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

After two months barricaded in a bedroom to defy a court order directing them to be returned to the custody of their father, who they say abused them, Utah siblings Ty and Brynlee Larson emerged after a judge delayed enforcing the custody change while a new criminal probe into the father is resolved.

“New information has come forward today regarding serious allegations of abuse,” Judge Derek Pullan said in a Monday hearing, citing the criminal probe first reported by ProPublica.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office told the news organization last month that it is investigating Brent Larson, the children’s father. The probe is looking into allegations of felony child abuse, according to a spokesperson for the Herriman Police Department.

The Utah County Attorney’s office is also investigating Larson, for allegations of misdemeanor child abuse, officials said in court Monday.

“It appears that these allegations of sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse against the children at the hands of Brent have been put forward after this court’s ruling regarding temporary custody being awarded to Brent,” Pullan said.

Larson, via his attorney Ron Wilkinson, has denied the new allegations. “There have been similar false claims — repeatedly, for years,” Wilkinson wrote to ProPublica.

The judge had sided with Larson and a court-appointed therapist that the children’s mother, Jessica Zahrt, had manipulated the children to falsely believe he had abused them. The argument is based on the disputed psychological theory called parental alienation, in which one parent is accused of manipulating a child to turn against the other parent. It has been rejected by mainstream scientific bodies as not a legitimate mental health disorder.

If the DA’s office decides not to charge Larson, the court will consider reinstating its order to force the children into their father’s custody, the judge said.

A previous investigation into Larson stalled in February 2021, when prosecutors determined they did not have enough evidence to lead to a probable conviction.

Hours after the judge temporarily vacated his order on Monday, Ty, 15, and Brynlee, 12, told ProPublica that they had extricated themselves from the boarded-up bedroom where they had lived and Ty had livestreamed, bringing the family court case to the attention of hundreds of thousands of viewers.

“I’m still in fight or flight,” Ty said from the kitchen of his mother’s Salem home. He said he is certain his social media advocacy altered the trajectory of his case. “I need to keep growing this. It’s like, this is the thing that saved me.”

“I know this is temporary,” he said of the judge’s decision. “Like, you found a little field, but you’re not out of the woods. There’s still a fight up ahead.”

Brynlee said she planned to spend her first day of freedom with friends. She said she was heading out the door for the first time in two months, with plans to surprise her friends as they got off the school bus.

“No one knows we’re out yet!” she said, working to unknot the sleeves of her coat.

Monday’s hearing was the result of a request by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office for the judge to clarify his order authorizing police to forcibly remove the children from their mother’s home and place them in their father’s legal custody. Despite the custody change, Pullan had prohibited Larson from having unsupervised parenting time with the children or spending overnights with them, instead ordering Ty and Brynlee to be separately housed at their paternal relatives’ homes pending further court orders.

After an unsuccessful attempt to carry out the order in December — during which officers decided not to break down the bedroom door despite Larson’s request that they do so, according to police reports — the sheriff’s office said the Salem Police department was refusing further attempts to carry out the court’s orders and asked the judge for further clarification given “the delicate and potential combustible situation.”

In the Monday hearing, Pullan also reiterated that he would hold off enforcing his order to send Ty and Brylee to a so-called reunification camp. Turning Points for Families says it treats children who are victims of parental alienation.

“There’s also a dispute in this case about the merits of a reunification camp called Turning Points,” said Pullan, who said the children’s parents can hire experts to weigh in on the efficacy of such programs.

Following ProPublica’s coverage of the Larson siblings’ case, Utah lawmakers called for a reexamination of court-sanctioned reunification therapies for “alienated” minors.

“I find this whole thing of taking kids away from a parent to force them into reunification with an estranged parent to be very alarming,” state Sen. Todd Weiler said in an interview with ProPublica.

Weiler said he is learning more about the issue with hopes of introducing legislation to bring Utah into compliance with Kayden’s Law, which offers additional federal funds to states that require family courts to consider past evidence of abuse when making custody decisions. It was incorporated last year into the federal Violence Against Women Act, which provides federal funding to states that improve their child custody laws to better protect children. States that opt in to comply with the federal act limit the use of reunification programs and other court ordered treatments that lack sufficient scientific backing.

“We need to be more cautious throwing around terms like parental alienation,” said Weiler. “There are a host of legitimate reasons a teen might not want to visit a parent — to jump to blame the custodial parent would be a mistake.”

In an interview with ProPublica, state Sen. Mike McKell said Utah courts and lawmakers should also “take a hard look at reunification therapy.”

“Reunification camps concern me,” said McKell, who also said he plans to look at potential legislation to curtail court-ordered therapeutic practices with “no good science to justify it.”

“The coverage of this case has been very helpful,” he said of ProPublica’s reporting. “You might assume that what’s happening in these family courts is appropriate, until you dig down deep and take a careful look at what’s actually going on.”


March 16, 2023: This story originally reported incorrectly the level of crime the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office is investigating. The office is investigating Brent Larson for felony child abuse, not misdemeanor child abuse. The Utah County Attorney’s office is investigating Larson for allegations of misdemeanor child abuse.

Mariam Elba and Mollie Simon contributed research.