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Mar 9, 2019

Bitter custody

Co-produced with PRX Logo

A controversial theory is swaying family court judges to award custody to parents accused of harming kids. We trace the origins of “parental alienation” and learn how it has spawned a cottage industry of so-called family reunification camps that are making big profits from broken families.

Credits

Produced by Trey Bundy. Reported by Bundy and Whitney Clegg. Edited by Taki Telonidis and Andy Donohue.

Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Ana Ionescu was 10 years old when she learned her parents were splitting up. She wasn't surprised.

 

Ana Ionescu: They were like, "How did you know? What?" I was like, "I just had a feeling. I just knew it was coming." I wasn't upset.

 

Al Letson: Things at home had been rocky for a long time, and Ana thought the divorce might be her ticket out of a bad situation.

 

Ana Ionescu: I was like, "Honestly, I think this is better for all of us." I didn't realize it would turn into what it did, but I thought that this is just better for everyone.

 

Al Letson: Ana is 20 now. When her parents first separated, she and her brother Alex lived half-time with their mom and half-time with their dad in a small New Jersey town. It was a temporary arrangement while the parents fought for custody in family court.

 

Speaker 4: Let's go on the record. We are recording. We are recording in the matter of Dr. Alexianu and Dr. Ionescu, docket number FM2009.

 

Al Letson: Those doctors the judge mentioned are Ana's parents, Adrian and Maria, both born in Romania. Their case began an ordeal that dragged on for the next five years. The kids told the judge, David Issenman, they had a close relationship with their dad and didn't wAna live with their mom because she was abusive. They said she didn't feed them regularly, she screamed a lot, and she destroyed their stuff when she was mad. They talked about the night they say she choked Ana for texting in bed.

 

Ana Ionescu: My mom is not sane, not stable, not loving, literally abusive.

 

Al Letson: Ana's mom denied abusing her kids. She said their father had turned the children against her. She declined to speak to us on the record for the show, but she read a statement to the court.

 

Maria Alexianu: This total 180-degree turn in my relationship with our children is a result of the manner in which defendant has portrayed me in the eyes of our innocent children. Defendant is teaching our children to hate me.

 

Al Letson: It appeared to Judge Issenman that the dad was undermining the mom, but he also saw enough blame to go around. He said the mom's parenting style was harsh and that the kids weren't trying to get along with her. He sent everyone to a family therapy retreat and gave assignments for the kids and their mom to cook and bake together.

 

David Issenman: Did you and your mom bake the chocolate chip cookies and the brownies?

 

Ana Ionescu: Yes.

 

David Issenman: Good. I'm gonna come down and taste some.

 

Al Letson: The kids say they went through all the motions with their mom, but still insisted to the judge that at home, she was not the nice person she seemed like in court.

 

Ana Ionescu: We told him she'd been abusive, we don't feel safe. We told him all these things, and on the surface he was like, "Oh, okay. I hear you." He was taking notes, whatever.

 

Al Letson: As Judge Issenman struggled with what to do, he appointed a psychologist called a custody evaluator to help figure it out.

 

David Issenman: I'm gonna ask Dr. Worenklein to resume the stand.

 

Al Letson: The psychologist, Abe Worenklein, interviewed both parents and the kids, then testified in court. Here he is answering a question from the lawyer representing the kids.

 

Speaker 7: Would you agree with me that Alex and Ana completely believe at this point that Dr. Alexianu tried to strangle Ana?

 

Abe Worenklein: Yes, I do.

 

Speaker 7: Whether she did or not, their total reality is, "She tried to strangle me and I couldn't breathe." Correct?

 

Abe Worenklein: They both are of that opinion, yes.

 

Al Letson: Dr. Worenklein acknowledges the kids are afraid of their mom, but then he throws a curve-ball by raising doubts over whether the abuse really happened and saying the kids' dad encouraged them to think the worst about their mom.

 

Abe Worenklein: I am speaking about the phenomenon of parental alienation. I believe that nobody denies the fact that parental alienation does exist, it has always existed since the beginning of custody disputes.

 

Al Letson: Parental alienation. It's a controversial theory. It typically points to one parent using psychological manipulation to turn their kid against the other parent. When Ana first heard this, she felt her accusations against her mom were now being used as a weapon against her dad.

 

Ana Ionescu: I don't know the exact time I heard the word, but when I heard it, I was like, "Oh, let me just Google it, because I don't know what it is." Then I looked it up and I was like, "You've gotta be kidding me. I think they think that our dad alienated us from our mom."

 

Al Letson: The idea of parental alienation was starting to make sense to Judge Issenman. He ordered the kids to be nicer to their mom. Here's Ana's brother, Alex, at 14 years old, telling the judge that he was really trying to get along with his mother.

 

Alex Ionescu: We've tried, trust me, we have tried.

 

David Issenman: I don't believe you. I think you're bull [inaudible] me. I don't think you really have tried.

 

Alex Ionescu: I'm not bull [inaudible] you at all.

 

David Issenman: No? That's what I think.

 

Al Letson: On today's show, Reveal's Trey Bundy looks at why judges sometimes force kids to have relationships with parents they say abuse them. He'll take us inside family courts to learn how parental alienation became such a powerful factor in child custody battles. He investigates a little-known industry that profits off of cases like Ana's. Hey, Trey.

