Susan Fletcher | Understanding Parental Alienation

To be successful in parental alienation litigation you need to work with an experienced psychologist, someone trained in forensic psychology, high conflict divorce, and who has a working knowledge of the law and the judicial system.

We are so happy to welcome just such an expert to the show this week. Susan Fletcher, PhD, is an author, licensed psychologist, and member of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychology. She is going to help us better understand the role of a forensic psychologist in parental alienation cases and how we can better help our clients. Our conversation covers practical strategies, including:

  • How to spot signs of parental alienation
  • How to find a qualified psychologist for your case
  • What to expect from a retained psychologist
  • How to prove (or disprove) alienation allegations in court
  • And much, much more

Dr. Fletcher also leaves us with some suggested resources for both attorneys and clients. Don’t miss this episode!

Mentioned in this episode:


Susan Fletcher: You know, I teach adults who are having difficulty in their relationship with their child to do three things up front, listen to understand, versus listening to respond, give empathetic responses, which doesn’t mean you’re admitting to something you did not do. And then the third one is meet your child where your child is.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast, your source for the latest news and trends in family law in the state of Texas. Now, here’s your host attorney Holly Draper.

Holly Draper: Today, we’re excited to welcome Susan Fletcher to the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast. Dr. Fletcher is an author and licensed psychologist specializing in therapy and evaluation and Family Law matters, including child custody, parent functioning and resist refusal dynamics. Dr. Fletcher provides expert testimony, child custody evaluations, psychological evaluations, and court ordered therapy, including reunification therapy. Dr. Fletcher is currently serving as a board member appointed by Governor Abbott to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychology, and the Behavioral Health Executive Committee, both of which regulate the practice of psychology and other mental health services in Texas. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Susan: Thanks for having me.

Holly: So why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your background?

Susan: Well, I went to school in Florida and in Texas, and I’ve been a psychologist since 1997. So I’ve had a clinical and forensic practice for almost 25 years now. And in the state of Texas, I’m dually licensed. So I am a licensed psychologist. But I also have a license, that’s an LSSP, and that’s a licensed school specialists. So it’s a person, the LSSP is a licensed individual that works in the school system. So while I don’t work in the school, I have the training experience and the license to be able to do that, which comes in very handy when I work with families as well as when I work with attorneys to on cases that involve Family Law.

So as you said, I do assessments. I do therapy, I really like assessments, I’ve done assessments my whole career. And and now I focus mainly on the assessments for forensic purposes. So psychological evaluations, and child custody evaluations. So in the past had worked for not for profits early in my career. Actually worked with sex offenders at the galaxy center in Garlin. Early in my career, which was great training and a great opportunity that really does help in family law. But it’s not something that I provide now. I work with people who are survivors of sexual abuse. But mostly I work with high conflict cases. Almost all of my practice is forensic now, and I’m court appointed or I am retained by attorneys.

Holly: Can you explain a little bit what’s the difference between a clinical practice and a forensic practice?

Susan: Yes, I can explain that. So basically, in the state of Texas, anybody who’s a psychologist is a psychologist, we don’t have specialties in the state of Texas. So somebody says they’re a clinical psychologist in Texas. They’re just a psychologist, but may have a clinical practice. The different really, the difference really is that a clinical psychologist or a clinical practice of a mental health provider is where they provide community services. So they see a wide variety of individuals, get referrals from past clients, focused on treatment plans, people plans getting better.

People being able to decrease whatever their present presenting symptoms are. They might communicate with people who prescribe medication, they so they talk to physicians, so they’re really working at it in terms of daily functioning and improvement, and whatever the presenting issues are that come in which could be varied. And people are expected to work in the area of their expertise. So a forensic practice is really different. Somebody who is practicing in the area of forensics can work in criminal law, they can work in personal injury, they can work in family law. And it’s expected and required really to understand a bit of law, but not be a lawyer.

No, no, I don’t think any mental health practitioners should get confused about our roles. And so a forensic practice, you have to understand the court system, you have to understand the scope of your role, because you really want to stay in the scope of your role. And you’re really not there to provide treatment to alleviate symptoms, unless you’re appointed by a court. And that court order really defines what you do. So while it may seem that a forensic practice is more limited, it’s just more specialized. A clinical practice really is working with people in the community outside of the litigation system.

Holly: So if a party or a child in any case is receiving clinical treatment from a psychologist or other mental health professional is it appropriate to bring in a forensic specialist during litigation at the same time?

Susan: Well, it depends on what the role would be. But I think your point is well taken that they are not the same, and they are not interchangeable. So if somebody gets involved in litigation of divorces filed or modification as filed in there is somebody already working with members of the family, especially the children, it’s more than likely that they are somebody in a clinical setting or clinical practice, a private practice. And unfortunately, as we all know, people don’t know what they don’t know. And so people that are not forensically trained, that are focusing on treatment and alleviating symptoms may step outside of the scope of their role and create more problems.

