Deeper look at child-parent separation practice used in high-conflict custody battles

Kristin Thorne Image
Thursday, December 14, 2023
Reunification treatment: How it's being used to address parental alienation
Kristin Thorne has more on the process.

The 7 On Your Side Investigates team is taking a deeper look at a controversial practice used by judges in high-conflict child custody battles called reunification treatment.

Judges order the treatment when they determine that one parent is turning a child against the other parent and the treatment is meant to reunify the child with the other parent.

During reunification programs, the child is not allowed to see or communicate with the "alienating parent" for at least a few days, but the separation order is typically extended to months and can last for years if the alienating parent doesn't comply with the court's orders. The court orders typically extend directly from the stipulations of the reunification program.

One of the programs that assists families in the treatment is based here in New York - Turning Points 4 Families. Investigative reporter Kristin Thorne spoke with two young people who went through the program.

Ashton Goff was a teenager when a judge in Delaware ordered that his family enroll in Turning Points 4 Families. Goff's parents were going through a contentious divorce and custody battle and a judge determined that Goff's mother had alienated Goff and his younger brother from their father.

Goff recalled coming to New York and spending four days with his father, brother, stepmother and her children at the home of Linda Gottlieb - the creator and operator of Turning Points. Goff said he felt trapped.

"I didn't know what to do," he said.

Goff wasn't allowed to see or communicate with his mother following his time in New York and was sent to live with his father.

Because Goff's mother, Kelly Davis, did not follow the stipulations of Gottlieb's program, Goff wasn't allowed to see his mother for three-and-a-half years.

According to the Turning Points program, the no-contact period of the four-day intervention is extended to 90 days if Gottlieb finds that returning a child to the alienating parent will harm the child's progress in reuniting with the other parent.

"The sequestration is a necessity beyond the four-day intensive treatment phase in order to prevent the child's regression and relapse - which are a virtual certainty should there be even minimal contact with an unreformed alienating parent who remains committed to alienating behaviors and who has not demonstrated that she or he is ready, willing, and able to support the relationship between the alienated parent and their children," the program literature states.

Gottlieb says children can be reunited with the alienating parent if the parent follows the rules of the program - including getting therapy and writing apology letters to the child and the other parent.

"The restoration of contact is therefore contingent upon favored/alienating parent's compliance with the treatment protocol and willingness to change," the program literature states.

"I struggled to remember what my mom looked like for a very long time," Goff said. "I memorized her phone number and her address."

Throughout his separation from his mother, Goff also wasn't allowed to communicate with his maternal grandparents whom he was close with.

"As a result of this, I have lost some of my ability to be emotional because I was so hurt and so devastated that I just had to cut those emotions off in order to get through it," he said.

According to the Turning Points protocol on Gottlieb's website, children are not supposed to communicate with anyone considered a "co-alienator."

At 17, Goff ran away back to his mother and said he hasn't seen or spoken to his father since.

"I have long-term depression because of it - insomnia," he said. "I get panic attacks - anxiety attacks. It's terrible."

Eyewitness News tried to reach Gottlieb by phone for several weeks to discuss her program, but she did not respond.

She responded by email saying she was unable to discuss any particular cases due to medical privacy laws. In the email, she called parental alienation a "serious form of child psychological abuse" and "a cancer on our children of divorce being perpetuated by alienating parents."

The National Center for State Courts describes parental alienation as, "a strategy whereby one parent intentionally displays to the child unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent. The purpose of this strategy is to damage the child's relationship with the other parent and to turn the child's emotions against that other parent."

According to the Turning Points program literature, "Alienated children are victims - intensely unhappy victims. They are caught up in the loyalty web - a dysfunctional family situation that had been inflicted upon them by their favored/alienating/pathologically-enmeshed parent."

In another case, Eyewitness News spoke with a father who said he was the alienated parent.

A judge enrolled David Jones, of Florida, and his ex-wife, daughter and son in the Turning Points program in October 2017 after years of conflict between the two sides.

Jones and Barb Jones, his ex-wife, shared custody of their two children, but, according to court documents, as of October 2017, David Jones had not seen his children for two and a half years.

A judge determined Barb Jones was alienating her children from their father.

