(Illustration by Andreas Gefe)

Laura Jeu knew something was wrong when her mother, Sharon, returned from a custody hearing in late November 2011. Sharon Jeu simply told her four children to get ready to go see their father. But the look in her mother’s eyes signaled to Laura, then 16, that this wouldn’t be a typical visitation exchange in her parents’ six-year custody battle.

“I could tell she had been crying,” recalled Laura, a petite, dark-haired 22-year-old. As she recounted the story, she picked the frayed edge of her plaid shirt. “I knew something out of the ordinary had happened. There was no way I was getting in that car.”

What Laura didn’t know was that Loudoun County (Va.) Circuit Court Judge Burke McCahill had just granted her father, Raphael, temporary custody of the children so he could take them to a four-day workshop in California to repair their relationship. The judge ordered Sharon to bring the children from her home in Pennsylvania to their therapist’s office in Virginia without telling them where they were ultimately going, according to the interim custody order. If Sharon couldn’t get them to comply, McCahill warned, a warrant would be issued for her arrest.

“She was supposed to lie,” said June Burke, a family friend, who accompanied Sharon to the court hearing. “But the children knew something was wrong.”

Alarmed, the children refused to get into the car, and, Sharon recalled, not only were her children too old to be forced, she had grave concerns about their mental health. Desperate, she called a local emergency psychiatric unit, which sent on-call therapists to the house; they, too, failed to persuade the children to enter the car.

Without telling her mother, Laura recalled, she telephoned Sharon’s attorney, saying she and her brothers were suicidal. The attorney called the emergency unit again, which told Sharon to bring Laura and the three boys — then 13, 12 and 9 years old — to Chambersburg Hospital in Chambersburg, Pa. Sharon and her children were in the emergency room when Raphael arrived with the custody order, a few friends and the Chambersburg police. The hospital released the children to Raphael, who got the four children into a minivan and drove them to his house. “I hugged them and told them to be strong and to have faith, while I was telling myself the same,” Sharon recalled. (The hospital did not comment, citing privacy issues.)

“I was shocked at how upset and stressed and irrational the children were, and Laura in particular kept yelling, ‘He’s going to kill me,’ ” said Jeff Milrod, a friend of Raphael’s from the Church of the Holy Spirit in Leesburg, Va. “I did not understand how she could say that,” added Milrod, who described Raphael as “a kind and loving man.”

Stunned and homesick, the children remained in Raphael’s home for two weeks, the older siblings said, with occasional visits from members of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and Child Protective Services. (CPS didn’t respond to requests for information.) Though neither remembers this time well, David, now 19, said there were adults and police going in and out of the house, while he and his siblings mostly sat on the couch in a daze.

The night of Dec. 14, Laura and David recalled, they were abruptly awakened by Raphael, accompanied by four burly adults. The grown-ups, from Bill Lane & Associates, a youth transport service based in San Diego, shuttled the disoriented children into cars. With little understanding of what was happening, the frightened children were separated and sent off: Laura recalled that she went with a man and a woman, while the three boys went with the other two men. After spending the rest of that night at a motel, Laura was taken to Dulles International Airport while her brothers went to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport; and in the dawn of Dec. 15 they boarded flights to California. It was a bittersweet moment for children who dreamed of traveling the world, according to Laura: It was their first time on a plane.

“It made me realize how fragile we really were,” said Laura. “They could separate or take us at any point, and there was nothing we could do.”

When the children landed at San Francisco International Airport, they were met by Raphael, who, along with the transport agents, took them to the Larkspur Inn in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, to start their reunification program. It would be almost a year before the Jeu children saw or spoke to their mother again.

Laura, David and their siblings are among a growing number of children in high-conflict divorce cases being sent — often unwillingly — to nascent and unproven “reunification” programs, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. These workshops have sprung up in the past decade mostly to address parental alienation, a disputed disorder coined in 1985 by psychiatrist Richard Gardner that refers to a situation where a child chooses not to have a relationship with one parent because of the influence of the other parent. Opponents charge that the reunification programs, and accusations of parental alienation itself, are shams — a way for lawyers, psychologists and social workers to profit from parents in bitter custody battles, and for the more financially secure parent to gain a custodial advantage. Proponents say that parental alienation involves truly harmful psychological behaviors that should be recognized by the therapeutic community and tort law, and that reunification programs are sometimes the only way to put families back together.

