Her son stated her ex sexually abused him. Then she misplaced custody.

This story was reported in partnership with the nonprofit newsroom Sort Investigations.

In the summertime of 2020, when he was 12, the boy instructed his therapist one thing he’d by no means instructed anybody else. 

For years, Robert claimed, his stepdad had sexually abused him.

The therapist alerted the San Diego County youngster welfare company, which launched an investigation. The county sheriff opened an inquiry, too. Thomas Winenger, the one father determine Robert had ever recognized, started assaulting him when he was solely 7, Robert instructed a forensic social employee in October 2020. Winenger would pin him down, cowl his mouth, and pressure him into acts he discovered “disgusting,” he stated. Generally, he stated, Winenger recited Bible verses through the assaults, claiming the satan was in Robert’s coronary heart. 

Robert, whom Insider is figuring out by solely his center title, stated that as he struggled to breathe, he fought again by hitting, punching, and kneeing his stepfather. However he stated Winenger overpowered him.

By the point Robert got here ahead, Winenger had been named his authorized father and was divorced from Robert’s mom, Jill Montes, with whom he additionally shared two younger daughters. Robert confronted Winenger with the allegations that November, and inside weeks Winenger denied the claims in household courtroom. “This NEVER HAPPENED,” he asserted in a submitting.

He supplied an alternate rationalization for Robert’s disturbing claims, one which shifted the blame to Robert’s mom.

Montes, Winenger contended, had engaged in a sample of manipulation often known as “parental alienation.” Robert’s accusations weren’t proof that he’d abused the boy, Winenger claimed. They have been proof that Montes had poisoned the kids in opposition to him. The delayed timing of Robert’s allegations, Winenger argued, solely made them extra suspicious. Montes was inflicting the kids such grave psychological hurt, he claimed within the submitting, that the kids must be transferred to his custody immediately.

That December, Baby Welfare Companies substantiated Robert’s allegations, calling them “credible, clear, and concise.” However the family-court decide, Commissioner Patti Ratekin, withheld judgment till the next October, when the psychologist she’d appointed as a custody evaluator submitted his personal report.

That report, which has been sealed by the courtroom, seems to have satisfied Ratekin that Winenger was appropriate.

Commissioner Ratekin transcript

In a household courtroom listening to in Vista, California, on October 28, 2021, Commissioner Patti Ratekin chastised Jill Montes for allegedly alienating her children from her ex-husband.

Superior Court docket of California, San Diego County

“Ma’am, you did not present very properly within the report. You’re poisonous. You are toxic. You are an alienator,” Ratekin instructed Montes at a listening to on October 28, 2021. “I do not consider for a second” that Robert’s father molested him. “Not for a second,” she repeated. “I believe you’ve got put it in his head.” 

Ratekin acted swiftly, granting Winenger’s bid for custody and ordering him to enroll Robert and his sisters in Household Bridges, a program that claims to assist “alienated” youngsters reconnect with a guardian they’ve rejected. She barred Montes, a stay-at-home mother and residential schooler, from all contact along with her youngsters for no less than 90 days, an ordinary prerequisite for admission to this system. 

“I simply needed to crumble,” Montes stated.

Rejected as a psychiatric dysfunction

Parental alienation is a reasonably latest thought, conceived within the Nineteen Eighties by a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Gardner, who argued that divorcing moms, determined to win custody fits, have been brainwashing youngsters in opposition to their fathers. In “extreme” instances, Gardner wrote, youngsters with “parental alienation syndrome” should be faraway from their moms, transferred to the care of their fathers, and reeducated by way of what he known as “menace remedy.” 

Alienation has by no means been accepted as a psychiatric dysfunction by the medical institution. But right this moment, mental-health practitioners throughout the USA assess and deal with it, notably those that concentrate on custody instances. Lots of them collaborate carefully, attending the identical conferences, following the identical protocols, and citing the identical papers. Some run reunification applications like Household Bridges; others provide household remedy or produce custody evaluations for household courts.

Influenced by these consultants, many judges have given the unproven idea the pressure of legislation.

Although most custody instances settle out of courtroom, in a small fraction dad and mom do not come to phrases. In a few of these contested instances, one guardian accuses the opposite of alienating the kids. Essentially the most intense disputes come up in instances the place one guardian alleges spousal or youngster abuse and the opposite responds with a declare of alienation.

However alienation claims are extremely gendered. Males degree the accusation in opposition to girls almost six occasions as typically as girls degree it in opposition to males, one examine suggests. That landmark examine, printed in 2020, discovered that in instances when moms alleged abuse and fathers responded by claiming alienation, the moms stood a startlingly excessive likelihood of shedding custody.

Sometimes, dad and mom accused of alienation are reduce off from their youngsters altogether. Since 2000, judges have despatched no less than 600 youngsters to reunification applications that suggest the momentary exile of the trusted guardian, a collaborative investigation by Insider and Sort Investigations revealed. Whereas the applications counsel a “no-contact interval” of 90 days, this time period is routinely prolonged and will final years, in accordance with an evaluation of tens of hundreds of pages of courtroom papers and program data.

The remedy sometimes begins with a four-day workshop for kids and the guardian they’ve rejected; aftercare can add months or years. Kids could also be seized for the workshop by pressure, with no alternative for goodbyes. 

Former contributors at Household Bridges and an analogous program, Turning Factors for Households, stated they have been taught that their recollections have been unreliable, the guardian they most popular was dangerous, and the guardian they’d rejected was loving and protected. In some instances, contributors who resisted these classes stated they have been verbally threatened; at Household Bridges, just a few have been threatened with institutionalization. Some contributors stated they ended up depressed and suicidal.

Program officers say they’re serving to youngsters. Lynn Steinberg, a therapist who runs a program known as One Household at a Time, stated in an interview that just about all the children she’s enrolled have falsely accused a guardian of abuse and that she doesn’t settle for youngsters into her program whose abuse claims have been substantiated. With out remedy, she stated, alienated youngsters would danger being suffering from guilt, and the connection they wrongly spurned may by no means heal. 