"At the time, the kids were made scared of me," David Jones said. "In their eyes, the image of me being an incompetent parent was what was prevailing. I had no a parental authority. They didn't see me as a parent."

A judge in Florida found, "Based on the history of this case the Court finds that reunification between Former Husband and the Minor Children is unlikely to succeed without the use of a more aggressive approach such as is offered by the Turning Points 4 Families program."

Barb Jones told Eyewitness News she was devastated when she learned she wouldn't be able to see or communicate with her children ages 16 and 12 for at least a few days and, perhaps, even three months under the Turning Points program.

"I was broken," she said. "I literally fell apart. I was always the primary parent for these two kids. I was their emotional support. I was the one they always came to."

Barb Jones wasn't allowed to see her children for a year because she did not comply sufficiently with the court's orders. She said she fought the therapy requirement because she didn't want Gottlieb choosing a therapist for her.

According to Gottlieb's program, "Another common request by the favored/alienating parent is to remain in treatment with the current therapist. This too will likely delay recovery - if at all. It stands to reason that if the treatment by the current therapist still necessitated the TPFF (Turning Points 4 Families) intervention, it is highly probable that the current therapist does not posses the necessary expertise to effectively treat this clinical condition."

Barb Jones said Gottlieb required her to read one of Gottlieb's articles and write a report on what she learned. She said she wrote 16 pages challenging Gottlieb's article.

"It was like a never-ending nightmare," she said.

Barb Jones said she has never met Gottlieb in person.

The judge extended the sequestration order several times.

Arianna Jones, the Jones' daughter, now 22, recalled getting on a plane from Florida and coming to New York with her father, brother and stepmother for the initial four-day intervention.

"We didn't want to connect with my father," she said.

She said they stayed at a townhouse together and during the intervention Gottlieb asked her and her brother to recall happy memories with their father. She said Gottlieb showed her and her brother old pictures of them with their father.

"She was trying to get us to admit that we were happy in the memories and the photos and that we enjoyed our time at my father's house," Arianna Jones recalled. "We kept telling her even though these look like happy memories to you, we truly were not happy."

Arianna Jones said Gottlieb also showed her and her brother several videos on parental alienation.

"We were initially told after the program, we might have to stay with my father for a few days, but that we would go back to our mom and we would see our mom again," she said. "That never happened."

Throughout the year that Arianna Jones was living with her father, she also wasn't allowed to communicate with her maternal grandmother or any of her mother's family or friends.

"It was definitely the hardest time of my life," she said. "You want to combat parental alienation with more parental alienation and that's not effective."

Arianna Jones described her relationship with her father during that year as "very strained." She said she had her phone taken away because she tried to text her cousin and her mom's friend reached out to her.

"I lost a lot of friends because of that," she said. "I even had my internship that I struggled to maintain contact with because I had no communication."

In 2018, a judge allowed Barb Jones to reunite with her children.

"After this reunification period, the roles were flip-flopped," Arianna Jones said. "It was my mom who had every other weekend visitation and my father had majority-time share."

Arianna Jones said she hasn't spoken to her father since she turned 18.

David Jones said he believes his two children - both now over 18 - are living with his ex-wife, but he believes the Turning Points program was effective.

"Conceptually, it was very simple and it was very direct and very effective," he said. "That program gives you as a parent and the children tools to navigate a family atmosphere of alienation."

David Jones' attorney, Shazia Sparkman, said she understands taking a child from the parent that a child is favoring is counterintuitive.

"This is not about what David Jones felt like as a parent that the kids aren't going to see their mother," she said. "This is David Jones fighting for proving through all of the steps that he took lawfully, spending the better part of the youth of his children's lives and his own life, to find a place where he could restore his relationship with his children. We need to continue with these therapeutic programs like Turning Points for Families."

According to the Turning Points literature, the program has a 96.4% success rate for re-establishing a normal relationship between the child and the rejected parent.

"In the <4% of cases in which the parent-child relationship had not been restored, it was due to violation of the TPFF protocol - specifically violation of the protective separation," the literature states.

Gottlieb recommends the parent who is considered to be the alienator pays for the program, which can cost $15,000.

"Preferably for the favored parent to be responsible for the program fee - having been the cause of the family dynamics resulting in the Court order for the TPFF intervention," the program states.


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