The Backstory: Olivia Gentile

Reporting on Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is a disputed psychiatric diagnosis in which one parent is accused of having brainwashed their child against the other parent. In a new documentary, “The Truth Behind The Experimental Therapy That Kids Say Starts With ‘Legalized Kidnapping,’” produced in partnership with Insider and Retro Report, a follow-up to her recent series of investigations on the topic, reporter Olivia Gentile exposes how parental alienation has been cited by family courts in custody cases, resulting in children being placed back with their abusers or in “family reunification” programs that separate them from their trusted parent. 

In this conversation, we talk to Gentile about how she started reporting on parental alienation, how she developed her sources for her series of investigations on the topic, and what the response to her investigations has been like. 

Paco Alvarez: My first question is, what initially inspired your series of investigations on parental alienation? Were you already familiar with the concept before you started reporting? 

Olivia Gentile: So I was just barely familiar with parental alienation. What I was familiar with was the family court in general. I had done an investigation of a child custody case in Texas involving a child whose father murdered his mother. And the question was, what was going to happen to the child? And, the answer is bad things were going to happen to the child. And it was through that investigation, which I did in the late 20 teens and during the pandemic, what was basically – I learned through doing that investigation that the family court system is in need of dire reforms. And that’s when I also learned that there is a tendency in the family court system for a judge to prioritize fathers rights over children’s rights. And then in the course of reporting that story, I heard about parental alienation as a theory that was prevalent in the family court system. But the case I was dealing with in Texas was not a parental alienation case. It was a murder case. 

Alvarez: How did you start reporting on this investigation? Or like how did that process kind of start?  

Gentile: Yes. So when I finished my Texas investigation, I was so burned out and I said to my husband, I am just going to chill out for the next several months.  But the problem was, since I had published this child custody investigation in the Texas Observer, I was getting a lot of tips about other family Court cases that needed investigation. And most of them I was, you know, replying and saying, I’m sorry, I can’t take a case like I’m taking some time off. 

But then one tipster sent me an email about a 13 year old girl from Nevada who had been sent to a reunification program called Turning Points for Families against her Will with her father. And she was a healthy 13 year old girl. And within a couple of days of her arrival at Turning Points, she had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. And I had heard a little bit about these reunification programs. I thought they sounded very odd. And I I thought they sounded like things that children would not enjoy. 

But I was tempted to look into this case because if there was documentation that she had actually ended up in a psychiatric hospital, that seemed like something tangible I could report on as a harm that was being done to children. So I spent about a month just investigating this one Nevada case, talking to the mother. I tracked down the mother. I read about 10,000 pages of court documents and talked to some other players in that case. And then I realized what I had was one case. I didn’t have a pattern. I didn’t know if it was common for these programs to be so upsetting to children. I didn’t know if what had happened to this girl during the program, which was,  the methods of therapy were questionable, to say the least – I didn’t know if those were typical. And I thought, like, what am I going to prove with this one case? This might be a systemic problem. 

And there’s more than just this one case. There’s more than just this one reunification program. There’s a whole industry around reunification. So I would say around May is when I realized, like, oh, shoot, now I’m doing another investigation and this one is going to be much more demanding than the first one, which really did focus on this one femicide and child custody case in Texas. Because in this case, I was trying to prove a pattern. 

Alvarez: You talk to many children and parents who were separated as a result of accusations of parental alienation. How did you develop your sources? Were people generally willing to talk? 

Gentile: So it started with this one, this one mother in Nevada. And I branched out from there and  I ultimately studied about 35 different cases. Of those, I probably talked to members of about 20 families. The other 15, I just studied their documents, but I didn’t actually interview the families.  

So the first thing I did was I looked on Westlaw and I put in the names of these reunification programs and tried to see which cases came up. This was not as helpful as you might think because most custody cases do not end up on Westlaw. Basically, the only family court cases that end up on Westlaw are those that are appealed. And so I got a few Turning Points cases. And then  there’s another program called Family Bridges. I got a few family bridges cases from Westlaw, and then I started contacting the attorneys and the parties named in those cases. So that gave me a few more. Then there are some nonprofits that have become watchdogs of the family court system. And there are some activists who are working for family court reform. So I contacted them, and through them I got maybe another five, six cases. 

At the time, this was 2022 and a lot of people were very hesitant to speak out. If you’re a mother who’s lost her kids to a reunification program or just because of allegations of parental alienation, whether or not a reunification program is involved, if you speak to the press, you risk potentially never seeing them again because the judge will regard your speaking to the press as more evidence of alienating behavior. In some cases, there are formal gag orders. In other cases, mothers – it’s usually mothers, it can be fathers who are accused of alienation – and it’s just understood that talking would be bad. 