In Steinberg’s view, the one youngster abusers within the households she sees are the “alienators,” who’ve “annihilated” a loyal guardian from their youngsters’s lives.

Not too long ago, alienation concept has confronted rising criticism. Efforts to legitimize the analysis have been rebuffed by the American Psychiatric Affiliation, the World Well being Group, and the American Skilled Society on the Abuse of Kids. And the reunification applications burst into public view final fall, when a video documented two terrified youngsters in Santa Cruz, California, being seized for One Household at a Time. Within the clip, which went viral on TikTok, a 15-year-old woman named Maya pleads and shrieks as she’s picked up by the legs and arms and compelled right into a black SUV. 

Since then, payments that might limit reunification applications have been launched in Sacramento and 4 different state capitols.

An thought takes off

When a legislation professor named Joan Meier based a nonprofit to assist victims of home violence twenty years in the past, she did not anticipate to deal with custody disputes. However day after day, she heard from moms with comparable, troubling tales. They’d lastly escaped their abusive marriages, however their exes had fought them for custody — and gained. The moms had been accused of one thing Meier knew little about: parental alienation. 

Meier, who taught at George Washington College, ordered a stack of books by the kid psychiatrist who coined the time period. 

Joan Meier in her office at George Washington University Law School

Joan Meier, director of the Nationwide Household Violence Legislation Middle on the George Washington College Legislation College, has authored a number of research important of the idea of parental alienation.

Tom Brenner for Insider

Richard Gardner started writing about youngsters of divorce within the Nineteen Seventies, when a dramatic transformation was underway in household courtroom. Below the “tender years presumption,” judges had lengthy favored girls in divorce instances, sometimes assigning youngsters to their mom’s sole custody. However as extra girls entered the workforce, extra males participated in child-rearing, and extra {couples} divorced, a nascent “fathers’ rights” motion emerged, demanding gender neutrality in custody proceedings. The thought appealed to many feminists, too. By the Nineteen Eighties, most states had acknowledged joint custody of their statutes. 

This left judges in a quandary when {couples} did not settle. Now, apart from a obscure mandate to advance the “finest curiosity” of kids, courts lacked a transparent paradigm for resolving disputes. Overwhelmed, judges turned to mental-health professionals, asking them to evaluate every guardian’s health and suggest an optimum association. Gardner, then an affiliate medical professor of kid psychiatry at Columbia College, was an early custody evaluator, and in 1982 he printed a how-to guide. 

By 1985, Gardner was arguing that some moms, looking for to regain their benefit in courtroom, have been inducing a psychological sickness of their youngsters, a situation he dubbed parental alienation syndrome. Kids bothered with the syndrome, he stated, could possibly be recognized by the “marketing campaign of denigration” they waged in opposition to their fathers, which was accompanied by “weak, frivolous, or absurd” rationalizations and a disquieting “lack of ambivalence.”

Some “fanatic” moms even manipulated youngsters into claiming their fathers had sexually abused them, Gardner contended. When different maneuvers in opposition to a father fail, he wrote, “the sex-abuse accusation emerges as a last try and take away him completely from the kids’s lives.” Baby sexual-abuse claims made throughout custody disputes, he claimed, “have a excessive chance of being false.” To show youngsters are suggestible, he typically invoked the wave of Nineteen Eighties instances wherein preschool lecturers have been charged with sexual abuse however later exonerated. 

Gardner’s concept sidestepped what Joan Meier noticed as a obvious fact: Many youngsters accused their fathers of abuse as a result of their fathers have been really abusive. In reality, by the early 2000s a large-scale examine had discovered that opposite to Gardner’s writings, neither youngsters nor moms have been prone to fabricate claims throughout custody disputes. 

The cures Gardner proposed for parental alienation syndrome have been harsh. “Perception, tenderness, sympathy, empathy haven’t any place within the remedy of PAS,” he stated in a 1998 tackle. “Right here you want a therapist who’s hard-nosed, who’s comfy with authoritarian, dictatorial procedures.”

In a 2001 documentary, Gardner instructed a journalist how a mom may reply to a toddler reporting sexual abuse: “I do not consider you. I will beat you for saying it. Do not you ever speak that means once more about your father.”

“I do not consider you. I will beat you for saying it. Do not you ever speak that means once more about your father.”

Juvenile detention may treatment youngsters who refused to go to their fathers, Gardner stated. However the primary treatment he superior in extreme instances was “the elimination of the kids from the mom’s residence and placement within the residence of the daddy, the allegedly-hated guardian.” This is able to break what he known as a “sick psychological bond.” 

After introducing his concept, Gardner started utilizing it in knowledgeable testimony and selling it to different evaluators and fathers’-rights activists. By the early 2000s, family-court judges have been usually citing parental alienation.

To handle this, Meier stated, she undertook a sequence of educational articles inspecting the scholarship on parental alienation. She discovered that the idea was primarily based on round reasoning and anchored nearly completely in anecdotal knowledge.

“I nonetheless believed in that day that for those who did cautious, considerate analytic scholarship, folks would learn it and be persuaded by it,” she stated.

The scarlet ‘A’

Jill Montes had at all times needed a giant household. In 2008, she already had a 5-year-old daughter, Paige, with a person she’d divorced, and she or he was discovering common work as an actor in Los Angeles. She determined to undertake an toddler son, Robert. 

The subsequent yr, she met Thomas Winenger, who had grasp’s levels in engineering and enterprise, on eHarmony. “He needed to speak quite a bit about religion and God, and that wooed me,” she stated. She additionally welcomed his curiosity in Robert, whom she was insecure about elevating alone.  

Jill Montes sitting on a couch

Jill Montes already had two younger youngsters, together with Robert, when she met Thomas Winenger in 2009. Quickly, she stated, he was shoving, insulting, and threatening her in entrance of the children.

