factors. Perhaps the other parent is trying to “sabotage” the child’s relationship with the ex-spouse. Whatever the case may be, if the court determines that the stress of a divorce is causing a child to pull away from one of the parents without any valid reason to do so, the court may prescribe reunification therapy in this situation as well.
The Role of a Court Order in Reunification Counseling
In some cases, reunification counseling may be initiated by one of the parents. For example, the parent with primary custody may seek reunification counseling if the child is having serious relationship issues with the other parent, despite the ex-spouse’s best efforts.
However, in many cases reunification counseling is compulsory. Therapy efforts are often court-ordered in order to prevent parental abandonment of estranged children, or alienation of either parent after a divorce is finalized.
When reunification counseling is court-ordered, all parties involved will be given direction as to what they should expect, and what steps will be taken next. The court has the authority to enforce reunification counseling or impose penalties upon either party if they’re unwilling to participate (especially if it’s an estranged parent who doesn’t want to mend the relationship with their child). If the reunification counselor experiences serious resistance from either the parent or the child, then they may have to go back before the judge to make sure the order is carried out.
How Does Reunification Counseling Work?
The process of reunification counseling usually begins with some type of assessment to determine the dynamics of the situation at hand. For example: Is this an estrangement or alienation case? Did the child have legitimate reasons to draw away from the parent in the first place, or was the child’s attitude biased by the other parent? Knowing the specifics of each case can help the reunification therapist to tailor their approach to the family in question.
Reunification counseling can be delivered in a variety of settings. Sessions may be held in the therapist’s clinic, but they also may be delivered through in-person visits to the family’s home. Other potential settings include the foster parent’s home (in cases of parental abuse or neglect), state-provided meeting facilities, or even public spaces, such as a quiet park.
During reunification counseling, the therapist is focused on promoting healthy, productive communication between the parent and child, and highlighting the natural attachment between the two. The therapist also works with both parent and child to address any long-standing emotional injuries that need to be resolved in order for complete healing to take place.
This form of counseling is usually performed in combination with individual therapy. At times, the reunification therapist may work with both parties on an individual basis, too. In other situations, two or more therapists are simultaneously involved with the family — the reunification therapist along with one or more therapists for individual sessions.
The Pros and Cons of Reunification Counseling
Reunification counseling can help parents and children to develop vital communication skills when interacting with one another, and engage in transparent, healthy behaviors. The ultimate goal of reunification counseling is to bridge the gap between distant parents and children, and prevent serious issues from occurring in the future.
At the same time, reunification counseling can be frightening, especially if it’s court-ordered. This anxiety may be completely unfounded; but it could be a legitimate cause for concern, especially if the parent in question has a history of verbal or physical abuse. Of course, a court should never put a child’s health and safety at risk when considering whether to order reunification counseling. However, the court may be unaware of relevant factors that would influence its decision.
Whether you’re dreading the prospect of reunification counseling between your child and ex-spouse, or you’d welcome the chance to reconnect with your alienated child, it’s important to know all of the legal options available to you. Reach out to our team of experts at Willick Law Group today to learn more about the in’s and out’s of reunification counseling. You can count on us to provide you with exceptionally compassionate care and the best possible representation.