 

Trey Bundy: Hey, Al. Yeah, Ana's case is what the family court system calls a high-conflict custody dispute. We looked at a bunch of them for this story, and they're a mess to report on, because emotions are high, the stakes are high, you have opposing sides saying awful things about each other, and you're just trying to figure out who's telling the truth and who's lying. Add to that the parade of psychologists testifying and you get case after case where all that noise just drowns out the testimony of the kids.

 

Al Letson: Like in Ana's case.

 

Trey Bundy: Exactly.

 

Al Letson: Judge Issenman was trying to figure out whether Ana and Alex had been alienated from their mom. How did he do that?

 

Trey Bundy: Judge Issenman wouldn't speak to us for the show, so we looked through transcripts of the trial to see what he did. He heard from both parents and several psychologists, but he also talked with the kids a bunch of times. He usually told them to be nicer to their mom, and he would chastise them when they push back.

 

David Issenman: Young Alex, I am not happy with your conduct.

 

Alex Ionescu: Why?

 

David Issenman: I think you know why.

 

Alex Ionescu: No.

 

David Issenman: You have not done what I asked you to do. You have not done ... We discussed this. I asked you to be nice to your mother.

 

Alex Ionescu: I have.

 

David Issenman: I don't believe you have. I have reports that indicate that you have not been nice to your mother.

 

Alex Ionescu: I've been very nice to her.

 

David Issenman: I don't think so.

 

Al Letson: At one point the judge got frustrated and took an extreme step with Alex.

 

David Issenman: I'm gonna do something that your mother doesn't know I'm gonna do, your father doesn't know I'm gonna do. You're not going home with your mother and you're not going home with your father. You are going to our juvenile shelter when you leave here.

 

Alex Ionescu: What?

 

David Issenman: You don't seem to get it, so I will tell you. I can send you, and you can cry. I can send you anywhere in this country and make you live anywhere, no father, no mother, no contact. You haven't done what I want you to do, and you are now gonna have to rethink where you're going.

 

Al Letson: Alex spent that night in a juvenile shelter, but even that didn't scare him or his sister into wanting to live with their mom. A few months later, the psychologist, Dr. Worenklein, suggested another strategy, a program called Family Bridges in California that claims to fix parental alienation. He told Judge Issenman about it over the phone in court.

 

Abe Worenklein: It would deal with basically, I'm gonna use the term very loosely, deprogramming some of the feelings that the children have about their mother.

 

Al Letson: I wanted to ask Dr. Worenklein about his recommendation, but he said he couldn't discuss the case publicly. Family Bridges is one of a handful of programs around the country that claim to reunify families they say are broken up by parental alienation. One of the program's psychologists was Richard Warshak.

 

David Issenman: Dr. Warshak, would you approach and take the witness stand, please?

 

Al Letson: Dr. Warshak is a Dallas psychologist and one of the leading voices on parental alienation theories. He's written books on it.

 

Richard Warshak: I'm one of the team leaders who conducts the Family Bridges workshop.

 

Al Letson: Family Bridges has a policy. It says they won't work with the family unless the judge gives custody to the parent the kids want to get away from. The judge also has to order no contact for 90 days with the parent they want to be with. Ana and Alex's therapist said that kind of arrangement could send the kids into a clinical depression. Judge Issenman asked Dr. Warshak about that.

 

Richard Warshak: We found that those risks in general, the risks are overestimated, that the children will suffer depression, despair. What is underestimated is the gratification experienced at being able to finally move beyond a position of rejecting one of their parents.

 

David Issenman: Could you tell me the cost of the program for this family?

 

Richard Warshak: The program is $20,000 for the first segment of the program, which would generally include the children going through a workshop with the unfavored or rejected parent. That would be a four-day workshop.

 

Al Letson: That's $5,000 a day, plus travel, food, and lodging. Judge Issenman told the parents that if he decided to send the kids to Family Bridges, they would have to figure out how to pay for it. He suggested they sell off family property and told the dad to reach into his retirement account. After a two-year court battle, Judge Issenman gathered the family to tell them which parent would get custody and whether they were going to Family Bridges.

 

Ana Ionescu: We knew that this date was coming. We knew that that was when he was gonna make the decision, finally.

 

Al Letson: The judge brought Ana and Alex into his chambers to tell them first. It was two days after Christmas. He told them he didn't wAna ruin their holiday.

 

David Issenman: I have determined that you are going to to go California to a program for five days with your mom.

 

Al Letson: Then he said exactly what they didn't wAna hear.

 

David Issenman: When you get back from California, you are going to live with your mom for a period of time, and during that period of time, you will not be able to talk to or see your father.

 

Alex Ionescu: For how long?

 

David Issenman: Pardon?

 

Alex Ionescu: For how long?

 

David Issenman: At least 90 days, and that really depends on-

 

Alex Ionescu: No.

 

Ana Ionescu: No!

 

Alex Ionescu: We've done everything you've asked. [inaudible 00:11:58].

 

David Issenman: This is what I've decided to do. I'll give you some tissues. I have tissues.

 

Ana Ionescu: Oh my god!

 

Alex Ionescu: No.

 

Al Letson: Ana says what happened next really scared her.

 

David Issenman: Give it to me. Give me your phones. Give me everything you have that enables you to communicate.

 

Al Letson: Ana and Alex were stunned.

 

Alex Ionescu: We have to stay with the parent we don't wAna stay with, and we're cut off completely from the parent that we don't?