Maggie Shannon for Insider

In 2011, the couple married and settled close to San Diego, and Montes give up appearing. Quickly, she later stated in a courtroom submitting, Winenger was shoving, insulting, and threatening her, typically in entrance of the children. He promised to vary, and she or he hoped he may. In 2012, their first youngster, Claire, was born, and Eden adopted in 2015. Insider is figuring out Montes’ youngsters by solely their center names.

Later that yr, Montes accused Winenger of dragging Paige throughout a room. Montes sought a restraining order, which was finally denied, and kicked him out. He rented a room in a home close by, the place he usually hosted the three youthful children. Generally, Robert went there by himself. 

Montes filed for divorce in February 2018. Below an off-the-cuff settlement, the children continued spending time at Winenger’s place. However at a listening to that fall, a 10-year-old Robert testified that in an argument over his math homework, Winenger had repeatedly grabbed, shoved, and spanked him.

Montes filed a petition for a domestic-violence restraining order, which Winenger fought, saying he hadn’t mistreated Robert. Ultimately, Ratekin, the decide presiding over the divorce, signed a “keep away” order prohibiting Winenger from contact with Robert. But it surely did not tackle the allegation of violence. Weeks later, Winenger requested Ratekin to call him Robert’s authorized father, arguing that he’d helped increase the boy from toddlerhood. Ratekin dominated in his favor and ordered the custody analysis. 

In courtroom papers he filed on July 19, 2019, the day after the evaluator was appointed, Winenger accused Montes of parental alienation.

Typically, in accordance with Meier, the dynamic of a custody case shifts radically as soon as alienation is raised. “It is just like the desk turns 180 levels and now the one dangerous guardian within the room is the alleged alienator,” she stated. An abuse allegation “fades out of view,” she stated, and any makes an attempt by the mom to restrict the daddy’s entry are seen as suspicious. It is nearly as if, like Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter,” she’s been branded with a flaming crimson “A,” Meier stated.

Certainly, Montes quickly misplaced floor in courtroom.

In January 2020, Ratekin ordered Robert into the care of a therapist, Mitra Sarkhosh, who has since offered aftercare for no less than one reunification program. Sarkhosh noticed Robert and his father collectively about 20 occasions, charging $200 an hour. However by summer time, she had halted the classes, saying Robert’s anger was “not bettering.”

In a report filed in courtroom, Sarkhosh appeared responsible Montes. Dwelling along with her, Robert was “saturated with negativity about his father,” she wrote. There could also be a necessity for “new interventions.” (Citing patient-confidentiality legal guidelines, Sarkhosh declined an interview request.)

Sarkhosh report tearsheet

Household therapist Mitra Sarkhosh filed a report on September 10, 2020, to Ratekin, the family-court decide, saying her makes an attempt to reconcile Robert and his father had been unsuccessful.

Superior Court docket of California, San Diego

Robert was relieved to be completed with Sarkhosh, Montes stated. He began seeing a brand new therapist, and, through the first session, he instructed the therapist he’d been sexually abused. 

On November 18, 2020, on the path of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Division, Robert known as Winenger to attempt to elicit a confession. When that failed, the division paused its investigation, however the youngster welfare inquiry proceeded. On December 1, the California Well being and Welfare Company issued a report substantiating Robert’s claims. 

“The Company is nervous that if given the chance, Tom Winenger will sexually abuse [Robert] once more,” the report says.

“The Company is nervous that if given the chance, Tom Winenger will sexually abuse [Robert] once more,” the report says.

Neither Winenger nor his divorce lawyer, Tamatha Clemens, responded to requests for interviews or to an inventory of detailed questions. In a movement for custody he filed on December 8, 2020, Winenger argued that Robert’s allegations had been “orchestrated” by Montes and that her alienation “is not going to cease till she is restrained by the courtroom.” 

The welfare company despatched Ratekin its report on January 4, 2021, in accordance with a canopy sheet reviewed by Insider. However Ratekin was nonetheless awaiting the custody analysis, which she’d assigned to a psychologist, Miguel Alvarez. In 2009, Alvarez coauthored a handbook for folks in custody disputes. Whereas the guide spells out intimately how you can show an alienation declare, it provides no particular steerage on how you can show a declare of abuse. 

Based on the report, a part of which Insider reviewed at a San Diego County courthouse, a persona take a look at Alvarez administered advised that Montes suffered from “excessive hyper-vigilance” and “persecutory fears.” Folks with these traits, Alvarez wrote, “are sometimes fast to anger and overreact to perceived or imagined threats.” 

Winenger’s scores on the identical take a look at have been “regular,” Alvarez wrote, and his efficiency on psychosexual and polygraph exams was “inconsistent” with Robert’s allegations of sexual abuse.

The 136-page analysis value Robert’s dad and mom greater than $90,000, in accordance with payments reviewed by Insider. Alvarez did not reply to requests for remark.

Ratekin reviewed the analysis simply earlier than the October 28, 2021 listening to. Alvarez’s findings have been “precisely” what she’d anticipated, she stated. In her view, the scenario known as for quick motion. 

She put Claire, 8, and Eden, 6, of their father’s custody that day, and she or he despatched Robert, 13, to stick with his soccer coach. That was for Winenger’s safety, she stated. Till Robert was “detoxified,” she stated, he’d be liable to false claims of abuse.

Ratekin advised Household Bridges as an answer. She’d had “actually good success” with this system in one other case, she stated, and she or he thought it might ease Robert’s transition. With out it, the boy would not “get higher,” she stated, and his sisters stood to learn, too.

Winenger agreed. Below an order Ratekin signed on January 3, 2022, the kids would attend a Household Bridges workshop with their father from January 11 to 14 after which return to his residence. Montes was barred from contact with the kids for no less than 90 extra days. Ratekin additionally prohibited the kids from speaking with their older sister, their maternal grandmother, and anybody else who may “intervene” with their therapeutic. 

Contact would resume at Ratekin’s discretion, relying upon how properly everybody was cooperating. 