So at first I was talking to a bunch of people without a clear agreement that I could use what they were giving me. Some people were saying, Well, maybe you can use this, maybe not. You can record, and then we’ll decide later if you can use it. Gradually over the six months or nine months that I was doing my reporting, the movement to abolish these reunification programs grew and sources became emboldened and more and more people said, Yes, you can use my name.  Yes, I want to go on the record. Okay. 

So by summer, August 2022, I had about 15 cases that I was looking into. And then I had my big breakthrough, which was, on a whim, I went to a conference and I thought, why am I going to this conference? It’s going to cost a lot of money and conferences are boring. But it was a conference hosted by the Institute on Violence, Trauma and Abuse in San Diego, and there were a number of pertinent sessions and there were a number of experts who were going to be there who would know about child custody cases, parental alienation, reunification programs. So it was very helpful attending the sessions and networking with experts between sessions. But what was especially helpful was I met so many parents at this conference who had useful information to give me. 

Through a father who had lost his children to Family Bridges, I was able to track down a cache of years worth of documentation on the damage, all the major reunification programs. This included program documents and court documents, treatment records. It was an amazing cache of documents that made me realize I’m going to be able to write this not just as the story of one or two families or even five families, but as a systemic overview of this industry that is potentially harming many children. Once I got permission to use it, this cache of documents enabled me to assess  the family court system and the use of parental alienation and reunification programs in general. 

And the other big thing that happened at the conference is I met Jill Montes, who became the main subject of my investigation. I decided to use her case as the main case study to illustrate the harms of the parental alienation theory and reunification programs. And she was not up for going on the record at the time, but we had dinner and we started to build a relationship and we kept in touch thereafter. And over the next couple of months, she gradually decided to go on the record and eventually she ended up becoming the focus of my main article. So basically everything changed because I went to this conference that I almost didn’t go to. Maybe there would have been another breakthrough like some other way at a later date, but it definitely was a stroke of luck. 

Alvarez: So your articles and the documentary frequently mention and show clips from TikTok and Instagram that children who were taken to these family reunification programs posted. What is the role of social media for children affected by parental alienation accusations? 

Gentile: In general, these programs were operating under the radar until about a year ago. There had been a couple journalistic pieces about them, but there hadn’t been much on social media and there hadn’t been kind of a definitive exposé of these programs, and I think some journalists had tried to do such a thing but I think children and parents were afraid to speak out. And I also think that media gatekeepers were afraid to publish the stories because many gatekeepers will say, well, how do we know these children are telling the truth? How do we know the mothers are telling the truth? What if the father really was wonderful and the children really were alienated from the father? 

What I’ll often say when people say that is, well, you know, in some cases that might actually have happened. But, you know, in some cases, maybe children have been influenced to dislike a parent, but I have so many cases of children who are alleging abuse and have been forced into these programs. And in any event. Okay. I have so many cases and I don’t think all the children are lying, A. And B, let’s say the children are lying. Are these programs really the answer? Like, are these programs that deprive children of, you know, their communities, their homes, their friends, you know, basically put them in isolation for a period of years often, are those really going to help the children? Even if the children have been, quote unquote, alienated? 

So anyways, my point being, the programs had been operating under the radar due to a combination of lack of fortitude on the part of media gatekeepers, or lack of conviction on the part of media gatekeepers. I think a lot of reporters were trying to write stories, publish stories, tell stories about these programs. And a lot of reporters were not having success in placing the stories. And then also because the children and the mothers themselves were afraid to speak out.

All of that changed last October when a very brave young girl named Maya Laing, who alleged that her mother had abused her, decided that she wasn’t going to go down without a fight. And when she was put into her mother’s custody and ordered into a reunification program, she decided to post a video basically urging friends and family to come film her and her brother being seized. She said, come quick, if everybody could just come, maybe, maybe we can stop this and a bunch of neighbors did come and they did film – I don’t know what you want to call it in neutral language. She might call it a kidnapping, a legalized kidnapping. We generally refer to it as a seizure. Like she and her brother were forcibly seized and quite violently seized for a reunification program. It was caught on cell phone footage, and then it was amplified by activists within the Family Court reform movement, specifically one activist who’s very savvy on social media named Tina Swithin. She has a lot of followers. And she said, I received this cell phone footage, I want everyone to see it –  this is what happens when parental alienation and reunification programs are used in the courtroom. 