 

David Issenman: Yep.

 

Ana Ionescu: That's really not healthy.

 

Alex Ionescu: That's not healthy at all.

 

David Issenman: Actually, when you get to be psychologists and you have gone and done all the studying and all the research and you wAna come back and tell me that it's not healthy, you can do that.

 

Al Letson: The judge told them they would suffer severe consequences later in life if they didn't go to this program with their mom.

 

Ana Ionescu: When do we have to go?

 

Alex Ionescu: No.

 

David Issenman: Tonight. You're leaving tonight.

 

Ana Ionescu: Excuse me?

 

Alex Ionescu: Huh?

 

David Issenman: You're leaving tonight. You're going to California tonight.

 

Ana Ionescu: Then these two police officers just opened the door and the judge was like, "Go with them."

 

Al Letson: The officers took Ana and Alex to a waiting room. The judge walked back into the court to tell the parents he was giving custody to the mom.

 

David Issenman: I'm satisfied that the two children, Alex and Ana, are alienated as defined by Abe Worenklein, who was the court-appointed expert.

 

Al Letson: When the hearing ended, Ana and Alex's mother picked them up from the waiting room and took them to the airport. They weren't allowed to say goodbye to their dad, who was still sitting in the courtroom. The next morning the kids and their mom were in Northern California, driving a rental car to Family Bridges. It wasn't what Ana expected.

 

Ana Ionescu: It was not like a Holiday Inn. It was below, but it wasn't like a motel either. It was just not what I had expected. I was expecting an official place or an office or a conference room. It was just in a hotel.

 

Al Letson: The kids and their mother checked into adjoining rooms. The Family Bridges sessions took place in a conference room. For four days they only left the hotel for meals.

 

Ana Ionescu: Captive is a good way to describe it. I felt watched all the time. I felt trapped.

 

Al Letson: Family Bridges was started under a different name in the early '90s by a psychologist named Randy Rand. Two years before Ana and Alex got to the program, Dr. Rand's psychology license was suspended for gross negligence and unprofessional conduct. He had testified in another case that a child was severely alienated and should go to his program, even though he had never interviewed the child. Ana says Rand was there during her sessions, but Dr. Warshak, who testified in her case, ran the show. Rand and Warshak declined to speak to us. Ana says they pushed the parental alienation angle hard and told her and Alex they couldn't leave the program until they admitted their dad had brainwashed them.

 

Ana Ionescu: For some miraculous reason, Alex and I had two seconds alone. I remember we walked out and I was like, "Alex, we need to fake it til we make it. This is legitimately the only way we are gonna get out of here. Whatever you think they'd wAna hear, tell it to them. Just feed them anything that they wAna hear." Then he was like, "How am I supposed to do that?" I was like, "I don't know, Alex, dig deep. Take out your inner actor in you and just try to just act, because we're not gonna leave otherwise. If I act correctly and you don't, I'm still not going home. We both need to be on the same page." Then we walked back in after the break as literally two completely different kids than the ones that walked out. We were like, "Oh my god, hi mom, how are you?" fake nice everything.

 

Al Letson: Their plan worked. They went along with everything Warshak said, and the next week they were back in New Jersey, but they still weren't allowed to see their dad. Remember, the judge ordered him not to contact his kids for 90 days. Ana's dad says when that time was up, a different judge extended the no-contact period another 90 days because he had talked to Ana on Skype a few times during the first order. When the second 90 days were up, he still wasn't allowed to see his kids. That's because he'd appealed the case and the judge wouldn't lift the order until the appeal was resolved.

 

Adrian Ionescu: It was very hard. The first year was absolutely horrible. I remember the few months. I don't even know how I did my job.

 

Al Letson: That's Adrian, Ana's dad.

 

Adrian Ionescu: I had my friends that told me that I was completely out, that they thought I'm going to basically who knows, give up everything. It looked bad from the outside. From my good friends that I had at the college, they told me that I was in a very bad shape for probably about six months or so.

 

Al Letson: Adrian's appeal dragged on, and the 90-day no-contact order stretched into three years. Ana considers that whole part of her childhood lost.

 

Ana Ionescu: I felt very helpless and that there was nothing that I could do, so I was just gonna take it day by day and focus on school. I tried to not be in my mom's house as much as possible. I'd wake up, go to school, come home, do my homework in my room with my door shut.

 

Al Letson: Most of all, she missed her dad.

 

Ana Ionescu: My dad still lived in the same town. I would see him refereeing the game before my game or driving in town, I'd see him through the car window. Obviously I knew his car. It was a weird out-of-body experience seeing your dad 50 feet from you and knowing you can't talk to him or say anything to him. It was just a very unspoken ... We would just look at each other and like, "I know." It was just kind of like a, "I love you. I miss you. I'll see you soon," type thing.

 

Al Letson: Two days after Alex turned 18 he moved back in with his father. Six weeks later, Ana left her mom's house and joined her brother at her dad's. She was still just 16. Her mom called the police to get Ana back, but they let her stay with her dad. Over the last few years, Alex's relationship with his mom has improved, but Ana still refuses to speak to her. Ana's 20 now, about to start law school, so she can help kids caught up in parental alienation cases like hers. When we come back, we're gonna take a closer look at this controversial theory and hear from the man who created it.

