SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—A Pacific Collegiate School student and her friends are fighting for changes in the law after their friend and her brother were violently removed from their grandmother’s Santa Cruz home in October and taken to an undisclosed site to undergo court-ordered family “reunification therapy.”
Claire Protti, 16, says she wants to take the issue “worldwide.”
“This has been so hushed up by everybody,” she says. “This has been happening for years and years and I don’t think anyone was aware of it until she told us directly. We’re not going to stop until President Biden knows about it.”
Under this relatively unknown therapy, children are taken to reunification “camps” for an intensive four-day session with one of the parents, often in cases of parental alienation.
In the four months since they were taken–110 days as of Feb. 13–both kids have been kept out of their schools and away from their father and friends with no communication.
“We haven’t heard from them at all,” Protti says. “We don’t know if they’re safe, we don’t know if they’re injured. We don’t know if they’ve been in school for the last 90 days.”
This publication is not naming the kids in this story by request of one of the parents.
It is also not delving into the allegations on either side of the case, except as it relates to one aspect: it is evidently legal to take young people against their will, and to ignore their request that they be allowed to remain with one parent.
The group that took them were from Assisted Interventions, Inc., a New Jersey-based company that removes young people by court order and takes them to treatment facilities. This can also include those suffering from drug addiction. The company has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Reunification therapy is touted by therapists as a method for bringing parents and children together in cases where one parent has been alienated by the other, often in contentious divorce and custody disputes.
Lynn Steinberg, a Los Angeles-based family therapist, also did not respond to requests for comment. But she spoke about the case in a Nov. 20 podcast called “Slam the Gavel,” which included Toronto-based attorney Brian Ludmer, an expert on parental alienation.
Steinberg said that the session went “very well” and ended happily with the kids bonding with their mother.
“When the kids arrived at my office they were in perfectly fine shape,” she said. “They were friends with the transporters. There were no marks on them, although they had bitten and kicked and bruised the people who had transported them here.”
Ludmer said that the father had refused a court order to bring them to the other parent, hence the court-ordered intervention.
He stresses that reunification therapy is a last resort in ugly custody cases where the warring sides have reached impasse.
“The family will never restructure in a healthy fashion absent a healthy family structure being imposed on it,” he says in the podcast. “Hierarchies and boundaries and mutual respect and respect for court orders, empathy, forgiveness–all of the normal developmental tools of childhood–have been denied children in these situations, so the court has to impose it.”
The blackout period that often accompanies the therapy, Ludmer adds, gives a “time out” for the parent who may have caused the estrangement.
Greg Gillette, the attorney for the father in the case, says the incident with the transporters brings up questions of public policy.
“These kids were physically handled,” Gillette says. “So the question is, does that court order give those adults the right to do that? We question use of force in police cases, and we question use of force in other arenas.”
The case also brings up the question of whether the public has a right to question a judge’s decision, Gilette says.
The mother’s attorney Heidi Simonson did not return requests for comment.
Tina Swithin, whose website One Mom’s Battle describes her own contentious divorce, says that reunification therapy can be weaponized by vindictive and abusive parents who need only claim “parental alienation” to convince a judge to rule in their favor and award custody.
In some cases, Swithin says, parents can lose contact with their children for years.
Fighting for regulation
In the days before they were taken, the older sibling took to social media, warning friends it might happen. When the transporters arrived, a crowd of friends and family showed up en masse. Some of these supporters recorded a disturbing video that showed the younger sibling being carried by a large adult who had his arms encircling his chest. Then two other transporters, one grasping her arms and the other her legs, carried her to a waiting vehicle as she screamed for help.
Protti and her friends traveled to Sacramento, where they met with Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin and Senator John Laird. Both lawmakers told the girls they plan to push legislation that would regulate or prohibit reunification camps, as well as the transporter companies.
Pellerin says she is now researching the issue.
“It certainly seems very unusual to take children out of the hands of one parent who is not being charged with anything, and basically cut off from that parent and all their friends and family,” she said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Laird says that he and his staffers are teaming up with Sen. Susan Rubio, who authored a law last year that would have regulated the industry. The bill–known as Piqui’s Law after a 5-year-old boy who was killed by his father during a custody dispute–died on the Assembly floor in November.
“The video is troubling to anyone who has any humanity,” Laird says.
Rubio did not return a call for comment.
