NOTE: This story was updated on 11/5/2018 to include comments from Samantha's father Scott.
Three young adults who attended a Bay Area-based reunification workshop as children say the costly program doesn’t work, and they’re worried about the lack of oversight for a program of this kind.
The workshop, Family Bridges, is one of the oldest and most widely used reunification programs in the United States and Canada. It claims to reconnect children with an estranged parent after divorce.
While most divorce cases are resolved outside of a courtroom, in extreme custody battles — sometimes called "parental alienation" cases —a family court judge has the power to order children to attend these reunification workshops.
The three young adults who attended Family Bridges as children say they don’t want other kids to have to go through what they went through.
Out of respect for each family’s privacy, NBC Bay Area is referring to the young adults by their first names only.
"I do not want this to happen to a single other person," said Arianna, a 19-year-old from Seattle. In her case, a judge found her dad was alienating Arianna and her younger sister from their mother.
"This is the first time I’ve had a voice," said Leo, a 24-year-old from Toronto. The judge in his case wrote that since his parents’ separation, Leo was "increasingly alienated from his mother by the words and conduct of his father."
"I haven’t been the same since that program," said Samantha, a 19-year-old from Saskatoon in Canada. The judge in Samantha’s case found that her mother was alienating Samantha and her younger brother from their father.
After contentious custody fights between their parents, each of the young adults says they wound up preferring to spend most of their time with one parent over the other.
In each case, a judge ruled the preferred parent was alienating the child from the other parent. As part of a court order, the children attended Family Bridges with their so-called “alienated parent” and were required to cut off all contact with their so-called favored parent for 90 days, a requirement of the Family Bridges program.
All three young people deny any parental alienation took place in their cases.
Each attended the four-day Family Bridges workshop, which is led by multiple psychologists and social workers.
"I feel like I was robbed of all of my childhood when I was 12," Leo said. He’s a 2017 National Lacrosse League champion who now runs a business teaching the sport in Canada. He said he was astonished to learn his experience at Family Bridges matched so closely with Arianna and Samantha, young women he’s never met.
"You can’t force somebody into a relationship," said Arianna. "You just can’t."
Arianna was 17 when she attended Family Bridges. She said she and her little sister were taken by a private transport company from a Seattle courtroom to meet their mother at the workshop held in a hotel in Southern California.
Invoices obtained by the Investigative Unit show the workshop cost nearly $40,000, including hotel and transport fees.
"Honestly the prices of this program are ridiculous," Samantha said. She was also 17 when she attended Family Bridges in Toronto with her brother, who was 14 at the time. Their father wanted to re-connect with them and a judge ruled in his favor.
"These programs, it felt like they were using literal fear tactics,"” she said. "They were just repeating information over and over. They didn't let us say anything about our real feelings or opinions."
Leo was 13 when he attended the program in a hotel in San Francisco with his mother. He said he was taken from the courtroom directly into her custody and did not see his father for more than a year after the judge ruled his father had alienated Leo from his mother.
"I was sitting at my friend’s house after school eating Kraft dinner downstairs in his basement watching ‘One Tree Hill’ and there was a knock on the door," Leo said, "I went upstairs; there was a cop standing at the door."
Like Arianna and Sam, Leo said he was taken by police to be reunited with the "alienated" parent after a court order.
"I sat in the cop car until the court case was over where I met the judge. What he told me [was] I’m going to go live with my mother now," he said.
Psychologist Randy Rand, who runs Family Bridges, did not respond to any requests for comment. His psychology license has been inactive since 2009 when the California Board of Psychology brought unrelated disciplinary action against him for “unprofessional conduct, gross negligence, and dishonesty.” The board placed him on probation for five years. He appealed in 2012 but was denied. Records show his license remains inactive.
Because Family Bridges operates as an educational, not psychological, workshop, it is not under any state oversight.
"These programs the way they are right now do not, do not work," Samantha said.
Quantifying how often families are ordered to reunification workshops like Family Bridges is difficult to do, because many courts do not keep track.
NBC Bay Area reached out to the family courts in all nine Bay Area counties to find out whether they send children to these programs and how they track the outcomes.
Sonoma County did not respond to multiple requests for information.
Marin, Napa and San Francisco counties said they have not ordered families to these programs.
Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Solano counties said they don’t know how many children they’ve sent to reunification programs like Family Bridges, nor do they track the outcomes.
"You should never be forced to be put in one of these programs," Leo said. "The court system needs to rethink its strategies."
None of the judges involved would speak about Arianna, Samantha or Leo’s cases.
"If we substituted fondling the child's genitals for alienation, would we permit contact if the parents said I'm going to continue to do it?" said Linda Gottlieb, a New York licensed therapist and social worker who runs a reunification program called Turning Points for Families.
"Psychological child abuse is at least as damaging, if not more so, than physical abuse and even some sexual abuse," Gottlieb said.
She said Turning Points shares the Family Bridges principle of no contact with the so-called alienating parent for 90 days.
Gottlieb has collected data from the 40 children who have gone through her program. Her data shows 32 of those 40 children remain connected to their so-called estranged parent after completing the program. Nine children have a relationship with both parents since completing the program. Gottlieb says the children who failed to remain connected with their so-called estranged parent are those cases where the 90-day no contact period was lifted and the so-called alienating parent was still “engaging in alienating strategies.”
NBC Bay Area reached out to the parents who took Arianna and Leo to Family Bridges. They declined to speak with us about their experiences.
Samantha's father Scott contacted NBC Bay Area and said he believes Family Bridges worked to re-connect him with his son, but indicated they are not a cure-all for everyone.
"These programs are the last option. Everything else has been tried and failed. There is nothing else left to try. It is drastic and tough. It's better than the alternative. I've lived both. I'm convinced I would not have any relationship with my kids at all if not for that program," Scott said. "It breaks my heart it didn’t work for Sam but it worked for my son."
He welcomes oversight of the programs, "Bring it on."
Court records show Arianna’s court-appointed guardian testified her younger sister made “amazing progress” after the "intervention."
But Arianna filed for emancipation and went back to live with her father after she completed the Family Bridges program.
Samantha, who left the program early, was separated from her mother for several months until a “no contact” order from the court was eventually lifted.
Arianna said she hasn’t had any contact with her sister for two years.
Samantha said she lost contact with her younger brother for four years.
Scott told NBC Bay Area he encouraged his son to contact Sam after their four year separation and they re-connected this summer.
Scott said he is hopeful that he and Sam will be able to form a relationship again in the future.
Meanwhile, Samantha hopes speaking out about her experience can bring healing and hope for others going through a similar situation.
"I want to share my story so that anyone that has gone through this knows they're not alone," she said.
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