So yes, I think attorneys, especially attorneys that are new in the area of family law would benefit greatly from having a forensic professional, be involved. And there’s a variety of ways that can happen, just to help guide the process. But I want to be really clear that forensic people obviously provide treatment and they can be appointed to be the child’s therapist or reunification counselor. And you don’t want two individuals working with somebody at the same time. So a child can’t have two therapists. That’s a that’s a licensing issue. That’s an ethical issue. You don’t want two different providers providing the same service to someone.

Holly: So you mentioned there are a lot of different roles that a forensic professional can play, especially for our younger lawyers out there, or newer lawyers. Can you explain what some of those roles are?

Susan: Yes. So, somebody can be appointed by a court to provide individual therapy. I’ve been appointed to work as a co parenting counselor, somebody can be appointed as someone who provides only a psychological evaluation. And it’s important to note that only psychologist in the state of Texas can do a psychological evaluation. So they have to have the training and expertise. And so typically, that’s going to be a psychologist. And so a psychological evaluation. Another is child custody evaluations. And in the state of Texas, the Texas family code really is what outlines what makes somebody qualified to provide child custody evaluations. And so they don’t have to be a PhD or a psychologist.

An LPC who’s qualified with over 40 hours of training, all the things that people can find in the Texas family code that qualifies somebody, they can also provide child custody evaluations. So those are the the roles that a mental health provider can provide that are accessible, visible, providing evaluations or therapy. But another role is to be a retained expert. So I’m someone that attorneys will retain, and hire me to either be a testifying expert, or a behind the scenes expert. And really, the difference is, is I want to know upfront when an attorney is talking to me, do you expect me to testify. And if they expect me to testify, we all know everything I do is discoverable.

So if they want me to testify when I know how they’re going to designate me, so I stay in that role. Again, that’s specific to a forensic individual. And so I could be hired or other mental health professionals who are forensically trained can be hired as a retained expert to actually provide testimony or a behind the scenes. And I’ll tell you, I really do enjoy being retained as an expert to testify. And there’s a lot of ways that can happen. But when I am retained, or a mental health professional is retained, it’s really important if you’re a testifying expert, to not meet the clients. And that’s confusing to a lot of attorneys. The reason is, you’re expected to have procedures in place where you remain neutral.

So if somebody retains me to testify on resist refusal dynamics, or co parent functioning literature, then I’m not going to meet your client, which really confuses clients because they want to be able to tell you the story. And they feel that it’s important for you to know their story. And while it is important to know some of it, it’s also important for that retained expert to remain neutral. So I’m only going to communicate with the attorney. And then the other way is a behind the scenes expert that does not testify, then you’re considered part of the legal team, but clearly in a mental health role. So as somebody that works as a consultant, I do meet the litigant because it’s not discoverable. I also will write direct and cross examination questions for the attorneys once I know more about the case.

I love that and attorneys enjoy that too, because there’s a lot of a lot of reasons why attorneys, even seasoned seasoned attorneys and I’m sure you’ll agree aren’t quite sure how to phrase the question or they may not know if they know the answer to the question. So that’s another role as a consultant behind the scenes. And sometimes as a consultant, I’m merely just helping the attorneys know, who needs to replace the mental health team working with their client. Or I might meet with your client and coach them, I’m not providing therapy, but I’m assisting them. And maybe some of the difficulties they’re having, or assisting them in terms of being able to get through the litigation process.

I don’t tell them what to say. I want them to tell the truth every single time, but I might help them with the words that they use the language like, you know, a lot of parents say things like my weekend with the kids. And I’ll talk with them about the importance of having healthier communication like this is the weekend I’m designated to be responsible for our children. So it’s the our family wizard messages, things like that. So testifying you are discoverable, obviously, as it should be. But behind the scenes, that’s really where it’s the attorney, in my opinion, is the attorneys choice about how to best use a consultant.

Holly: I agree completely on the benefits of the consulting expert, especially on cross examination questions, deposition prep, knowing what experts we need, knowing who to request knowing what to object to on the other side. There are so many benefits that we have gotten in cases from having retain, retained consulting experts who aren’t going to testify, but who can really help us prepare our case.

Susan: Correct. And especially if you’ve, you have a sense that the mental health providers on the team, are part of the problem and don’t really understand especially when it comes to alienation issues. If you’ve got a therapist who really doesn’t understand how they may be part of the problem, because they’re not forensically trained, they don’t know the literature, they drink the Kool Aid, those things do happen. Then consulting expert can help, you know, okay, here’s why this person may be hurting this family, here are the things you need to look for in a provider.

And here’s some people and I know my community, I can make recommendations of people who might be somebody to replace that person. So I don’t think a consulting expert is there to stir it up and cause problems. You know, I really do think it’s to assist the family to do better. And it’s to assist the attorney to assist their client. Because at a certain point, we know these families need to operate without attorneys, without litigation, and without mental health providers. So to me, it’s a good investment in the family. It can be cost efficient, it can be it can be efficient with time, if you’ve got a mental health person behind the scenes helping.