Court records show that Judge McCahill was frustrated by the back-and-forth in the Jeus’ long-standing custody dispute, which primarily centered on the children’s unwillingness to visit their father. While he faulted both parents, he and the children’s court-appointed therapist, Christopher Lane, agreed that Sharon had alienated the children from Raphael. (The judge, Lane and Raphael’s former lawyer, Bruce McLaughlin, didn’t respond to interview requests.) The alienation arose, the judge found, because Sharon “had an enmeshed parenting style with loose boundaries due to her needs and anxieties. … She had difficulty setting limits, and there were some parent-child role reversals.”

In the fall of 2011, Raphael came up with a potential solution that made the weary judge think there was a possibility of a breakthrough: a program called Family Bridges, which Raphael had learned about from his therapist. Its premise — and that of similar services — is that if children and the alienated parent can spend uninterrupted time together without interference from the other parent, they can mend their relationship. To encourage this outcome, however, it and other programs require two controversial legal measures: The judge must award full custody to the alienated parent and must order the children to have no contact with the favored parent for 90 days after completion of the workshop.

Raphael believed he had no choice. “I was looking for an answer. I was looking for a solution. And when they recommended a program like Family Bridges, I had to look at it,” he said in a recent interview. He thinks the judge agreed to the custody change because he felt “a sense of assurance knowing we were going to something like Family Bridges.”

Since the workshops are privately run, and many of the programs open swiftly, the number of families who have attended is difficult to determine. (In court documents, Family Bridges founders said they have seen a rise in their attendees over the past five years.)

A Canadian research paper found that judges mandated family reunification programs in 27 percent of all family court cases where there was an allegation of alienation. While there is no similar research available in the United States, Ontario-based social worker Shely Polak, who spent five years researching U.S. and Canadian reunification programs for her dissertation, thinks the prevalence in the United States is significantly higher.

“Anyone can hang a shingle on their door,” said Polak, who became interested in reunification services after starting her own, Families Moving Forward, in which both parents must attend. “It’s like the Wild West out there.”

In addition to the Jeus, I interviewed children or reviewed case documents from eight other custody disputes — in Michigan, the District, Seattle, Miami, New Jersey, Utah, Montana and Long Beach, Calif. — although not all families chose to go on the record. The cases occurred between 2011 and 2016, and all but one involved Family Bridges. In many of them, similar events occurred: The judge changed primary custody, transport agents scooped up the children and escorted them by plane to another state, strangers met them at hotels and instructed them to reunite with their allegedly alienated parent. They were warned that if they tried to contact the other parent, that parent could be arrested and jailed. All have had difficulty reuniting with the parent who originally had custody.

(Illustration by Andreas Gefe)

More than 800,000 couples divorce annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; research has shown that more than three-quarters work out a custody agreement without court intervention. In the cases that go to court, finding a solution under the current legal standard, “the best interests of the child,” can lead to frustrating motions and countermotions, and years of litigation.

There’s scant gold-standard scientific research to help practitioners determine the best custody arrangement. “Like antibiotics, we are routinely prescribing something, but in this case we are not even sure it works,” said University of Virginia professor Robert Emery, director of the school’s Center for Children, Families and the Law.

For example, courtroom decisions are made daily based on diagnoses of parental alienation, including the cases in which children were sent to reunification workshops, despite the disagreement about its existence. The syndrome was not included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which lists all psychiatric disorders, and this has created enormous uncertainty around its usage in the legal system. (The American Psychiatric Association, which makes the decisions on inclusion in the DSM, does not have an official stance on parental alienation syndrome.)