Insider and Sort reviewed 35 instances from the previous twenty years wherein judges eliminated youngsters from their most popular guardian and despatched them to a reunification program. In most of those instances, the kids had resisted court-ordered visits with their fathers, and judges had held moms accountable. Most of the judges framed the no-contact interval as salutary: Kids can be free of the overbearing affect of their moms, and their moms can be motivated to vary.

A case from New Citadel County, Delaware is typical. 

In 2016, Decide Janell Ostroski transferred two brothers to their father’s custody and ordered them into remedy at Turning Factors for Households, a program in upstate New York run by a social employee, Linda Gottlieb. Each boys had instructed Ostroski that their father, Michael D., yelled at them continuously, courtroom data present, although neither had alleged bodily abuse. The 9-year-old, O., instructed Ostroski he felt unsafe at his dad’s home. Ashton, 14, was refusing to go there. Insider will not be utilizing the household’s full final title as a way to shield O.’s identification.

Ashton Goff

Ashton, now 20, was ordered into his father’s custody when he was 14 regardless of a discovering by a Delaware youngster welfare company that his father had emotionally abused him.

Alfield Reeves for Insider

Michael had pleaded responsible a number of years earlier to public intoxication and indecent publicity for an incident in a public park with Ashton. A court-ordered psychological analysis discovered that he had alcohol dependence and narcissistic persona dysfunction “with delinquent options.” In 2013, the state’s youngster welfare company discovered that he’d emotionally abused Ashton, then 10 years previous. The report, together with any denials Michael introduced, is sealed. This historical past was all cited in courtroom three years later, in a custody dispute between Michael and his ex-wife, Kelly D.

Throughout that dispute, Michael accused Kelly of alienation, and a custody evaluator backed him up. The evaluator, a psychologist, decided that Michael had change into “a extra positively purposeful individual” and that Kelly, a preschool instructor, was the problematic guardian. Kelly “distorts the truth of occasions” and “conveys to others an inaccurate and menacing notion of Mr. [D.],” the psychologist wrote in a Might 2016 report. (Michael didn’t reply to detailed requests for remark. Neither did the psychologist.)

In written rulings that barred Kelly from contact with each youngsters, Ostroski stated the boys have been “properly cared for” in Kelly’s residence however blamed her for Ashton’s refusal to see Michael. “Mom has accomplished nothing up to now yr to advertise the Father/son relationship,” Ostroski wrote, including, “the courtroom is hopeful that, with the suitable interventions, Mom can acknowledge her function in serving to the kids have a wholesome relationship with their Father.”

Insider and Sort despatched questions on parental alienation and its cures to Ostroski, Ratekin, and 19 different judges who’ve ordered the applications. Solely Ratekin responded, and she or he declined to talk about the Winenger case as a result of it’s nonetheless pending. Nor would she reply common questions. “I’m undoubtedly not an knowledgeable on this space,” she wrote, “nor do I really feel certified to reply questions in regards to the subject or applications.”  

‘A moratorium on the previous’

In her January 2022 ruling, Ratekin approved Winenger to rent a transport firm to drive Robert and his sisters to the Household Bridges workshop, which might happen at a lodge just a few hours exterior San Diego. There, the kids and Winenger met Randy Rand, who based Household Bridges within the early 2000s, and a girl the kids knew solely as “Chris.” 

In 2009, Rand deactivated his psychology license after the California Board of Psychology discovered he’d dedicated skilled violations together with “dishonesty,” “repeated negligent acts,” and “gross negligence.” Since then, he is accompanied at workshops by no less than one different clinician.

Rand is not the one alienation knowledgeable to face sanctions from a state licensing board. Two different psychologists who’ve led Household Bridges workshops, Jane Shatz of California and Joann Murphey of Texas, have been sanctioned — Shatz after an allegation of negligence and Murphey after a discovering that she failed to reply promptly to a subpoena. Each Alvarez, the custody evaluator in Robert’s case, and Steinberg, who runs this system the place a decide despatched the woman within the viral TikTok, have been cited by California regulators for improper recordkeeping. Steinberg stated her quotation was the results of a sequence of meritless complaints by an “alienating guardian.” 

Household Bridges workshops are held at motels across the nation and have a tendency to value dad and mom greater than $25,000, receipts present. In 2016, for instance, one household from Seattle paid greater than $27,000 to Household Bridges and one other $3,500 to spend three nights at a Sheraton in Southern California. Because the youngsters had opposed the intervention, an organization was employed to move them for an extra $8,300.

As soon as they arrive at Household Bridges, youngsters shortly study the principles, program paperwork present, together with a coverage known as “a moratorium on the previous.” As Murphey, the Texas psychologist, testified in 2018, “There is no speaking about ‘You probably did this again when.’” As a substitute, she defined, “it is a new household, it is a new paradigm, we’re beginning off in a wholesome means.” 

Ally Toyos

Ally Toyos, now 21, was ordered into the Household Bridges reunification program at 16.

Package R. Roane for Insider/Retro Report/Sort Investigations

Ally Toyos was a 16-year-old in Kansas when she was taken from her mom 5 years in the past. In an interview, she stated she and her then 14-year-old sister tried defying the Household Bridges moratorium, telling Rand and his colleagues that their dad had abused them. (Toyos’ mom stated a courtroom order prevented her from talking with the press; Toyos’ father did not reply to interview requests.) Threats ensued, Toyos stated. The ladies have been instructed that in the event that they did not comply, they could possibly be separated, despatched to wilderness camps, dedicated to psychiatric amenities, and reduce off from their mother for the remainder of their childhoods, in accordance with Toyos. 

A lot of the Household Bridges workshop includes watching and discussing movies, program paperwork present. Certainly one of them, “Welcome Again, Pluto,” tells the fictional story of a petulant teen who scorns her father. “Should you’re alienated, like Emily, you may get mad when others do not take your complaints significantly,” a feminine narrator says. In time, nonetheless, Emily “realized to see issues extra clearly.” She realized her complaints have been “exaggerated,” the narrator explains, and “sounded similar to her mom’s.”