Holly: You mentioned alienation. And that is one of the topics that we want to discuss here today. I know as a family lawyer, the term alienation gets thrown out by parents way more often than there actually is alienation occurring. So can you tell us specifically what is parental alienation?

Susan: Yes, I can. And that is something that I’m asked to do a lot in the court system is I’m retained pretty frequently as an expert to testify. And so alienation is a very misunderstood very emotionally loaded term. And many times when your clients who you’re representing use that term, they may be using it incorrectly. So what alienation, what parental alienation is, according to the literature, because we’re going to look at the literature for how are these things defined. And it’s really where a parent is engaging in some kind of a high conflict, separation or divorce. And it’s where the child may align very strongly with one parent. And typically, we call that parent the preferred parent or the favored parent. And they may resist or reject a relationship with the other parent.

And sometimes that’s called the alienated parent. I’ll call it the rejected parent a lot of time where the parent they’re resisting. And it’s really the difference, and the concern is, is that it’s without legitimate justification. So really, what we’re looking at with alienation is where it seems to just not make sense. There are certain parameters, which I know we’ll talk about, that we look for, to be able to see whether or not it’s more of an alignment in the family, or if it’s more alienation or estrangement, and I’ll define those terms in a minute. But alienation really is something where I’ve heard attorneys talk about it as a campaign that a parent has to interfere with the relationship with the other parent’s relationship with the child.

Especially, and it’s almost part of that criteria, if that child previously had a really good relationship with that parent. And so you start to get suspicious that there is some kind of an undertow that is interfering with that relationship. Continuing with now a family operating in two households. I want to be clear that alienation can occur in intact families. It’s not as frequent at all, as it is in high conflict, two homes separating families. But we can see it also in families where there’s, they’re intact. And many times when I’m working with a case, especially if I’m an evaluator, I can see some of those things were happening even before a divorce occurred.

Holly: So as attorneys, what are some signs that we can be looking for, to know based on what we’re hearing from our clients what we see going on when this family signs of alienation?

Susan: Okay, I think that’s a great question, because you’re going to want to focus on behavior. And I think a lot of attorneys get confused and may focus on intention of a client or intention of opposing counsel’s client. You really want to focus on behavior. So look at this as a family system. So this is family that’s operating at one point was in one household, now in two households. And so you’re going to look for a hierarchy that’s disrupted where a child might be too empowered, or has too much power in the family. So you’re going to look for references from a child, and even from a favored parent, that one parent is all good. One parent is all bad.

If you ask your client, tell me one good thing about your co parent, they go, I can’t think of a damn thing. Okay, you’re gonna want to say, well, try, it’s really important. But if there’s a real polarization there, especially in the way that children are expressing things, that’s something you want to look for. You may see that there’s no remorse or guilt for the mistreatment of the other parent. That’s a big one. Because the favored parent may give consequences to a child, if they’re disrespectful to the soccer coach or teacher, or to them. But there’s no accountability, if that child does the same thing with the other parent, they’re resisting or rejecting. A really big one is when a child calls the other parent by their first name.

Holly: So I would assume, and correct me if I’m wrong, but usually an alienating parent is not going to admit to alienating and they’re probably not even actively realizing that they’re alienating, would you agree?

Susan: I would agree. And that’s pretty typical. And but part of it is where that parent may feel justified in the actions like the child rejecting the other parent, because the other parent did something in the marriage. That’s a problem. And they don’t realize, sometimes they don’t realize that they’re imposing their marital agenda, or their separation divorce agenda on to the children. So we call that a naive alienator. But I really do I mean, it’s probably a really good time to say it, I get away from the word alienation. I don’t use that when I’m talking directly to people that are involved in a divorce or modification. And even on the stand, I’ll try to get away in my testimony from using that term, because it is misunderstood. So I’ll talk about resistance and rejection.

And so if you are working with a client who’s retaining you, and they’re talking about the opposing of a co parent is alienating, I would encourage you start looking at using language like, tell me about that resistance or rejection. That’s how you as an attorney are going to get the data because you again want to focus on behaviors. So as someone who is a mental health professional, I’m going to focus a lot on behaviors, and that’ll help you know how to best figure out your trial strategy about whether to get a mental health person involved or not. But they don’t they don’t realize there’s also barbed functioning where a child will say we and they mean, my mom and I were mad at my dad because he chose to be with other women.

Okay, well, that’s not usually what you hear a child say that shows a an unhealthy alignment, possibly with the favorite parent, because the child is promoting the parent’s agenda and the conflict. You’re going to see the mimicking of wishes and feelings of the favorite parent from the child.

And you’re also going to see that, that there’s a tendency for it to kind of spread out that rejection. So let’s say that a child is rejecting a father and always wanted to go to the father’s alma mater for college. And then after the separation or divorce occurs, the child saying, you know, I hate that football team, that’s a crappy college, whereas before the whole room was decorated in that. And so they reject the things that the father likes or the the rejected parent likes. I’ve made the mistake recently in reunification therapy, assisting a parent and a child to work on their relationship of talking about college visits, and the parents said, you know, let’s go to Boulder.

