SANTA CRUZ—The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that would prohibit companies forcibly transporting children. Also under the ordinance, families could sue transport companies that use force against their children for $10,000, plus legal costs.
The issue came to the attention of County officials on Oct. 20, 2022, when two children were forcibly removed from their grandmother’s Santa Cruz home as part of a contentious custody dispute, and taken to a “reunification” program in Los Angeles with one of their parents.
The Pajaronian is not naming the children by request of one of the parents.
The incident was recorded by the kids’ friends, and depicted the children screaming as agents from New Jersey-based Assisted Interventions, Inc. dragged and carried them to a waiting car. Posted to social media, the video has garnered thousands of views.
Representatives from Assisted Interventions have not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Under reunification therapy—an intensive, court-ordered program that normally lasts four days—counselors help young people rebuild relationships with an alienated parent. But critics say the for-profit industry often ignores what the children want, and can be used as a weapon by abusive parents who can claim parental alienation to have a judge rule in their favor.
Family courts have the discretion to order private companies to remove minors for the therapy, and for transportation to substance abuse treatment facilities.
While the County has no jurisdiction in custody proceedings, then-Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said he wanted to give the County a way to protect the rights of young people. The Supervisors passed his resolution on Jan. 31 to urge state legislators to craft law outlawing or regulating reunification programs.
That could happen this year with Assembly Bill 1019, which would regulate youth transportation in child custody cases involving reunification. It would also mandate training and education on youth trauma related to use of force, said Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin, who authored the bill.
AB 1019 is expected to be published later this week, and to begin making its way through the legislative process soon.
“I’m proud of our County Board of Supervisors for stepping up and taking action,” Pellerin said. “I think we’re all interested in making sure that this never happens again. No child should be subjected to such trauma. Never.”
Supervisor Justin Cummings, who was elected to fill Coonerty’s District 3 seat in November, called the ordinance a “good step forward” in addressing concerns raised from the October incident.
“If the courts are ordering a parent to hand a child over to another parent, there needs to be some respect for that process,” he said. “But I think we need to find better ways for that to happen.”
Human Services Department Director Randy Morris told the Supervisors that the new rules do not give the County the ability to regulate private businesses such as transport companies, or to enforce the ordinance.
Instead, it gives families the right to seek recompense for transport companies that violate the rules and cause possible trauma to the young people involved, he says.
“We see this as a really nice balance in response to the direction, and honoring what happened to the family, and then really continuing our focus with our state legislative delegation to really push for state laws, which I think is the right place to make this a matter of law throughout the state,” Morris said.
It will return for a second reading and final adoption on March 28.