Based on the video, which was scripted by Richard Warshak, a psychologist who helped develop Household Bridges, some youngsters who steadfastly reject a guardian “endure for the remainder of their lives.”

Different supplies warn youngsters in opposition to trusting their recollections. Toyos, whose workshop came about on the C’mon Inn in Bozeman, Montana, stated she was proven a 2013 TED Discuss by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who developed the concept reminiscence is malleable and who has served as a protection witness in high-profile trials, together with Harvey Weinstein’s. Reminiscences are sometimes contaminated by exterior influences, Loftus warns within the speak, which results in false accusations that may wreck lives. 

Insider and Sort spoke with or reviewed statements by 17 youths ordered into Household Bridges, Turning Factors, or different reunification applications. Their accounts of the workshops have been broadly comparable. Hannah Rodriguez, then a 16-year-old dwelling in Tampa, Florida, stated her workshop, in 2016, was held at Linda Gottlieb’s residence in New York’s Hudson Valley. Gottlieb, the creator of a e book on parental alienation syndrome, had based Turning Factors about two years earlier. Rodriguez stated Gottlieb’s workplace was proper off the lounge, the place her husband spent his time in a recliner. Daily, Rodriguez may see him and listen to his TV exhibits, she stated. 

Rodriguez, Toyos, and a number of other different former contributors stated the workshops plunged them into despair.

Rodriguez, Toyos, and a number of other different former contributors stated the workshops plunged them into despair.

In spring 2022, one 13-year-old woman received so distressed throughout a session with Gottlieb at a lodge that she banged on a wall and screamed for assist, courtroom papers present. Somebody known as the police, who introduced her to a hospital for a psychiatric analysis. “I simply need my mother,” the woman stated, in accordance with hospital data, however underneath the courtroom order she could not name her. She was held on the hospital for 3 days. 

In a written assertion that Montes stated he later dictated to her, Robert stated he turned suicidal. “The one factor that stopped me from throwing myself off the balcony was the 24/7 surveillance,” the assertion reads. “I by no means thought so many individuals can be that horrible, controlling, and manipulative in the direction of little children.”   

On the finish of the workshop, Robert went residence with Winenger and had “horrible, bizarre depressive anxiousness episodes,” in accordance with the assertion. In early February, he was admitted to the psychiatric ward of a youngsters’s hospital, in accordance with courtroom data.

Repeated emails to Rand have been met with an auto-response saying he was “on sabbatical.” The psychologist managing Household Bridges in his absence, Yvonne Parnell, declined interview requests, as did Gottlieb. Gottlieb forwarded Insider’s queries to a lawyer, Brian Ludmer, however Ludmer stated he could not communicate for her. Neither Parnell nor Gottlieb replied to detailed written questions.

Lynn Steinberg stated her program One Household at a Time, primarily based in Los Angeles, has handled some 50 households over the previous eight years. A household therapist, she’s the creator of “You are Not Loopy: Overcoming Dad or mum/Baby Alienation.” She was the one program director who agreed to speak.

Lynn Steinberg

Lynn Steinberg, a household therapist in Los Angeles, runs the reunification program One Household at a Time. She says youngsters who aren’t reunited with an alienated guardian danger being suffering from guilt.

Nonetheless from a forthcoming documentary by Insider/Retro Report/Sort Investigations

She stated she begins every workshop by listening to the kids and taking down each accusation they make; she then works to attain “an settlement between guardian and youngster.” After these conversations, she stated, the kids are dramatically reworked. They apologize and cry, she stated; they kiss and embrace the guardian they’d rejected, even sitting within the guardian’s lap. They’re wanting to make up for misplaced time, she stated, and might’t wait to see long-lost kin.

Daniel Barrozo, of Chino, California, stated Steinberg’s workshop was a “great assist” to him and his daughter in 2021. Steinberg efficiently challenged his daughter’s misperceptions about him, he stated. When Steinberg requested her what he’d accomplished incorrect and what she hated about him, his daughter merely seemed down and cried, he stated. “The entire time, she had nothing to say, as a result of Mother was the one talking for her,” he stated. Now, he stated, his relationship along with his daughter is stronger than ever.

Steinberg stated her personal mom alienated her from her father, a realization she reached solely after his loss of life. She known as her ex-husband an alienator, too, saying her grownup daughters reject her to at the present time. She regrets that they did not get assist from a program like hers.  

Left untreated, alienated youngsters “fail at relationships” and danger growing consuming problems, drug habit, despair, gender dysphoria, and different ills, Steinberg stated, citing her medical expertise.

However an growing variety of students are criticizing the applications. Jean Mercer, an emeritus professor of psychology at Stockton College, is the creator of latest papers on parental alienation. One examined six reunification applications, together with Household Bridges and Turning Factors, and located that the analysis proof supporting the effectiveness of the applications “has few strengths and lots of weaknesses.” For an additional paper, Mercer reviewed the scholarship on the applications and statements from 5 youths who’d attended them. She discovered that the applications “could comprise parts of psychological abuse.”

She discovered that the applications “could comprise parts of psychological abuse.”

One other examine, by Michael Saini of the College of Toronto, examined 58 empirical papers on alienation and its remedies and located the physique of analysis “methodologically weak.” Whereas some divorcing dad and mom exhibited “alienating behaviors” and a few youngsters rejected a guardian, the nexus between these phenomena hadn’t been proved, Saini discovered. Furthermore, he discovered the research hadn’t proven that interventions labored.

Following the workshop, the applications generally assign youngsters to a specifically skilled aftercare therapist. In the meantime, the exiled guardian undergoes reeducation. 

Insider obtained audio of a name final yr between Gottlieb and the mom of a 14-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy in Turning Factors. “I believe what you probably did is felony,” says Gottlieb, who, like Steinberg, has publicly said that her personal mom alienated her from her father. There was “no motive” the kids should not have a relationship with their father, Gottlieb says within the recording, and “you have got failed miserably to require it.”

