July 17, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Cara Tabachnick’s scurrilous hatchet job on the Family Bridges reunification program naturally included the story of a family whose children weren’t helped by the workshop and now criticize it. As with most of Tabachnick’s piece, that’s only part of the story. The other part, as told to me by Dr. Deirdre Rand of Family Bridges, is that the program actually worked well for the Jeu children, but the judge in the case returned custody to the alienator too quickly and the children relapsed.
It’s interesting that, out of hundreds of families who’ve taken part in Family Bridges over the years, Tabachnick chose to highlight one that actually had been helped. It’s almost as if those who haven’t been helped are few and far between. But she managed to make the Jeu family appear to be one of those, so, in closing my series on Family Bridges, I thought I’d offer a true story about an actual family whose experience with Family Bridges contrasts sharply with Tabachnick’s.
(All names in this story are pseudonyms. The child in the case is still a minor and so I want to protect her privacy.)
Allen Baker is a successful businessman who lives in Southern California. He married Betsy in 2003 and the same year they had a daughter, Amanda. The marriage was rocky from the start. Allen’s description of his ex looks to me like that of a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder.
She was extremely controlling almost from the minute Amanda came into the world. Betsy would refuse to allow Allen to have one-on-one time with his daughter. She has a grown son – Edward - by a previous marriage. If Allen wanted to be alone with Amanda, either Betsy or Edward had to be present. If there was a family photo shoot, Allen and Amanda couldn’t be in the picture alone; someone else had to be there too.
Betsy’s first husband had simply given up on her and exited her life and his son’s. Edward, although 22 now, still lives at home and is entirely dependent on his mother. Yes, he has a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, but Allen says he is very intelligent and could live on his own had his mother given him the appropriate opportunities and training. But Betsy wants him dependent on her, and he is. At 5’6” tall, seriously overweight and physically inactive, Edward rarely leaves his room and, perhaps sensing his own dependence, has frequent screaming fights with his mother.
Due to her controlling behavior, Allen often left Betsy during the course of their marriage. He’d stay away for hours or days at a time, but always come back. He’s not the type to give up on a marriage and besides, he felt strongly that his daughter needed him. So he stuck it out for nine long years.
But eventually, Betsy’s histrionics became too much and he filed for divorce. Life for her, he told me, is a continuing battle. She alienates almost everyone with whom she has a relationship. She has a sister and brother who never speak to her. Needless to say, that personality trait only got worse during the course of their divorce.
Allen wanted 50/50 parenting time with his daughter who was nine when he filed. But, pragmatist that he is, he was ready to accept the standard visitation that fathers so often receive – every other weekend plus a few hours at night during the week. And that’s what he got. But, in keeping with her conflictual personality, Betsy interfered with even that minimal parenting time.
Plus, she began her campaign of alienating Amanda from her father. “It happened overnight,” said Allen. The same little girl who’d loved and respected her father all her life became, in the blink of an eye, terrified of him. That went on for two years.
During part of that time, the financial aspect of the marriage was being decided. Allen is highly successful in business and therefore he says Betsy “could have been set for life.” With child support and alimony, she, who never worked during their marriage, could have been extremely well-off. Indeed, Allen offered to give her property worth a combined $2.25 million debt free plus $25,000 in monthly equalization payments (i.e. the taxes already paid) for seven years. A person with any sense could have parlayed all that into a nice little nest egg for themselves.
But Betsy’s need to be at war with everyone around her sabotaged those prospects. She rejected the offer out of hand and ended up without the property and $24,000 alimony per year for two years, income for which she will be responsible for the taxes on. Meanwhile, that very personality trait got the attention of the trial judge.
Soon, custody evaluators and other mental health professionals had been appointed. To a person they told Allen that he must do everything in his power to get custody of Amanda, that he mustn’t, under any circumstances, cave in to his ex. All of them recommended that he be given sole custody of Amanda until Betsy could demonstrate reasonable, non-abusive behavior. That included undergoing an assessment of her risk to her daughter. So Betsy had a clear and easy path to renewed contact with Amanda.