 

Richard Gardner: The treatment, number one, has to be to take the child, remove the child from the indoctrinator.

 

Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we're looking at family courts and why judges sent children to live with parents they don't feel safe with. We heard about Ana and her brother Alex and how a judge sent them to live with their mom, even though the kids accused her of being emotionally and physically abusive. The mom got custody because she and a psychologist convinced the judge that the dad had turned the kids against her, that this was a case of parental alienation. I'm here with Reveal reporter Trey Bundy to talk about that. Hey, Trey.

 

Trey Bundy: Hey, Al.

 

Al Letson: Trey, parental alienation, it's at the center of the cases you're looking at. The concept has been around a long time, but I don't think most people know what it really is.

 

Trey Bundy: Most people, if they've heard of it at all, heard about it in 2007.

 

Alec Baldwin: The mother comes home and the phone gets turned off and I don't speak to the child again for 10 days.

 

Al Letson: That's Alec Baldwin, talking with Rosie O'Donnell and Barbara Walters on The View. He'd split up with his wife, Kim Basinger, and they were in an ugly custody battle over their 11-year-old daughter, Ireland. Baldwin left an angry voice mail on Ireland's phone and it had just gone public.

 

Alec Baldwin: This crap you pull on me with this goddamn phone situation that you would never dream of doing to your mother, and you do it to me constantly, and over and over again! I am gonna get on a plane or I am gonna come out there for the day and I am gonna straighten your ass out when I see you! Do you understand me?

 

Al Letson: Baldwin's response was to go public, saying the reason he exploded like that was because Basinger had turned their daughter against him, and he became a spokesman for parental alienation.

 

Alec Baldwin: If I never acted again, I couldn't care less. I would like to devote myself to the cause of parental alienation.

 

Al Letson: Alec Baldwin gives his celebrity endorsement of this theory of parental alienation, but why does it play such a big role in child custody cases?

 

Trey Bundy: Partly because it offers judges a solution to a complicated problem. When they can't decide who's telling the truth about child abuse, a psychologist comes in and offers them a blueprint. Judges sometimes take the word of the psychologist over other evidence, like the testimony of children.

 

Al Letson: How long has parental alienation been around?

 

Trey Bundy: It got started in the 1980s. It was first called parental alienation syndrome, or PAS.

 

Richard Gardner: PAS is the child's diagnosis. The child has a parental alienation syndrome.

 

Trey Bundy: That's Dr. Richard Gardner, a New York psychologist, and he created parental alienation syndrome. In this audio he's lecturing lawyers and therapists back in 1998. He describes an epidemic of vindictive mothers turning kids against their fathers and making false sexual abuse allegations. That was the foundation of PAS, and he talks about it in his lecture. We should warn folks, it gets a little graphic.

 

Richard Gardner: "Let's play a funny trick on daddy," says mom to a seven-year-old. "Let's go into a police station, and you tell them that daddy played with your penis. That'll be a funny joke." True story.

 

Trey Bundy: Gardner argued that false allegations were rampant in custody cases, but he had zero evidence to prove that. In fact, most studies say that more than 90% of child abuse allegations are to some extent true.

 

Al Letson: How does all this play out in court?

 

Trey Bundy: Family court is the only place where parental alienation ever really comes up, and a lot of people think it shouldn't even come up there. It's never been accepted as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Gardner even talked about it more as a legal strategy than a psychological condition. He drew up a playbook for using PAS to counter child abuse allegations and get custody of the kids.

 

Richard Gardner: The treatment, number one, has to be to take the child, remove the child from the indoctrinator.

 

Trey Bundy: The indoctrinator is the so-called alienator, the parent who says the kid was abused, the one the child wants to live with.

 

Richard Gardner: Number two, extremely restricted visitation by the preferred parent, under supervision if necessary, prevent indoctrinations.

 

Trey Bundy: Again, Gardner is saying to limit the time children spend with the parents they want to live with, and if that doesn't work, give primary custody to the alienated parent.

 

Al Letson: The alienated parent is the one accused of abuse, right? He's saying to give that parent full custody and cut out the other parent.

 

Trey Bundy: Yeah, just like what happened with Ana and Alex.

 

Al Letson: What happens if the kids don't wAna go along with the custody switch?

 

Trey Bundy: Dr. Gardner said that would just confirm the PAS diagnosis, and he had a plan for that too.

 

Richard Gardner: An option, and I'm very serious about this, is to take the kid and put them in jail a day or two, juvenile detention center. I'm not putting them with hardened criminals. The kid wants it.

 

Al Letson: Wait, isn't that pretty much what the judge did to Alex when he didn't wAna live with his mom?

 

Trey Bundy: Pretty much.

 

Al Letson: That's absolutely ridiculous. You're taking a child that's already in the midst of a custody battle and traumatizing them even more.

 

Trey Bundy: Yeah, well Gardner had a lot of twisted ideas about kids. He said that adults having sex with kids is part of normal human sexuality. He wanted to abolish laws that require child abuse to be reported to authorities. He also said the court should appoint tough therapists to deal with parental alienation cases, people who wouldn't be tempted to believe the child's allegations.

 

Richard Gardner: Insight, tenderness, sympathy, empathy have no place in the treatment of PAS.

