Dr. Joan Kelly Approved of Family Bridges, but Cara Tabachnick Didn’t Read Her Work

July 2, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Recall that, according to one attorney quoted by Cara Tabachnick, the reunification program for alienated children called Family Bridges is just “a sham.” Recall too that, according to Joan Meier, also quoted by Tabachnick, there’s no empirical evidence with which to differentiate an alienated child from one who’s appropriately estranged from a parent.

Now let’s get back to Dr. Joan Kelly’s review of Family Bridges that appeared in the journal Family Court Review in 2010.

In the overall development of Family Bridges, its goals and principles, and particularly, the varied and relevant materials selected for use with parents and children, the incorporation of relevant social science research was evident. Further, the daily structure and manner of presentation of the Family Bridges workshop were guided by well-established evidence-based instruction principles and incorporated multimedia learning, a positive learning environment, focused lessons addressing relevant concepts, and learning materials providing assistance with integration of materials.

The most striking feature of the Family Bridges workshop was the empirical research foundation underlying the specific content of the 4-day educational program. The lessons and materials were drawn from universally accepted research in social, cognitive, and child developmental psychology, sociology, and social neuroscience.

This is from one of the leading voices in the field of parental alienation who, at the outset of her analysis of Family Bridges, described herself as “skeptical.”

But Tabachnick’s zeal to denigrate Family Bridges didn’t stop there. She had to report on the day-to-day activities that make up the workshop that the children and the targeted parent go through. To do that, she relied exclusively on the sketchiest descriptions, not by anyone with an understanding of the program, but by the Jeu children who, being teenagers at the time, had little grasp of what was going on and why. Plus of course, Tabachnick interviewed them at a time when they’d already been re-alienated by their mother and were therefore opposed to the Family Bridges program.

Here is 100% of what Tabachnick told her readers about the four-day program:

The children found the workshop alternately confusing and boring. Part of the day consisted of watching videos, including “Welcome Back, Pluto,” which, Family Bridges said, explains parental alienation and teaches children about reconciling high-conflict relationships;…

The children also watched a clip from the ABC show “Desperate Housewives,” according to court depositions, and did brainteaser puzzles, according to David, who found the program full of “meaningless tasks.”

Over the remaining three days, the children went to lunches with their dad and participated in mock family meetings.

Of course, even without talking to anyone at Family Bridges or to Richard Warshak who helped develop the workshop, Tabachnick could have learned what actually occurs during the four days. But she didn’t. She allowed alienated teenagers to do the job that, for example, Joan Kelly had already done quite well.

The content of Family Bridges is intended to directly address underlying mechanisms and processes that are most likely to contribute to the child’s alienation from, and rejection of, a parent. These materials, lessons, exercises, and discussions focused on (a) how distortions in memory, perception, and thinking occur, the role of suggestibility and negative stereotype formation, and the ease with which this happens; (b) influences of authoritarian and authority figures on thinking and relationships; (c) the development of better critical thinking skills; (d) research on divorce and children, including how high conflict in particular impacts children and the beneficial effects of the continued involvement of two parents for the majority of children; (e) materials and exercises organized around applications of the learning to their own situation; and (f) acquiring and practicing communication and conflict resolution skills.

Plus, as Kelly made clear, the purpose of the workshop, as explained to the kids, is to develop their ability to have meaningful relationships with both parents, not just the targeted one.

A second important feature of the Family Bridges workshop is the safe atmosphere created by the program leaders from the beginning, an essential feature that promotes more willing participation and active learning. Limits are immediately set in the orientation phase prohibiting physical or verbal abuse. Children and parents are told that there will be no blaming and airing of grievances and that the focus will be on the present and future, not the past. These two principles help to reduce high anxiety and wariness, which normally interfere with openness to listening.

Dr. Rand further explained to me that this part of the program is aimed at relieving children who have denigrated the targeted parent of the burden of having done so. Their previous behavior is set aside so the shame and humiliation that might well obstruct their reintegration with the targeted parent are minimized.

The Family Bridges workshop is a rigorous and disciplined approach designed to help participants repair parent–child relationships that have been severely derailed as a result of the dynamics of the separation and additionally fueled in some instances by the parenting and parent–child relationships prior to the separation. The learning environment established from the beginning, and the various materials and their application in the Family Bridges workshop, clearly confirms that this is a dedicated educational intervention rather than a therapeutic one.

Although this is a small sample of a rather diverse group of alienation cases with a wide age range, an informal post hoc review of the outcomes of 23 children in 12 families indicates that the Family Bridges workshop has considerable promise as a specific intervention for families where children or adolescents are severely alienated. Although no formal measures were used pre- or postintervention, a majority of the participants were able to repair their relationship and reconnect with their rejected parents in a way that was generally sustainable. This is hopeful for a field in which the enormous difficulties of effectively helping these families are widely acknowledged.

In short, the program is rigorously conducted and scientifically based. It seems to help most of the people it attempts to serve. It shows “considerable promise” toward helping the most severely alienated kids repair their relationships with their targeted parent. That’s good news in an area that’s proven resistant to other efforts to repair those relationships. Kelly’s informed and balanced view of Family Bridges contrasts sharply with the agitprop on offer by Tabachnick and the Washington Post.

Now, Kelly’s review wasn’t exclusively positive. One concern she expressed was that Family Bridges has no parallel program for alienating parents. Ideally of course, that would be a salutary step toward a reunified family. But, as Deirdre Rand told me, alienating parents seldom want to change, so throwing a program, however well intentioned, at them is likely to fail. Interestingly, Kelly agrees.

In my experience, a significant number of these parents have come to believe during prolonged litigation that noncompliance with court orders, whether for facilitating contact between child and rejected parent or attending divorce education classes or therapy, brings no negative consequences. It was discouraging to read that some of the noncompliant parents in this sample had their contact with the child restored by judges—a powerful and destructive message to provide for children (and parent) about respecting law and authority.

Indeed, from the outside looking in, that appears to be exactly what happened with the Jeu family. Certainly the judge restored custody to Sharon Jeu within a few months of the children’s completion of the Family Bridges program and just as certainly, they relapsed.

The second major criticism Kelly has about Family Bridges is that it costs more than most people can afford. She’s certainly right about that, but, at the same time, it’s hard for me to figure out how it could be otherwise. After all, four days with multiple mental health professionals, including transportation, food and lodging can’t help but be expensive. Plus, in some cases, targeted parents are faced with obtaining the requisite court orders that make use of the Family Bridges program possible. That too costs money.

How to get around the financial obstacle, I frankly can’t guess. Kelly suggests that a more limited program should be tried. If Family Bridges could do more with less, I for one would applaud, but it remains to be seen if that’s possible.

Kelly’s final quibble with Family Bridges is that too few professionals have been trained in its techniques so its program isn’t widely available. That of course was seven years ago. Deirdre Rand told me that currently Family Bridges has about 20 trained professionals offering the service in several states. So there’s still not a Family Bridges location on every street corner, but, to the extent the Rands are able, they’re expanding the program’s availability.

And of course it’s scarcely damning on Kelly’s part to object to the program because more people can’t access it. On the contrary, that seems like among high praise.

The proverbial bottom line is that, according to a highly qualified and entirely disinterested observer, Family Bridges does a good job of providing a much-needed service. Needless to say, Cara Tabachnick’s intellectually dishonest agenda didn’t allow her to consult that observer or read what she’d written on Family Bridges.




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