Psychiatry’s diagnostic bodies have not accepted parental alienation as a mental health disorder. But it’s being leveraged in family courtrooms.

Colorado lawmakers are considering two bills that would reform the way family courts in the state handle cases involving allegations of domestic abuse, saying ProPublica’s reporting on the issue has catalyzed efforts to change the state’s custody evaluation system.

Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat and the chair of the state House Judiciary Committee, praised ProPublica’s investigation, which found that four custody evaluators on the state-approved roster last year had been charged with harassment or domestic violence. In one case, the charges were dismissed. One case — that of psychologist Mark Kilmer — led to a conviction. In the two others, it is unclear how the charges were resolved.

Rep. Meg Froelich, a Democrat representing Englewood and a co-sponsor of one of the bills, said she gave a copy of the article to every judiciary committee member before the legislative session got underway.

“We don’t usually see in-depth coverage on this kind of thing,” Weissman said.

Meanwhile, Kilmer, who was suspended from working as a custody evaluator following publication of ProPublica’s story, is being sued by six plaintiffs over his involvement in their cases.

ProPublica’s story revealed that Kilmer was appointed to evaluate custody disputes involving allegations of domestic abuse despite Kilmer himself being charged with assault in 2006, after his then-wife said he pushed her to the bathroom floor, according to police reports. He pleaded guilty to harassment in 2007. Kilmer told ProPublica that his guilty plea was a result of poor legal representation and that his ex-wife made false allegations to get him arrested.

Kilmer was quoted in the story saying he did not believe about 90% of the claims of abuse he encountered in his work — an estimate he said was based on experience, not scientific research.

The bill co-sponsored by Froelich would require experts who advise the court on custody proceedings to have expertise in domestic violence and child abuse and would restrict judges from ordering forced “reunification” treatments that cut a child off from their protective parent, meaning the parent who expressed concerns about abuse or neglect. Court-ordered reunification “camps” often prohibit contact between minors and the protective parent as part of “therapeutic” treatment.

Among those testifying on behalf of the legislation was Elina Asensio, a teenager who was featured in the ProPublica article. Elina’s father was charged with felony child abuse and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after dragging her up a flight of stairs. Kilmer was appointed to evaluate the case and recommended that she remain under the authority of her father. The parties ultimately resolved the custody dispute through arbitration and Elina remains partially under her father’s authority.

“The system failed me. My voice did not matter,” Elina, 17, told the committee. “My childhood has been taken for me. To this day, I still don't know what peace feels like.”

Through his lawyer, Elina’s father, Cedric Asensio, told ProPublica that while the initial charge of felony child abuse against him was “very serious,” the case’s ultimate resolution — a misdemeanor assault plea — indicated “there is much more to the story.”

The second bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee and is pending budget approval before the Colorado General Assembly this week, would create a task force to study training requirements for judicial personnel on the topics of domestic violence and sexual assault, among other crimes.

The plaintiffs suing Kilmer, who include Elina’s mother, Karin Asensio, allege fraud and breach of contract related to his work on their cases. They accuse Kilmer, who is licensed as a psychologist in Colorado, of violating the American Psychological Association’s code of conduct by advising the court on matters related to domestic violence and child abuse despite his history of domestic violence.

The plaintiffs claim they would not have hired Kilmer had they known his personal history and views about abuse allegations, which they learned of from ProPublica’s reporting, according to the complaint.

In Colorado, the fees for parental responsibility evaluations — expert psychological assessments intended to inform judges’ custody decisions — are paid by the parties to a case. Fees are not capped and typically range between $12,000 and $30,000 for a custody evaluation, with some Colorado parents reporting that they paid over $50,000.

Kilmer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Following his suspension last fall, Kilmer wrote to the court and criticized ProPublica’s investigation as the work of a “nonsense journalist” and apologized to his colleagues “for any inconveniences my well-intentioned interview may have caused for party/client relations past, present and future.”

“I have little experience with the print media, personally or professionally,” Kilmer told the court in an email obtained through a public records request. He said he had been willing to publicly discuss his work as a custody evaluator because “I assumed that it might help the practice here in Colorado, as it is an esoteric world that most people have little or no idea of how it works. Inadvertently, I entered into a political maelstrom that I did not understand existed.”

Since his suspension, Kilmer has continued to testify on cases to which he was previously appointed by Colorado courts. In one February hearing, Kilmer told a judge that the suspension was informal and he was continuing his state appointment.

Jaime Watman, who oversees custody evaluators for the Colorado State Court Administrator’s Office, told ProPublica that Kilmer has been removed from the rosters of custody evaluators, but the decision about whether he completes the appointments he was previously given “is at the discretion of the appointing court.”

Lauren May Woodruff, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, also testified about her experience with Kilmer at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill to require courts to consider past evidence of abuse before allocating custody.

Kilmer completed his evaluation of Woodruff’s case in January, months after his suspension, according to court records. In his report, Kilmer advised the court that Woodruff should share custody and decision-making power with her daughter’s father, despite multiple mandatory reports to Colorado’s Department of Human Services — including one filed by Kilmer himself — that the father had endangered the child through reckless driving, including driving over 100 mph at night. Custody orders in the case are pending.

Woodruff’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, William F. Woodruff, said in a statement: “None of these allegations have been founded by DHS or the Court.”

In his evaluations, Kilmer routinely cites parental alienation, a disputed psychological theory in which one parent is accused of brainwashing a child to turn them against the other parent. In email correspondence between Kilmer and Jennifer J. Harman, an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University and a parental alienation scholar, Harman sympathized with Kilmer after ProPublica’s report was published.

“I can tell the article is part of a larger strategy,” Harman wrote.

At the legislative session, a handful of individuals voiced opposition to the bills, including Katie Rubano, who runs a parental alienation support group for parents in Colorado. Rubano, citing Harman’s research on the subject, argued that “passing this bill would not solve the problem of child abuse in Colorado.”

“We need experts but we need them to be better and be trained in all forms of child abuse, including parental alienation,” she said.

Froelich’s bill would align Colorado with federal efforts to encourage family court reform. Last year, President Joe Biden signed a law that allocates additional federal funds to states that update their child custody laws to better protect at-risk children.

Weissman said he has felt momentum on family court reform gathering in Colorado over the past few years and said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the state was one of the first to pass an equivalent to Kayden’s Law, a Pennsylvania act named for a child who was killed by her father during court-ordered unsupervised custody time, which he was granted despite his history of violence. Last March, Biden included provisions of Kayden’s Law in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, committing federal funding to states that update family court laws to better protect children.

Colorado has frequently been a “leader in all manner of policy areas,” Weissman said, including legalizing cannabis and regulating ride-sharing companies. “We’re a place where we try new things when it becomes evident that they need to be tried.”

Update, March 2, 2023: This story has been updated to include a statement from William F. Woodruff.