 

Trey Bundy: Gardner committed suicide in 2003, and by then, mental health experts had discredited his theories. They called it junk science. Some state courts even ruled it inadmissible, but it didn't go away. A group of judges, lawyers, and psychologists still believed there was something to Gardner's theory and went to work redefining it. They decided it's not a mental health disorder, and they change the name to parental alienation, minus the syndrome. It's now an umbrella term to explain why some kids reject their parents.

 

Al Letson: Do we know how often parental alienation comes up in child custody cases?

 

Trey Bundy: There's not much data on this, but I spoke with a woman named Joan Meyer. She's a law professor at George Washington University, and she's finishing a national study on alienation cases. She's studied family courts for 20 years and has written federal legislation on domestic violence.

 

Joan Meyer: We're seeing terrible things happening in the family courts, and a lot of it seemed to be related to parental alienation defenses. I call it a defense because it's usually raised by someone who's accused of abuse, as a response to an abuse claim.

 

Trey Bundy: She says that defense is so dangerous that she almost didn't wAna talk about it publicly.

 

Joan Meyer: I'm afraid to say it's a very good strategy, which is part of my ambivalence about doing this interview, because I'm not trying to help abusers get out from under the implications of their abuse and custody, but it's a very effective strategy.

 

Trey Bundy: Now we should take a minute here to point out that while the cases we're looking at on today's show involve mothers who are accused of abuse, most of the time it's the fathers, and the mothers are the ones losing their kids. We chose the stories we did because the kids in those cases are old enough to talk to us about their experiences. Joan Meyer's study looked at more than 300 cases where one parent was accused of abuse and the other of parental alienation. The findings showed that claiming alienation raises the odds that courts will dismiss abuse allegations.

 

Joan Meyer: In the alienation cases where fathers defended with an alienation claim, courts only believed one out of 51 cases of reported child sexual abuse. In the physical child abuse, they believed only four out of 22 claims of child abuse.

 

Trey Bundy: It boils down to this. For parents countering allegations of child abuse, parental alienation is a powerful tool. When judges make custody decisions, they tend to favor parents who cry alienation.

 

Joan Meyer: We have calculated that when fathers claim alienation as a defense to a claim of abuse, they are almost three times more likely to take custody away from the mother.

 

Trey Bundy: Jones says her data shows that Gardner's theory is still influencing family court judges, and she's convinced that parental alienation is more about money than protecting kids. She points to the lawyers, the psychologists, and the reunification programs.

 

Joan Meyer: I don't have any confidence in any of these reunification programs, and in fact they give me the willies, for a number of reasons. There's no proof that it works. There's some anecdotal evidence that it's very destructive to children. There's really no justification for these programs other than they make money and they further the theory that alienation is a thing, that abuse is often false, and that we can cure it and make a lot of money in the process. It's a cottage industry that a lot of people are making a lot of money off, on the backs of children and protective parents who have suffered a lot.

 

Al Letson: Trey, she's talking about reunification camps like Family Bridges, right?

 

Trey Bundy: That's right. That's where Ana and her brother were sent when the judge gave custody to their mother. No one from Family Bridges would talk to us, but we did talk to a woman named Rebecca Bailey. She runs a reunification program called Transitioning Families in California. Before we hear from her, let's hear from a young woman who went there a few years back. We're calling her Melanie Cole. We're not using her real name, because she didn't wAna be identified as a victim of abuse. I met her in 2017 at her father's office in Miami.

 

Trey Bundy: It's two days after Thanksgiving, and Melanie's home from college. She's 19 and studying mechanical engineering at an Ivy League school. Five years ago she was stuck in the middle of a nasty custody battle. She says her mother, Nancy, was emotionally abusive. She says it got so bad she kept running away from her mom's house. One time she was gone more than two months.

 

Melanie Cole: The main factors of me actually running away and leaving, what drove me to that point is I actually had guards watching me in my room as I slept. I had no door, and my windows were boarded with wood.

 

Trey Bundy: Just like with Ana and Alex, a psychologist said Melanie was the victim of parental alienation, and that her dad had brainwashed her into believing her mom had mistreated her. Melanie wrote the judge a letter, begging to live with her dad. In her best 14-year-old prose, she wrote, "My mom screamed at me so much I started getting panic attacks. I wanted to kill myself just to make the pain go away. Please consider my needs and let me live with my father."

 

Melanie Cole: That was completely powerless. My letter did nothing. Meeting with the judge did nothing. No one listened to me.

 

Trey Bundy: Child protective services had looked at Melanie's case and found her allegations credible. Still, the judge took the word of the psychologist and gave custody to Melanie's mom. He sent them to Transitioning Families to work on their relationship.

 

Melanie Cole: They told me it's only gonna be five days.

 

Trey Bundy: Melanie held tight to that promise as she flew with her mom to California. She didn't wAna go, but everyone was telling her it was the right thing to do.

 

Melanie Cole: It sounds fun. There's horses. I've been riding for 12 years. I love horses. "There's cooking and a bunch of other things. It's just five days with your mom. I think you should go. You'll be back here soon and we'll figure all this out."

 

Trey Bundy: When they arrived at Transitioning Families, they found a beautiful setting right in Sonoma Wine Country, and a retired cop.

 

Melanie Cole: The retired police officer searched through all my stuff to make sure that there wasn't a phone there and that I had no access to internet either.

 

Trey Bundy: Each day, Melanie had therapy sessions with her mother and three psychologists. She said they mostly talked about parental alienation and how she was a victim of it.

