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

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.

Underwood’s daughter, then 15, kept a handwritten journal documenting her time in New York and experience in Gottlieb’s program. (ProPublica is quoting from the journal with her permission.) She described the day she had to leave her mom at the airport as “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” “It felt like a death in the family, tortured with no contact,” she journaled on Aug. 19.

The sessions with Gottlieb, which were recorded “for the court,” took place in her “sketchy apartment,” the teenager wrote. “The plan is just to go with what Linda says so that we can see mom as soon as possible.”

In response to a request for comment, Gottlieb told ProPublica to “keep the publicity coming.” Gottlieb has previously defended her methods and called ProPublica's reporting libelous but not identified any inaccuracies in the reporting. She has told ProPublica that Turning Points only accepts cases by court order, and that demand for her program has prompted her to add new locations in Texas and California.

After they returned to Colorado, both children moved in with their father and the no-contact order with their mother began. During this time, both children ran away from their father’s house and reported that their father was verbally and physically aggressive toward them, sometimes resulting in injuries, according to police reports. Police did not charge the father but reported the incident to the Colorado Department of Human Services, which closed the case with no findings against the father.

The father did not deny the claims. In October, he told police that he had to “physically grab and hold” his daughter when he said she would not give him back his cellphone, according to the police report. He told police he was trying to “manage and control his children” because of “behavior issues.”

After 90 days, the court granted the father’s request to extend the no-contact period. The family was ordered to continue the Turning Points treatment with Sharon Feder, an unlicensed psychotherapist who a court spokesperson said was removed from Colorado’s roster of approved custody evaluators for violating the role’s required standards. Last month, Feder authorized Underwood to resume weekly supervised visits with her now-14-year-old son but not with her daughter.

Feder did not respond to a request for comment.

Underwood was one of many parents who attended Thursday’s bill signing ceremony. Because Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is traveling abroad, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera signed the bill during the ceremony as well as a second bill creating a task force to study training requirements for judges on domestic violence and sexual assault, among other forms of abuse.

Froelich said current court orders to attend reunification programs will not immediately be overturned, but the protective parent will be able to appeal the order based on the passage of the law.

“I’m grateful for this new law and hope future families won’t have to go through what my kids and I have gone through,” Underwood said. “But I’ve also missed out — I’m still missing out — on a critical time in my kids' lives.”

She wasn’t able to attend her son’s eighth grade graduation or her daughter’s golf tournaments. If she’s caught communicating with her kids in violation of court orders, the no-contact order could be extended. When her daughter went to prom in April, she wasn’t allowed to help her get ready or take pictures of her with her date. She stared for hours at social media posts showing her daughter in her powder blue dress, flowers on her wrist, hair pulled back from her face.

“You just don’t get those moments back.”