As with so much else, Betsy preferred to fight, so she refused to comply with those recommendations and still does. Allen told me:
“It’s difficult, but I still continue to explain to my daughter that her mother loves her but the court has asked her to do certain things and she has decided not to do them. I don’t know the reason; maybe she’s too angry; maybe she can’t. But I let her know that this is not my decision, that it is between her mother and the court system. I also understand that the help and guidance Betsy has been asked to accept and comply with by the court is an absolute necessity if she is to play a positive role in her daughter’s life.”
Eventually, the judge decided to switch custody to Allen, but Betsy was ready for that. At the hearing to order the custody reversal, she had left Amanda downstairs with her bags packed. During a break in the proceedings, Betsy walked out of the courtroom and disappeared with the child. She remained gone for nine days, but eventually was forced to give up. The police and the district attorney’s office pitched in, located her and forced her to return with Amanda.
With custody now in Allen’s hands, the question became what to do with an alienated child. Amanda was so frightened of her father, who’d never abused her in any way, that, even with a police officer present, provided by Allen to make her feel safe, she was afraid to have a meal with him at a McDonalds. It was the judge who recommended Family Bridges, but he never ordered Allen to attend their workshops. He left that up to Allen.
Two years later, Allen still has sole custody of Amanda, who’s now almost 14. They have an excellent relationship as do Amanda and Allen’s new girlfriend and her daughter whom Amanda calls her sister. Amanda is doing well in school and has plenty of friends. As far as Allen knows, she has no contact with her mother who’s still refusing to undergo the risk assessment that’s a prerequisite for renewed contact with her daughter.
How did such a dramatic shift in Amanda’s attitude toward- and her relationship with- her father come about? Family Bridges. As Deirdre Rand told me often happens with other children, the instant Amanda was out from under her mother’s thumb, she became the same loving child she’d been toward Allen prior to the divorce. Rand said that it’s common for children, once they’re in the hands of the transportation escorts, to relax, laugh and begin to set aside their alienation.
Amanda Baker did exactly that. Indeed, the woman chosen to escort her to the Family Bridges workshop texted Allen to tell him that Amanda was “bragging” on him to her. But perhaps most telling was an incident that occurred at the very beginning of Day One of the workshop.
At the outset, the targeted parent is asked to fill out a questionnaire explaining, among other things, his current relationship with his child, i.e. the extent of the alienation.
But for whatever reason, Allen wasn’t given the questionnaire until after the first morning session, about an hour and a half into the first day. He looked at the questions and had to ask Deirdre Rand “Do I answer these about my relationship with Amanda now or an hour and a half ago?” After just an hour and a half, the same child who previously wouldn’t look at her father or talk to him was looking into his eyes and communicating with him in a manner he hadn’t seen in two years. Amanda had changed so much in just that time Allen’s answers would have been completely different from 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM.
By the end of the four-day workshop, Allen’s relationship with his daughter had just about gotten back to normal.
“She was still a little guarded,” he told me, “but the difference was night and day, a total contrast. Make no mistake, there’s been an incredible amount of damage done to my daughter, but every day she opens up a little more and we become closer. It’s a long process and Family Bridges isn’t the complete solution, but for me it gave us the opportunity to heal without the threat of retribution for any positive thoughts or feelings Amanda may have had toward me.”
Dad and daughter drove south along the Pacific coast of California visiting the Hearst Castle and the Golden Gate Bridge along the way, with Amanda playing the part of radio DJ during the drive.
And of course, they’ve been together ever since.
According to Rand, the great majority of families that come to Family Bridges see results much like those of Allen and Amanda Baker. Indeed, one other alienated parent I talked to, a practicing neurologist, who’d gone through the Family Bridges workshop and successfully reconnected with her children called the program “psychologically brilliant” and “extraordinarily well done, gentle, very positive and comforting.”
Cara Tabachnick located a single family willing, after re-alienation post-Family Bridges, to criticize the program. But of course she didn’t manage to speak to any of the hundreds who’ve been immeasurably helped and who were so willing to talk to me.
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