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Reunification Therapy for Children With a Domestic Abuser?

Should therapy be used to hasten contact between children and an abusive parent?

Key points

  • Reunification therapies can harm children who legitimately fear a parent.
  • Parents who have acted abusively need remediation before reunification can be considered.
  • Questionable therapies cannot build healthy attachments between children and an abusive parent.

Coauthored with Christine Cocchiola, DSW, Coercive Control Educator, Researcher and Survivor

Reunification therapy sounds like a good idea—to repair a relationship between a parent and an estranged child. The courts often impose this form of “therapy” on children who do not want to reunite with one parent who has abused the other (Dallam & Silberg, 2016). (Reuniting with parents after a stint in foster care is beyond the scope of this article).

Supporters of these therapies would have us believe that all children who reject a parent have been indoctrinated to do so by the other parent through parental alienation (Shaw, 2016). Domestic abusers weaponize these seemingly benign therapies to force contact with children they have terrified. Here is an example:

Since her birth, Ted has paid little attention to his daughter, Sandy. He was busy with work, going out with friends, porn, and video games. Sandy’s mother, Becca, cared for Sandy and made sure she had what she needed.

But sometimes, when Ted came home drunk, he scared Sandy. Ted would stomp around, slam doors, and threaten her mother, Becca. He would back Becca against a wall while cursing and yelling in her face. Becca sometimes hid with Sandy in the bathroom during these outbursts, with Ted banging on the door. Afterward, Becca assured Sandy that everything would be okay and that “Daddy just had a hard day.”

Ted’s angry explosions worsened over time. One day, he threw Becca against a wall. A neighbor called the police. The officer was clear: “I’m calling protective services. You end your relationship and protect your child, or your child’s going to end up in foster care.” Becca packed their clothes and took Sandy with her to Becca’s parents’ house that very day.

Sandy felt safe for the first time, living apart from her father. She didn't want to talk to him on the phone. Temporary court orders awarded Ted three evenings a week of unsupervised parenting time. Sandy cried and said she felt sick in the mornings when her father was going to pick her up after school. Sandy begged her mother not to make her go. Ted asked the judge to compel Sandy to engage in “reunification therapy” with him. He hinted that he was going to accuse Becca of parental alienation if she didn’t make Sandy want to see him.

In this case, as in so many others, a judge might ignore the intimate partner violence in favor of an idealized vision of shared parenting (Meier, 2022).

Reunification, Repair, or Reintegration Therapy

Reunification therapies have been exposed as worthless or harmful in cases of domestic abuse (Dallman & Silberg, 2016; Mercer, 2022; United Nations Human Rights Council, 2023). In response, some father’s rights groups and associated mental health providers have begun renaming these same services “reintegration therapy.”

Before beginning any kind of therapy aimed at reuniting a child with a parent from whom they are estranged, we must examine the family history. Has the estranged parent abused the child or others in the home? If so, we should not push for a reunion. We do not push other victims or witnesses of crime to get cozy with the aggressors.

The abuser should meet these criteria before any kind of reunification process is initiated:

  • Is there concrete evidence that the abusive parent has accepted responsibility for their behavior?
  • Has the abusive parent participated in an indicated remediation program? (Anger management and brief batterer intervention programs are not sufficient for intimate partner abuse. A 26 to 52-week approved program followed by a domestic-violence-oriented parenting group is the gold standard).
  • Has the abuser changed? (Abusive parents who maliciously exert power over their victims through post-separation coercive control are demonstrating that they have not changed).

If the answer to any of the above questions is “no,“ and the abuser used coercive control against their partner, “supervised parenting time or suspension of parental contact may be required” (Jaffe et al., 2023).

The child’s needs also merit consideration.

  • Has the child been allowed to recover from their trauma, free from pressure to face the abuser?
  • Is the child experiencing post-traumatic symptoms? Children experiencing post-traumatic symptoms cannot be expected to "reunite" with the person who has caused the trauma.
  • Has the child had an opportunity to express their wishes to a neutral party, such as their psychotherapist? What is this psychotherapist’s opinion about moving toward reunification and the pacing?

In 2022, the federal Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) was reauthorized to include Kayden’s Law (The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act). The law is named after Kayden Mancuso, a child murdered by her father during his court-allocated parenting time. Kayden’s Law prompts states to adopt policies to ensure that people who make child custody decisions are educated on risk factors for children. It also requires that courts consider past evidence of abuse in custody decisions. Kayden’s Law includes “Limiting the use of reunification camps and therapies which cannot be proven to be safe and effective” and has now been enacted wholly or in part by several states.

Attachment Theory and Reunification "Therapies"

Children with secure attachments are more likely to develop into emotionally healthy adults, capable of forming stable and satisfying social and intimate relationships. Attachment rests on the child’s confidence in the caregiver's availability and responsiveness (Bowlby and Ainsworth, 1991). We cannot force the building of an attachment through reunification or reintegration therapy.

Sometimes, reunification “treatments” involve removing a child from the care of the parent who the child believes is protective. This can compound existing trauma. Best practices for children disengaged from one parent should not include breaking their existing attachment with the other parent. Forcing children into reintegration therapy or a “reunification camp” with a parent they do not have an attachment with and/or are frightened of may cause significant trauma.

Coercive Control and Post-Separation Abuse

Coercive control is an abusive strategy in which one partner in an intimate relationship dominates the other through some combination of isolation, verbal, legal, physical, financial, and sexual abuse, manipulation, and more. Unfortunately, abusers do not usually give up their control after separation or divorce. Instead, they exert post-separation abuse primarily through finances, the courts, and the children. Savvy professionals need to learn to detect post-separation coercive control.

In the case above, it is easy to tell why Sandy is estranged from her father. Sometimes, it is not so simple. Sometimes a domestic abuser will pose as "the fun parent" and entice a child to state a preference to live in the abuser's home. Children often believe that appeasing abusive parents will keep them safer in the short term.

Helping Children When One Parent Is Abusive

Protective parents and trauma-informed therapists can best help children who have abusive parents in their lives by protecting the child. They can also support the child's

  • Critical thinking skills;
  • Understanding of healthy versus unhealthy relationship dynamics and;
  • Sense of boundaries and agency.

These interventions support children’s development and reduce their vulnerability to the abuser. These interventions fortify children who spend time with a parent who tries to coerce and control them. Independent work with both the child and the abusive parent is required before reunification can even be considered. We note that intimate partner abusers will often try to claim that they are the victims. (This is called DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). Professionals must discern who is the predominant abuser.


Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333–341.

Dallam, S. & Silberg, J. L. (2016). Recommended treatments for “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) may cause children foreseeable and lasting psychological harm. Journal of Child Custody, 18, 134-143.

Jaffe, P.G., Bala, N., Medhekar, A., Scott, K.L., Oliver, C. (2023). Making appropriate parenting arrangements in family violence cases, 2023. Department of Justice.

Kleinman, T. (2017). Family court ordered “reunification therapy:” Junk science in the guise of helping parent/child relationships? Journal of Child Custody, 14, 295-300.

Meier, J. (2022). Denial of family violence in court: An empirical analysis and path forward for family law. The Georgetown Law Journal, 110, 835-898.

Mercer, Jean (2022). Reunification therapies for parental alienation: Tenets, empirical evidence, commonalities, and differences, Journal of Family Trauma, Child Custody & Child Development, 19:3-4, 383-401.

Shaw, M. (2016). Commentary for “Examining the use of ‘parental alienation syndrome’”. Journal of Child Custody, 13, 144-146.

United Nations Human Rights Council (2023). Custody, violence against women and violence against children. Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, Reem Alsalem.…

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