“That is alienation,” she says. “That’s what you might be responsible of, and it is youngster abuse.” For the kids’s sake, the girl should “make amends,” Gottlieb says. In any other case, “I’ll suggest extending the no-contact interval till they’re 18.” 

Kelly Davis

Kelly D. of Wilmington, Delaware, misplaced custody of her two sons after they have been ordered into the Turning Factors for Households reunification program in 2016.

Hannah Yoon for Insider

Insider and Sort interviewed 12 moms whose youngsters have been despatched to Turning Factors, a lot of whom stated Gottlieb rebuked them over the cellphone and in emails. Most stated they have been required to put in writing letters to the children praising their fathers and submit them to Gottlieb for approval. 

In early November 2016, Gottlieb instructed Kelly D. — Ashton and O.’s mom — that her letters contained superfluous particulars and secret messages and wanted to be redone. Ultimately, Kelly submitted a number of drafts for every of her sons, all of which Gottlieb rejected.

“She units a bar,” Kelly stated. “You attempt to attain the bar. She units the bar larger.”

Decide Ostroski had ordered Kelly to discover a therapist “acceptable to Ms. Gottlieb” who would assist her assist Michael’s relationship with the kids. From an inventory offered by the Delaware Household Court docket, Kelly selected a psychologist, William Northey. However Gottlieb warned in an e mail, “I can’t approve him earlier than I communicate with him about his specialised data of alienation.” 

The dialog went poorly. Gottlieb thought-about Northey unacceptable, she later testified, and Northey discovered fault with Gottlieb, too. He despatched her a letter, reviewed by Insider, criticizing her for calling Kelly a “sociopath” and for utilizing the phrase “parental alienation syndrome,” which, he wrote, “will not be a acknowledged diagnostic time period.”

In the meantime, Gottlieb was making calls for of Ashton and O. Shortly after they returned from New York, in accordance with an e mail to each dad and mom obtained by Insider, Gottlieb decided that they wanted to switch colleges instantly, as their present colleges had “actively undermined” their relationship with their dad. 

Letter from Linda Gottlieb

Days after Ashton and his brother attended her workshop, Linda Gottlieb wrote a report, dated November 13, 2016, saying their mom had been uncooperative. Their father cited the report in asking a Delaware household courtroom decide to order the boys to vary colleges.

Household Court docket of the State of Delaware, New Citadel County

Citing the e-mail and a subsequent report, Michael pressed Ostroski to order the switch. Two days later, she did, courtroom data present.  

When Insider reached out to Ostroski, the Delaware Household Court docket’s director of authorized affairs, Addie Asay, responded by e mail, saying that “neither Household Court docket nor its judges touch upon instances.” 

Ashton hated his new college, he stated in an interview, and at residence he was perpetually afraid. “My dad was screaming and yelling, and I used to be getting in hassle for every thing,” he stated. In courtroom testimony, Michael has denied mistreating Ashton and has stated he is been on “a journey of religion” that has modified his relationship along with his youngsters.

The boys’ aftercare therapist was working carefully with Gottlieb, in accordance with courtroom papers. The therapist, a psychologist named Rachel Brandenburg, typically mentioned alienation in classes, highlighting what she described as Kelly’s shortcomings, remedy notes present. However since Ashton disagreed with Brandenburg’s criticism of his mom, the remedy solely upset him, he stated. Brandenburg did not reply to requests for remark.

At a listening to in March 2017, Gottlieb testified that the kids have been “completely reconnected” with their father and his new spouse however that Kelly, who “didn’t cooperate from the very starting,” was nonetheless a hazard to them. 

“I’ve seen youngsters relapse after three months of profitable, great reunification — relapse fully — in a single 15-minute cellphone name with the alienating guardian,” Gottlieb stated. 

Ostroski successfully prolonged the blackout. Her ruling allowed visitation in a “therapeutic setting” that would progress to unsupervised visits, however Kelly stated Brandenburg by no means invited her to a session with the boys. 

Gottlieb, Kelly stated, had been given “the authority of a god.” 

In 2019, Michael’s second spouse obtained a domestic-violence restraining order after telling a decide he’d threatened to set her on fireplace. Early the subsequent yr, Ashton, who was 17, ran away, and Ostroski allowed him to return to Kelly. 

Judge Ostroski order

On September 28, 2020, Decide Janell Ostroski denied Kelly D.’s petition to regain custody of her son O., then 13. She had already been separated from him for almost 4 years.

Household Court docket of the State of Delaware, New Citadel County

She sought custody of O., too. However in September 2020, Ostroski discovered that Kelly nonetheless hadn’t been correctly handled for her alienating tendencies and denied her petition. 

For now, even visits have been too dangerous, Ostroski concluded.

“Ashton’s conduct of working away from Father and refusing to now see Father helps Gottlieb’s prediction that, if the kids are returned to Mom earlier than she addresses her alienating conduct, they may revert to their prior behaviors after they have been refusing to see Father and all the work that has been accomplished over the previous 4 years will likely be wasted,” Ostroski wrote within the ruling. 

‘Junk science’

In June 2010, greater than a thousand mental-health practitioners, attorneys, and judges gathered on the Sheraton in downtown Denver for the annual convention of the Affiliation of Household and Conciliation Courts, which unites gamers within the child-custody area from all over the world. The theme that yr was “Traversing the Path of Alienation,” and over 4 days the situation was mentioned in additional than 30 classes. Members may learn to spot an alienating guardian, when it was finest to defy a toddler’s needs, and what may assist an alienated youngster heal.   

The occasion signified a exceptional embrace of an thought whose creator had been consumed by scandal and tragedy simply a short while earlier. 

Within the late Nineties, critics of Gardner’s dealt a strong blow to his credibility by unearthing writings wherein he’d defended pedophilia. 

