On Jan. 17, 16-year-old Claire Protti and two of her friends traveled to Sacramento. But it wasn’t for a music festival or camping trip: The three teens planned to speak to lawmakers.
Last October, the teenagers watched helplessly as their friend and her brother were forcibly removed from their grandmother’s Santa Cruz home and taken to an undisclosed site to undergo court-ordered family “reunification therapy.”
It’s been four months, and she hasn’t heard from her friend.
“We haven’t heard from them at all,” Protti says. “We don’t know if they’re safe; we don’t know if they’re injured. We don’t know if they’ve been in school.”
It was out of concern for their friend and objection to the practice of reunification therapy that the trio decided to travel to Sacramento, where they spoke with lawmakers to advocate for their friends.
Under this relatively unknown therapy, children are taken to “reunification camps” for an intensive four-day session with one of the parents, often in cases of parental alienation. Therapists tout reunification therapy as a method for bringing parents and children together in cases where one parent has been estranged from the other, often in contentious divorce and custody disputes.
Critics, meanwhile, say the for-profit industry often categorically ignores what the children want.
Worse, it can be weaponized by vindictive and abusive parents who need only claim “parental alienation” to convince a judge to rule in their favor and award custody, says Tina Swithin, an outspoken critic of the therapy. In some cases, parents have lost contact with their children for years.
Protti is worried. It’s been 110 days; the kids have been kept out of school and away from their father and friends. There hasn’t been communication of any kind.
Protti now aims to spotlight the issue for the world to see.
“This has been so hushed up by everybody,” she says. “This has been happening for years and years, and I don’t think anyone was aware of it until she told us directly. We’re not going to stop until President Biden knows about it.”
Reunification therapy often begins with “transporters” from private companies with “specially trained counselors.” Transporters take the children to assigned locations—the group that took Protti’s friend and sibling, New Jersey-based Assisted Interventions, Inc., has not responded to Good Times’ requests for comment.
Lynn Steinberg, a family therapist who also did not respond to Good Times, spoke about the case in a Nov. 20, 2022 podcast called “Slam the Gavel,” including Toronto-based attorney Brian Ludmer, an expert on parental alienation.
Steinberg said the session went “very well” and ended “happily,” with the kids bonding with their mother.
“When the kids arrived at my office, they were in perfectly fine shape,” she said on the podcast. “They were friends with the transporters. There were no marks on them, although they had bitten and kicked and bruised the people who had transported them here.”
Sarah Stockmanns, who traveled to Sacramento with Protti, doubts these claims.
“I don’t think there’s any way for the kids to be friends with the transporters after they were so aggressively taken from their grandparents’ house,” she says. “I don’t think it’s possible, and I think it’s a total lie.”
Ludmer says that the father had refused a court order to bring them to the other parent, hence the court-ordered intervention.
He stresses that reunification therapy is a last resort in ugly custody cases where the warring sides have reached an impasse.
“The family will never restructure in a healthy fashion absent a healthy family structure being imposed on it,” he said in the podcast. “Hierarchies and boundaries and mutual respect and respect for court orders, empathy, forgiveness—all of the normal developmental tools of childhood–have been denied children in these situations, so the court has to impose it.”
The blackout period often accompanies the therapy and gives a “time out” for the parent who may have caused the estrangement.
Greg Gillette, the attorney for the father in the Santa Cruz County case, says the incident with the transporters raises public policy questions.
“These kids were physically handled,” Gillette says. “So, the question is, does that court order give those adults the right to do that? We question the use of force in police cases, and we question the use of force in other arenas.”
The mother’s attorney Heidi Simonson did not respond to requests for comment.
In the days before they were taken, the older sibling took to social media, warning friends it might happen. When the transporters arrived, a crowd of friends and family showed up. Some of these supporters recorded a disturbing video of the younger sibling being carried by a large adult with arms encompassing the boy’s chest. Then two other transporters, one grasping the teenage girl’s arms and the other her legs, carried her to a waiting vehicle as she screamed for help.
The video elicited a powerful response from the community and politicians, who condemned the process. Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin and Senator John Laird plan to push legislation that would regulate or prohibit reunification camps and transporter companies.
Pellerin says she is now researching the issue.
“It certainly seems very unusual to take children out of the hands of one parent who is not being charged with anything and basically cut off from that parent and all their friends and family,” she says. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Meanwhile, Laird and his staffers are teaming up with Sen. Susan Rubio, who authored a law last year that would have regulated the industry. The bill—Piqui’s Law, named after a 5-year-old boy killed by his father during a custody dispute—died on the Assembly floor in November.
“The video is troubling to anyone who has any humanity,” Laird says.
Rubio did not return a call for comment but has signaled that she plans to bring the bill back.
Protti and her friends don’t plan on halting their mission to get the kids back and bring legislative control over the reunification industry.
The Santa Cruz incident has also caught the attention of local lawmakers.
Former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who is Protti’s uncle, took up the cause along with Santa Cruz Mayor Sonia Brunner in a press conference last November. He intends to push an ordinance regulating the industry in the unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County.
Supervisor Justin Cummings, who took Coonerty’s District 3 seat in the November election, took up that mantle in January when he urged the county to forge an ordinance prohibiting private transport companies from physical contact with minors. Such a rule would only apply in the county’s unincorporated regions, so Cummings called on other jurisdictions to consider similar regulations.
In addition to a proposal buried in the supervisors’ consent agenda—a section generally reserved for items expected to pass without discussion—the county asked state lawmakers to consider regulating the industry statewide.
“It’s serious enough that I believe the county should take the lead to try to address this issue,” Cummings says.
John Wall, a professor of Childhood Studies and director of the Childism Institute at Rutgers University, isn’t surprised that the court ignored the kids’ desires. He says that many courts do not let kids speak for themselves.
A relatively new philosophy, Childism focuses on children’s empowerment and how they are often marginalized in society, similar to how women once were in the 19th century. The thinking also advocates lowering the voting age. Wall says that many courts believe children are too young and cannot understand their situation in a courtroom setting, an idea he calls “nonsense.”
“A 15-year-old or an 11-year-old does have a lot of understanding of what’s going on in the situation,” he says. “But given a conflict between an adult and a teenager or a child, generally speaking, a judge will take the adult’s side.”
Wall says the American Bar Association has criticized such thinking and that policy experts are working on ways to rethink the system ostensibly designed to protect young people.
“When you don’t have standing in court and must rely on the judge, you are much more likely to have your rights ignored,” he says.
Wall says that a growing number of child advocates around the world are advocating for children’s suffrage.
“Our argument is that because children don’t have the right to vote, it’s easy for laws to ignore them,” he says. “The root cause of why children and teenagers don’t have standing in court in cases like this is that politicians who make our laws don’t have any reason to listen to them.”
Now that their voices have been heard by people who can help instigate change, Protti and her friends hope those lawmakers will continue to push so other children won’t have to endure the same trauma.
“It was amazing to see the government in action and to be able to talk to people we know can make much more of a difference than us high schoolers can make,” Protti says.