Parenting Coordination – A Missing Piece Of The Divorce Puzzle

Parenting coordination is a Alternative Dispute Resolution process. It is not therapy, advocacy, or evaluation. A Parenting Coordinator (“PC”) provides the following services to families before, during, and after divorce: assessment, education, coordination, conflict management, mediation, and arbitration – all related to child-focused issues. Typically, the PC is court-appointed in “high conflict” cases after parents have demonstrated their inability to resolve child-focused issues. But wouldn’t it make more sense to be proactive and give families access to parenting coordination as a resource early in the process? Doesn’t it make sense to have a trained professional available to work with both parents to help manage parenting issues and develop new communication and problem-solving skills as their family structure changes through divorce?

I suppose the answer depends on many factors, including the qualifications of the PC, authority of the PC, and accountability of the PC. Since there is no national licensing or certification body for PCs, we must look to state statutes for guidance. Qualifications for a PC established by statute may be intentionally vague, such as one who must be “an individual with appropriate training and qualifications, and must have a perspective acceptable to the court” in Colorado, or a licensed attorney or mental health professional with a specific number of years and type of experience and training in North Carolina. The key is to find a qualified PC whose focus is the Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) process, not therapy, advocacy or evaluation.

Assuming attorneys and families can find suitable professionals to work with them solely on child-focused issues within the ADR process, what authority should the PC have? It is generally accepted that PCs cannot make decisions that affect the substantive rights of the parties (i.e. changes in legal custody, physical custody, visitation and child support). Can the PC be the Final Decision Maker regarding any specific issues? Authority of the PC will determined by state statute and/or court order (if they exist), but what about those families who work with a PC in the absence of a statute or court order? All PCs (whether court-appointed or not) should have an agreement for clients to sign that precisely sets forth the parameters of the PC’s authority as well as all other terms of the professional relationship.

Only a handful of states have PC legislation. Oklahoma was the first state to pass the Parenting Coordinator Act in 2001. Idaho, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado and Louisiana have passed PC statutes since then. In Minnesota, “expeditors” are appointed to arbitrate parenting plans. In Arizona, “family court advisors” monitor compliance with visitation and custody orders. In California, “special masters” and “referees” are equivalent to PCs. In Ohio and Wisconsin, arbitration statutes are used to facilitate parenting coordination. In Florida, there are Administrative Orders regarding parenting coordination in some circuits but not in others. Currently, an Ad Hoc Committee of the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar is working on Parenting Coordination legislation. I am a member of this committee together with other attorneys, judges, mental health professionals, mediators, and experts in the field of domestic violence.

PCs are currently working by court appointment (or by private agreement) across the country. In states that do not have statutes, issues arise concerning lack of uniformity about qualifications, authority, accountability and more. Consequently, vigilance is necessary to be certain that PCs are qualified through professional licensure in law or mental health, are trained in mediation, have a working knowledge of child and adolescent development and family systems, have specific training in parenting coordination and the ability to work within the framework of the ADR process, rather than therapy, advocacy or evaluation.

There are some PCs who liken their work to “couples counseling” – it isn’t. Parenting coordination is not therapy. A PC will try to “work their way out of a job.” There are some PCs who take sides with one parent or the other – that’s unusual because the PC is defined as “impartial” or “neutral” in all state statutes. If the PC is court-appointed, the PC may be asked to make recommendations to the Court, however, that does not relieve the PC of the duty to be impartial. The issue of accountability has several dimensions. First, there is the question of opportunity for review of a PC’s decisions and recommendations. In court-appointed cases, there are due process safeguards built into court orders and statutes. However, those PCs who work without a statute or order must have very clear parameters for their work. Next, there is the issue of professional accountability and ethics since there is no entity that oversees the conduct of PCs or can be responsive to a consumer complaint.

It makes sense for families to have access to PCs to do this important work and establish new communication and problem-solving skills early in the divorce process. Families must develop the tools they need to avoid conflicts, rather than continue along a downward spiral as parenting issues spin out of control, damaging children, sometimes irreparably. Why wait until a family situation becomes unbearable to go to court to petition for appointment of a PC? Attorneys and judges do not have to micro-manage parenting issues. It makes more sense for attorneys to recommend working with PCs early in the divorce process to avoid litigation regarding child-focused issues. Why insist on a court order? Stipulations are more in sync with the peaceful divorce model. Let’s make attorneys and families aware of this valuable alternative approach to the practice of family law.

Oh – and what if one parent wants to work with the PC and the other doesn’t? That, too, will have a positive impact on the family – it’s “the power of one.” One person has the ability to shift the family dynamics by developing new communication and conflict management skills. It takes commitment and perseverance — and it works.

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