A bill signed into law this week in Colorado prohibits family courts from ordering children to participate in reunification programs that isolate them from a trusted caregiver. Many of these programs purport to offer treatments for parental alienation, a psychological disorder that has been rejected by mainstream scientific circles but continues to influence custody decisions.
The new law, which takes effect immediately, also requires experts who advise the court on custody cases to have training in working with victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
“We have to keep pushing the boundaries of our constitutional power to hold courts accountable for the safety of our kids,” Rep. Meg Froelich, who co-sponsored the bill, told ProPublica.
State lawmakers have credited ProPublica’s reporting for exposing the need for reforms. A ProPublica investigation last year found that Colorado custody evaluators who had themselves been accused of domestic violence were advising the court on disputes involving allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. ProPublica has also reported on court-ordered reunification camps and found that certain programs use physical restraint, threats and the removal of personal items — including food, clothing and shower supplies — to force children to comply with treatment protocols.
The legislation makes Colorado the first state to pass a law based on the federal Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act, also known as Kayden’s Law. The federal law, enacted in 2022, is named after a 7-year-old Pennsylvania girl who was murdered by her father during court ordered custody time.
Advocates say they hope other states will follow Colorado’s lead and enact similar legislation.
For Valarie Underwood, a Colorado mother who attended a ceremony for the bill’s signing, the issue is personal. She had full custody of her children until August, when a magistrate in Weld County, Colorado, ordered the children to attend Turning Points for Families, a reunification program directed by New York-based social worker Linda Gottlieb.
Magistrate Annette Kundelius had concluded the children were victims of “severe parental alienation” and the reunification program was needed to repair their relationship with their father. Kundelius was not available to comment, according to her clerk.
They’ve not been allowed to return home or regularly communicate with or see Underwood since then.
Before the magistrate’s order, an arbitrator had, based on testimony from the children’s therapists, restricted the father’s parenting time, saying not doing so would “endanger” their health and “significantly” impair their emotional development. Both children were resisting visitation with their father, according to court documents.
The father asked the court to reevaluate the parenting plan, arguing Underwood had launched a campaign of parental alienation against him in order to undermine his relationship with the children.
In an email to ProPublica, the father declined to comment, saying it would take “a great deal of time” to explain his family’s case.
The magistrate agreed with the father and ordered the children to attend Turning Points, after which they would be prohibited from having contact with their mother. Underwood was ordered to cover the program’s cost, which is $15,000 for a four-day intervention.
Such orders effectively supersede the court’s parenting arrangement by transfering to the person running the program the power to decide if and when a parent can contact their child, regardless of the court’s previous custody rulings. The “no-contact” period lasts a minimum of 90-days, according to the program’s protocol, though courts frequently give Turning Points counselors the power to prolong treatment indefinitely — until the program counselor determines the treatment has been successful.
Jennifer Harman, an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University who defends parental alienation as a genuine disorder, testified on behalf of the father and advised the court to send the children to Turning Points. Despite never having met the children before her court testimony, she said they had been severely alienated by their mother, according to court documents. In 2021, Harman published an evaluation of the Turning Points program in which she found it to be safe and effective; she later clarified that the program’s high success rate was self-reported by Gottlieb, who also helped design and execute the evaluation of her own program.
Harman did not respond to a request for comment.