What Is Reunification Therapy And How Can It Help?

By: Corrina Horne

Updated June 08, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Divorce and separation are rough on a family, no matter the circumstances. Reunification therapy is therapy designed to heal the relationship between a parent and child torn apart by divorce.

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In most standard divorce cases, parents are awarded joint custody or partial parental rights. Ideally, barring cases of abuse or neglect, both parents are awarded as much time with their children as possible. Unfortunately, though, this is not always the case-in some divorces, parents and children lose touch. There are times when losing touch is malicious, as in the case of one parent intentionally taking their children away from another. But other times, one parent has to move away for work or other family issues, and seeing their children is simply not a financial possibility. Sadly, in still other cases, the parent and children lose touch because that parent fails to make time with their children a priority.

Whatever the exact situation, reunification therapy seeks to reunite parents and children, to help them enjoy a strong relationship that will provide an adequate amount of emotional connection and support. Studies consistently demonstrate that children are better off in every way (socially, academically, emotionally, etc.) if they have both of their parents in their lives. Reunification, then, is not merely a matter of trying to reunite a family, but is a therapy modality designed to improve the lives of children through their parental relationships.

How Reunification Therapy is Delivered

Reunification therapy can be entered into voluntarily, but in some cases it may be compulsory. Some therapy efforts are court-ordered to make sure children are not abandoned by wayward parents. Others are parent-initiated when parents feel their family dynamic needs improvement. Reunification therapy can be difficult when children are reticent or uncertain about being reunited with their parents, but is especially problematic when court-ordered. Not all the parties may be willing, so therapists are enlisted to improve a multitude of dynamics, many of which might be long standing and tenuously held. Although reunification therapy can seem frightening-especially if it's court-ordered-many families turn to this form of counseling to ease the transition from alienated to fully functional.

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Reunification therapy is usually delivered in a clinical setting, but may also be delivered via a home visit or a similar arrangement. Meetings can also occur on neutral ground, such as a foster parent's home, or a state-provided meeting facility. Because reunification therapy is often offered to families with a history of dysfunction or difficulty, the avenues available and the reasons for this form of therapeutic intervention are vast. It can be ordered by the court in the case of divorce, certainly, but can also be court-ordered in the case of a child who has been removed by the state, but is being released back to their parents after a period of time apart.

Reunification therapy often encourages the use of individual therapy either in conjunction with the therapy (meaning it is delivered by the same therapist), or outside of the therapy. This allows parents the space and ability to work on any personal issues that may have contributed to the divorce, separation from their children, or any other problematic areas of their family's life. Reunification therapy focuses on making sure parents and children are united and together, but also hopes to encourage everyone in the family to engage in healthy, honest behaviors and increased communication to prevent issues in the future.

Court-Ordered Reunification Therapy: Who Orders It and Why?

In some cases, this particular therapy modality is not one entered into willingly, but is compulsory. Typically, it's mandated by family court, but can also be ordered as a part of a couple's divorce proceedings. So why might a court order reunification therapy?

1) One or both parents have become estranged from their children. In some divorce proceedings, parents are unable to keep their behavior civil, and resort to cruel words, violence, or manipulation in order to achieve a certain hope or desire. In these cases, one parent might refuse to allow the other to see their children, or a parent might relocate the family without the other parent's consent. These are all instances in which a court might mandate reunification therapy.

2) One parent skipped out on the family or divorce proceedings. If a parent left the family at any point, failed to appear at scheduled court hearings, or was in any way missing throughout the proceedings, a court might order the family to undergo reunification therapy to make sure the children and parents are able to function and move forward.

3) Children struggle to visit with the non-custodial parent. In some cases, one parent is awarded primary custody of a child, while the other is considered the non-custodial parent, or the parent who does not continually live with the child. If children struggle to attend meetings, overnight visits, or other visits with the non-custodial parents, without the presence of abuse or some other legitimate concern, a court might order reunification therapy to help a child feel safer and more comfortable with their visitation arrangement.

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What Does Reunification Therapy Look Like?

In most cases, this form of therapy begins with an intake assessment delivered by an experienced therapist. These assessments evaluate what the core issues might exist among the parents and children to more effectively weed out any issues and to improve communication and comfort within the family.

From there, therapists will likely begin to engage the parents and children in exercises designed to improve connection and communication. For young children, this might be through playing games or doing simple exercises to improve attachment, bonding, and comfort. In older children, this might involve talk therapy as a means to address the children's reticence, or parents' difficulty in being present. Regardless of the age, talk therapy will come into play.

