On Oct. 20, a group of strangers paid a late-night visit to Maya and Sebastian Laing’s grandmother’s house, where they had been staying.
After trying unsuccessfully to convince the kids to come with them willingly, the strangers carried them kicking and screaming to a waiting car. They were taken to an undisclosed location in Los Angeles, 350 miles away.
Because 15-year-old Maya expected this to happen, she had told several friends to be ready for her call. They showed up en masse, bringing families and neighbors with them.
One of them took a video detailing the strangers’ actions, which garnered more than 100,000 views before YouTube removed it. It still exists on Instagram at bit.ly/3NB3Uww and bit.ly/3WyYiay. Be warned, the content is disturbing.
The strangers were “transporters” from Assisted Interventions, Inc., a privately contracted company based in New Jersey that carries out court orders to move children in contentious custody disputes.
Maya and Sebastian’s situation is not unique. These children are often taken to “reunification camps,” where the parent on the other end of the dispute waits, along with counselors and other employees tasked with patching up their relationship.
The video of Maya and Sebastian has thrust a startling phenomenon into public view—one in which aggrieved and so-called “alienated” parents can have children taken away against their will—and with the full concurrence of the court.
A Closer Look
In the video, a man can be seen carrying a struggling 11-year-old Sebastian from behind. That is followed by two men carrying Maya—one grasping her legs and the other her arms—as she screams that she is being kidnapped. Witnesses say that her clothes came partially off during the struggle, and hair was stepped on and her face slammed into a car door.
All of this took place as two Santa Cruz Police Department officers stood watching. But Santa Cruz Police Deputy Chief Jon Bush says that none of what took place in the video was illegal.
The transporters, he says, were duly authorized to take Maya and Sebastian and were doing so under the order of Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Rebecca Connolly.
“The order allowed this contracted transportation company to physically take possession of the kids and to transport them to a location in Southern California,” Bush says.
He stresses that the officers were not there specifically to assist the transporters. Instead, they were called to the scene for a report of a disturbance.
Once there, he says their job was solely to keep the peace.
On their website, Assisted Interventions, Inc. states that the company’s goal is to have children arrive at treatment facilities in a “positive frame of mind” and that it was founded “on the principles of Dignity, Compassion and Safety.”
The company has not responded to requests for comment as of Friday morning.
In a press conference Thursday, Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty vowed to take action to prevent companies from violently taking children from their homes within the county.
“We regulate taxis and lots of other kinds of services, so this will be another business we want to make sure is operating consistent with our values,” Coonerty said.
While the court system falls outside the County’s authority, a local ordinance setting standards for how minors are treated, Coonerty said, could give law enforcement officials more power to intervene in similar situations.
Coonerty also said the county would urge state lawmakers to pass policies to regulate these businesses.
Kiersten Dungy, 16, who has known Maya for two years and attended Pacific Collegiate School with her, hopes that whatever policies local leaders pass includes a “no-touching policy” for private transportation companies.
“So that kids who are court-ordered to be sent to reunification camps can be treated as human beings in their travels,” she says.
The kids’ mother, Jessica Laing, referred calls for comment to her attorney, who declined to talk on the record.
Their father, Justin Laing, declined to talk about the details of the legal case. But he said in a text message that “my heart is breaking for my kids.”
“What happened to them is not OK,” Justin wrote. “I will pursue every legal avenue to make this right for them.”
Tina Swithin, an internationally known blogger who advocates for change in the family court system, describes the industry surrounding reunification centers as “something out of a sci-fi movie.”
“I know parents who haven’t seen their kids in two years after they are taken away to these camps because what essentially the court orders give full rights to the people who own the camps, and they are making a lot of money off these things,” she says.
And a lucrative business it is. Danielle Pollack, a policy manager at George Washington University’s National Family Violence Law Center, says that a single day at one in “reunification treatment” can cost as much as $10,000.