Are you always really interested in Boulder and talked about going there. And then the child said, heck, no, I’m not going to go there. And it was almost like anything that rejected parent was going to recommend or reference is something that was an option before the child was not even going to entertain. So that’s another very classic sign of is rejecting things that have to do with that parent, whether it’s sports, college, friends, their their grandparents, you know, you just see it just sort of flows all out. And it’s it’s what we call a loyalty conflict. That child’s having difficulty knowing about where their place is, and that’s a big part of this dynamic is that loyalty conflict.

Holly: So sometimes, probably a lot of the time, the rejected parent is not going to personally witness the alienating or resisting or the refusal, the behavior that’s coming from the favorite parent. But it sounds like they can really recognize the change in the child or based on things that the child is saying, or behaviors of the child, we can tell that there’s those kinds of behaviors coming from the other side.

Susan: Right, and what you’re going to hear as an attorney most often, if you’re representing someone who feels that alienation is occurring at their expense. So that resistance and refusal, you’re going to hear that it’s the other parent’s fault. They’re being brainwashed they’re being coached, you’re going to hear a lot of emphasis on the conflict between the two parents, understandably so and, and you know, appropriate. But in trying to work on that relationship, or look at what you’re going to ask the court for, you really have to focus more on that relationship with the parent, and the child in order to make sure that they can start to work on that, to try to slow down that process, and improve the relationship.

But the favored parent should also be involved in that process. If it’s a therapy environment, they should be involved too. Otherwise, you’re just sending a child back to an environment where somebody just continues to give negative messages about the other parent. But you’re absolutely correct. If they don’t, that’s the hard part, I think, for an attorney, is you’re looking for where’s the evidence to show and it’s just what the parent may think. And you you want to show the trier of fact where the evidence is, and many times it’s not a piece of paper.

Holly: So that can make it really hard to prove that alienation is happening in court because you’re not seeing the other party actually commit the actions. And so much of what the child is doing is hearsay, and you can’t get in. So what are some tips you have for proving alienation in court?

Susan: Okay. So I think that’s a great question. Because, again, focus on behavior. So the child’s behavior may be that the child is you know, during exchanges, showing fear when there are other pieces of evidence that show that that that is an induced fear, or it’s an elevated exaggerated fear that is not expected from whatever’s going on. So COVID provided a great opportunity for all of us to see where that may have been used to instill fear. You have a parent who I’ve seen a lot of this in the last during the COVID times is that a parent says I’m afraid my child is afraid to go to the other parents house, because they’re not practicing COVID protocol. But then you find that the favored parent is going to restaurants posting it on Facebook, they’re not wearing a mask, even in court, the way they testify about COVID, they’re not really concerned about it. So COVID just is a good example to help everybody understand that there’s a contradiction in the in the behavior, and you’ve got data to support that.

So if you’ve got an allegation, doesn’t want to go over there for that reason, but in their own household, that reason should probably exist more. We’ve seen that with sleep overs is that, you know, the child is concerned to have an overnight with the other parent, and doesn’t want to be there because it’s hard for them to sleep and not sleep in their own bed. But then you find that child, you have evidence to support that that child’s able to be in hotel rooms, sleeps over at friend’s houses after, you know, they have a soccer game on Saturdays. So you’re wanting to look for those contradictions. And there is data to support those contradictions. Because why is it that the fear is just related to that behavior at dad’s house or mom’s house, when it really isn’t present anywhere else.

So that that allegation doesn’t hold up. You will also want to look at the parenting schedule that you want to see whether or not the child is trying to change the parenting schedule. And the parent is not holding the child accountable for the expectation of being at the other parent’s house that weekend. I’ve actually testified as a therapist and appointed therapist in a case where the child kept telling me it’s not my mom telling me that I don’t have to go to my dad’s. I actually tell her I don’t want to go and she supports me. She tells me it’s my choice. And I just want to go, don’t you realize.

But that was very helpful in that case, because I could testify to the fact that the child repeatedly said that the parent, the favored parents said it was that child’s choice about whether they went to mom or dad’s or not. And as far as I know, that parent was not giving them a choice about whether they went to school, whether or not they turned in their homework, whether or not they brushed their teeth, all those classic things. So you’re going to want to look for those contradictions and behavior and messages. Another one is to be able to look at whether or not a parent is giving consequences to a child for disrespectful behavior for the other parent.

Or consequences for you know, leaving the house and not knowing where they are, when they’re supposed to go to the parents. Or another classic one is that a parent goes to pick a child up on for an exchange at school, and the parent who’s experiencing resistance and refusal shows up to pick them up, and the child never arrives at their car and carpool line, and then they’re missing. And then you find that the favored parent doesn’t have any concern or alarm about that. That’s not behavior that should be acceptable for a child, especially a very young child.