Those who support the concept of the disorder, such as William Bernet, a professor emeritus in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, say there is research buttressing its existence. He cites psychologist Amy Baker’s book, “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind,” based on interviews with 40 people who identified themselves as suffering from parental alienation, as an example. What’s getting lost in the vitriolic battle, Bernet said, is the reality of parental alienation behaviors, which can be mitigated if addressed early in the process.

Opponents caution that there is no scientific method proving what drives a child’s desire not to interact with one parent, and that research has shown many factors, such as poor parenting, abuse or reactions against constant upheaval, must be considered.

“There is just no empirical scientific evidence or way to determine if children are estranged because they were maltreated or if a favored parent turned them against the other parent,” said Joan Meier, a clinical professor at George Washington University Law School and founder of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, which provides appellate representation in domestic violence cases.

Just as research has not definitively proved the validity of parental alienation, it has not shown that family reunification programs work. Often the workshops are billed as educational or psycho-educational, which allows them to circumvent medical regulations and oversight (they are not covered by health insurance).

The only psychologist who has evaluated Family Bridges, for example, is Texas-based Richard Warshak, who helped develop the program, served as one of its trainers and has testified in custody cases in support of sending children to the workshops, where his DVDs and books are often required materials. He has written three papers citing the efficacy of Family Bridges; one paper said 95 percent of interventions were successful, although the number dropped to 83 percent after the children returned home. (Warshak declined to be interviewed because of possible future litigation.)

By contrast, when an outside evaluation could not prove the efficacy of a program run by Overcoming Barriers, based in Massachusetts, the nonprofit decided to shutter its four-day workshop for high-conflict families.

“We really have to figure out how traumatized these kids are by their parents’ conflict,” said Overcoming Barriers’ co-founder, Peggie Ward. “But we’ve gotten to the point where the family system is so polarized … there are no nuanced decisions left.”

Laura and David Jeu said their parents’ custody battle had nothing to do with their increasing disaffection for their father (the younger children, who are minors, were not interviewed for this article). Their problems with him, they said, started long before their parents’ divorce.

Raphael, 57, who emigrated with his family from South Korea to America at age 7, grew up in Bethesda, Md., and works as a management analyst in federal government administration. Sharon, 57, was born and raised in south-central Pennsylvania and currently works in retail sales. The couple met at a church camp and married in October 1993, when both were 33. Their family of six lived outside Leesburg in Northern Virginia. Sharon home-schooled the four children, who rode their bikes and played with neighborhood friends until the evening, when their father pulled in the driveway. The family’s life revolved around work, church and, Laura and David said, Raphael’s varying mood.

David, who is tall and thin, with a penchant for mathematics and an easy smile, said his dad ruled the household with an iron fist. “He had an unpredictable nature. You weren’t certain if it was going to be a nice person that was going to take you on a bike ride or if he was going to be angry, if you were going to get slapped or hit,” he said.

In 2004, Sharon decided to take the children and leave, and in 2005, Raphael sued for visitation. The children didn’t want to see him, Sharon alleged, because Raphael had sometimes been physically abusive to her and to them. In a deposition, Raphael denied hitting Sharon or using physical force with the children, other than occasionally spanking them when they were younger and grabbing their wrists to restrain them when they were older.

“If I were abusive, [Sharon] would have tons and tons of photographs,” Raphael said recently. “We took pictures of everything. We had books filled with photographs … and I would say there are none [showing abuse].”

The case landed in the Circuit Court in Loudoun County. The judge decided on joint custody, with the children visiting their father every weekend, but the children didn’t want to go.

“I would physically hold on to the seats in my mom’s car; we would spend hours in the driveway refusing to get out,” David said.

The children reported abusive incidents to their therapists and to the court. In court, McCahill said, “The father did use corporal punishment, and … was rigid and controlling and, at times, there were some raging behaviors,” transcripts show.

Still, the judge, who believed Sharon had her own shortcomings, allowed the visits to continue. Such an approach is not uncommon; a 2011 National Institute of Justice study conducted by Daniel Saunders at the University of Michigan found that 47 percent of evaluators still recommend unsupervised visitation even when there were reports of violence in the family.

