When their parents divorced in 2011, Ashton Goff and his little brother lived primarily with their mom. Ashton disliked visiting their dad, Michael D., and Delaware’s child-welfare agency found that Michael had emotionally abused him.
Then, in 2016, Michael turned the tables. He claimed that his ex-wife had poisoned the boys against him in a campaign of “parental alienation.” The concept of parental alienation has never been accepted by the American Psychiatric Association. But after taking testimony from several mental health professionals, the family-court judge was persuaded. She gave Michael sole custody of the kids and ordered them into an alienation treatment program. The judge also barred their mother from any contact.
Michael and the boys spent four days at Turning Points for Families in upstate New York, attending a workshop the program’s director, the social worker Linda Gottlieb, called a “therapeutic vacation.” When it was over, by court order, the boys had to change schools, and they started aftercare with a local psychologist, Rachel Brandenburg. Michael didn’t reply to Insider’s interview requests or written questions; in court, he has denied mistreating Ashton. Gottlieb declined to be interviewed. Brandenburg didn’t reply to interview requests. A court official said the judge could not comment.
This is an as-told-to story based on conversations with Ashton, part of a larger investigation into parental alienation. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When I was 14, my mom said my brother and I had to go to this program in New York with Linda Gottlieb for four days, and then we’d be living with our dad temporarily.
My dad is a very angry guy, and he flips on a dime. So he can be super happy and jovial, and then all of a sudden, he’s screaming and throwing and punching walls, and he’ll lose his mind.
I asked, “What if I don’t go?” And my mom said they would come take me by force.
My mom drove me from Delaware, where we lived, and Gottlieb kind of rushed her out of there.
There was no real therapy going on. It was like a vacation with supervision. We went on little field trips every day. We went to a park, we went to a gymnasium, we went to get ice cream. We looked at old pictures, and we just kind of talked about my mom.
Gottlieb said my mom had alienated me from my dad and that I needed to reconnect with him because what I’d learned about him wasn’t true. But my mom never really influenced how I felt about my dad.
With Gottlieb, I was allowed to voice my complaints, but I was told they were wrong. And I had trouble expressing myself because my dad was there, and I was scared of him.
The workshop doesn’t repair anything — it just forces you back into a situation where you’re afraid. It’s forced compliance through fear.
Afterward, I had to change schools, and I wasn’t allowed to talk to my old friends. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my mom, my cousins, my grandparents — anyone associated with my mom, essentially. I worried my Gigi and my Papa would die and I would never see them again.
I was terrified living with my dad. Sometimes he would just bust through my door and start yelling at me for no reason, saying I’m on drugs, I’m gay, all these things. I was shoved, hit, sent to my room for days. He threatened to kill me.
A lot of this later came up in family court.
My dad resorted to self-harm, too. He would slam his head into the table or beat himself up when he was screaming at me.
School was my escape because I did well and I made friends. But then I’d have to go home and get yelled at. And I intentionally took the blame for some of the things my little brother, O., did so he wouldn’t get in trouble.
The therapist we saw for aftercare, Rachel Brandenburg, made me read books on parental alienation and take notes and whatnot and do presentations for her and all this stuff. It was mostly Brandenburg correcting our feelings, essentially. She would tell us things our mom did that were wrong, and she acted like our dad was some sort of saint.
I eventually just went along with it. And I did that for 3 ½ years.
I got some depression. My mental health declined severely.
When I was 17, my dad told me I had to go to court and testify against my mom, and claim that I wanted to live with my dad forever. And I didn’t want to do that, so I ran away.
I didn’t bring O. because I thought I could be arrested for kidnapping. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, and I feel guilty about it.
The judge said I didn’t have to go back. I went to get my clothes with assistance from the police. The officers went up to my dad’s door and tried to get the clothes, and my dad said no. So he was arrested, and I got my stuff.
Going back home to my mom was great; it was like I never left in the first place. We drove to Michigan to surprise my grandparents. We all hugged, and we cried a little bit.
I changed my last name. I didn’t want to be associated with my dad, and I feel a stronger connection to my mom and to Gigi and Papa than I’ve ever felt toward my dad. I go to college near my grandparents now, and we talk every day. I get good grades; I wrestle. I have a girlfriend, and that’s going pretty well.
But I’m forever changed by this experience.
Certain things trigger me. If I’m watching a television show and there’s an abusive parent, I’ll start sweating and get very angry.
I have some fears that have been baked in. I’m always a little afraid that my dad’s going to do something to come after me, and I worry about losing my family and friends. I have debilitating panic attacks and night terrors. And the problem is, I can’t even go see a therapist about them because I can’t even be in a room with a therapist.
I’ve lost all connections with the friends I had from when I was a kid. I’ve lost O., too, at least for now. He’s still not allowed to talk to my mom, and he hasn’t responded to any of my texts.
What I miss most is just spending time with him. I took care of him a little bit, like an older brother should, and I miss that, and I miss all the laughing and joking around with him.
O., I hope you know that none of this was my choice. This is a result of the situation that we were put into, and one day we’ll see each other again, I guess. I miss you, and I love you so much.