By: Jessica A. Bryant
When going through a custody case, or a divorce involving children, in Colorado, you may hear the court, other party, opposing counsel, and/or expert mention “reintegration therapy.” Reintegration therapy can have important, long-lasting implications for you and your children. Therefore, before taking a position on reintegration therapy (sometimes referred to as “reunification therapy”), it is important for you to know what it is and if it is a good fit for your child custody case and, most importantly, your children.
Reunification therapy is a type of therapeutic interaction between an absent parent and their child(ren) designed to build, or rebuild, the bond between them. It is may ordered in lieu of parenting time and/or as an initial step before supervised or unsupervised parenting time starts. It is possible for a parent to have regular parenting time and simultaneously be involved in reunification therapy with the children. Typically such is not the case and therapy will precede parenting time. Reintegration therapy is most typically ordered in situations in which the children have been away from a parent for an extended period of time. Reasons for the absence may vary, whether parental alienation on the part of one parent, the absence of a parent from the child’s life for an extended period of time for whatever reason (including a voluntary absence), or perhaps a significant rift between parent and child (more commonly with teenagers). As part of attempting to repair the parent-child bond, attention will also need to be paid to whether the child, or children, are emotionally ready not only for parenting time, but even for joint therapy to start. In some case, the reintegration therapist may not be subjectively equipped or willing to make such an assessment and the opinion of the child’s own individual therapist may be needed as relates to the child’s emotional and mental health state.
Reintegration therapy is generally done by a mental health professional who specializes in this area. Just like some mental health professionals focus on treating depression, or PTSD, or working with adults, or children, etc., reunification therapy is its own type of specialization. Once selected (generally by agreement of the parties or order of the court), the reunification therapist directs the frequency, duration, and other parameters of therapy.
The first steps the reunification therapist takes will generally be to meet individually with the child and with each parent. Through the initial interactions, which might also entail review of any relevant court documents or psychological reports, the therapist will ultimately determine how to proceed. The pace of progress, including even when the first parent and child joint meeting will occur, will vary depending on the issues and individuals, and several individual meetings, over an extended period of time, may be needed before that first, joint session occurs. In some cases, interaction may take place fairly quickly, with the therapist setting ground rules and a safe place for the child to express how they feel while the parent is in the room.
Typically, the court will let the therapist determine the frequency with which therapy should occur, as well as the duration in terms of how long therapy should continue. However, it is important to know/understand that a therapist cannot make parenting time decisions. In other words, the purpose of reunification therapy is to work to improve the relationship between the parent and the minor child and the therapist can determine the progress milestones he or she needs to see to gauge success. Once the goal has been met, though, the therapist cannot decide what the parenting time will be (i.e., if the parents have fifty-fifty, supervised, etc.). The therapist can give his or her opinion as to what the child may be ready for, but it is ultimately up to the court, if the parties cannot reach an agreement, as to what parenting time will be or when it will start or resume.
When determining whether reintegration therapy is a good fit for your case, it is important to understand it is different than just supervised or therapeutic parenting time. If there are concerns about a child’s safety while in a parent’s care, supervised or therapeutic parenting time can ensure the child is safe while with that parent. Reunification therapy goes beyond ensuring a child’s safety in that it works to improve upon the bond between a child and a parent and prepare the child emotionally for the next step in a parent’s visitation time. The other consideration when deciding if reunification therapy is a good fit for your case is cost. Typically, reunification therapy is not covered by insurance, even if you have mental health insurance coverage. Therefore, it is important to understand that you may (in conjunction with other parent’s assistance depending on the circumstances) be required to bear out of pocket costs for the therapy.
For a parent who has been alienated from a child’s life by the other parent, it may be strategically beneficial to request reintegration counseling. For the parent concerned about how the children will react to having time with the other parent who has been absent, making a request for therapy makes sense. In some cases, both parties willing to look to the best interests of the child may jointly determine that it’s what’s needed to get the relationship back on track. Each case is different and your options should be discussed with your child custody attorney.
Finally, it should be noted that when there is a break in the parent-child relationship, courts will generally gravitate towards a therapeutic resolution. Thus, a request on the part of either party to a child custody case for reintegration therapy as a means to allow parent and child to move forward will likely be granted.