And this video kind of changed everything. Suddenly, regular people who didn’t know anything about custody cases or family court. We’re seeing what’s actually been happening for years. I mean, these so-called abductions have actually been happening for at least 15 years. And not all children resist as much as Maya and her brother did, but some of them do. The difference is this one was captured on camera and it was amplified by a social media savvy activist. And at that point, a lot of my sources started saying, okay, I’ll go on the record. You know, activists started saying, we’re at a tipping point, we need to protest. We need to speak out. Other reporters started pursuing the same kind of investigation I was already doing, which ended up being okay because it helped me feel a sense of urgency in getting the piece done pretty quickly. The whole landscape shifted after the Maya Lang video. Social media has played a huge role in bringing the attention of this issue to the public. And that’s partly because the mainstream media, until recently, has failed to do so. The people I’ve worked with, Insider and Type and Retro Report, they’ve been great and they believed in the story and wanted to publish it. But sometimes I think in general, where has the mainstream media been all these years? This has been going on for a long time and basically mainstream journalists have avoided the topic.

Alvarez: In the documentary, you can see clips of your interview with Lynn Steinberg, a therapist who runs a family reunification program. How do you approach interviewing someone who might be hostile to the angle of your investigation? 

Gentile: So Lynn was always very willing to talk and very polite. And she and I had two very cordial, productive interviews and one was over Zoom before the on camera interview. And then I came to L.A. to interview her on camera. I have not heard from Lynne since my articles came out. So I think, I assume that she wasn’t very pleased with what I ended up finding and reporting, including about her and her handling of the and Sebastian case. 

But I give her a lot of credit for being willing to talk to me. And the other program directors were not willing to talk to me. And when I approached her, how did I approach her? I mean, I approached her with respect and politeness and just explaining that I was trying to learn about reunification programs. I didn’t say I had this take or that take. It probably helped that I hadn’t published anything about reunification programs. I had published some work about child custody. But if I had published something about reunification programs in the past that she read and didn’t like, she probably wouldn’t have agreed to talk to me. But if she looked at my work, she would have found, I think, stories that it would have been obvious to her that I was often writing from, like in reporting from a feminist standpoint and from a standpoint where I had concern for children. 

But Lynn would say that she also has concern for children and women and survivors of domestic abuse. Just her view of what – Lynn thinks that parental alienation is domestic abuse, and she thinks children are very prone to making false allegations.  And I think she really believes this. And I also think she believes she’s helping children. So I don’t think she felt like she had anything to hide. 

Alvarez: How is making a documentary different from reporting a more traditional feature article? 

Gentile: Well, I was doing them simultaneously, so it was basically the same process. Like I told you how I interviewed Jill Montes on camera in San Diego and that at the time I thought, Well, this is for the documentary. Well, we didn’t end up using that in the documentary, but it became a huge part of my article. So I didn’t actually find it to be, in terms of reporting, the only difference is there’s a camera rolling for the documentary.

While I reported the documentary, I didn’t make the documentary. Making it is a whole other story involving all kinds of expertise that I don’t have, like editing it and deciding what to put where. And I guess I think it’s easier. I think it’s easier to convey emotion on film and easier to convey the subtleties and nuances in writing. So I hope people will maybe watch the film and read the articles, because I think if you watch the film, you get a really vivid, visceral sense of what’s happening to these children. And you get to know Richard Gardner, the original originator of parental alienation theory, you get to know him in the documentary in a way that just words in the article cannot help you get to know him. Like you get to know his tone of voice, his manner. The way he laughs about or laughed about child abuse allegations. 

I also think you get from the documentary, you get a sense of what it would be like to be in the room with Linda Gottlieb in the room or on the phone with Linda Gottlieb. From the articles, you get a sense of what it is she says, and what it is she says to children, what it is she says to mothers, or what she calls them “alienators”. But it’s only by watching the documentary and actually hearing her voice that you maybe start to understand her as a person. And the same goes for Lynn Steinberg. And they’re very different. Their manners are very, very different, which you also wouldn’t necessarily get a sense of from reading the articles. 

Alvarez: What has the response been to your investigations? Have you faced any pushback? 

Gentile: Yes, but I mean, I would say mainly the response has been positive. I’ve been deluged with emails mainly from children and mothers who, some of them are just saying thank you for validating what happened to me. Thank you for bringing light to this issue. Many others are saying, Will you please investigate my case? I have this awful case. From what they write in the email, it surely is an awful case. And I have, in some cases, pointed them toward other reporters there, toward resources. I was really trying to use a couple of cases to address the whole system in my investigation. And so I’m not sure how productive it would be for me to keep investigating individual cases. We already highlighted two cases or three cases, if you include Maya and Sebastian, a number of cases that are so illustrative of the problem. So I’m not sure if it’s a good use of my time to investigate additional individual cases. 

