Collaborative Law in Georgia: Child Specialists, Coaches and the Development of the Parenting Plan

Around the country and indeed the world the Collaborative Divorce process embraces many different  approaches.  In some areas of the country an attorney alone comprises the “team.”  In many others, the prevailing model calls for a full team: two attorneys, two coaches, one financial neutral and one child specialist.  In most of Georgia the goal is to utilize such a “full team.”  But one  area of creative difference between and among Georgia collaborative professionals has to do with the respective roles of the child specialist and the coaches in the preparation of the parenting plan.

The model that the authors subscribe to assigns unique roles to the child specialist and the coaches.  Specifically, the child specialist evaluates the children’s functioning and needs in the context of the pending divorce.  In addition, the child specialist assists the children in developing coping strategies as well as making sure their voices are heard where decisions affecting them are made.  Once the child specialist has completed the initial evaluations, and often after a follow-up or two, he or she meets with the parents and the coaches to discuss the findings and to articulate the child’s special needs, desires, emotional status, etc.  This allows the parents to hear what the children need and want  while simultaneously allowing the coaches to hear the same information. This process fosters a much fuller understanding of that information.  It is then for the coaches to reinforce what the child specialist has said since they have heard exactly the same information as the clients. 

In this model the coaches work with the clients to develop the parenting plan taking into consideration the feedback from the child specialist.  We think it is essential that the coaches develop the parenting plan, since they have a detailed understanding of the family system and the minutia of the clients’ lives. Having the child specialist craft the parenting plan might appear appropriate from the children’s points of view but may not be capable of implementation unless it also works with the parents’ work and travel schedules, availability for transportation, etc.  The coaches, on the other hand are perfectly situated to incorporate the feedback from the child specialist, together with all of the other information they have about the lifestyles of the two parents.  It is the coaches’ responsibility to find the proper fit between the best interests of the children and those of the parents.

This model also allows the child specialist to continue working with the children on their adjustment to the divorce without getting caught up in the parents’ struggles.  The child specialist stays focused on the special needs of those members of the divorcing family who might otherwise not be able to make themselves heard. 

The coaches can maintain their focus on the details of the parenting plan and work with each of the parents on the issues, conflicts and struggles that often emerge when couples talk about final decision making, conflict resolution, schedules, and areas of parental responsibility, etc.  Working directly with the parents, coaches are in the best position to exert positive influences on them to come up with a detailed, well-crafted parenting plan – now legally required under this year’s HB 369 as of January 1, 2008– that will be realistic and work in the real world.

After all, the wording of a parenting plan may look great, but if it can’t be implemented over the long haul it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

SOURCE: Howard Drutman, Ph.D. & Marsha Schechtman, LCSW of Atlanta North Psychotherapy Center