A bill that would ban California Family Courts from ordering children to reunification camps or therapy passed the Assembly today and is headed to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk, with bipartisan support.
Piqui’s Law or SB 331, authored by state Sen. Susan Rubio, was named after 5-year-old Aramazd "Piqui" Andressian Jr. was murdered in 2017 by his father who eventually confessed to killing the boy because he was angry at his estranged wife.
Reunification therapy and camps are a controversial method in which children are removed from their preferred parent or safe parent, despite their allegations of abuse or mistreatment directed toward the other parent. Reunification camps or therapy is typically accompanied by accusing a protective parent of parental alienation.
Ana Estevez, Piqui’s mother, was in attendance holding her son’s urn as the Assembly applauded her after the bill passed 72-0. Ana was denied her request for sole custody which was denied by a Los Angeles family court judge who said she was not credible.
Piqui was then ordered into the custody of his father.
“Piqui’s death and many others were preventable,” Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio said on the Assembly floor in support of her sister’s bill. The bill will prevent county courts from ordering reunification treatments, known as camps, that are non-regulated for-profit businesses.”
Rubio said these abusive practices cut off children from their protective families, friends, schools and community.
“This is the third year that we tried to get this law to this point,” Rubio said. “I love you, Ana.”
The bill, if signed into law, bans family reunification treatments, programs, or camps that, as a condition of enrollment or participation, require or result in, among other things, the use of private youth transporters or private transportation agents, as specified, a no-contact order against the safe parent, and/or a transfer of physical and legal custody of the child.
Republican Assemblyman Bill Essayli was appalled at the practice of reunification camps and said this was a modest and minimal bill to address the crisis California children are facing in the family court system.
“The system failed Piqui,” Essayli said. “As a former prosecutor, I saw terrible and horrific crimes committed against children. What I’ve learned is that in most cases, there are warning signs.”
Essayli said far too often concerns of child abuse raised by one parent to the courts or child protective services fall on deaf ears.
“Piqui’s mother repeatedly reported instances of abuse about her five-year-old son in the care of his father. Despite her reports and bruising on her son, the system did nothing,” Essayli said.
This bill would also require the Judicial Council to establish judicial training programs for judges who perform duties in domestic violence or child custody matters, including, among other topics, child sexual abuse and coercive control. The bill would require the Judicial Council to submit an annual report on these training programs, commencing on or before January 1, 2025, to the Legislature.
Assemblyman Mike Gipson spoke in support of the bill while holding a picture of Piqui.
“This is the only picture I have in my office. This is a picture of the child that was killed by his father,” Gipson said. “Piqui’s mother has shown me that he is here too and he is seeking justice and we want to provide that justice.”
Santa Cruz children Maya and Sebastian Laing were placed in reunification therapy last year after transporters came to their family’s home and forcibly removed and took them to southern California reunification therapist Dr. Lynn Steinberg.
Steinberg and other reunification therapy providers like Family Bridges, have repeatedly refused requests for comments.
On April 13, 2023, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls, Reem Alsalem, called for a ban on highly traumatizing reunification treatments promoted through unlicensed, unregulated, for-profit industries, which result in children being isolated through extended no-contact orders from the other parent, family, friends, schools, and communities.
“I hope this is the first of many bills to come to strengthen our system to protect children,” Essayli said.