What I think would be great is if my sort of overview project inspired local reporters to say –  I’ve been contacted by a woman in San Antonio, Texas. Well, again, now I’m going to start berating mainstream media. Where is the San Antonio media on this subject? I can’t as a single freelance reporter trying to expose systemic wrongdoing, I can’t cover every individual case. But isn’t that where local media comes in? They can actually attend the hearings, go to the courthouses and photocopy the documents and cover what’s happening on a sort of granular local level. So that’s one set of responses I’ve gotten is please investigate my case, you know, and I’ve had to say, no in pretty much every case. And then I’ve gotten maybe about 75 emails like that, like from families who want their cases investigated. 

And I’ve gotten some negative responses from people from parental alienation. Therapist Linda Gottlieb has devoted a whole section of her Web site to calling me a liar. It’s interesting, though, because. She doesn’t ever say like this is this fact that Olivia reported is wrong. She’ll just like import a graphic of like she has like a pants on fire graphic. Then she has it like going off the charts for me. And that’s like her evidence that I’m a liar. So I mean she obviously didn’t like the story. I haven’t ever heard from Family Bridges about the stories. I’ve heard from a couple of family court officials who said that my reporting was one-sided. I don’t agree. I mean I tried to talk to almost everyone. I tried to talk to all the program directors and many parental alienation experts. I wasn’t able to talk to everyone because some people wouldn’t talk to me. I included in my article the story of a father who claims Lynn Steinberg really helped him and his daughter. 

So there’s I mean, there’s been some negative reaction, but no one’s been able to point to any fact – I mean that the story was accurate. None of the negative reactions have been surprising or upsetting to me. I have been a little surprised that there hasn’t been more – I would have thought that some of these program directors would have read what I wrote, like the story of Jill Montes and her and her son, who was who was sexually abused and nonetheless had to go to Family Bridges. I would have thought Family Bridges would read that and say, oh, my God, did we mess up? And that they would come out with some sort of explanation, an apology and like they’ve just been quiet. 

Alvarez: What is the state of laws regulating family or even reunification programs since the investigations have come out? 

Gentile: A law was passed around the time I started my investigation. A federal law that basically incentivizing states to ban judges from ordering these programs . That was called Kayden’s Law. Now, each state then has to ratify Kayden’s Law in order to receive federal funding. And so far, only two states have passed laws that are basically in some form ratifications of Kayden’s Law. 

Let me put it this way: Two states have banned judges from ordering these reunification programs as of now. The first was Colorado, and the second, which just happened, is California. So basically, in 48 states, judges can still order. These reunification programs. Now that California has passed its law, apparently other states are clamoring to follow suit because I guess that’s how it works often with the California state legislature. Like what they do ends up being something that other states seek to emulate. We’ll see if that happens. 

These laws are not as easy to pass as you might think, like watching our movie, you might think, well, of course, states are going to want to ban this, look how traumatized these children are. But judges don’t like when the legislature passes laws that they think infringe on their autonomy. And also the laws tend to not just involve banning reunification programs, but also the laws tend to create or even mandate training for judges on child abuse and domestic abuse and trauma. And judges resent that because they feel they don’t think it’s up to the legislature to tell them what they need to be trained on. 

Alvarez: Have you stayed in touch with the families that you talk to? 

Gentile: Yes. I found working with the families to be really rewarding and and the only tension that ever arose with families, not necessarily be the only tension, but the main tension that arose was when and and I’m sure other reporters have encountered this too – so I ended up having like 35 cases to choose from. And I narrowed it down to two that I was going to focus on in my main story. Then I also ended up focusing on later stories on Maya and Sebastian’s. That’s a third case, right? 

So that’s three cases out of 35. A bunch of the other families I had worked with extensively, maybe in some cases interviewed them four or five times. They’d given me their most private documents. And, you know, I developed a close relationship with them over the course of six months, nine months. And then I had to tell them that their story was not actually going to be. In the article that it was going to be streamlined down to just two, 2 to 3 cases. And that really upset a couple of the families because they were hoping. Even though they were supportive of the project as a whole, they had wanted their story in particular to be highlighted. So it’s not that anyone stopped talking to me. It’s just that I think that a couple families felt a little burned by that, which I felt bad about. But for the most part, I’ve maintained really strong, friendly relationships with all the families. I text with them all the time. They keep me posted on their cases, both progress and setbacks in their cases. I’m in touch with some of the kids, so. Yeah, probably every day I hear from someone.

About the reporter