 

Melanie Cole: They purposely tell kids what it is. They make you watch educational videos about alienation and brainwash. I tried arguing, but you can't. You can't argue with it, because it's four people against one kid. How do you argue with that? I'm 14.

 

Trey Bundy: Melanie says Dr. Bailey and the other therapists insisted she was delusional.

 

Melanie Cole: Transitioning Families tried to talk me out of certain memories or events in the very beginning there. I think it took them a while to realize that we weren't gonna get anywhere with that.

 

Trey Bundy: Some days she just tried to block everyone out.

 

Melanie Cole: I still remember towards the beginning of therapy sometimes there were times where everyone around me was hitting me so hard with information that I started covering my ears and yelling so that I just couldn't hear them anymore, and they'd keep going. I'd sit like that for 10 minutes.

 

Trey Bundy: It sounds more like a cop than a therapist.

 

Melanie Cole: At times, yes. I can agree with that, at times. I think that's what led me to cover my ears sometimes, because at that point it wasn't therapy anymore, it was kind of like grilling. When we got to certain events that my mom would attest to, I was told that my memory was not accurate and that a lot of times my dad had inserted those memories into my brain.

 

Trey Bundy: The five days at Transitioning Families came and went, but Bailey and Melanie's mom told her it wasn't time to go home yet. The days became weeks.

 

Melanie Cole: The excuse of why I was staying so long was that the court hadn't fully worked out where they want me to go when I come back, and so I was just gonna stay there and keep working on my mom's relationship until we figured out what they were gonna do with me, because no one knew.

 

Trey Bundy: All this time, Melanie couldn't talk to her brother or any relatives on her dad's side of the family. She had occasional supervised phone calls with her dad, but says Dr. Bailey and her staff would stop then whenever he asked about the program. Remember, Melanie was told she would only be there for five days.

 

Melanie Cole: I was explained, :We might be here a little longer." I kept getting that explanation until longer was 10 months.

 

Trey Bundy: At the end of those 10 months, Melanie's mom sent her to a boarding school. Because her mom had full custody, Melanie and her dad were rarely allowed to speak. They had a handful of phone calls and daylong visits, but no other contact for four years.

 

Melanie Cole: I don't think ripping a child from her parents and family members and sibling for four years could be best for anyone, honestly.

 

Trey Bundy: Melanie says her ordeal wasn't really about healing, it was more about business.

 

Melanie Cole: When I say the business, I mean the family court business, so therapists, lawyers, judges, and unfortunately these people, in my opinion, don't look at kids like we're people with feelings.

 

Trey Bundy: Melanie's first five days at Transitioning Families cost $29,000. We found cases where the program charged $45,000 for the same amount of time. In the end, Melanie's 10-month stay at Transitioning Families cost the Coles $214,000. There was an emotional price too.

 

Melanie Cole: Looking back at my life, that is the saddest thing to me, that I lost out on my childhood. I lost out on my father. I lost out on my brother being there. I lost out on all the other family members. It's really sad. That's something that's gonna haunt me forever. They did that to me.

 

Al Letson: After Melanie was sent to a boarding school, her mom and Dr. Bailey were not ready to cut ties. They worked together to open a new reunification camp in Miami. Next, Trey has some questions for Dr. Bailey about her program.

 

Trey Bundy: Do you ever worry that you're reuniting a kid with an abuser?

 

Rebecca Bailey: I think I would challenge that.

 

Al Letson: This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. The story we just heard from Melanie Cole is an example of the family court system sticking kids with parents they don't wAna be with. According to Melanie, the 10 months she spent with her mom at a reunification program caused more pain than healing. Reporter Trey Bundy wanted to talk to the woman who ran the camp, Dr. Rebecca Bailey. She agreed to talk on the condition that we didn't ask her about specific cases. Trey picks up the story.

 

Trey Bundy: Dr. Bailey started Transitioning Families in 2006, and despite what I heard from Melanie and other families, Bailey had some boosters. In fact, for a psychologist, she's kind of famous.

 

Diane Sawyer: This is Jaycee Dugard's therapist, Dr. Rebecca Bailey, who says you have to stare fear in the face until it cannot hurt you anymore.

 

Trey Bundy: Bailey was the therapist for Jaycee Dugard. She's the woman who was kidnapped in the '90s and kidnapped for 18 years before her rescue made national news. Bailey appeared with Dugard on talk shows like Dr. Oz and 20/20 with Diane Sawyer.

 

Diane Sawyer: Dr. Bailey owns the ranch where animals are used to help victims of trauma learn their own strength.

 

Trey Bundy: I meet Dr. Bailey at her property in Sonoma County in Northern California's Wine Country. It's where she lives and runs her program. When I arrive, the house is gone, burned down in the 2017 North Bay wildfires.

 

Charles: There used to be a house here and now it's not a house here anymore.

 

Trey Bundy: I wonder how this thing survived, because it's this little backhouse here.

 

Trey Bundy: As I walked toward it, I see Dr. Bailey. She's finishing a phone call and heading my way.

 

Rebecca Bailey: We're having a little horse put to sleep right now. He just got injured about an hour ago.

 

Trey Bundy: Dr. Bailey's in her mid-50s. She has long brown hair and a confident demeanor. She's not unfriendly, but she's all business, talking about the injured horse and reminding me not to ask her about any of her clients. Like any doctor, she has to protect their confidentiality. She introduces me to three of her colleagues and we all cram into a tiny room connected to the horse stable to get out of the wind.

