Over the past few decades, the benefits of encouraging parents to make their own decisions regarding custody and parenting issues have become increasingly apparent. Parents who are unable to reach agreements on their own have been encouraged to reduce the negative effects of conflict on their children by mediating disputes. Conventional mediation, however, has proved generally inappropriate or ineffective for parents with chronically high levels of conflict. The concept of parenting coordination became popular in the late 1990’s as part of a growing effort to assist such parents and their children.
A Form of Alternative Dispute Resolution
Like mediation, parenting coordination is a form of alternative dispute resolution. Unlike mediation, however, it is not confidential. Parenting Coordinators are able to testify in court, if necessary. They remain neutral toward each parent, and are committed to supporting the best interests of the child. Parenting coordinators are usually licensed mental health professionals, although in some cases parents agree to use an otherwise qualified lay person or licensed attorney. Parenting coordinators are also trained in family mediation and require at least a basic familiarity with child development, high conflict families, the impact of divorce on families and children, and the effects of long-term custody disputes on children.
A parent can ask the court to appoint a coordinator or the court can appoint one on its own. Unlike child custody evaluators or guardians ad litem (GALs), who make recommendations to the court, coordinators work primarily to bring parents into agreement. They make recommendations directly to the parents or their attorneys. A Parenting Coordinator may serve for a predetermined period of time, or may have an open-ended appointment. The latter arrangement allows parents who make initial progress to return to the coordinator if new conflicts arise.
Child-centered goals of parenting coordination include shielding children from conflict, helping them feel free to love both of their parents, and reducing their levels of stress. The coordinator works directly with the parents to improve the co-parenting relationship. Goals include increasing mutual cooperation and respect, teaching more effective communication skills and anger management techniques, mediating or clarifying parenting plans, and monitoring parental behaviors and compliance with court orders. A major goal is reducing litigation in contentious parenting situations.
Parenting coordinators generally collaborate with all other professionals involved with the family. If necessary, the coordinator may refer family members for services such as individual or family counseling, drug screenings, parenting classes, or reconciliation therapy.
Effectiveness of Parenting Coordination
Parenting coordination may be helpful to parents when there are high degrees of conflict, mutual blaming behaviors, actual or perceived parental alienation, inability to communicate regarding child rearing, and a tendency to engage in frequent litigation. It may also be appropriate for parents with personality issues that impact collaboration, such as suspiciousness, rigidity, emotional instability, or substance abuse. It can be used in conjunction with supervised visitation, although it will not be appropriate in cases involving ongoing domestic violence.
The power of a parenting coordinator to compel parental compliance is limited, as judges are not generally permitted to delegate their enforcement authority. If an order or agreements permits, the coordinator can recommend temporary changes in the parenting schedule or to terms such as pick-up and drop-off arrangements. However, a court cannot simply order parents to comply with a parenting coordinator’s recommendations without judicial review.
Parenting coordination is much more successful when both parents support the process and the process is implemented early in a case. In 2012, New Jersey discontinued a pilot program in parenting coordination, largely because coordinators appointed under the program were unable to intervene in family dynamics early enough to prevent conflict-ridden patterns of interaction from becoming entrenched. A New Jersey court can still order appointment of a parenting coordinator in an appropriate case.
Parenting Coordinators & Other Child Custody Professionals
In some cases, a Parenting Coordinator will be appointed in conjunction with a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or a custody evaluator. A GAL or a custody evaluator will also sometimes recommend that the court appoint a Parenting Coordinator. The coordinator interacts directly with the family and monitors parental behaviors, and can thus provide additional information to assist the GAL or evaluator. When a case does not resolve out of court, the Parenting Coordinator can testify regarding the child’s best interest. This is usually considered a last resort, however, as the primary purpose of the coordinator is to work on behalf of the entire family rather than serve as a court witness.
Parenting coordination is sometimes referred to as “co-parent counseling,” but it is not “counseling” or “therapy” in the usual sense, and it is not confidential. Like a parenting coordinator, a co-parent counselor would address children’s issues associated with family reorganization and assist parents in improving effective collaboration. Unlike a parenting coordinator, however, a co-parent counselor would not monitor parental behavior or help structure co-parenting efforts, and would not ordinarily be required or expected to share information with the court. Parents with more manageable levels of conflict may benefit from confidential family therapy or co-parent counseling. Parenting coordination is directed toward parents who are experiencing serious conflict, or whose own emotional issues are interfering with their parenting abilities.
If the court has appointed a Parenting Coordinator in your case, or if either you or your child’s other parent believes that a Parenting Coordinator would be helpful, the child custody attorneys at Weinberger Divorce and Family Law Group can provide you with additional information. Contact us today for an initial consultation. Call: 888-888-0919.