Again and again, Ana Estevez warned officials that the man she was divorcing, Aramazd Andressian, was abusive and dangerous. Nevertheless, a Los Angeles County family court judge granted him shared custody of their 5-year-old son, Piqui.
One week later, on April 21, 2017, Andressian smothered the boy to death.
Engulfed by grief, Estevez, a former elementary-school principal, teamed up with her state senator, Susan Rubio, to craft legislation to prevent other children from being ordered into the custody of their abusers. This week, the California legislature passed that bill, known as “Piqui’s Law.”
After voting unanimously for passage on Wednesday, the state assembly gave Estevez a standing ovation. Estevez also attended Thursday’s Senate vote, holding an urn containing Piqui’s ashes. That vote was unanimous, too.
The bill, which will take effect unless it’s vetoed by the governor, establishes training on domestic and child abuse for custody judges and bars them from ordering children who resist contact with one of their parents into “reunification treatment” that cuts them off from the other parent.
That last provision is a heavy blow to reunification programs built on the concept of “parental alienation.” This controversial theory, which hasn’t been accepted by the psychiatric establishment, posits that when children of divorce accuse a parent of maltreatment or abuse, it’s often because the parent they prefer has coached them to lie. Some programs that claim to address alienation, including Family Bridges, Turning Points for Families, and One Family at a Time, ask judges to remove children from the home of the preferred parent and prohibit that parent from contact with the children for at least 90 days. In practice, an investigation by Insider and Type found that the separations sometimes last years and leave children isolated with their abusers.
Family court judges have sent hundreds of children, many of them from California, to such programs, and both Family Bridges and One Family at a Time are based in the state. Piqui’s Law would close off these programs’ pipeline of referrals from California courts.
Young people from around the country who were sent to reunification programs have told Insider and Type that clinicians pressured them to recant their allegations of abuse, sometimes threatening to commit them to psychiatric facilities or separate them from siblings. Many young people described being apart from the parent they trusted as acutely painful.
In family court and beyond, “everyone is more comfortable believing that abuse didn’t happen,” said Danielle Pollack, policy manager at the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University. “The problem is, as long as we keep denying abuse, children will keep getting sent into harm’s way.”
Targeted judicial training could help, Pollack said, since abusers can be charming and persuasive in the courtroom. “A lot of times, the average person who has no knowledge about these family-abuse dynamics or how perpetrators operate, they don’t know what to think,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I can’t tell who’s lying.'”
A 2019 paper by Joan Meier, the center’s director, found that when women raised allegations of spousal or child abuse during custody cases, judges believed them only 36% of the time. In cases where fathers countered by claiming alienation, judges were even less likely to credit mothers, she found.
Pollack and Meier helped draft federal legislation, passed as part of the Violence Against Women Act in 2022, that incentivizes states to implement protections for children during custody disputes. To qualify for funding under Kayden’s Law, named after a Pennsylvania girl who was murdered by her father during a court-ordered visit in 2018, a state must require extensive training for custody judges on abuse and trauma and prohibit them from ordering reunification treatment that isolates children from their preferred parent, among other measures.
In 2022, Rubio sponsored a version of Piqui’s Law but withdrew the bill amid fierce opposition from judges over the mandatory training. While this year’s version establishes a robust curriculum for judges on the dynamics of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, it doesn’t require a set number of training hours.
The bill gained momentum over the past year thanks to heightened public awareness about reunification programs.
Last October, graphic footage of two terrified children being forcibly seized for One Family at a Time and thrust into an SUV went viral on TikTok, sparking an explosion of outraged comments. The previous day, the elder sibling, Maya, then 15, had testified in family court that her mother was abusive, but her mother denied the allegations and Judge Rebecca Connolly found that they weren’t credible. Connolly ordered Maya and her brother, Sebastian, into their mother’s custody, banned their father and all his relatives from contacting the children, and authorized an intervention company to transport them to a four-day workshop led by the program’s director, the therapist Lynn Steinberg.
In late May, Maya and Sebastian ran away from their mother’s home in Washington state and made their way back to Santa Cruz, where they went into hiding and posted videos about their ordeal. At a California state Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing on July 11, Maya testified in support of Piqui’s Law by phone, saying she’d been treated “like a criminal” after reporting abuse.
Two weeks later, Connolly ruled that Maya and Sebastian could return home to their father, saying that “the current limbo the minor children are in is not safe.” But Connolly still characterized the children’s allegations against their mother as “false.”
At the July 11 hearing, Estevez, too, criticized a California family court’s response to her reports of abuse.
“Piqui was fearful of his father and repeatedly begged, ‘Please don’t make me go, Mama,'” she testified. “The horrendous decisions made by the judges who presided over my case empowered my ex-husband to methodically plan and execute the murder of my only child.”
In the past 15 years, 962 children around the country have been murdered by a parental figure involved in a separation, divorce, or other family court dispute, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a California nonprofit that helped draft both Kayden’s Law and the 2022 version of Piqui’s Law. The center has classified 135 of these murders as “preventable,” often because, as in Piqui’s case, one parent had presented evidence to the court that the other parent wasn’t safe.
The state with the most preventable child homicides is California, with 25, according to the center. Florida is second, with 10.
If the bill takes effect, California judges will be prohibited from ordering reunification treatment that entails a custody transfer, a no-contact order, forcible transport, overnight travel, threats, or other “acutely distressing circumstances.”
Jill Montes stands by as her daughter testifies before the California State Senate on April 25. The girl said that since being sent to a parental alienation treatment program, she’s experienced anxiety and depression.
At a hearing in Sacramento in April, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from a 10-year-old girl from Carlsbad who was removed from her mother, Jill Montes, in 2022 and sent to Family Bridges with her father, Thomas Winenger, and two of her siblings. That was despite a finding by Child Welfare Services that Winenger had abused her brother. The girl testified that since the program, she and her siblings have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Winenger was eventually arrested on child pornography and sexual-abuse charges. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Montes officially regained custody in late May.
Opponents of Piqui’s Law have included not only judges but parents who said they were victims of parental alienation and therapists who claim to treat it, including Steinberg. She said in an interview earlier this year that without treatment, children who’ve been alienated from a parent may suffer long-term guilt and shame, along with eating disorders, drug addiction, depression, gender dysphoria, and other conditions.
Officials from Family Bridges and Turning Points have repeatedly turned down requests for interviews. Recently, the Turning Points director, Linda Gottlieb, said she would only consider allowing Insider to interview her if she could interview Insider first.
The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization have both rejected proposals to recognize alienation as a psychiatric condition.
In the past year and a half, legislatures in Maryland, Tennessee, and Colorado have also passed some of the protections recommended by Kayden’s Law. The Justice Department will determine which states, if any, qualify for the federal funding, Pollack said.