David Jeu, now 19. (Greg Kahn/GRAIN/For The Washington Post)

Laura Jeu, now 22. (Greg Kahn/GRAIN/For The Washington Post)

D.C. lawyer Gregory Jacob, a partner at international law firm O’Melveny & Myers, has litigated a few pro-bono custody cases a year for nearly two decades. As such, he said, he was familiar with allegations of both domestic abuse and parental alienation; he said he believes the latter happens, though “not with anywhere near the frequency with which it is alleged as a defense by abusers.”

Until Jacob took the Jeu children’s case in 2012, however, he was unaware of family reunification programs. “I had never seen anything like this,” he said of McCahill’s order giving temporary custody of the Jeu children to Raphael and sending them to Family Bridges.

According to court documents, Family Bridges founder Randy Rand told Raphael he had to obtain the custody change and pay a $29,000 fee — excluding travel, room and board — before he and the children could start the workshop (the four-day program costs $25,000 to $40,000, paid by the parent who attends).

“The programs are basically shams. It was clear to me what they were doing was reaping massive fees by selling a custody change,” said Jacob.

Once a judge switches full primary custody to one parent, Jacob said, the noncustodial parent faces an uphill battle to get the children back because courts don’t like to change orders often. By the time — or if — custody is restored, the children usually will not have spoken to the other parent for at least three months.

In the Jeu case, the children didn’t have contact with Sharon from December 2011 to December 2012. The judge later said that Sharon “just went off the screen.” But according to Jacob, Sharon had been trying to comply with the judge’s requirement that she complete a Family Bridges workshop so she could see the children again. Family Bridges would not cooperate, Jacob said, and Sharon could no longer afford a private attorney. Sharon then searched for legal help, and Jacob signed on to the case in August 2012. In October of that year, he filed a motion to overturn the interim custody order; in December, Sharon saw the children for a few hours, and in 2013, she started having regular visitation with them.

In the other eight lawsuits reviewed for this article, all the children went more than 90 days before seeing or speaking to their favored parents, and none of the custody orders has been reversed. One case involved Hannah Mills of Michigan. She attended Family Bridges in August 2015 after custody was transferred to her father, Kurt. Then 15, she was depressed and cutting herself, she said in recent interviews. Hannah alleged that Rand told her that if she didn’t stop crying she would be sent to a residential program and might never see her mother again. (It was 171 days, her mother said, until she saw Hannah.) Terrified, Hannah said, she agreed to go along, but after completion she was sent to live with her father, who was awarded permanent primary custody in September 2016. (Kurt Mills didn’t respond to an interview request.)

In another case, Seattle-based Superior Court Judge Regina Cahan ordered 17-year-old Arianna Riley and her 13-year-old sister to attend Family Bridges in 2016 to reunite with their mother, Suzette. “I fell to the ground screaming, ‘Don’t take me, I don’t consent to this,’ ” Arianna said, but transport agents told her the judge would put her in jail or a psychiatric unit if she didn’t come with them. After completing the program, Arianna filed and won legal emancipation from her parents in August 2016. She lives with her father. Her sister is still in the custody of Suzette, who referred all questions to her attorney. Arianna and her father said they haven’t seen or spoken to the younger girl since September.

After spending a sleepless night locked in hotel rooms with the transport agents, Laura and David said, the children were escorted to a stark conference room at the Larkspur Inn in Marin County on the morning of Dec. 16, 2011.

There, they said, they met three adults: Deirdre Rand, a psychologist and wife of Family Bridges founder Randy Rand; Edward Oklan, a child psychiatrist; and an assistant named Anne.

(Randy Rand, who does not have an active psychologist’s license, was also there — in the capacity of administrator. The California Board of Psychology stayed Rand’s license in 2009, after determining that he had failed to act impartially in one case and had testified improperly in another. Instead of challenging the revocation, Rand chose not to practice, according to court documents. Rand and the other Family Bridges personnel didn’t respond to requests for comment. When reached by telephone, Deirdre Rand declined to be interviewed.)

