The following articles focus on parenting coordinators and their role in higher conflict custody matters. There are several in the Atlanta area, including Susan Boyan at the Cooperative Parenting Institute. The articles focus on the Florida and Minnesota versions as implemented in those states.
A relatively new tool wending its way across the nation are parenting coordinators.
An article from the Minnesota Lawyer gives an overview of parenting coordination as it has been adopted in Minnesota.
Interestingly, there are several notable departures from the Florida implementation.
For example, in Florida, parenting coordinators function only as mediators or facilitators. They do not impose their own decision if the parents are unable to reach an agreement.
And if no agreement is reached, the only consequence is that a report is filed with the court stating that no agreement was reached.
Also, in Florida, parenting coordinators are normally mental health professionals, and the court appointment is usually of a very short duration.
Parenting coordination is still fairly new in South Florida and has yet to gain widespread usage.
Parenting coordination is most likely to be used in high conflict cases, to help parents who can’t agree or communicate on anything, to work out exchange arrangements, visitation schedules and other parenting issues.
Could parenting coordination help in your case?
Most family law attorneys would agree that one of the major disagreements between parties – both during the divorce and after – are issues relating to parenting. Regardless of whether parents share joint physical custody or one has primary physical custody, temporary changes to parenting time schedules, vacations, participation in extracurricular activities, medical treatment and the like continue to be issues about which parties can, and often do, disagree.
The resolution of these disputes cost parents thousands of dollars in legal fees to resolve, and overburden the family court dockets.
In these matters, traditional methods of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) have not proven effective. Usually, mediators cannot respond quickly enough, and if mediation doesn’t resolve the issue, litigation has been the only option.
The use of a parenting coordinator presents a new method of resolving many parenting issues in an efficient and timely manner with the focus on the needs of the child.
A parenting coordinator is usually a family law attorney or a mental health professional with experience in divorce or other family law matters; often the parenting coordinator has mediation training. Many have either training or experience in managing high-conflict situations, as many of these cases have that element present.
For the last several years, parenting coordinators have been used in high conflict divorce cases where there are minor children. They have been used by the private agreement of the parties who enter into a stipulation and order that appoints a third party to function in this capacity.
Initially, the idea of a parenting coordinator was embraced by the family law bar, and parenting coordinator agreements were entered into with little thought as to how much authority was being delegated to a person who had minimal accountability for his/her decisions. Often the role was assigned to mental health professionals who have a great deal of knowledge about child development, but little experience in family law or in interpreting court orders. This lack of accountability and experience led to reluctance on the part of attorneys and judges to use parenting coordinators.
By keeping in mind a few simple guidelines, attorneys representing parents can make effective use of a parenting coordinator without sacrificing accountability.
Engaging a parenting coordinator
Parenting coordinators are typically contacted by the parents or both attorneys, and are asked if they are able to undertake the responsibility of working with parents who are unable to make decisions on either specific or general issues relating to minor children.
They are usually appointed for a specific period of time, commonly two years in post-divorce appointments.
If the parenting coordinator undertakes the case, the engagement should be confirmed by a written agreement, signed by the parents and counsel and submitted to the court for entry as an order.
Parenting coordinators should insist that the order is in place before starting their duties.
The role of coordinators
The role of a parenting coordinator is threefold:
• to facilitate discussion and resolution of a disputed parenting issue;
• to educate and coach parents on disputed parenting issues; and
• if an agreement on a disputed issue still cannot be reached, to make a decision on the disputed issue.
A decision from a parenting coordinator should be made in a clear and concise manner that contains a rationale for the decision. The decision should be communicated contemporaneously to both parents, and should be copied by the parenting coordinator to any attorney representing a party.
Using a parenting coordinator
Once a parenting coordinator has been agreed upon and appointed by court order, the process of dispute resolution varies from one parenting coordinator to another. Attorneys should determine how a particular coordinator manages the process prior to making a final decision on whether he or she is a good fit for a particular case. However, certain basic protocols should be followed.
The parenting coordinator should:
• be willing to have an initial telephone conference with either of the attorneys, if the parents are represented, or with unrepresented parents;
• agree to the terms of the order appointing him/her;
• agree to review all relevant court orders and other documents prior to meeting with the parents;
• meet with the parties, preferably in person;
• obtain input from both parents, if at all possible, prior to making any decision that is not an emergency;
• schedule an initial meeting with the minor children, and
• obtain input from the minor children about decisions that impact them.
For difficult disputes, the parenting coordinator may bring an expert to the process to provide professional information or opinion. For example, where the parents have a dispute about a medical decision, the coordinator may involve the child’s pediatrician, or bring in an expert on the specific medical issue. If there is a dispute about whether a child needs therapy, the coordinator may recommend a psychologist to evaluate the child’s need for therapy.
A primary goal of a parenting coordinator is to model an appropriate decision-making and dispute resolution process so that the parents can eventually engage in joint decision-making with only limited, if any, involvement of the coordinator.
When can a coordinator help?
Parenting coordinators can be beneficial to parents during the divorce process and can assist parents’ post divorce parenting issues. The reduction of conflict during and after divorce reduces the adverse impact of divorce on minor children.
A parenting coordinator is often brought into a case at the beginning to assist parents in appropriately informing minor children of the fact of the divorce, and to facilitate discussion of how the divorce may impact the minor children.
Parenting coordinators can assist in developing temporary parenting schedules, which are often adjusted during the divorce process. They can also help establish holiday and vacation scheduling and address issues such as schooling, tutoring, extracurricular activities and therapy.
Research has found that a parenting coordinator can be especially helpful in the year or two after the divorce is final, when anger can still be present, and when family life changes occur, such as moving to a new residence or school, parental involvement with a significant other and/or the introduction of step-parents/step-siblings.
Parenting coordinators can also be very helpful in cases that need particular monitoring, including those involving chemical dependency, moderate mental health conditions and/or domestic violence.
In Minnesota, parenting coordinator stipulations and orders do not usually provide that the work of the coordinator is confidential, and specifically allow for the coordinator to be subpoenaed to a deposition or court hearing.
If the parties or their attorneys desire to have the work of the parenting coordinator deemed confidential and not allow him or her to give testimony, the stipulation and order appointing the coordinator should specifically address this.
An informal survey of the members of the Minnesota Chapter of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the members of the Collaborative Law Institute show that the fees for a parenting coordinator range from about $125 per hour to $250 per hour. Most have their own contracts that cover a variety of matters, but these contracts should not be used as the basis of the stipulation and order appointing the coordinator.
The better practice is to have the coordinator use a contract that is limited to issues relating to fees, availability and method of communication. It is important to note that the coordinator may have a higher hourly rate for testimony and the preparation of reports.