Holly: So what if you’re an attorney representing the parent accused of alienation? What are some things that you can try to show in court to combat those claims?

Susan: Okay, so if you are if a parent is, let’s say unjustly being accused of alienating behaviors, you want to show as many things as you can to show that that parent is supportive of the child being able to follow the parenting plan. And again, I’ll come back to consequences. You want to show that your client is actually imposing consequences on the child for not being where they’re supposed to be at school, when the other parent is supposed to pick them up. Or leaving the house or not coming back, you know, or not arriving home from school, if they walk home from school and dad, or mom is going to pick them up at the parent’s house. So you want to show their ability to parent the child when they’re non compliant, or when they’re disrespectful with the other parent. You also, I mean, I’ll tell you in my office, if I have a parent that’s that is sitting there with their child, and that child calls the other parent by his or her first name, I’m looking to see if that parent present who might have been accused of alienating behaviors, I want to see if they correct their child.

I want to observe them be able to say without my prompting, you know what little Johnny, I’ve told you, it is not appropriate to call adults by their first name. Whether it’s your dad, or neighbors, you the expectation is you refer to him as your father, just like you refer to our neighbors as Mr. Post, and Mrs. Post. That that’s respectful. And why don’t you try that, again. I want to see unprompted, that they are parenting effectively, to assist that child to have a relationship with the other parent. And you want credible sources of data to show a pattern of doing that for the court.

Holly: So as attorneys, we often have clients who, you know, say the other parent, you know, their kids hate the other parent, their kids don’t want to go, and they ask us for advice about how to handle the situation. In that situation, what would you recommend we advise clients?

Susan: Okay, so I’ll tell you first, what I hear a lot that I’m guessing attorneys here is, I can’t pick my child up and throw them in the car, put them on a plane or physically make them go. Okay, I hear that a lot. And, and I have to remain fresh in my response, because I just want to roll my eyes sometimes on that. You know, I’m the mom of three boys, and they’re all taller than me, they’re all over six feet. And you know, they’re, they’re older now. And I don’t think that it was ever an option for me to get them to be compliant with something when they didn’t want to go to soccer practice or whatever to be physical with them. That should be the last resort. But a lot of parents will use that as an excuse of not being able to get them to be compliant.

And they’ll they’ll use that as what they think is a creditable excuse. But you know, you want to tell them, you need to have consequences for your children not being compliant no matter what it is. And the consequences have to fit whatever it is. So if your child says, I’m not going to dad’s, you can’t make me but you still allow them to sleep over at their friend’s house that night, when they’re really supposed to be at the other parents. You know, that’s a that’s a problem. So I think as an attorney, it’s important to say stick to the parenting schedule, what you need to do is you need to set the expectation for your child, you need to be consistent in setting that expectation for your child.

And you need to have consequences as you would for anything else. If they are not compliant with whatever it is. And you want to tell them the court is going to be looking to see if you have a different set of rules as it comes to the other parent. Compared to the set of rules you have the rest of the household and other activities. I wrote a parenting book, I’ve written two books, and one is a parenting book called Parenting in the Smart Zone, and page one oh seven of that book talks about the difference of discipline versus punishment. And that’s not a book for high conflict families. I mean, at the time, I had a part forensic and part clinical practice.

But I hand that book to people, I hand it to both parents, if I’m a reunification therapist, to say, let’s get back to some basics about parenting. Because the rules are changing for you, for some reason, as it relates to holding your child accountable. So let’s, let’s go back to the difference between discipline and punishment. And you need to create a an environment, in your home where you expect them to do what you’re telling them to do, and be compliant with what the expectations are. Rather than giving them a free pass when it comes to the other parent, just because you hate him so much for what happened in your marriage, or you hate her so much for the fact that she’s behaved the way she has. So we’ll get back to basics and go through that, because we got to, we got to show the ability to do that if you’re being accused of being an alienator, which is a lot of times the phrase that’s used.

Holly: So let’s assume that we have alienation occurring, we have a parent who has not been able to see his or her child for much time, maybe at all for an extended period of time due to this behavior. What as attorneys should we be asking the court to do to help resolve this problem? Because I know there’s, there’s a theory out there that the only way to fix it is to pull the child out from the favorite parent, plop them in with the alienated parent and have them there almost full time to undo what has been done in the favored parent’s house. What is your philosophy on the best way to deal with it?

Susan: So you’re absolutely right. That’s something that a lot of people believe that’s the only way to work on it. It’s one way and it typically should not be the first choice. And people who do research on this topic, disagree about it. So it’s important to recognize that every family is different, every child’s needs are different. And so we have to look at each family and the specific variables involved in the family. But as an attorney, what you want to recognize is, the longer there is a cut off for a child with a parent. That is something we all know, as clinicians as people that are mental health providers in this field, the longer it goes, the harder it is to overcome.

