Editor’s note: This story describes in detail the sexual abuse of children.
This article was co-published with ProPublica. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
Two siblings in Utah have barricaded themselves in a bedroom at their mother’s home in defiance of a judge’s order to return to the custody of their father, despite state child welfare investigators determining that he had sexually abused the children.
The judge has authorized police to use “reasonable force” — including entry into locked rooms — against Brynlee Larson, 12, and Ty Larson, 15. Ty has spent the last month livestreaming on TikTok to call attention to their case.
The showdown is the fallout from the latest family court battle over “parental alienation” — a disputed psychological theory in which one parent is accused of brainwashing a child to turn them against the other parent.
“My own word does not matter, and they don’t believe my truth,” Ty said in a video posted to TikTok last month that received more than 370,000 views. “The court system isn’t trying to save us, nobody’s trying to keep us safe. I am the one that’s going to have to choose my own safety.”
Police visited the home in December and attempted to remove the siblings but decided not to break down the door despite the father’s request that they do so, according to police reports. Given the “potentially combustible situation,” officers have asked for clarification from the court before carrying out Judge Derek P. Pullan’s order, according to court records.
In 2018, Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services found that the father, Brent Joel Larson, had sexually and emotionally abused his children. Investigators categorized the abuse as “severe & chronic.” The findings led to Larson’s parenting time being restricted to a handful of supervised monthly visits, as well as a 150-day restraining order that prohibited him from having any other contact with the children.
This month, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office said there is an ongoing criminal investigation into Larson related to new allegations against him, according to an office spokesperson who declined to comment further. A previous criminal investigation stalled in February 2021, when prosecutors determined they did not have enough evidence to lead to a probable conviction.
Two Utah police departments, Herriman and Lone Peak, are investigating Larson for child abuse, according to spokespersons for the departments.
Larson, through his attorney Ron Wilkinson, disputed the 2018 finding that he had abused the children.
In response to the new allegations, Wilkinson said in a statement: “There have been similar false claims — repeatedly, for years. The stories continue to change and expand each time — always about the same events.”
Larson has accused the children’s mother, Jessica Zahrt, of sabotaging his relationship with Ty and Brynlee through a campaign of “parental alienation.”
Mainstream scientific groups, including the American Psychiatric Association, which compiles the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the World Health Organization, which publishes the International Classification of Diseases list, have rejected the theory and said it is not a legitimate diagnosis. It has also been shunned by the National Center for Juvenile Justice for failing to meet court evidentiary standards.
That has not stopped some courts across the country from recognizing parental alienation and mandating treatments to reverse it.
In a January order, Pullan found Zahrt’s “campaign” of parental alienation to be the cause of the children’s “abuse narrative” and ordered that Ty and Brynlee undergo “reunification therapy” at an out-of-state facility to address the alleged harm. Pullan also determined that switching custody to their father is the “only way to recover the children from this psychological battlefield.”
Despite ordering the children placed back in their father’s legal custody, Pullan prohibited Larson from having unsupervised parenting time with the children or spending overnights with them, instead ordering Ty and Brynlee to be separately housed at their paternal relatives’ homes pending further court orders.
“The children are being maltreated by their mother. It is heartbreaking,” Wilkinson, Larson’s attorney, told ProPublica. “All that is hoped for is that the children can recover from the damage their mother has inflicted upon them.”
Ty said the claim that their mother is brainwashing them to disclose abuse is “100% fake — and if you don’t see that you’re as blind as a bat.”
Zahrt said since she and Larson split in 2012, she has supported her children having a healthy relationship with their father.
The Utah Attorney General’s office has received a slew of complaints about the court order and pleas for authorities to intervene, mostly from people who have learned about the case on social media, public records show. Last week, about 50 people, including advocates for family court reform, gathered at the Utah Capitol to protest the court’s handling of the case.
A court spokesperson said Pullan is prohibited from commenting on the case. “I know Judge Pullan spent many, many hours going through evidence and testimony before he made his ruling,” the spokesperson told ProPublica in an email.
Ty spoke to ProPublica from his barricaded bedroom with his TikTok livestream on but his mic muted. Brynlee sat nearby on a futon mattress eating ramen that she prepared using hot water from a bathroom sink. To access the bathroom without entering the hallway, Ty said, he used a drill to cut a hole in the wall without telling his mother.
“I’m scared for my life,” the teen told ProPublica, who left school in December to avoid being forced into his father’s custody. Ty told child welfare investigators in 2018 that his father had threatened him by saying, if he told anyone about the abuse “he would kill his mother and sister.”
Larson, through his attorney, denied the allegation and described the claim as “inconsistent with prior claims.”
Brynlee, who has also left school to avoid returning to her father, said the court is “controlling my life.” “I could be in the middle of playing with my friends right now,” she said.
In the order to remove the children from their mother’s home, Pullan wrote, “The children do labor under the misperception that they are in the driver’s seat and are free to determine when, where, and on what terms parent-time will occur. They are not.”
The judge criticized Zahrt for continuing to “wash the children’s clothes and to bring food to the barricaded room” because it enabled their continued rejection of their father.
Zahrt said the children would starve if she didn’t bring them food.
Pullan, citing the opinion of a court-ordered reunification therapist, chastised Zahrt for weaponizing the children in a “social media campaign aimed at achieving her desired end” and found her in contempt of court for failing to facilitate her ex-husband’s visitation on one occasion. Pullan ordered Zahrt to be jailed for five days, but will allow the contempt filing to be purged if she participates in a high-conflict parenting course.
Dr. David Corwin, a professor and director of pediatric forensic services at the University of Utah and the past president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, said parental alienation — which he described as “an ideology that is not based upon adequate research” — is too often an “easy sell” to courts seeking an alternative explanation for abuse claims.