 

Rebecca Bailey: Charles, do we have any other chairs?

 

Charles: We really don't.

 

Rebecca Bailey: How about the bench? Can we grab the bench?

 

Charles: Sure.

 

Rebecca Bailey: God, I cannot believe this.

 

Trey Bundy: We get started, and as soon as I mention Dr. Bailey's reunification program, she corrects me.

 

Rebecca Bailey: I think the word reunification is overused with our program. It's reintegration and reunification, basic family therapy.

 

Trey Bundy: I've seen you on a talk show before talking about how traditional models don't really work so well with families in conflict. Can you talk a little bit about what's different about your model or how you came up with it?

 

Rebecca Bailey: The traditional models are the psychodynamic talk base face to face. We're talking more about the experiential and some cognitive behavioral techniques for self-soothing, mindfulness.

 

Trey Bundy: Dr. Bailey uses a lot of therapy terms in her answers, and some of it's tough to understand. What I wAna know is whether there's any evidence that her program actually works.

 

Rebecca Bailey: The evidence-based material comes from the trauma field. One of the issues with programs that do intensives is the criteria for what are we trying to achieve is mixed all over the board.

 

Trey Bundy: The key phrase in that explanation is evidence-based. It's been a buzzword in the mental health field for a long time, and it's used to give treatment programs legitimacy. It means that a practice has been observed by experts who gather data and measure results. Dr. Bailey says Transitioning Families is built on evidence-based therapy methods. I wAna know what the data says about her program.

 

Rebecca Bailey: There's a lot of programs out there in my mind that have made great claims based on their own data analysis. We've chosen to err on the side of not putting data analysis out there.

 

Trey Bundy: When you say that you've chosen not to put data analysis out there, does that mean there has been some data analysis regarding the program?

 

Rebecca Bailey: No. No no no. Good question. We're in queue for a group out of University of Toronto to look at the families, but the challenge has been, and you'll see this in the research, the challenge has been apples to oranges, what are we seeing these programs do.

 

Trey Bundy: Dr. Bailey says she's handled about 250 high-conflict custody cases. I've talked with a half-dozen parents whose kids were sent to Transitioning Families without them, all unsatisfied customers, but Bailey says most of the families she works with don't fall into that category.

 

Rebecca Bailey: Typically by the end of the first day they've relaxed, and it's not because we do any juju magic. We do some good, solid concrete work.

 

Trey Bundy: I asked her if she can put me in touch with some clients who could talk about that, but she says no. Doing that would violate ethical guidelines, but she insists the families we've spoken to are outliers.

 

Rebecca Bailey: In a very, very minute piece of this, you will have a kid maybe that leaves here and says, "It was terrible. It was miserable. I was so unhappy." That's about the extreme loyalty bind and the pressure these kids get into.

 

Trey Bundy: The families we've talked to say it's Dr. Bailey who puts pressure on kids, that she tries to convince them they've been alienated. Remember, a lot of the mental health community doesn't buy into parental alienation. I ask her whether she thinks it's a real disorder.

 

Rebecca Bailey: It is a cluster of symptoms, and there are certain cases where there appears to be a cluster of symptoms that may be supporting resistance, contact resistance, but we use contact resistance more than alienation.

 

Trey Bundy: It's hard to cut through the semantics here, but what she's saying is theories about parental alienation are still evolving and so are the names for it. She does acknowledge that parental alienation has been weaponized by parents fighting abuse allegations. She says transitioning families doesn't work with abusive parents.

 

Rebecca Bailey: If there's a question mark enough, we won't take them.

 

Trey Bundy: What do you say to a kid who is in your program and says, "I was abused," maybe, "I was abused and nobody believes me," or, "I don't wAna be with this parent right now in this reunification situation because I don't feel safe around this person or they were abusive." What do you say to that kid?

 

Rebecca Bailey: I think that the abuse piece is such a small part of the work that we do. Such a small. If we consciously, in our heart, in our perspective, in our clinical information, had a concern about a parent, of course we would report it, of course we would make a statement, to who, CPS.

 

Trey Bundy: Do you ever worry that you're reuniting a kid with an abuser?

 

Rebecca Bailey: I think I would challenge that. Of course, even in outpatient therapy, when you have an unsubstantiated case, you think about it, but with what I honestly would ... I can't get into specific cases, but I would honestly take that, I would challenge that assertion.

 

Trey Bundy: It's frustrating that we can't talk about the specific cases I'm looking at, the ones where the parents are angry because they lost their kids. A point Dr. Bailey makes over and over is that she really wants to help those parents, but sometimes they're too unstable to work with. So unstable, she says, that few psychologists are willing to do this work.

 

Rebecca Bailey: I think that there is a relatively small group, because people get scared out of the field because of litigiousness. It is the Wild West. It needs to be better regulated. It needs to be looked at responsibly. There does need to be support for the practitioners that come at it, like I believe we do, from a very ethical perspective.

 

Al Letson: Trey, it sounds like Dr. Bailey thinks her industry is under siege.

 

Trey Bundy: Yah, she's totally frustrated with some of these parents, like they've lost these nasty custody fights and now they're dumping all of their anger onto her program.

 

Al Letson: She also told you that she doesn't work with parents if there's a hint that there was some sort of abuse. Is that true?