So when I have a parent that says, I haven’t seen my child in two weeks, and that’s very unusual for us. And I’m very concerned, I don’t minimize the concern. But that case is going to be one that I believe we’ve got a little bit more going for us to be able to overcome than the case where somebody says, I have not seen my child for three or four years, or I’ve never spent a birthday my child’s birthday with my child. So you really want to look at okay, what’s the pattern here? What caused the cut off? What occurred? What are the accusations? But I think attorneys are going to want to get some assistance from the court to get a team of individuals involved, to work with that family to try to get them to follow the parenting schedule, without causing such a shock to the family system that you have the opposite effect.

So many times as you and I know we call it either step up or step down, I hear attorneys refer to it in different ways depends on who your client is that be able to look at, okay, here’s a plan, here’s the expectation for the next few months, or until ABC and occur. And then at that point, there’ll be overnights and then at that point, we’ll move to that that’s really helpful in these cases, because that gives everybody an idea of what to expect. And there’s the opportunity to individualize what a family needs to get to each hallmark.

Holly: So one of the methods that we often use, especially when there’s been a parent who hasn’t seen the other for quite some time, would be reunification therapy. And I know that’s a very specific type of therapy. Can you tell us exactly what that is?

Susan: Yes. And that is a very specific type of therapy. And let me be the first one to say, we don’t have a certification to be a reunification therapist. There is training in fact, I offer a course to mental health professionals called advanced reunification training. And I teach it my co presenters Christy Bradshaw Schmidt, who is also in our community. And we talked about doing this for two to three years, because there’s a lot of literature out there about what reunification therapy is, and how it’s different from traditional therapy. That we saw people out there providing what they were calling reunification therapy, who didn’t know the literature. So we wanted clinicians to have an arsenal of information to know why it’s different in order to do good work.

So now in the last two years, we started teaching, we’re on our fifth class, a very small class of people. So we give individualized attention to clinicians, we keep it limited to six. And they have to be licensed for at least four years, because we want them to really have some experience so that we can rely on that experience to really teach them why reunification is different. So you asked what it is. And basically, it’s it’s a, I’m not gonna say a type of therapy as much as it is, it’s, the orientation is different. So it’s in response to a child resisting contact with a parent. And it addresses the needs of a family where there are traits of alienation, which is typically when you see a cut off, and real extreme resistance and refusal, or estrangement, which could be justified cut offs.

You know, the child may have known a parent was having an affair at the end of the marriage and felt that, you know, they had a secret and it was painful, and they’re mad at that parent, or there’s some abuse that’s occurred. There’s a reason why there’s that cut off. And still, that doesn’t mean the cut off is justified. And there’s some attention that needs to be given, there is a tension that needs to be given to that relationship, or there could have been an unhealthy alignment that’s created this split or loyalty conflict. So it’s what’s when there is a resistance or refusal, but people can still be following the parenting schedule as it is defined in a court order. And there can be resistance and refusal, that doesn’t have to be a cut off.

And that’s it, that’s a mistake a lot of attorneys make is they think you wait until there’s a cut off. No, let mental health professionals with the appropriate training, help the family to avoid a cut off if you’re seeing resistance and refusal. I think anybody doing reunification therapy, as a clinician should be ordered by the court and be the or be the one appointed by the court. And the parties need to be ordered to participate, because one of those parents is going to think it’s going way too fast. Okay, that’s usually the favored parent, and one is going to think it’s going way too slow, we got time to make up for I’ve been waiting for this. And that’s usually the parent that has some resistance and refusal dynamics with a child.

So the reunification therapist needs to know the literature, and make sure they don’t align with one of the parents, they need to remain neutral for the benefit of the child. And also in reunification therapy, the goal should be a majority, if not, almost all of the appointments after you get started need to include the parent, a parent and a child. You’re not an individual therapist. So you’re working on the relationships with the family to have the proper alignment, so that the adults are in charge, but not necessarily at the expense of the relationship with the child. And as we know, in a lot of families where there’s resistance and refusal, the child is inappropriately empowered to be a decision maker.

May have too much information about what’s going on, to kind of play in a parentified role, like they’re elevated with the favorite parent to kind of be a peer. And they’re privy to information they should not have. So we’re trying to realign the family. That’s why everybody needs to participate in reunification therapy. And somebody who is not familiar with the literature may not understand that, and I’m going to tell you as an attorney, your first clue is when you find out that you’re maybe you have a favored parent, you’re that person is not involved in the therapy at all.

If there’s reunification therapy going on, you should be nervous about that as an attorney, because it could be at the expense of your client. Your client may not be able to tell a narrative, you know, even if it’s got some faulty beliefs than that to the therapist and doesn’t have access to that therapist. So that therapist if they’re not trained, well don’t know the literature could align with the parent who’s resisted at the expense of your client. So that’s your first clue that person may not be the best person to work with the family if they’re not involving the whole family.

Holly: So you said there’s not any certification for reunification therapists. And I know as an attorney that has needed one in cases several times it can be difficult to find a reunification therapist who is taking on new cases. Without a lot of certification, what should attorneys be specifically asking or looking for to find out if that therapist is qualified?

