Tsimhoni Children Placed in Father's Custody After Controversial Court-Ordered "Therapy"

09/17/2015 12:52 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2016

According to an article in USA Today, the Tsimhoni children who were recently incarcerated for refusing to see their father who they claim is abusive have "successfully reunited" with him. The children--ages 9, 10, and 14--chose juvenile detention over parenting time with their father and spent more than two weeks in Children's Village before Judge Gorcyca removed them to camp in response to public outcry. She placed a gag order on the parties involved and ordered the children to "reunification therapy" designed to combat Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). After the "therapy," often termed "deprogramming" because it assumes that the children's memories are the result of brainwashing not their actual experience, the children were ordered into their father's sole custody.

Parental Alienation Syndrome is a controversial diagnosis introduced by Richard Gardener in 1985. It is predicated on the belief that children can be "brainwashed" by one parent to hate an otherwise stand-up parent. It is frequently alleged by one parent to discredit abuse allegations made by the child or the other parent. The child's fear and rejection of the alienated parent is taken as evidence not of the abuse allegation, but of brainwashing by the favored parent.

The Tsimhoni children were court-ordered to the "therapy" program referred to as "The High Road to Reunification": one of several such programs in the country. On this page of the provider Dorcy Pruter's website, she describes her program as "NOT THERAPY" but "an educational and skill building workshop." Her credentials include a high-school diploma, personal experience, and her claim to being a "certified Conscious Co-Parenting, Custody and Reunification Coach" (whatever that means, but ostensibly she is "certified" by the Conscious Co-parenting Institute of which she is Founder and CEO).

She goes on to recommend her program when children "tell the therapist frivolous things" such as these:

"I don't feel 'safe' at dad's house"

"Mom, only buys me gifts to buy my love."

"Dad does not respect my wishes."

"I don't like the way mom talks to me, she is abusive."

"My dad has not said anything about mom, this is all my idea."

The use of the word "frivolous" to describe such complaints made by children who are estranged from a parent is disturbing considering that the majority of abuse complaints are true.

When asked about the Tsimhoni children's "successful reunification" using this "therapy," Psychologist Joyanna Silberg, Acting President of The Leadership Council, commented:

"In these therapies, the children do not give any form of consent, their autonomy is disregarded, and privileges are withheld until they comply with the program expectations. In the view of many child psychologists this is more akin to a brainwashing prison camp, than a therapy program...Coercion plays no part in [a successful therapeutic program] and delays meaningful and lasting reunification even if the children show surface compliance."

When asked for comment about the Tsimhoni children's "successful reunification" Joan Meier, a legal scholar and expert at George Washington University, replied:

"Coercion of children who have no choice is always 'successful,' i.e., adults with power can always overpower children's wills. If this is success, so is battering and intimidation...There are ways to try to repair the relationship - including acknowledgement and reparation by the abusive parent - but coercion and denial are not among them."

The American Psychological Association has not accepted the legitimacy of PAS, stating in 2008:

The American Psychological Association (APA) believes that all mental health practitioners as well as law enforcement officials and the courts must take any reports of domestic violence in divorce and child custody cases seriously. An APA 1996 Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family noted the lack of data to support so-called "parental alienation syndrome", and raised concern about the term's use. However, we have no official position on the purported syndrome.

When Judge Gorcyca sentenced the Tsimhoni children, she dismissed the children's abuse allegations on the basis of PAS, alleging that the children had been "brainwashed" to hate their father. She also questioned their intelligence and sanity, even comparing them to the disciples of criminal leader Charles Manson.

The sanity of an adult who chose not to speak to someone they feared and rejected would not be so easily questioned, but Parental Alienation Syndrome pathologizes the child and discredits his/her feelings, beliefs, memories, and experiences. Judge Gorcyca did exactly this when 14-year-old Liam Tsimhoni told her, "I do not apologize for not talking to [my father] because I have a reason for that and that's because he's violent and I saw him hit my mom and I'm not going to talk to him." She responded that his father is a "great man" and sent him to juvenile detention.

A re-sentencing hearing for the children remained on the docket until September 8th, but was cancelled the same day. The father's motion for "Protective Separation" was not heard, but the court ordered said separation via this document (purchased legally through the court house by volunteers) forbidding any contact between the children and their mother.

This case is not over, but with the media reporting nothing except the court's claims of "successful reunification," the public cannot be blamed for thinking it is. With regards to children's rights, the Tsimhoni case could serve as an important example of a national problem of using the diagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome to award custody of an estimated 58,000 children to abusers every year. If media and public attention withdraw from this case, the children's voices will go with them.