After violent video goes viral, Coonerty, Brunner seek answers on court-ordered ‘reunification therapy’

Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty held a press conference Nov. 3.
Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner (left) and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty held a news conference Thursday to discuss the violent Oct. 20 removal of Maya and Sebastian Laing from their home.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A violent viral video showing the forced removal of two Santa Cruz children from their home on Oct. 20 has left many in the community searching for answers. The catch? The removal was ordered by a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge.

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The disturbing scene, captured on a cell phone and seen more than 283,000 times since it was posted on Instagram two weeks ago, has left neighbors, friends and even public officials with more questions than answers.

Taken on the night of Oct. 20, the video shows three adults huddled around two children inside the garage of the Santa Cruz home of the children’s grandmother Karen Laing. We hear the voice of a young girl repeat to the adults, “Get away from me.” The tallest of the adults, a man, begins to repeat, “Maya, Maya, Maya,” as he tries to communicate with the young girl he is looking down at. He tries to pull at her, and she lets out a scream and begins to flail her arms. Chaos ensues.

“Get the f--- away from me!” the girl screams. One adult picks the young girl up by her legs, the other adult pulls her up by her shoulders, and they force her toward a dark blue Mazda with tinted windows. The young girl, kicking and screaming, refuses to give in. As the adults force her into the car, they pull down her pants in the process.

Another of the burlier adults picks up a young boy, her brother, and pulls him out of the garage. The boy fights back, pulling his escort’s short hair.

Police officers at the scene do not intervene. A crowd of parents and bystanders sound horrified as they capture the scene on their phones.

According to their grandmother, the forced removal of 15-year-old Maya Laing, a student at Santa Cruz’s Pacific Collegiate School, a grade 7-12 charter school, and her younger brother, 11-year-old Sebastian, a former student at Bonny Doon School, from their Merced Avenue home on the Westside was ordered by Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge Rebecca Connolly. The violent intervention has since reverberated on social media and prompted demonstrations, including a protest outside the Watsonville courthouse and a candlelight vigil for Maya and Sebastian.

According to local officials, the adults videotaped putting the two children into the van work for Assisted Interventions Inc., a New York-based “professional intervention and transport services company” that officials say is linked to a for-profit company that operates a so-called “reunification camp” in Los Angeles. Such companies are hired to enforce court-ordered reunions between children and a parent the court deems as having been unfairly alienated.

Incredulous as to how such an incident could happen, apparently within the bounds of the law, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty and Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner held a news conference Thursday on the driveway of Laing’s home. Coonerty, who said he received dozens if not hundreds of calls, called the video “gutting” and said the city and county are searching for ways to act, despite the limited ability of local governments to intervene in judicial system matters.

“Decisions are made by judges on the basis of evidence and testimony. We’re not here to pick a side in this or any other case,” Coonerty said. “We are here today to talk about what we see as policy failures in the treatment of Maya and Sebastian. The violent force used by Assisted Interventions Inc. was completely unacceptable and should never happen here in Santa Cruz or anywhere else.”

Lookout attempted to contact the Assisted Interventions Inc., but got no response as of Thursday night. “Our goal is to have your child arrive at their respective treatment facility in a ‘positive frame of mind,’” says the company’s website. Tina Swithin, an advocate who has worked for more than a decade against this type of forced reunification, told Lookout that the transport company typically takes the children to a hotel where the court-ordered reunion between the children and their parents is overseen, over the course of four days, by a reunification therapist.

Maya and Sebastian Laing's grandmother, Karen Laing [left], and her partner Carolyn Farrell, look on.
Maya and Sebastian Laing’s grandmother Karen Laing (left) and Carolyn Farrell look on during the news conference.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Coonerty explained that the county’s child protective services has a policy that bars physically touching a child. It’s a best practice, he said, to prevent trauma. It’s through that policy that the county is seeking intervention in future cases like Maya and Sebastian’s.

“We are exploring an ordinance to hold private companies, like Assisted Interventions Inc., to the same standards,” Coonerty said. “We also hope there is an investigation into the use of force that night. No one can say this transportation company was acting in the best interest of Maya and Sebastian.”

A court-ordered reunification can happen when the court sees one parent in a custody battle as having been unfairly “alienated” from their children. A judge can then order the parent and children into reunification therapy, which forces the separation of the children from one of the parents.

The Laing family dynamics that led to this situation remain unclear, but court records show the parents, Jessica and Justin Laing, have been embroiled in a custody battle dating back to at least 2018. Court records also show that, on Oct. 19, the day before the forced removal, Maya filed for a temporary restraining order against her mother; it is unclear whether the court granted it.

Middleman agents such as Assisted Interventions Inc. and reunification therapists help carry out these court-ordered reunifications. The practice has been criticized by some for years. The California legislature attempted to pass legislation earlier this year related to the practice, but the bill was killed in the final days of the session. It’s unclear how many families are involved in similar reunifications in Santa Cruz County, the state or nationally.

Coonerty told Lookout that before seeing the video, he knew nothing about the process of reunification.

Laing, Maya and Sebastian’s paternal grandmother, said she doesn’t know where the children are and hasn’t heard from or about them in the two weeks since they were removed from her home.

“We don’t know where the mother is at all. We have no contact with my beloved grandchildren whatsoever, we don’t know where they are,” Laing told Lookout, fighting back tears. “Just know that my family and their father is doing everything possible to get them back. There is nothing we wouldn’t do to get them back. He is working very hard on it.”

Lookout was unable to reach Maya and Sebastian’s parents.

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