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Parent coordinators help divorced couples who won’t stop fighting

Michael Davidson, a family lawyer in Lexington, Ky., is used to dealing with high-conflict couples. But when clients continue feuding over daily child-rearing issues even after a custody order has been issued, he sometimes recommends a parent coordinator step in.

Frustrated with contentious clients who consume their time and clog the courts with bitter disputes over every aspect of child-rearing, family lawyers across the country are turning to parenting coordinators to handle their bickering clients.

“Statistics are showing us that about 10 percent of these high-conflict cases are taking up about 90 percent of the courts’ and lawyers’ time,” said Davidson. “Parenting coordination is actually an alternative dispute resolution. We have found that bringing people out of the courtroom and getting them to discuss their differences with a mental health professional has been quite effective for some of them.”

In some cases, attorneys can convince their clients to use a parenting coordinator voluntarily – other times it requires a court order. However they are appointed, parent coordinators have the authority to take over many of the daily child-rearing decisions parents are unable to agree on.

Parenting coordinators are usually mental health professionals paid on an hourly basis by the parents. They meet with parents – either individually or together – to help resolve disputes over scheduling, education and other issues. When the parents can’t work it out even with this guidance, the parenting coordinator has the authority to make decisions.

But the goal is to help parents negotiate decisions about their children on their own.

Bringing in a parenting coordinator is “often an effective intervention with really intractable, high-conflict cases,” explained Bruce Copeland, a Washington, D.C. attorney and psychologist.

Disagreements can range from setting bedtimes to who picks up the kids at soccer to whether a 12-year-old should be allowed to go to a sleepover.

“It can just be nit-picky, day-to-day stuff,” Copeland commented.

But these constant, self-perpetuating battles can have a devastating effect on the innocent victims of divorce, according to Christine Coates, a Boulder, Colo. attorney with a psychology background who trains parenting coordinators.

“These folks just keep going back to court, and keep the children in the middle of the conflict,” she said. “The goal for parenting coordination is to take the child out of the middle.”

New ADR model

Coates said the concept of parenting coordination arose about nine years ago in Colorado when a group of local divorce lawyers, mediators and mental health specialists met to talk about high-conflict families.

Since then, it’s caught on rapidly throughout the country.

As of August 2006, 17 states had some sort of formal parent coordination program, according to a survey by Barbara Ann Bartlett, a family lawyer in Tulsa, Okla.

Eight of those states – Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas – have parenting coordination statutes that specify the procedures for appointing coordinators and spell out their responsibilities. The other nine – Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin – have less specific statutes or programs that allow courts to appoint parenting coordinators with authority to make binding, post-custodial decisions.

In Minnesota, for example, an “expeditor” may be appointed without the parties’ consent. The expeditor can be used for a one-time parenting dispute or for ongoing dispute resolution. The expeditor’s decisions are binding.

In Arizona, courts can request that a local social service agency supervise a case to make sure custodial and visitation terms are carried out.

Copeland, who has done parenting coordination in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, said that typically, parenting coordination orders – whether by the parents’ consent or imposed by the court – do not allow coordinators to change custody or make decisions about relocation or religious issues.

They can, however, “typically impose resolution on day-to-day skirmishes that often seem to characterize these families – how transitions occur, holidays, selection of activities and clothing – all the nuts-and-bolts conflicts these parents don’t seem to be able to resolve on their own, ” he said.

Copeland usually begins by meeting weekly with the parents – either together or separately if the parents are so argumentative they can’t be in the same room.

“I’ve had parenting coordination cases where the conflict is so intense with the parents you could spend 20 hours a week working with them,” he said.

After the initial period in which major issues are resolved, much of the negotiation is done via e-mail, he said.

Most parenting coordinators have the authority to meet with the children, if necessary, and to consult with school and medical personnel.

“You’re really kind of an orchestrator,” he explained.

Special attention

Dianna Gould-Saltman, a family lawyer in Los Angeles, has recommended parenting coordinators for several clients.

“You’re going to get more time, more specialized attention from a parenting coordinator [than from a judge],” she said.

In southern California, parents decide themselves how long to involve a parenting coordinator.

“They can decide to involve a parenting coordinator for six months,” she said, adding, “I’ve seen them for as long as three years, with a renewal option.”

Although the coordinator often begins by making decisions for the parents, the goal is to “assist the parents in figuring out how to resolve these things without a parenting coordinator,” she said.

In southern California, parties sign a document in advance that states what types of issues are likely to need intervention from the parenting coordinator. Those issues are then ranked in terms of urgency; the agreement also spells out the coordinator’s authority to resolve conflicts.

California has one of the few published cases on the propriety of delegating judicial authority to parenting coordinators. In a 1997 case, a trial court referred issues pertaining to the implementation of custody orders to a “special master,” including modifications of the parenting schedule in the future. The California Court of Appeal found that the trial court had no authority to assign such matters to a special master without explicit statutory authorization.

To permit a general delegation of judicial power, both parties have to consent. Otherwise, California’s non-specific “referee” statute only allows for the special master (parenting coordinator) to make advisory findings (Ruisi v. Thieriot, 53 Cal.App.4th 260.)

What’s best for clients

Gould-Saltman said parenting coordination is more popular in northern California than in southern California, which is perceived as being “particularly litigious in family law.

“Attorneys are less comfortable giving up what they perceive as some control to protect their clients,” she said. “They know their judges; they don’t always know what’s happening with the parenting coordinator.

“But I think the attorneys who do use parenting coordinators for the most part are comfortable with the decision-making,” she continued. “We’re problem solvers; we’re not mental health professionals.”

Placing clients with someone who has a “more sophisticated sense of inter-dynamics, as well as child development,” is probably best for the clients, she said.

Besides, she added, “If it’s gotten to the point where a parenting coordinator is an appropriate answer, the idea that you have control over this case is an illusion. You don’t have control if you’re rushing back to court to have the judge make a decision.”

Davidson agreed: “Sometimes the parents can’t see the forest for the trees. Sometimes one parent is difficult, the other is rational and comes to my office and is exasperated. I’ll make the suggestion: ‘Have you ever tried a parenting coordinator?'”

Coates said that attorneys often recognize that a parenting coordinator has a better chance of reducing parental conflict than they do by pursuing litigation.

“Even if the client ‘wins’ in court, the conflict is likely to increase between the parents. Although one issue is resolved legally, it doesn’t take care of everything,” she remarked.

“Good family lawyers are problem-solvers and will attempt to fit the process that is needed to the issues,” she added. “When a client is using a parenting coordinator, the attorney will still be available to counsel, or to litigate on issues that are outside the scope of the implementation role of the parenting coordinator.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: nora.tooher@lawyersusaonline.com