As therapy progresses, families are usually asked to complete additional assessments to evaluate the efficacy of the modality. If families are showing improvement, the therapist will continue on the given path, and if the family is not, new strategies will be implemented. After a period, however, if the relationship is continually shrouded in dysfunction, the court may retract the order, or consider other alternatives, such as severing parental rights.

When Is Reunification Therapy Not Considered?

If the parent is a known or suspected abuser of alcohol or drugs, a court is unlikely to order this type of therapy. If the court does issue reunification therapy, despite the presence of these issues, this is typically only to establish a safe point of contact, rather than an ongoing, private relationship between parents and children. Because many studies demonstrate the importance of a strong, stable family system in the overall health of children, many courts will order some form of therapy, even in abuse cases, in order to facilitate a relationship, however distant it might be.

There are some circumstances, however, in which a court will never order reunification therapy. These cases typically involve extreme abuse or willing and consistent abandonment. In these cases, many custodial parents prefer to move forward with severing parental rights, rather than trying to engage in some form of rehabilitation or therapy intervention.

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Who Can Help?

Social workers, lawyers, therapists, and court officials can all help in taking steps toward reunification when one parent has abandoned their children. Depending on the exact factors involved, and the state of the parents and children involved, there are many different routes to explore when considering the reunification process. Often, the first step in reunification therapy is finding a mediator who is able to discuss the possibility with a lawyer, judge, or other court official. From there, the court can order reunification therapy.

If the court is not involved, and you are independently seeking reunification therapy, the first step is finding a therapist able to deliver this particular form of therapy with the sensitivity, tact, and care that is required. For many, this means finding a therapist familiar with the practice itself, but it can also mean seeking out therapist with flexible modes of interaction, such as Skype, or other online portals.

BetterHelp's team of mental health professionals can help in the reunification process by offering safe, affordable care online, allowing parents and children to engage in one-on-one therapy that can help ease some of the difficulty involved in the reunification therapy process. Because many reunification sessions ask parents and children to dig deep into emotional wounds, fears, and concerns, enlisting an outside therapist to help with individual issues is a good idea, and can actually speed along the reunification process. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from parents experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Tammi has made such a difference in my life. Had I not had her help I'm pretty sure I would've lost all contact with my 19-year-old daughter who chose to live with her father. She understands teenagers and moms of teenagers! So kind, wise, experienced, compassionate, and level headed, I can't say enough good about her!!"

"When I signed up for BetterHelp I was in the midst of a major life crisis. I was seeking a compassionate, experienced counselor like Jillian to help me cope with the initial pain, anger, and anxiety. Also, I chose Jillian because in her self description she states, "I'm a big believer in seeing life challenges, especially the most painful ones, as a catalyst for self-discovery, personal growth, and positive change." This really resonated with me. I knew that I wanted my experience to be an opportunity for personal growth. I am incredibly grateful that Jillian indeed helped me grieve and work through the challenges of divorce and early motherhood. She helped me learn about myself and transform my life in a positive way. She offered practical, specific tools to incorporate into my daily routine. She helped me to reconnect with myself and clarify and move towards my life goals. She offered constructive advice for interacting with my ex-husband and maintaining boundaries. Through working with her I was able to care for myself so that I could be a mindful, present mama and really soak in the precious moments with my newborn daughter. My sessions with Jillian made a huge difference as I navigated this time in my life. I could not recommend her more highly."

Moving Forward

Although receiving a court order for therapy might seem daunting, and finding a way to function as a family post-divorce might seem impossible, there is hope. Even families who have lost touch for years can learn how to work well together to create a harmonious situation. With everyone on board, and plenty of patience and hard work, estranged families can learn to reconnect and effectively reunite. Take the first step today.

FAQs

What is a reunification therapist?

A reunification therapist is someone who practices reunification therapy. Obviously, the next question on your mind is what is reunification therapy? Reunification therapy, which is usually court ordered, helps parents reunite with children who are estranged from them.

A parent may seek reunification therapy if they can't see their child due to being in a divorce. Other times, reunification therapy may be needed to help parents reconnect with their children who have been in foster care. It's not just due to legal issues, either. Reunification therapy can be great for parents and children who are estranged due to another reason. A reunification therapist will encourage a plan and help all parties with any issues they have.

How much does reunification therapy cost?

Reunification therapy can cost quite a bit. It may cost over $200 an hour, with it more or less depending on the therapist's credentials.

Is reunification therapy covered by insurance?

Reunification therapy may be covered by your insurance plan. Talk to your insurance provider and see what services you provide. Then, find a therapist who specializes in the reunification process and who can accept your insurance.

What is the process of reunification?

