In October, two Santa Cruz siblings were violently removed from a relative’s home and forced into a family therapy program with their mother.
After that, Maya and Sebastian, now 16 and 12, were not heard from until May 29, when they ran away from their mother’s home and went into hiding.
“We finally got away,” Maya says in the first of a series of videos, taken with a shaky camera as the kids were driven away during their 3am escape.
Since then, the kids have taken to Instagram to describe their experiences with reunification therapy, a controversial program that ostensibly aims to reunite children with alienated parents.
“I was so scared, I didn’t move at all,” says Sebastian. He says one transport agent pushed him into the car seat by his throat.
They were then driven to Los Angeles, where their mother waited with two family therapists: Santa Cruz-based Regina Marshall and Lynn Steinberg, who has a practice in Southern California.
Both kids have accused their mother of abuse and say they want to live with their father. Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Rebecca Connolly has awarded full custody to their mother.
In a brief filed in Santa Cruz County Superior Court, psychologist Catherine Barrett states that, when the court determined that no abuse had occurred, Steinberg suggested that the children’s father must have been alienating the mother.
Barrett calls this a “false choice,” and says that, if the kids’ psychologist had used a clinically accepted framework, they may have been able to discern a cause for the kids’ behavior.
“…it should be noted that parental alienation has not been empirically validated by the field of clinical or forensic psychology and does not align with the research of the field,” she states in the court filing.
As a result, “the children unquestionably experienced trauma during their retrieval and likely during ‘reunification therapy,’” Barrett states.
Reunification therapy and the concept of parental alienation is controversial in psychiatric circles, the latter not recognized in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Tina Swithin, who campaigns against reunification therapy in her blog One Mom’s Battle, says there is little oversight or regulation for reunification therapy.
“It has all sprouted up from the infiltration of this pseudoscience,” she says.
In the Program
The four-day, intensive therapy program included being kept in a room with the knobs removed from the door, which was equipped with an alarm, Maya says.
The kids say they were repeatedly accused of lying about their accusations against their mother. They were also threatened with being taken to a “wilderness camp,” where insubordination could mean having food or blankets withheld.
“Even when I first came in I was crying and sobbing because I didn’t want to see my mom, and Lynn Steinberg told me, ‘you’re overreacting, you’re faking it,’” Maya says.
Transport agents guarded the door, she says, and one of them slept on a mattress outside.
While the sessions included efforts to reconnect the kids with their mother—such as going through their childhood toys with their mother to try to rekindle happy memories—they were also coached to lie about their location, forbidden to contact their friends and father, and change their names.
“We just had to keep lying and hiding, and the thing I wanted more than anything else was to talk to my dad,” Maya says. “But that was the thing we were prevented from the most.”
A Professional’s Take
Pennsylvania-based licensed clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, who is not involved in Maya and Sebastian’s case, says such therapeutic methods can be psychologically damaging.
“The way they go about doing this, to rip the children away from the healthy parent and force them into a relationship that they do not want to be with, is extremely traumatic for them,” Zuckerman says.
Still, the kids’ experience, while often flying under the radar of public perception, is a fairly common occurrence, she says.
“It’s just never really been talked about in this way,” she says. “This is the first case that’s been vocalized on social media.”
Zuckerman says these cases often begin with a claim of parental alienation, a concept not widely accepted in psychiatric circles.
But many judges are not well educated in nuanced issues such as coercive abuse and narcissistic abuse, and many see it as one parent keeping children from the other parent, she says.
Because many judges aim for children to have relationships with both parents, they often rule in favor of the “alienated” parent.
“Because it’s hearsay and because it’s coming from children, and because it’s a contentious divorce, all of these things together really align with the idea that the child is making it up and the parent is coaching them,” Zuckerman says.
Steinberg did not return multiple requests for comment. But she says in her website that her program has a 100% success rate, a claim seemingly belied by the kids’ escape.
But Zuckerman says that many children subjected to programs like Steinberg’s frequently pretend to comply to end the hours of interrogation and “gaslighting.”
“Lynn Steinberg is notorious for brainwashing children and forcing them to align with the abusive parent,” she says.
Court-appointed reunification therapist Jeanette Yoffe, who practices in Los Angeles, says she creates intricate plans that involve all family members.
“But it has to be done step by step by step, and it is imperative that everyone follows the treatment plan that the reunification therapist puts into place, to follow the child’s lead and progress,” she says. “Because the children are victims here.”
When a child does not want to be with one parent, Yoffe says she strives to find out why, and delves into all points of view. But she never uses force.
“To forcefully coerce a child to do reunification therapy is unethical and immoral,” she says. “And it will cause further trauma down the line.”
Yoffe is dubious of Steinberg’s claim that her four-day program can be successful.
“It doesn’t take four days,” she says. “It can take four years. This is a process; you can’t force it. “When we have children stating they don’t want to return, we have to believe them and understand where their anxiety is coming from and decide as a team what is the best practice here.”
Since the siblings were taken, Maya’s friends have mounted a campaign to change the local and state laws that allowed it. And they have kept the story in the public eye, with several public picketing events throughout the county.
Their efforts have so far been successful. The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in March approved an ordinance that prohibits the use of force by companies that transport children.
Claire Protti, 16, and a group of friends met with Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin and Senator John Laird, both of whom are backing Senate Bill 331—also known as Piqui’s law—which would require that anyone testifying in custody disputes have the proper training or education.
The law would also require special training for judges in domestic violence issues and would prohibit courts from ordering reunification therapy.
SB 331 passed unanimously out of the Senate floor on May 24 and is now being considered by the Assembly.
Protti says that the group wants to keep publicizing the issue as their friends wait to return to Santa Cruz.
“Maya right now is in a state of limbo,” she says. “They aren’t able to come home to see their family for fear they will be taken and we don’t know how long this will continue.”
The group is also calling for a recall of Judge Connolly, who is up for reelection in 2024, Protti says.
“We want to show her that we are disappointed in her, she has been failing us,” she says.