Susan: So Holly, this is the easiest question, you’re gonna ask me because it’s really simple. Get a copy of their CV. See if they are attending trainings that have to do with high conflict divorce. See if they’re attending trainings to deal with age appropriate issues. There are people that you may like as an attorney that have worked with children before, and you may think they’d be really good at this. But if they their CV does not show that they’re going to trainings on this subject, then it will cause more problems. It’s very likely to cause more problems. So if I’m behind the scenes, working with an attorney, I always say please get a copy of the most recent CV and list of professional development hours this person has attended in the last five to 10 years.

And in a clinical practice, many times people don’t update their CV or have a list that they can give you immediately. They have to create it to give it to you. And that’s a clue that they’re not forensically trained. Like my CV, and the list of all my professional development hours is on my website. People don’t even have to ask me to send it to them. And anytime there’s something to add, we add it within 24 hours. It is always up to date, because that’s needed because I’m forensically trained and I testify and that needs to be entered into as an exhibit. So you want to look at their CV. So you’re looking for the professional development. If they’ve been going in the last two years to things that are like how to do telehealth therapy and make lots of money. How to get on insurance panels, like right now I just had an attorney asked me about a clinician that they’re thinking of referring a family to for reunification, I asked for a copy of the CV.

And that person in the last five years is very heavy getting a lot of training on eating disorders, and a lot of training on working with young girls on self esteem issues. There was nothing about high conflict divorce, there was nothing at all that had to do with resist refusal. The second thing to look for on their CV is their professional affiliations. They need to be a member in my opinion, I am very have a strong opinion about this of AFCC with which is the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. They produce a lot of the literature and that website is And I encourage attorneys working in this area of law to also become members of AFCC. They have webinars specific for attorneys, specific for clinicians. They have the most up to date information, they have incredible training opportunities.

And so to me, it’s a clue that a clinician may not be the best one to choose to provide services and reunification therapy, if you see their professional development hours don’t reflect any training, or maybe just one one hour webinar. That’s not enough, or they are not members of AFCC. And that’s a very common cross examination question I will include when I assist attorneys behind the scene is do you know what AFCC stands for? Are you a member of AFCC? And if they look at you like they have no idea what they’re talking about, it’s an easy cross examination.

Holly: So you mentioned a little while ago about a little on the timeline, how one parent is always gonna think it’s too fast, and the other one’s always gonna think it’s too slow. What is a realistic timeline for reunification?

Susan: Yeah. So that’s a good question. Because you were saying how it’s hard to find people that will do this kind of work? Well, in our community where you and I are, you know, we’re involved in training people to be able to do this work because we would like it to be a long list, not a shortlist. Many times the best clinician is one that’s trained and can get them in quicker. And so there are a lot of times I turned down the opportunity to work with a family, like right now it’s four or five months before I could take on a new family to be able to provide this service, because I’m not going to I’m going to manage my workload. So I could do a good job with established people I’m working with. So sometimes it’s really who can see them sooner, has the availability in their schedule.

So the timeline should start soon. And they should see the parents first, not meet the child first. Really, what the literature shows us and people have done this work is you need to hear them hear the narrative of both parents first, give both parents access to you early, so that you really understand what they’re how they view the problem. And that’s very telling to know the kind of treatment plan you’re going to develop. And then they need to have a lot of appointments. When I have a new family I’m working with, I will typically see the mom and dad individually within the same week. So you want to rapid response early. You don’t want people to wait two weeks between appointments. And if you can do that, then the timeline gets shorter to be able to see improvement.

There are families that I have worked with and my colleagues have worked with who are trained to do this work, who will tell you that you see you have a higher rate of improvement of the hierarchy of the family, of the parenting abilities of being able to follow through with the direction that they get in therapy, if you see them frequently and often. And then the goal is you want to work yourself out of the job as a reunification therapist, therapist. You don’t want to create a dependency. So you want them to be able to sustain the gains without you so they can communicate, deal with the very tender things that need to be dealt with.

So the timeline gets shorter. So I tell people, I’m going to redo my treatment plan every six months. This is not a quick fix, the longer there’s been a cut off and conflict, the harder it is, and the longer it will take. If it’s been a two week cut off, and there’s just one or two events that have really created this big burst of resistance from a child with a parent, that is something that isn’t going to take as long to overcome. But I want to be really clear so attorneys know, these people need to be seen frequently, very early, because the clinician needs to understand the narrative, everybody. Needs to be able to have access to maybe even siblings who are involved, and then start having joint appointments between the resisted parent and the child.

So you can begin to have them in the same room working on their ability to address issues. You know, I teach adults who are having difficulty in their relationship with their child where there’s resistance and refusal to do three things upfront. Listen to understand, versus listening to respond. Give empathetic responses, which doesn’t mean you’re admitting to something you did not do, which is hard for people. And then the third one is meet your child where your child is. So I’m trying to get them out of the habit of saying things like, you know what you shouldn’t feel that way. I need them to be able to say instead, I understand you’re angry and you’re mad. And you know what I know, I haven’t handled a lot of this well, and I’m going to say that to you. And I could have done a better job of that. And we now have that opportunity to start to deal with these things.