The reunification process is a foster care term. It's what a parent has to do in order to get their children out of foster care. Usually, a parent will be provided with a clear reunification process. This may evolve them trying to find a therapist who can help them with any problematic behaviors. The reunification process is designed to make the child be in foster care for as little as possible, so make sure you are given a clear reunification process should your child wind up in the foster system.

What happens in reunification therapy?

After you find a therapist who specializes in reunification therapy, you may wonder how the process goes. Reunification therapy typically begins with an assessment. The reunification therapist's role is to see what issues the parent and child have, and how they can be solved.

One solution that therapists may bring to the table is talk therapy. They may employ exercises that make it so that the parent and child communicate with each other in a more thorough manner. Other methods may be used as well. With reunification therapy, the goal of the therapy is complete reconnection. It's not reached, other alternatives may be explored.

What are the signs of parental alienation?

Parental alienation is when a child feels hostility towards a parent who they rejected. This may happen due to a divorce or a similar event. Here are some signs of alienation.

Extreme negative views toward the parent, including denying past positive experiences, and lack of investment or interest in improving the relationship.

  • The child has petty or frivolous reasons for hating the parent.
  • They will side with the parent they like, regardless of what that parent has done. To them, one parent can do no wrong, and the other is evil.
  • When the child hurt's the parent's feelings, they will show no remorse.
  • They will repeat whatever the favored parent has told them without fully realizing what the words mean.
  • The child may also go after the family of the parent they don't like.

Parental alienation can have horrible effects for everyone involved. It's important that every person seeks family therapy if possible. No child should hate their parent if the parent hasn't done anything wrong, and family therapy can repair those bonds.

Do you need both parent's consent for therapy?

If a minor wants individual therapy, what happens if one parent wants it, but the other does not? Therapists do not have a legal obligation to have both parents' consent, but it is a recommendation. For divorced parents, this will all depend on the circumstances of the divorce. For example, if the mother has full custody, the father's words may not matter if he doesn't consent to individual therapy for their child.

What is court-ordered therapy?

This is when a judge orders the defendant to seek therapy, usually as a way for the guilty party to get help and avoid a harsher sentence. For example, if someone assaults another person, the attacker may be ordered to have anger management therapy. With court-ordered therapy, the person has a certain amount of time to get it, and if they don't, they have to explain why they couldn't. Refusing to go to therapy could make the consequences the guilty person is facing much harsher.

What is the purpose of reunification therapy?

The purpose of reunification therapy is to unite estranged family members. Usually, this involves a parent and a child. This may also refer to the process of reunification, which is when a parent or parents who have lost their child or children to the foster care system go to therapy to figure out how they can improve. The process of reunification is designed to help parents reunited with their children.

Can I refuse child visitation?

This will depend on where you live, but in most circumstances, you cannot deny someone child visitation unless you have a court order to do so. There are various reasons why you may have a court order, such as the neighborhood the parent lives in being dangerous.

 

Does insurance cover a psych evaluation?

This depends on the type of insurance you have, but for the most part, your plan should cover it. You may need to have prior authorization for psych evaluations, however. You may also have to meet all payments, too. Talk to your provider and see what you must do.

Can therapist testify in court?

Most therapists do not like to testify in court. Part of what makes a therapist appealing to clients is secrecy, and if a therapist has to testify, then it can ruin their reputation. Most courts will not order a therapist to testify, but there's sometimes no other option. And obviously, this is going to depend on where the therapist lives.

How does family reunification work?

When the children are sent to a foster care system, courts will order a family reunification process. This may involve the parents going to therapy or making other changes to their life to prove that they should have custody of the child again. Once they meet the criteria, the child is reunited with the parents.

What is a family reunification order?

This is when a court orders the parents to be reunited with their children, who may have been separated due to foster care or another reason. This can also refer to parents taking reunification therapy to get their children back. This is usually part of the process of reunification.

What is a reunification plan?

The reunification plan, or the reunification process, involves foster care. It's the process where a child is leaving foster care and is going to be reunified with their parents.

Foster care in general is designed with reunification in mind. No one sends a child to foster care and believes they will only leave when they are of age. Instead, the parents are given a plan for what they need to do if they want their kids to return home. The plan will often involve stopping behaviors that are unsafe. For example, if the child was forced to leave due to drug abuse, the parents may have to find a therapist who has knowledge of drug abuse, and prove they are clean.

Can a judge order family therapy?

This all depends on where you live, but in many cases, a judge can order therapy for the family. When there are significant family troubles going on, a judge may order therapy. Usually, a specific therapist can't be ordered, but you may have to attend therapy within a certain timeframe. As always, check the laws in your area or talk to a law professional.

What is therapeutic visitation?