“Sexual actions between an grownup and a toddler are an historic custom,” he wrote in a 1992 e book.

“Sexual actions between an grownup and a toddler are an historic custom,” he wrote in a 1992 e book.

As a product of Western tradition, he considered pedophilia as reprehensible, he wrote, nevertheless it is probably not “psychologically detrimental” in different cultures. The next yr, in a journal article, Gardner argued that from an evolutionary standpoint, youngsters benefited from being “drawn into sexual encounters,” since these experiences steered them towards early copy. “The Draconian punishments meted out to pedophilics go far past what I contemplate to be the gravity of the crime,” he wrote in 1991 in “Intercourse Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited.”

In Might 2003, at age 72, Gardner dosed himself with painkillers and stabbed himself to loss of life. His son instructed reporters he was pushed to suicide by persistent ache that had just lately worsened. 

Within the assessments of his life that adopted, Gardner’s work was lambasted by outstanding psychiatrists, together with Dr. Paul Fink, a previous president of the American Psychiatric Affiliation. “That is junk science,” Fink instructed Newsday in July 2003. “He invented an idea and talked about it as if it have been confirmed science. It is not.” 

The speculation may have died with Gardner. As a substitute, it gained floor.  

In 2001, Richard Warshak, a medical professor of psychology on the College of Texas Southwestern Medical Middle, printed “Divorce Poison: Defending the Dad or mum/Baby Bond From a Vindictive Ex.” The e book, launched by HarperCollins, introduced parental alienation concept to a wider viewers — and made it extra palatable. Not like Gardner, Warshak spoke of alienation in gender-neutral phrases, saying many fathers have been programmers, too, and he likened the no-contact interval between youngsters and their most popular guardian to check overseas. 

Warshak began main workshops for Household Bridges round 2005 and ultimately turned its unofficial spokesman, a job wherein he excelled. In 2010, he appeared in “Welcome Again, Pluto” and printed an influential article about Household Bridges within the AFCC journal. 

In that examine, Warshak reported on outcomes for the 23 youngsters he’d labored with in this system to this point. Throughout the four-day workshop, 22 of them recovered a “optimistic relationship” with their rejected guardian, he noticed, together with recalcitrant teenagers. 

After the workshop, nonetheless, 4 youngsters regressed, Warshak wrote, following what he known as “untimely” contact with their most popular guardian. This system labored finest, he stated, when this contact was blocked “for an prolonged time period.” Warshak did not reply to interview requests.

In the meantime, one other Gardner successor, Dr. William Bernet, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt College, was working to push alienation concept ahead. He submitted a proposal to the American Psychiatric Affiliation to incorporate “parental alienation dysfunction” within the subsequent model of its Diagnostic and Statistical Handbook of Psychological Problems, or DSM, and authored a scholarly article making the case for inclusion. He submitted an analogous software to the World Well being Group, which was revising its Worldwide Classification of Illnesses.

Bernet declined a request for an interview. However in a 2010 e book, he wrote that since alienation scholarship had superior within the wake of Gardner’s loss of life, “there is no such thing as a want now to dwell on the small print of what Richard Gardner did or stated or wrote.”

On the AFCC’s convention in Denver in June 2010, Warshak was given a platform to debate his Household Bridges paper, as was Bernet, to explain his DSM bid. Different presenters staked out a extra average stance, arguing that whereas alienation was a pervasive downside, there was inadequate analysis to assist construing it as a psychological sickness or ordering excessive interventions.

A couple of alienation opponents introduced, together with Joan Meier. However she stated she flew residence to Washington in tears. 

“In every single place I turned, alienation was the coin of the realm,” she stated. 

Joan Meier in front of the Washington monument

In 2020, Meier printed the findings of a nationwide examine of custody instances wherein abuse and alienation have been alleged. She discovered the dynamic shifts radically as soon as alienation is raised: “It is just like the desk turns 180 levels and now the one dangerous guardian within the room is the alleged alienator.”

Tom Brenner for Insider

She got down to design a examine that might doc how girls who alleged abuse have been handled in household courts nationwide — particularly when alienation was raised. The Justice Division supported the venture with a grant of $500,000. 

In 2013, the brand new version of the DSM was launched with no point out of parental alienation. And in 2020, the World Well being Group dominated that parental alienation was “not a well being care time period” and lacked “evidence-based” remedies.

Bernet and his colleagues merely regrouped. In courtroom, they began calling alienation a “dynamic” or a “phenomenon” quite than an sickness, which appeared to fulfill some judges. And Bernet included the nonprofit Parental Alienation Research Group, a coalition of fogeys, attorneys, and therapists who collaborated on instances and analysis. Rand, Gottlieb, and Steinberg joined, together with a whole lot of different mental-health practitioners concerned in custody work. Many, like Steinberg and Gottlieb, claimed to have skilled alienation themselves. 

Meier assembled her personal analysis group, comprising a statistician, three social scientists, and two assistants, to conduct her large-scale examine. In January 2020, simply weeks earlier than the WHO resolution, the outcomes have been printed within the Journal of Social Welfare and Household Legislation.

The stark findings shocked even her.

Most trial-court rulings in custody instances are unpublished, however Meier’s group recognized 15,000 rulings involving abuse or alienation that have been printed electronically from 2005 to 2014. After winnowing that dataset to instances wherein the one events have been two warring dad and mom — not, for instance, a toddler welfare company — the group was left with 4,300 rulings. There have been almost 2,200 instances wherein a mom had accused her ex of spousal or youngster abuse, and in 10% of those, the daddy had fought again with an alienation declare. 

On the whole, judges have been hesitant to credit score moms’ abuse claims. When alienation wasn’t raised, judges credited these claims 41% of the time, Meier discovered, and 26% of the time, moms misplaced main custody.

For the 222 moms whose spouses accused them of alienation, the image was even grimmer. Ladies who alleged abuse and whose husbands accused them of alienation misplaced custody half the time — twice as typically as girls who weren’t accused of alienation. 

