What Are Reunification Camps? New Documentary Investigates These "Legal Kidnappings"

The controversial practice is rooted in a so-called syndrome not backed by any governing medical body.

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of child abuse and video of forced removal of children from their home.

Hundreds of children across the U.S. have been ordered to attend “reunification camp” programs through family court in order to reconcile their relationship with a parent, often after allegations of abuse. A new documentary from Insider News explores this controversial topic primarily through the case of Maya and Sebastian Laing, whose emotional forced removal from their home went viral. So what are reunification camps exactly? And where do the programs stand today? The new documentary explores the origins of these programs, interviews supporters and detractors, and examines how legislators are responding to calls from activists to end the practice of what they have referred to as “legal kidnappings.”

Reunification camps hinge on the premise of “parental alienation syndrome.”

In order to understand what reunification camps or programs are, it’s important to understand the basis upon which they exist, and that’s the concept of “parental alienation syndrome.” Coined by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985, the term has been used to describe behaviors seen in children that proponents say indicate that the children have been manipulated by one parent into thinking the other is abusive or otherwise unfit to have a relationship with. Purported symptoms included disrespect or hostility toward a parent and extreme, unwarranted fear.

Despite the fact that it has been a term used in family courts for almost 40 years, it is not recognized by any medical, pediatric, or psychological organization and has been denounced by the United Nations. Reporting from Pro-Publica earlier this year highlights the fact that neither the diagnosis nor the treatment is found outside of the context of family court and “almost exclusively affects children of parents with higher socioeconomic status.”

Richard Garnder in the 1990s.Insider

Gardner, who wrote a book about “sex abuse hysteria,” claimed that sexual abuse of children was wildly over-reported and that a good mother would threaten to beat her child if they were ever to suggest that their father had sexually abused them. (This is seen in the Insider documentary.)

Reunification camps are controversial treatment programs for children of separation or divorce.

“There is actually a very predictable pattern, there’s the abuse allegation, there’s the alienation rebuttal, there’s the custody switch, and there’s the program,” says reporter Olivia Gentile in the documentary.

The reunification program/camp industry, which can cost participating families tens of thousands of dollars, is largely unregulated. Children who resist attendance can be forcibly transported — literally kicking and screaming — by private companies like Assisted Interventions Inc., as was the case with the Laing children. Often taking place in rented houses or hotel rooms, the programs generally purport to be a days-long process, though affected families have often said they last longer, especially if children resist the therapies. Once there, children, whom reunification therapist Lynn Steinberg described as having been “brainwashed” by their other parent, are encouraged to reconnect with their “alienated” parent. They spend two days “correcting misinformation and false allegations against the Alienated Parent.” In other words, working to convince the children that any allegations of abuse or negative relationships were concocted by the other parent for the purpose of turning the children against them.

Parents accused of having alienated their former partner are often told to write letters effectively recanting any previous allegations as a means to regain some access to their children. In the documentary, therapist and reunification program industry leader Linda Gottlieb (who also equates parental alienation as being like “brainwashing in a cult”) can be heard berating one woman (incidentally, it’s usually mothers accused of alienating their former partner, though not exclusively) for not having written a sufficiently contrite letter. “Your daughter is under your spell! What you did is criminal,” she shouts in a recording. “You can free your daughter from believing her father abused her. And as long as she doesn’t recover, I will not recommend lifting the no contact period.”

Only two states, California and Colorado, have laws against reunification camps.

Colorado passed “Kayden’s Law” in May of 2023 followed by California passing “Piqui’s Law” this past September. Both laws were named after children murdered by their fathers during unsupervised visitations, despite histories of abuse, and severely limit the use of reunification programs.

Insider News’ documentary is available now on YouTube.

You can watch the 20-minute documentary, which was reported by Mark Adam Miller, Erica Berenstein, and Olivia Gentile, on YouTube.

Please be warned, it contains disturbing images and interviews with self-described “survivors” of reunification camps.