“It really is one of the best defenses against accusations of sexual abuse,” said Corwin, who co-authored a position statement for his society in January warning professionals against its use in child custody decision-making. “Claiming that a child has been programmed or coached by the other parents creates enough uncertainty for a court to believe the easier narrative: that a parent would lie, rather than that a parent would sexually abuse a child.”
Larson first accused Zahrt of parental alienation a few months after Brynlee accused her father of sexually abusing her in May 2018. Zahrt said when she heard the phrase “parental alienation,” she had to look it up. “I literally had to wrap my brain around what I was even being accused of,” she told ProPublica. “I’ve watched them create this story about me, and it doesn’t matter what the truth really is.”
The so-called reunification camp that Ty and Brynlee have been ordered to attend with their father, Turning Points for Families, is run by Linda Gottlieb, a New York-based social worker who markets her program as a “therapeutic vacation.”
Gottlieb’s services include taking the children to an undisclosed location for a four-day “sequestration period.” During treatment, the children meet with the “unjustifiably rejected” parent. Afterward, they remain in the alienated parent’s custody for 90 days and are prohibited from having contact with the other parent or related family members.
In an interview with ProPublica, Gottlieb said she is dismayed at how social media is being used to attack her program and others like it.
“We can’t have what happened in Utah happen again,” said Gottlieb, who said she will be requesting that courts that refer minors to her program issue orders prohibiting parents and children who resist from speaking publicly about their cases.
In his January ruling, Pullan postponed enforcing his order for the siblings to attend Turning Points and said a hearing might be necessary first.
Pullan’s rulings did not mention the 2018 DCFS findings that substantiated the children’s allegations of emotional and sexual abuse by their father.
Brynlee was 7 years old when she first began disclosing details of the abuse to her mother, according to state records. Zahrt reported her daughter’s claims to the local police department and DCSF, which opened a case. In subsequent forensic interviews, Brynlee told investigators that her father had penetrated her anus with his finger and touched her inappropriately, resulting in significant pain, according to child welfare records. She told a police detective that her father did not take her to a doctor when she complained about the pain. According to police reports, Larson expressed “shame” for not bringing her to the doctor. On April 3, 2018, DCFS found Brynlee’s allegations of sexual abuse against Larson to be “supported.”
In November 2018, Ty, then 11, disclosed that his father was emotionally and sexually abusing him, after his mother brought him to the pediatrician for severe anxiety and panic attacks, according to child welfare reports. He disclosed that when he was about 4 years old, his father held his head under water in the bathtub while running the faucet in his anus until he couldn’t breathe. He reported that around age 7 his father put soap and a water gun in his anus while he was in the shower. Around age 8, he said, several times a month his father would come into his room and touch his penis while he was asleep. He said that when he confronted his father about it his father threatened to kill his mom and family if he told them about the abuse. On Nov. 29, 2018, DCFS found Ty’s allegations of sexual and emotional abuse against Larson to be “supported.”
Records show police corroborated DCFS’ findings, but did not arrest the father. Police records do not explain why, and the department would not comment further.
According to child welfare reports, two other minors who are connected to Larson also alleged he sexually abused them. A DCFS investigation found those accusations “unsupported.” In April 2018, the children’s mother petitioned the court for an ex parte child protective order against Larson.
Larson, via his attorney, told ProPublica that “these years-old claims have previously been addressed.”
Michelle Jones, a reunification therapist appointed by the court to work with Ty and Brynlee, told ProPublica that the children’s allegations of abuse are a “false narrative.” Asked about state welfare workers finding chronic and severe sexual abuse, Jones said “sometimes they accidently make a substantiation.”
She declined to detail how she reached that conclusion, citing therapist-patient confidentiality.
Jones’ conclusions were contradicted by a forensic psychologist hired by both parents in 2019 to evaluate the case. Monica D. Christy, who holds a Ph.D. in development and clinical psychology, wrote in a report that “at the very least” she found Larson’s behavior to be “unusual and inappropriate.” “Whether or not these were sexually-motivated actions and constitute child sexual abuse is for the Court to decide,” she wrote. Christy did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.
Jones told ProPublica she is frequently appointed by the court to advise on cases involving abuse allegations. She is also a vocal defender of parental alienation and presents on the subject at national conferences. A slide from a 2013 presentation Jones gave depicts a mother speaking to a child, “Now that we falsely accused Daddy in Family Court, we can have ice cream for supper, play video games and go to the park all day, and wait for the support checks to roll in!”
Daniel Eyre, a guardian ad litem assigned by the court to represent Ty and Brynlee’s interests in the case, also found parental alienation to be the cause of the children’s claims of abuse and supported sending them to the reunification camp. Eyre declined to speak with ProPublica.
Some defenders of parental alienation claim an absence of abuse or neglect is necessary for the diagnosis, but others, including Gottlieb and Jones, accept cases involving allegations of abuse, including when abuse has been substantiated by authorities, like in the Larson case.
Gottlieb said determining child abuse has occurred is the responsibility of the courts.
“Turning Points only accepts cases by court order,” said Gottlieb, adding that demand from courts has prompted her to scale up operations and open two new locations in Texas and California. “The court had to have already made the determination that the child is safe with the alienated parent and that abuse didn’t occur — or that it was so long ago, it was remediated.”
Ty partially attributes the court’s decision to delay sending him and Brynlee to Turning Points to his online activism. He livestreams around the clock, including while he sleeps. He calls the followers who “stand guard” while he sleeps his “dream catchers.”
“I know this is happening to so many kids,” Ty said. “What separates me is that I have hundreds of people watching.”
Correction • Feb. 27, 2023: This story originally misspelled the last name of the mother of the barricaded siblings. She is Jessica Zahrt, not Zhart.