 

Trey Bundy: It doesn't seem clear. She wouldn't talk about specific cases with me, but I know that child protective services in Miami believed Melanie's allegations against her mom. I also know of another case where the judge didn't know whether a father had abused his daughters, but he sent them all to Dr. Bailey's program anyway.

 

Al Letson: How many reunification programs like Bailey's are there in the U.S?

 

Trey Bundy: That's hard to say. There's really no regulation of these programs. We looked at five of them and heard the same complaints that we heard about Transitioning Families, that they favor parents over kids, they insist that children have been alienated, and they're expensive. Dr. Bailey actually has a better reputation than most of them, and she was the only one who would talk to us and defend her program. She admits it's expensive, but she says she does pro bono work sometimes when families can't afford to pay.

 

Al Letson: Attorneys and psychologists are making money on these high-conflict custody cases, but aren't judges responsible for a lot of the stuff? They're in charge of the courts. They decide whether or not to believe the kids, and they send the kids to these reunification programs.

 

Trey Bundy: That's right. I had a really interesting interview with the Miami judge who sent Melanie Cole to Dr. Bailey's program.

 

Leon Firtel: You get burned out. You get frustrated. The system is not built to handle high-conflict cases, especially alienation cases.

 

Trey Bundy: That big gruff voice belongs to Judge Leon Firtel. He spent eight years on the bench in family court, and has that I've seen it all kind of confidence. It's easy to imagine him presiding over a courtroom. He says he became so frustrated during Melanie's case that he left family court. He said he'd rather preside over criminal trials than anymore cases like the Coles.

 

Leon Firtel: There's a lot of things that you say that you think, but for me to just speak it on the record, yeah, I must've been very frustrated.

 

Trey Bundy: Custody cases are always a challenge, but add allegations of child abuse and parental alienation to that.

 

Leon Firtel: Wow, that's a mess.

 

Trey Bundy: Firtel says he dealt with that mess by leaning on psychologists to help him make decisions, like whether to believe the children were alienated or actually abused.

 

Leon Firtel: They see a child for, I'll be generous, a half an hour. They see a mother for a half an hour and they see a father for a half an hour. On the basis of that they come back with an opinion that tells me if the child is or is not alienated and this is what's wrong or this is what's right.

 

Trey Bundy: Like a lot of judges, he went to seminars where psychologists encouraged him to consider parental alienation as a valid argument in court.

 

Trey Bundy: What do you say to people who say, "This is just made up. This is just for abusers to get out of abuse accusations. It was created by a guy who was a questionable psychologist." What would you say to people who say that it just isn't real?

 

Leon Firtel: Until you come to court and see one of these deals and see the people and talk to the mother and talk to the father and talk to the children, don't tell me that it doesn't exist. It exists, period.

 

Trey Bundy: Then you put the kid with the parent they don't wAna be with, and you immerse them in that world. That was the instruction from Richard Gardner back in the '80s when he came up with this. It doesn't seem like it's changed too much in the last 30 years.

 

Leon Firtel: That's the general plan. You got another one? I've discussed the issue with lawyers, judges, and mental health professionals over the years. We are not alone, Trey, in that we don't have a better solution.

 

Trey Bundy: In Melanie's case, Firtel believed her dad had alienated her from her mom, and ordered her to Dr. Bailey's reunification camp.

 

Trey Bundy: Are you aware of any research or evidence that says that family reunification programs are effective, that they actually work in terms of healing relationships between parents and kids who do not wAna see them?

 

Leon Firtel: I am not aware of any such research, because it is experimental. It's not like you wAna fix a broken arm, this is what you do.

 

Trey Bundy: I asked him about Melanie specifically, if he knew she was at Bailey's camp for 10 months instead of five days, or that they took her phone, kept her out of school, and cut her off from her family and friends, or that she barely saw her dad for four years.

 

Leon Firtel: I didn't know until you and I talked that she was there for ... I knew she was there for longer than a week or two.

 

Trey Bundy: Firtel says most judges don't know what these programs are really like?

 

Leon Firtel: The no phones, the no contact, the extent of how long, how successful those programs are, I don't think the judges in general know that at all.

 

Trey Bundy: Firtel says family court was the toughest job he ever had. He'd go home on the weekends and stew over his decisions. Now he's clearly bothered by what he's learning about Melanie's case.

 

Leon Firtel: Now I'm starting to wonder whether that's the right solution in the first place and whether we should really be doing that to a child who really doesn't wAna be with the other parent. Are we playing God in trying to get the child to be reunified with a parent that they themselves believe that they don't wAna have a contact with?

 

Al Letson: Melanie Cole is still working on her relationship with her mother. She says the time she spent at the reunification camp was good practice for how to keep things civil between her and her mom, but that Transitioning Families didn't heal her emotional wounds. Judge Firtel says the big problem in the family courts is that there's not enough time, money, or training to deal with the complexity of parental alienation cases. Thanks to Trey Bundy for bringing us that story, and his reporting partner, Whitney Clegg.

 

Al Letson: To read more about the debate over parental alienation, subscribe to our newsletter by going to RevealNews.org/Newsletter. You'll get the latest stories delivered right to your inbox.

 

Al Letson: This week's show was edited by Taki Telonidis, with help from Andy Donahue. Our production manager's Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Katherine Raymundo. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 1: From PRX.