The FOX 9 Investigators get lots of tips about contentious divorces and custody battles, but parent alienation brings out a big question: Could you lose your kids by turning them against your ex?
Family Court File 11-1273 is as long and tortured as the dissolution of the marriage it documents. Sandra Grazzini Rucki, a former Mrs. Minnesota contestant from a multi-million dollar trust fund family, and David Rucki, who once owned a multi-million dollar trucking business, split -- and when they did, they fought over money, accusations of lies and even fraud.
Yet, that doesn't show just how bad it really got for both of them. Currently, four of their five children can no longer live with either one of them.
"It's extreme because it's in family court, not child protection, but it's happening all over -- families losing their liberties in this manner, their liberties to be with their children," explained Michelle MacDonald, who started an advocacy group called The Family Innocence Project.
In this case, there have been no child abuse charges; however, a judge thinks the children have been traumatized by something called "parental alienation."
It began just two years ago, but David Rucki said theirs is the biggest file in Dakota County Family Court. While there's no way to verify that, the courthouse printer began to overheat when the FOX 9 Investigators made copies of the file.
It all boiled over on Friday, April 19, when the couple's two older daughters ran away.
"Police escorted us to the house to make sure we didn't run," Sami Rucki explained. "We went upstairs for 10 minutes and we took off."
The Rucki girls say they want to be heard, and they met the FOX 9 Investigators at a hotel just days after they took off. It is unknown who brought them there.
Dakota County Judge David Knutson won't let the girls live with their mother and they refuse to see their father because they say he is abusive.
"My oldest two girls make outrageous claims about me personally," David Rucki told the FOX 9 Investigators.
A psychologist appointed by the court believes that Sandra Grazzini Rucki brainwashed her daughters to think that way.
Laura Thomas is a family law specialist at the University of Minnesota, and when asked what how she would generally define parental alienation, she replied: "I think it's a sustained attack on a relationship."
One parent might try to keep a child from the other, and tactics might range from accusing the other parent of sexually abusing the child to much more subtle methods.
"The mom presents the child with a toy right before the father is scheduled to come and get the child for parenting time and the exchange happens," Thomas explained. "You have this great toy, but you can't play with it until you come back from dad's."
In the Rucki case, court records show David Rucki believes Sandra Grazzini Rucki convinced their five children -- especially the two eldest girls -- to team up against him.
"Mom got them all whipped up," he said.
As an example, his attorney submitted a video that she says shows Sandra Grazzini Rucki and one of the children dropping blank checks from the business David Rucki owned at the time -- along with his Social Security number and bank account number.
"Kind of bringing the child into the adult world under her wing and 'let's do this," explained Lisa Elliot, David Rucki's attorney. "Her co-conspirator. We're in this together. Dad's the bad guy."
In an affidavit, Sandra Grazzini Rucki denied the claim.
"It could be that the child doesn't want to see one person or the other," MacDonald posited.
MacDonald's group is appealing Sandra Grazzini Rucki's case on constitutional grounds. Her client has argued that her children don't want to see their father because he scared them, and she submitted transcripts of angry voicemails left on the kids' cell phones.
"Rights to parenting time are constitutionally protected," Thomas said.
The Rucki girls told FOX 9 their father sat them down at the kitchen table and threatened to shoot them and their mother.
"What I think I said is, 'What do you want me to do? Put a bullet in my head so you don't have to deal with this?'" David Rucki told FOX 9 News.
Court documents indicate David Rucki went through domestic abuse counseling.
"He probably did have a short temper. There were five kids. Things get crazy. Did he ever harm them? No," said Elliot. "Maybe he didn't try hard enough to stay in contact with them when this was going on thinking if things would calm down, it would go back to the way it was -- but it went in the other direction."
Sandra Grazzini Rucki said she technically did what the judge ordered; however, the court believes she thwarted every attempt to reunite the children with their father.
"They tried three different therapists or professionals in the Twin Cities to try reunification while the children were still living with their mom and it just didn't work," Elliot said.
When asked if she told her children they should not see their father, Sandra Grazzini Rucki said "no."
"I was not denying him, but it had to be when the kids agreed to it," she said.
Sami Rucki described her parent's divorce as a method of escape.
"When the divorce happened, it was our way to get away from him," she said. "That's what we really wanted."
Judge Knutson appointed what he called a neutral expert to evaluate the kids.
"In my article, I listed some symptoms," Dr. Paul Reitman said.
Reitman was considered neutral in that he was new to the case.
"He's certainly not neutral on the issue of parental alienation," MacDonald said.
Reitman calls parental alienation emotional abuse, and he said that in general, it can cause higher rates of depression, chemical dependency, anxiety and personality disorder. Except in cases of proven sexual abuse, Reitman recommends forcing a child to reunite with a parent.
"What's the alternative?" he asked. "Say it's over? You never have to see your mother or father again? At 10 or 13, you're going to make that decision?"
Can a judge force a child to like a parent they say they're afraid of?
"I have gone to court with clients and a judge has said, 'I am not going to make a teenager come and attend parenting time with you. I'm not going to do it,'" Thomas said.
According to the Rucki documents, Reitman suggested that parental alienation could put children "in a similar psychological state to those involved in cults."
When asked whether she thought she had brainwashed her children as though they were in a cult, Sandra Grazzini Rucki again said "no."
"That's absurd," she said.
Court documents show Reitman strongly recommended that the Rucki children be taken from their mother and begin therapy so they could be de-programmed.
"I'm like, 'Those are some weird words' -- programming and reprogramming," Sami Rucki said.
Reitman's report triggered an emergency telephone conference with the judge.
"This was not an emergency situation," contends MacDonald.
On Sept. 7, 2012, Judge Knutson ordered Sandra Grazzini Rucki out of her home -- away from her kids that very day -- and appointed a different therapist to deprogram the children.
"If you know anything about parental alienation, you don't take the kids away from both parents," MacDonald said.
The Rucki girls say they told the judge what they wanted, but they claim Knutson told them they had no choice. They add that their last meeting with him was also supposed to be with their father, and they told him no.
Since September, the girls and their younger brother and sister have seen their mother twice -- short visits at Chucky Cheese and the Mall of America, both supervised by the therapist.
It has now been nearly a month since the oldest girls ran, taking off after the judge ordered them to live with their father's sister instead of their mother's sister. They say no one listens, and there is no one to protect them. They have also been removed from school for truancy.
David Rucki is now working with a therapist on the relationships with his three children who did not run away.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is recognized by some psychologists, but not by others. It is not an official diagnosis.