What to Know
An NJ brother and sister are ripping a family reunification program that tore them apart from their father after a messy divorce in 2011
The program sent them all the way to California; they weren't allowed to have any contact with the "alienating" parent
Though an appellate court eventually reversed the judge's 2011 decision, he lost his kids for three years; it was devastating for them all
Ana and her brother Alex were hopeful the morning they had their court hearing.
The Westfield, New Jersey, kids had been living with their father Adrian during their parents’ messy divorce. That day, the judge would make a ruling on custody and the children assumed they would return home with their father.
Alex, now a college student, recalls that day -- Dec. 27, 2011. He says all four of them -- he, his sister and their parents -- were called into court.
Inside the courtroom, a Union County judge found that the children had been "alienated from their mother by their father" and awarded sole custody to the mother. He ordered the children and mother to attend Family Bridges, a family reunification program all the way across the country in California.
Alex says they weren't even allowed to say goodbye to their father. Ana will never forget the experience.
"I can't forget that day," she said. "It's never going to leave my brain."
The children say officers accompanied them from the courthouse to the airport, where they boarded a plane for San Francisco.
"We were crying for sure. There was a lot of crying between Ana and I," said Alex. "We didn’t know what to do."
Once in California, the children say they set up in a hotel where the Family Bridges program was held.
"They began by trying to convince us that our dad alienated us from our mom,’ recalled Alex. "They tried to prove to us that it happened. We were literally laughing because we thought the whole thing was so absurd."
"It felt like manipulation 24-7," remembered Ana. "We didn’t have access to any Internet and no contact with the outside world, our friends or anyone.”
Other children who attended Family Bridges under court order told NBC Bay Area similar stories -- all of them taken from court to a different city where they started the program.
"These programs felt like they were using literal fear tactics. They were just repeating information over and over," said Sam, who attended Family Bridges. "They didn’t let us say anything about our real feelings or opinions."
The I-Team tried to find out how often this happens in the tri-state area but was not able to because most courts do not track these cases. They also don’t track the success and failure rates of the reunification programs.
Four days after arriving in California, Alex and Ana went back to New Jersey --but a court order kept them from their dad. It started off as a 90-day period.
Their father, Adrian, a college math professor, says the courts kept extending that three-month period "for no good reason."
"In the end, I was not allowed to have contact with my children for three years," Adrian said.
The judge involved in his case has since retired. He declined comment on the matter when reached by the I-Team.
The I-Team tried to interview him for this story but he declined to comment. The I-Team and NBC Bay Area tried to reach Dr. Randy Rand, the head of Family Bridges, but he did not respond to requests for comment.
Linda Gottlieb, a family therapist and licensed social worker based in Great Neck, New York, says her program "Turning Points" is similar. Like Family Bridges, hers shares the same "no-contact with the alleged alienating" parent principle and requires a 90-day no contact period.
"It’s protecting the child," Gottlieb said. "The child really doesn’t want to reject the other parent. It’s the remedy that protects the child from abuse."
She says 40 children have gone through her $12,000-per-participant program but acknowledges only nine of those kids have relationships with both parents.
For Alex and Ana, their court experience and separation were hardly protective. They hope by telling their story, they can dissuade judges from putting others through the same. Alex says it brought him through some "dark places." His sister was there to help "bring me back up."
"Programs that require kids cut off contact with one parent are absolutely not the way to go," Ana said.
Adrian appealed the 2011 decision that took his kids away and an appellate court sided with him. The mother of his children declined the I-Team's request for comment.