“Children are being murdered because the legal system refuses to take responsibility for protecting them in family court,” Rubio stated in the press release.
Rubio has signaled that she plans to bring the bill back.
Protti says that she and her friends will not stop their quest to get the kids back, and to bring some legislative control over the reunification industry.
Many children across the U.S. are in similar predicaments, she says.
This includes Ty and Brynlee Larson–16 and 12–in Provo, Utah, who barricaded themselves in their home with their mother after a judge ordered them reunified with their father, who they accused of abuse. In an update, Ty said that he was worried that the police would come in and take him by force “to his abuser’s house.”
The Santa Cruz incident has also caught the attention of local lawmakers.
Former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty–Claire’s uncle–took up the cause along with Santa Cruz Mayor Sonia Brunner in a press conference in November. His intention, he said, was to push an ordinance regulating the industry in the unincorporated parts of the County.
Supervisor Justin Cummings, who took Coonerty’s District 3 seat in the November election–took up that mantle in January when he urged the County to forge an ordinance that would prohibit private transport companies from physical contact with minors. Such a rule would only apply in the County’s unincorporated regions, so Cummings also called on other jurisdictions to consider similar regulations.
That was in addition to a proposal buried in the Supervisors’ consent agenda–a section normally reserved for items expected to pass without discussion–that directs County staff to ask state lawmakers to consider regulating the industry on a statewide level.
“It’s serious enough that I believe the County should take the lead to try to address this issue,” Cummings said.
That the kids’ desires went ignored in court comes as no surprise to John Wall, a professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University and director of the Childism Institute there.
A relatively new philosophy, Childism focuses on children’s empowerment and how they are often marginalized in society, similar to how women once were in the 19th century. The thinking includes giving young people the right to vote.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he says. “In fact, the fact that the 15-year-old even got to say what she thought is surprising.”
Wall says such thinking stems from the belief that children are too young and lack the capacity to understand their situation in courtroom settings, an idea he calls “nonsense.”
“A 15-year-old or an 11-year-old does have a lot of understanding of what’s going on in the situation,” he says. “But given a conflict between an adult, and a teenager or a child, generally speaking a judge will take the adult’s side.”
Wall says the American Bar Association has criticized such thinking, and that policy experts are working on ways to rethink the system ostensibly designed to protect young people.
“When you don’t have standing in court and must rely on the judge you are much more likely to have your rights ignored,” he said.
Wall says that a growing number of child advocates around the world are advocating for children’s suffrage.
“Our argument is that because children don’t have the right to vote, it’s easy for laws to ignore them,” he says. “The root cause of why children and teenagers don’t have standing in court in cases like this is that politicians who make our laws don’t have any reason to listen to them. They will never be voted out of office by them.”
John Wall is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Childhood Studies at Rutgers University Camden. He has published widely in theoretical ethics, political philosophy, children’s rights, and children’s suffrage.
Children’s suffrage! Indeed!
Let’s first do a bit more to improve the politicized children’s educational systems we are dealing with today.
as a retired teacher and counselor in CA public schools for 36 years, I have been an advocate for children all my life. to simply invade a home and remove the children to be “reunified ” with parents is akin to FASCISM.
Often, the children are BETTER OFF away from dysfunctional, mentally ill , alcoholic or drug addicted parents.
allow the children to come to their own conclusions as they progress into adulthood. they should decide , what, if any, relationship to have with parents.
Let’s wait till we hear the mother’s side of the story Stevie. You have never been a parent. We don’t know how or why the father refused to return the kids to the mother if they shared legal custody.
excuse me, May , I AM A PARENT. I adopted my son when he was 16. Before that , I was a foster parent. of another young man. both were students where I worked, at Alisal high school. both graduated from college, with my help. both hold down responsible jobs. one lives in Sacramento, the other in San jose. they are both in the 40’s.
this is just more FLATULENCE from you, with you having NO IDEA of my background or my life experience. you are uninformed and misinformed. not to mention a homophobe. it just reflects the ugliness that seems to ooze out in your posts.
There are now millions of adoptive gay and lesbian parents. you need to do some reading and join 2023. stop living 50 years ago and wake the hell up.
go see a therapist.
thanks to the Pajaronian for removing so many of the trolls comments. if you do not know the background and history of someone, you refrain from making up trash about them. that is just common sense and decency.
Fire Judge Connolly and all Santa Cruz County judges who kidnap children from parents and promote institutional racism.