Therapeutic visitation, also known as therapeutic supervised visitation, is when a parent is allowed to see their child or children in an area safe for everyone. When a parent cannot be with a child due to various issues such as abuse, drug use, or other problems, therapeutic visitation can allow them to. Part of the reunification therapy process, a qualified therapist is in the room offering constructive criticism.

What is reconciliation therapy?

Reconciliation therapy focuses on relationships, particularly in the family, that have been broken. One focus that reconciliation therapy has is repairing the trust between two people who have lost it. Reconciliation therapy is not reunification therapy, but instead precedes it.

What is the process of reunification?

The process of reunification involves kids in foster care returning to their parents. When a child has been sent to foster care, they will begin the reunification process. Every foster care situation begins with reunification, as the point of it is to give parents a chance to meet all of the requirements to have their child come back. If a patent is irredeemably unfit, the child may be put up for adoption. However, if a parent follows the case plan given to them, they should be reunited with their child.

Alternatively, reunification may refer to repairing the relationship a divorced parent has with their child. When one has a divorce, they may be separated from their child during the parental tug of war, or the child may resent the parent for being divorced.

Why is family reunification important?

It’s always important for a child to be raised by parents they are used to in order to have the best mental and physical development, but sometimes parents may be unfit to raise their child. Family reunification is important because it allows the parent to improve themselves so they can be fit to raise the kid again. Another reason it’s important is that it provides a timetable, which allows the child to be in foster care for as short of a time as possible.

For divorce reunification therapy, it is important because the child should be in a good relationship with both parents if they can help it. Quite often, a child may resent one parent who has not been involved much due to custody, or because one parent is telling the child to do so. Reunification therapy is also important to help both parents work together, even if that is a challenge for them.

How much does reunification therapy cost?

The cost of this type of therapy depends on where you live, the education level of the reunification therapist, and many other factors. It can cost a hundred or a couple hundred for an hour of therapy, which can add up if you don’t have any ways to pay for this type of therapy.

With therapy, you may need to have multiple sessions as well. If the therapy costs $200 or more a session, it can add up quickly. For parents who are already financially struggling, it can be hard to pay for it.

Does insurance cover reunification therapy?

Like ordinary therapy, the reunification therapist’s insurance acceptance can depend on what plan you have and whether the therapist will accept it. Always look at your insurance plan to see if it covers therapy, and look for a reunification therapist who will accept your insurance. Since reunification therapy is something that costs a lot, having insurance can help to reduce stress.

What happens in reunification therapy?

If you were assigned a reunification therapist, you may wonder how the therapy process is like and what the reunification therapist’s role in all of this will be. Let’s look at the stages of reunification therapy and go over the reunification process.

First, education is always the top priority. Both the parents and children need to learn the process and what to expect from it. Teaching all parties how to be as involved as possible is important, especially if the parents want to be reunified with the child.

Second, there’s an assessment. This is when the reunification therapist will look into what happened and why it happened. Since the child is the most important person in all of this, they will be the one who will often move the therapy process along.

Finally, there’s the third step. With this step, the reunification therapist will help both parties heal their relationships and bonds. The reunification therapist tends to use family therapy for this step, though individual therapy may be replaced by family therapy in some instances. 

For reunification therapy that involves foster care, the therapist is usually there to help fix the parents’ problematic behaviors or living conditions that caused their children to be taken away from them. If it was due to arguing parents, couples therapy may be used by the reunification therapist. Otherwise, the reunification may look into other ways the parents can complete the timetable assigned to them.

Do you need both parent's consent for therapy?

When you find a therapist for your child, do you need the consent of the other parent? This can be difficult if the parents are divorced or one parent has an aversion to therapy. The answer is, in most cases, no. While a therapist prefers to have both parents in on the therapy, many therapists will accept a child who has one parent consenting to it. It’s important to find a therapist who will do that, as some therapists may be a little more hesitant.

Can your parents force you to go to counseling?

If you are under 18, then your parent has a right to send you to counseling. However, many children, especially teenagers, may not want to go to counseling. And parents shouldn’t drag a child to therapy. Quite often, therapy can fail if a client refuses to make a change, and that includes a child. Instead, parents should encourage their children to seek help, not force it.

With that said, it’s still the parents’ decision, especially when a teen is being unruly. With that said, parents may want to seek therapy themselves to learn ways to help their children and help to convince them to go to therapy.

How can we support reunification?

If you're a foster family, it’s important to support the reunification of the child and their birth parents. As foster parents, respect the parents and show compassion, even if you believe they have done something wrong.

As long as is safe to do so, have the parents and children in contact regularly. Regular contact can speed up the reunification process. With that said, it’s important to express reunification that’s as safe as possible, so speak to the parents frequently to make sure everything is good.


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