Recently, some involved in the family court system have questioned the empirical basis of reunification processes. These processes are intended to assist with reunification of children who are not participating with a parent when the Court has determined it is in the best interest for the children to do so. Questions have been asked in different jurisdictions about the chosen methods used by mental health professionals in an effort to reunify children who are estranged from a parent.
A legal process is not the same as empirically supported interventions:
Dr. David Weinstock of Arizona believes it is important to note that the processes utilized by the mental health professionals are generally created to effect compliance with a Court ordered schedule. The particular process is simply an indicator as to the applied overall method, and is in itself, not necessarily empirically supported, but rather, evidence informed. For example, a reunification process focuses on therapeutic tools validated for treatment use generally. Those processes are adopted for use in reunification.
Processes founded in tools from the mental health professionals toolbox:
Each mental health professional is trained to use a variety of tools to effect the desired change. A professional working to resolve depression, a therapist seeking stabilization from trauma, a psychologist working with an adolescent to eliminate drug use-all use his/her training in different areas to achieve those goals. In the same way, a mental health professional doing reunification work uses behavioral tools to resolve the problem that brings the family to the intervention.
Examples of tools utilized by mental health professionals from Dr. David Weinstock of Arizona:
- Family Systems:
Family systems theory seeks an understanding of functioning that focuses on interactions between people in a family.
- Behavioral Therapy:
Behavior therapy focuses on a belief that unhealthy behaviors are learned and can be changed. This includes helping parents learn and understand the benefits and drawbacks of behaviors that are detrimental to the best interests of children.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):
CBT focuses on inaccurate or negative thinking. The provider challenges the negative thinking with a goal of developing healthier beliefs and changing behaviors in-line with the modified thoughts.
As the name implies, psychoeducation focuses on elements of CBT, group therapy and education. The goal is to provide knowledge about various facets of dysfunctional dynamics in an effort to achieve a healthier outcome.
- Behavioral activation:
Behavioral activation is a behavioral model that stems from a belief that dysfunction is a consequence of a lack of positive reinforcement.
- Exposure therapy:
The professional seeks to “expose” individuals to the things they fear and avoid. One form of exposure therapy is systematic desensitization. This is the foundation for escalating parenting plans, with the child increasing exposure to the “feared” parent until full contact (the ordered parenting schedule) is achieved.
- Emotion regulation:
Emotion regulation is an intervention focused on teaching an individual to exert control over one’s emotional state. It might include reassessment of perceptions of a situation, hiding outward signs of negative behaviors or focusing on ways to remain calm. the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. This intervention would often be used with individuals who have anger control issues.
Ultimately, Dr David Weinstock of Arizona notes that attorneys, judges, and parents need to recognize that reunification processes, including intensive reunification programs, are not necessarily validated as a process. Rather, the professionals involved in the processes are using established and validated techniques within the process to achieve the desired outcomes (e.g., reunification with a parent so a family will follow a court ordered parenting schedule). The use of evidence informed processes is considered appropriate and should be embraced by those involved in the family court system.