To Meier, one of many examine’s most staggering findings was how not often moms branded with the scarlet “A” have been believed. In instances the place moms alleged youngster bodily abuse and fathers cross-claimed alienation, judges credited moms a mere 18% of the time, she discovered. And within the 51 instances the place moms alleged youngster sexual abuse and fathers claimed alienation, all however one mom was disbelieved. 

For a father accused of kid molestation, Meier concluded, “alienation is a whole trump card.” 

‘The entire world is watching’

In January 2022, three months after shedding her youngsters, Montes chanced upon a sickening discovery. 

In a cloud storage account she’d as soon as shared with Winenger, she stated, she discovered hundreds of his photographs and movies, together with specific photos of their three shared youngsters. She loaded them onto a thumb drive for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Division, whose investigation into Winenger had by no means closed.

Inside days, Winenger was arrested. He was quickly charged with 19 felonies, together with possession of kid pornography and 14 counts of committing forcible lewd acts in opposition to a toddler, Robert. 

He pleaded not responsible and was launched on bail, his entry to the kids suspended. Due to the no-contact order he’d beforehand obtained in opposition to Montes, the kids landed in a county shelter. Winenger’s protection lawyer, Patrick Clancy, declined to touch upon Winenger’s behalf, saying he would not strive his instances within the press.

Instantly, the custody dispute was transferred to juvenile dependency courtroom, which meant Ratekin was now not presiding. The brand new decide ordered the children into their mom’s care whereas the case was pending. On February 18, they got here residence.

At first, Montes stated, the 2 youngest youngsters have been so fearful of being taken once more that they could not sleep of their rooms. She arrange a giant mattress on her bed room flooring.

In the meantime, Joan Meier was utilizing her analysis to make inroads with policymakers. 

She’d labored with colleagues to draft a federal legislation that might incentivize states to guard youngsters from abusers throughout custody disputes. They named the invoice Kayden’s Legislation, after a woman in Pennsylvania whose father murdered her throughout a court-ordered go to. Throughout negotiations over reauthorization of the Violence Towards Ladies Act, the kid’s congressional consultant, Brian Fitzpatrick, received Kayden’s Legislation in. 

The laws, signed into legislation on March 15, 2022, units apart as much as $5 million a yr for grants to states if, amongst different measures, they mandate coaching for custody judges on abuse and trauma and prohibit them from ordering remedies that reduce youngsters off from a guardian to whom they’re hooked up. If sufficient states comply, the legislation may spell the top of the reunification applications.  

Final summer time, California was the primary state to think about such a invoice. It was launched by state Sen. Susan Rubio of Los Angeles County, a survivor of home violence herself, after she heard from moms who’d been accused of alienation and youngsters who’d been despatched to reunification applications.

Rubio’s invoice set off a battle that has since unfold to statehouses across the nation. Steinberg, the alienation therapist from Los Angeles, was a vocal opponent, arguing that males can be rendered powerless in opposition to false accusations. She was joined by fathers’ rights teams and by the Parental Alienation Research Group, which was concurrently pushing exhausting to discredit Meier’s examine. (Two outstanding members of the group authored a examine concluding that her findings couldn’t be replicated, which Meier then rebutted.) After Rubio’s invoice handed the meeting unanimously final August, she was compelled to withdraw it within the face of intense opposition from state judges over the coaching mandate.

A sign that says "Protection is NOT alienation"

An indication from a protest left exterior a Watsonville, California, courthouse final October after a transport group took 15-year-old Maya and her 11-year-old brother to Steinberg’s reunification program, One Household at a Time.

Nonetheless from a forthcoming documentary by Insider/Retro Report/Sort Investigations

Then, final October, the momentum shifted. That is when Maya, the 15-year-old from Santa Cruz, instructed a custody decide that her mom had abused her and her brother. The decide, Rebecca Connolly, did not consider her and ordered the kids into Steinberg’s program, chopping off contact with their father. The graphic video of the kids being seized on October 20 was shortly considered thousands and thousands of occasions. 

In response to an interview request, an officer of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court docket stated Connolly couldn’t talk about pending instances. Maya’s mom has denied the abuse claims in courtroom. Her lawyer, Heidi Simonson, declined an interview, citing courtroom orders pertaining to “privateness and confidentiality.” 

On the heels of the viral video, a coalition of activists — a lot of them moms accused of alienation — organized protests across the nation. The primary came about October 28 exterior the courthouse the place Maya had simply testified. Standing on concrete risers and going through the constructing, a pack of Maya’s associates demanded her return. “The entire world is watching!” they shouted. Protests additionally erupted in Michigan, Kansas, and Utah.

Rubio launched a brand new invoice, with modified judicial coaching necessities, in February. An identical invoice handed each chambers of the Colorado legislature in April. One in Montana died in committee; its sponsor, Sen. Theresa Manzella, stated she was up in opposition to a “deliberate distribution of misinformation” by opponents, together with attorneys who use parental alienation as a authorized tactic.

Montes stated she’s “cautiously optimistic” about Winenger’s felony trial, set to start in June, and she or he hopes for an imminent victory in her custody case. 5 years of authorized payments have left her in debt and on meals stamps, she stated, however she considers herself fortunate all the identical. Virtually daily, she talks to moms who stay severed from their youngsters. 

Moms like Kelly D., whose youngsters have been despatched to Linda Gottlieb’s reunification program in New York. 

Kelly final noticed her youthful son, O., early on a Monday morning. It was a heat, sunny day, and she or he dropped him off at his finest good friend’s home so they may shoot baskets earlier than college. She hugged him, instructed him she beloved him, and stated she’d choose him up within the afternoon. Then she drove to courtroom for a listening to.

That was six years, six months, and 24 days in the past.

The reporting for this story is a part of a forthcoming documentary from Insider, Retro Report, and Sort Investigations.

If you’re experiencing home abuse, you may name the Nationwide Home Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233.