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Judges favour reintegration therapy in parental alienation cases

Some courts are embracing reintegration therapy in cases of parental alienation, despite concerns about consent, Toronto-area family lawyer Reesa Heft tells AdvocateDaily.com.

CTV News recently reported on a proposal to add the phenomenon to the World Health Organization’s accredited list of diseases and related health problems for the first time.

Heft, founder and principal of Heft Law, says she frequently sees parents in high-conflict cases engaging in this behaviour, which involves one parent systematically turning their children against the other. While judges “do not look kindly” on the practice, she says many favour reintegration therapy as a less severe remedy than awarding full custody to the alienated parent.  

“It’s not ideal because it can be difficult for children who are removed from an environment that they are comfortable with to go and live with the other parent,” she explains. “Reintegration therapy can be helpful in these situations because it provides a neutral place with professionals on hand to assist the children and their alienated parent to become reacquainted.”

Case law is divided, however, on whether courts have jurisdiction to make orders for this kind of therapy or counselling due to a possible conflict with Ontario’s Healthcare Consent Act (HCA), which requires both children and adults to consent to therapeutic interventions.

“It seems that courts are ordering reintegration therapy even in the face of the HCA,” Heft says, noting a recent decision that found one such program did not constitute “treatment” requiring consent under the Act.

However, the judge in that case did set out a series of factors to consider when ordering such therapy:  

  • Whether or not expert evidence supports that the family is dysfunctional, and would be relevant based on the type of therapy proposed
  • The existence of compelling evidence that the counselling or therapy would benefit the children
  • Whether the order requested is on a temporary or final basis, by motion or at trial
  • How likely the parents are to engage in a meaningful way with the therapy, even if they are resistant
  • The likelihood the children will engage in the therapy voluntarily

Heft says the highly emotional nature of some divorce proceedings helps explain the propensity for alienating behaviour exhibited by some parties.

“You have angry parents who are not always able to put their children’s needs ahead of their own,” she says.

The CTV story cites research labelling parental alienation an "unacknowledged form of family violence" with long-term mental health consequences for children on the receiving end of it, including “anxiety, lowered self-esteem and general quality of life,” and provides a list of some red flags that suggest it may be occurring:

  • Rejection and denigration of a parent for trivial reasons
  • Rigid refusal to consider alternative views
  • Repetition of the favoured parent's words
  • Rehearsed script
  • Relatives are included in the rejection (even pets)
  • Absence of guilt or regret over behaviour towards the rejected parent

Heft says some alienated parents become so ground down by the cost and effort of fighting in court with the alienating parent that they give up pursuing their rights and ironically contribute to the aims of the opposing party.

“The poor child caught in the middle might think this parent doesn’t love me because they haven’t seen me in a few years,” she says.

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