Edward Oklan told the children they were going to learn how to interact with their father through exercises conducted in a workshop. He read them the court order, which stated their father had full custody and they were to have no contact with their mother for at least 90 days.

Laura said, “I felt like we were living in a different country. I couldn’t believe that this was happening in America.”

The children found the workshop alternately confusing and boring. Part of the day consisted of watching videos, including “Welcome Back, Pluto,” which, Family Bridges said, explains parental alienation and teaches children about reconciling high-conflict relationships; it was developed and is sold by Warshak. The children also watched a clip from the ABC show “Desperate Housewives,” according to court depositions, and did brainteaser puzzles, according to David, who found the program full of “meaningless tasks.”

Over the remaining three days, the children went to lunches with their dad and participated in mock family meetings. The older children said they were petrified that if they didn’t do exactly as asked they would never see their mother again, because, they claim, Rand had suggested their mother could go to jail or face serious fines if they were in contact.

On the Jeu children’s final day of the program, Oklan told them that once they were again stable in Raphael’s home, they would truly be able to repair their relationship with him, the children said.

They didn’t agree. “If anything,” said David, “Family Bridges made me angrier at my situation and more suicidal than I ever was before.”

Raphael, however, believes that Family Bridges improved his relationship with his children. “I remember baking something … and I yelled ‘Ow!’ and the kids said nothing,” he recounted recently. “After Family Bridges, when something would happen and they would ask, ‘Are you okay?’ — that’s huge from where they were.” He also cited the fact that David sent him a text a few months ago; David said he sometimes responds to Raphael’s texts with a “yes” or a “no” out of fear for his younger siblings, who are still under court order to visit their father.

After their return to Virginia, Laura said, she missed her mother but was afraid to reach out while the no-contact order was in effect. She recalled going to Rust Library in Leesburg, where she tucked a letter into the edge of a book she hoped would be checked out: The envelope read, “If this is found, please send to my mother.”

(Illustration by Andreas Gefe)

In early 2013, Jacob and his colleague David R. Dorey filed a motion to return custody of the Jeu children to their mother and prepared for a spring trial.

On March 23, 2013, before the trial, Laura turned 18.

“The day after my birthday,” she said, “I turned around and walked out.” After a week’s vacation with her mom, she lived at a neighbor’s house while finishing her senior year of high school in Loudoun County. After graduation, she returned to Greencastle, Pa., and is attending college nearby in Maryland while working at a civil engineering firm. She said she has hardly spoken to her father in the past four years and doesn’t believe she ever will have a relationship with him.

On July 23, 2013, the court ruled that Sharon and Raphael should share joint legal and physical custody of the children, with the children living with Sharon during the school year. As far as Sharon’s attorneys are aware, this is the only time a court has returned custody to a favored parent following a family reunification program. Raphael still has final say over medical and educational decisions.

During his final hearing, McCahill referred back to the children’s visit to Chambersburg Hospital and the police intervention and the escorts to California, and said it was “very, very troubling for me to hear, you know, how this was implemented, and I regret that. I just wish there was some way that we could turn back the clock and never have let those children experience something as traumatic as that.”

The California Department of Consumer Affairs has opened a probe of Family Bridges on behalf of the Riley family. Meanwhile, Jacob and Dorey have used the Rands’ depositions in the Jeu case to file complaints, on behalf of Sharon, with the California Board of Psychology. “The hope is to shed light on what actually happens during a Family Bridges program, which is light-years different from unverified anecdotal reports that Warshak and others have published in an attempt to create a market for their programs,” said Jacob. “The rest is up to the licensing board.”

Despite the new custody ruling, Raphael filed another motion alleging Sharon wasn’t complying with the orders, representing himself. The case dragged on for another two years. In 2015, about a decade after the Jeu custody battle started, litigation ceased.

In January 2016, when David turned 18, he decided to stop seeing his father. He lives with his mother, is attending a nearby university where he is majoring in engineering, and is happy he can no longer be forced to do anything by the courts.

“I spent my whole childhood waiting for it to be over,” he said.

Freelance writer Cara Tabachnick writes often about legal issues. To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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