The idea stems from “parental alienation,” a concept first defined in the 1980s as one parent engaging in a system of behaviors designed to alienate the other parent from their children. This can include maligning that parent to the kids, or keeping the other parent from seeing their children entirely. Alienation can also come from children who stop communicating with a parent because they are angry about a divorce.
Often, courts in those cases will employ counselors to try to seek an amicable familial resolution.
But parents can also weaponize the concept, using it as a counterclaim when their ex-spouse accuses them of abuse, saying the other is simply being vindictive and angry and attempting to separate them from their kids.
In these cases, children are taken to a reunification camp, a catch-all phrase that can include hotels, nature retreats, or, in the case of Maya and Sebastian, the home of Los Angeles-based psychologist Lynn Steinberg.
Usually, Swithin says, the children are restricted from contacting anyone for at least 90 days.
“They’re not allowed to reach out to anybody,” Swithin says. “Which is part of what makes it so hard to grasp that they can do this.”
Steinberg did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Pollack says that this strategy often works. Mothers frequently lose contested custody cases where they allege abuse, and fathers cross-claim “alienation,” she says.
“In 73% of these cases, mothers who allege abuse lose custody to the accused when the courts believe she is an ‘alienator’ sometimes even when courts acknowledge the father has abused the mother or children,” she says. “It’s an effective legal strategy. It really tears down the credibility of the person alleging the abuse.”
Pollack describes the concept of parental alienation as “junk science” that has nevertheless garnered legitimacy in court hearings since people purporting to be alienation experts testify during hearings.
“Part of the reason why it’s so effective is there is a large cottage industry serving the accused abusers,” she says. “They come in, and they testify as ‘alienation experts,’ as if their junk science theories were scientific and valid and are diagnosable. In fact, it’s not scientifically supported.”
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the industry is that it is largely unregulated, Pollack says. Pollack says that they are considered “educational” and therefore do not need the licenses required for psychological or counseling services.
“Every valid area has a licensing board,” she says. “But these guys duck it.”
Once in the camps—stays could last a few days to several months—the children are forced to spend time with the parent with whom they are resisting contact. Pollack says that the children are also forced to interact with “reunification counselors” who try to convince them that the abuse they are alleging did not happen.
She says that children in the camps are forbidden to talk about the past and their parents’ divorce.
Parents are similarly forbidden to discuss cases with their kids in some places. Others have employees called “green shirts” who come to sit between the parents to change the subject if such conversations occur, Pollack, says.
A minor’s desire to stay with one parent frequently does not factor into a judge’s ruling, says Pollack.
“It matters very little,” she says.
Part of that, she says, is due to who represents children in court.
Usually, kids are represented by a guardian ad litem—also known as a “best interest attorney”—who forms an opinion about what’s best for them.
While this was meant to shield the kids from the often traumatic process, it usually does not represent what the children want since the guardian must consider all facts of the case.
“So, the voice of the child over the past 20 years has really gone out of the process in many ways,” Pollack says.
The fact that what happened is legal is cold comfort for the people who know the kids and saw them being taken against their will.
“We want to spread awareness to what’s going on,” says Dungy.
Dungy helped organize an Oct. 27 candlelight vigil—which drew about 50 people—and a protest the next day in front of the County Courthouse in Watsonville, where family court is held.
She also placed herself between the transporters and Maya to stop them before police officers told her to stop interfering.
“We want to end reunification camps because no human should have to go through what Maya and Sebastian and all these other kids have gone through,” Dungy says.
Friends at the candlelight vigil described Maya as a quiet, bright, friendly, selfless and thoughtful girl. Friends said that she is adventurous and athletic, plays volleyball, participates in theater, and is a student government leader.
Sebastian is described as a smart, funny boy who hopes to go to Pacific Collegiate School with his sister next year.
Family friend Matt Berlin said the children’s father has no idea where they are.
“He doesn’t know if they’re safe, he hasn’t seen pictures of them, he has no idea the status of his kids, and he is heartbroken,” Berlin says.
Berlin said his friend is “an amazing parent.”
“He is one of the best fathers I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he says. “He loves his kids so much. He would do anything for them.”