And I take responsibility for your perception of this. And I’m not going to give you details about what went on with your mom and I your dad and I. But I’m certainly going to listen, because I want to understand what it’s like to be you. Parents have to learn to talk that way. And many people who are having resistance from a child don’t want to talk that way. Because I think it assigns fault. It doesn’t, it creates an opportunity. And as a clinician, as somebody working with a family, I want to help them see the difference in looking at the problem as fault based, which I’m going to I don’t know, disrespect to attorneys.

But that comes from litigation a lot of times, and it comes from pointing fingers. But we get them with that mindset. So as a reunification therapist, I want to help them be able to view the problem as an opportunity for us to really start to deal with things you probably should have talked about along the way. So the timetable question is a hard one for any reunification therapist, especially when you haven’t met the family because you have no idea. But I redo my treatment plan every six months. And then what I want to do is slowly over time, really work myself out of a job.

So there’s some families that may have worked with four years ago, a lot in the beginning space it out, there’s a little summer break, everybody’s following the parenting schedule, and then they run into a snafu, and they contact me and then I might bring them in on something that they fell into some old habits again. And I work with them over time. And that’s that’s what you want. That’s called maintenance. And then there’s some families I don’t see again, and then I get a holiday card. And they show me where everybody celebrated the holiday together. And it’s like, okay, this is why we do this work. So we don’t know until we get started.

Holly: So we’re just about out of time. But do you have any resources that you recommend for attorneys?

Susan: I do. There’s a book that just came out this year. And the title of it is Litigating Parental Alienation. Again, I wish they didn’t use the word alienation in the cover. But they do and and that’s what it is. But it’s about it’s written specifically for attorneys with the most up to date information that’s available on the research, case studies, ways to to litigate, in terms of representing your client, who may be accused of is actually participating in alienating behaviors, or is the resisted rejected parent. And that’s a great resource that I know you’re going to provide that information for, for attorneys. And then the second resource, there’s a book called Overcoming the Alienation Crisis, 33 Co Parenting Solutions.

And that actually is for your clients. That’s a book that I will encourage and require in reunification therapy that that parents get, not because it’s about reunification therapy, but it’s about parenting tools when there’s conflict. And sometimes I’ll even provide that to the attorneys so they know what I’ve given to their clients, because it’ll help them with language. Language is a big part of this. But really the the other book about litigating parental alienation is new, it’s good. I’m halfway through it. I’ve read ahead. And I think for attorneys, it’s a valuable resource for for the ways to view this and the ways to deal with it in the courtroom.

Holly: So I know you have those books there. Some of our listeners will also get to see video so can you go ahead and show them in case anyone is watching and wants to see what that looks like?

Susan: So this is the book that is for your clients. So this is what I will have people read who are referred when I’m appointed as a reunification therapist. So this one is really good came out in 2020. And then this is the one that I think you want to have in your arsenal. And that one is specific for attorneys. I, and it’s through ABA, so I consider myself as a mental health professional as a guest in the courtroom. And I’m going to stay in the scope of my role. And so anytime I’m consulting, or I’m trying to assist people, I want to give you additional resources that are going to speak your language, and then be able to reinforce a lot of those and assist you with what you need to do.

Holly: Perfect. So where can our listeners go if they want to learn more about you?

Susan: So I have a website is And I’ll tell you that there is a page on the navigation bar called forensics. And if you go to that page, there is there are resources there that are available, including sample court orders, if you’re wanting a court to appoint a reunification therapist. There’s sample court orders for child custody evaluations, because I also do those in psychological evaluations. So there are resources there that you can use, and just put in the name on that sample court order of the person that you want to see appointed in your community.

So those are available to attorneys. There’s also some worksheets that I have there that I presented at national conferences, at AFCC conferences, with a local judge and other providers. And the handout that we had from that conference that was in Atlanta is actually also on that same page. So there’s resources for attorneys, they’re available to all attorneys to consider as you’re putting together your case, and wanting to know some questions you want to ask. It’s also obviously available to to the people that that retain you so they can see some of those things. Finally, I have a blog.

And if you click on blog, you’ll see recently in the last two years, I’ve done a four part series on alienation resist refusal in my blog. I’ve blogged since 2007. So there’s a lot of stuff on there. But I tried to provide tools that can assist you to educate yourself in an efficient way about this dynamic as well as you can tell your clients to go there. Even if you’re not in my community. It’s meant to be helpful to people and provide education so people really understand when they’re using these terms what they mean.

Holly: Perfect. Well thank you so much for joining us today. For our listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, go give us a review and subscribe so you can enjoy future episodes.

Voiceover: That Texas Family Law Insiders podcast is sponsored by the Draper Law firm. We help people navigate divorce and child custody cases and handle family law appellate matters. For more information, visit our website at

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