Judges Corner

Reunification: Attorney Anastasia Garcia Chats with Judge Scott Bernstein

The children of parents who are divorcing and litigating in Family Court often become casualties of their parents’ legal battles. Because divorcing parents frequently find themselves struggling with the relationship with their children, Family Court judges will often turn to reunification therapists. These reunification therapists help in cases where children are finding themselves at odds with one or both of their parents.

I’m Anastasia Garcia, Esq., former President of KidSide and I had the opportunity to discuss with Judge Scott Bernstein, our Administrative Judge in the Family Division, the circumstances under which he believes a Court should order a reunification therapist. Judge Bernstein was elected to the Circuit Court bench in 1998 and has served in the Family Division for approximately 15 years and has served as the Administrative Judge of the Family Division for approximately 8 years.

We covered several topics related to reunification therapy, including, but not limited to, the importance of neutral professionals respecting boundaries in Family Court. The neutral professionals often assist the Court in the difficult task of safeguarding the well-being of children when their parents are too overwhelmed in the Family Court process to safeguard their children’s emotional health.

I asked Judge Bernstein under what circumstances he believes it is appropriate for a Court to order a reunification therapist. He indicated that in cases where a substantial amount of time has passed where a child has not had timesharing with a parent, it is appropriate to assign a reunification therapist. Usually, one or both parties will request a reunification therapist, but there are some instances where the Court will determine the order.

We discussed the difference between a Guardian Ad Litem and a reunification therapist. Judge Bernstein differentiated between the roles of the Guardian Ad Litem and reunification therapist. The Guardian Ad Litem, Judge Bernstein indicated, serves the function to investigate and report back to the Court. The reunification therapist serves the function of mending a broken relationship between the parent and the child.

I asked Judge Bernstein to give me his perspective on therapeutic privilege as it relates to reunification therapy. Judge Bernstein believes that what is shared during reunification therapy is privileged. However, the reunification therapist is permitted to report back to the parties and the Court regarding:

1. Whether there is compliance with attendance at the therapy as expected by the reunification therapist;
2. Whether the reunification goals are being met; and
3. Recommendations for a reunification plan.

We also discussed how important it is that neither lawyer for either party contact the reunification therapist other than to confirm attendance and compliance by the parties.

A Guardian Ad Litem and a reunification therapist can work in conjunction with each other to help the Court help a family. Judge Bernstein believes that a reunification therapist should be permitted to disclose to a Guardian Ad Litem any necessary therapy details. The Guardian Ad Litem then has discretion, under Florida Statute 61.404, to maintain any information received from the reunification therapist as confidential.

Judge Bernstein reminded me that reunification therapists have their own ethical guidelines, which a Court cannot modify.

Judge Bernstein indicated that he recently had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium titled “Stay in Your Lane.” This symposium emphasized the importance of professionals understanding the different boundaries they must respect depending on their role in a family case. It is important that reunification therapists, and other neutral professionals working with the family court, understand their boundaries. It is the responsibility of a good family lawyer to remind them of these boundaries when necessary to protect the sanctity of the process.