The Role of Parenting Coordinators in Child Custody Disputes
Before a trial is conducted, the level of conflict between some couples may be so persistent and intense that the parties are incapable of implementing a parenting plan, something they are required to do. The telltale signs of a high conflict case include sustained problems like the following: excessive litigation, anger, distrust, verbal abuse, threats, physical aggressiveness, poor communication, and an ongoing lack of cooperation on parenting matters. If conflict impedes the parents’ ability to make decisions in the best interests of their children, then involving a Parenting Coordinator may be both beneficial and cost efficient. In fact, this form of alternate dispute resolution may be essential to protecting the child and resolving the high conflict custody case.
The role of Parenting Coordinators includes teaching the parents to make decisions together, while reducing conflict over the daily concerns that need to be addressed. By helping parents resolve routine issues, coordinators help reduce the caseload on court dockets. They help reduce or eliminate the need for hearings and conferences which further burden an already overburdened family court system. By helping resolve issues in the highly contentious custody case, well-trained coordinators reduce the hours that attorneys spend negotiating agreements with opposing counsel, which can represent a significant cost-savings for both parties. Primarily though, the coordinator helps the children who suffer most in battles over custody by reducing the overall conflict between the parents.
Rule 74 of the Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure establishes the role of the Parenting Coordinator in any family law case involving a child. While the focus varies from one case to the next, much of the coordinator’s efforts are centered on the constant daily decisions parents must make about their children. These frequent everyday discussions are usually the fuel that keeps the hostility between the parents burning. The coordinator helps the parties put their parenting plan into action by assisting in dispute resolution.
A Parenting Coordinator is a trained professional. The most common qualifications are an advanced degree in psychology and several years experience in therapy and mediation. Often a coordinator is trained as a lawyer or a mental health professional, with additional training in mediation. The coordinator must have the following qualifications as well:
- Well-developed listening and communication skills.
- Substantial knowledge of child and adolescent development.
- Substantial knowledge of family dynamics in separation and divorce and the impact on parent-child relationships.
- Substantial knowledge of intervention techniques effective in high-conflict relationships.
- Substantial knowledge of behavioral health issues.
- Be fair, tolerant, patient, and neutral throughout the process.
- Be decisive when the time comes to make a decision.
The parties may agree to use a coordinator to help them get through the parenting issues in their case. Either parent may request that a coordinator be appointed, or the court may decide independently to appoint a coordinator. Before making such an appointment, Rule 74 requires that the court make one of the following findings:
- “[P]arents are persistently in conflict with one another;
- [H]istory of substance abuse by either parent or family violence;
- [S]erious concerns about the mental health or behavior of either parent;
- [C]hild has special needs; or
- [It’s] in the children’s best interests to do so.”
Although the Parenting Coordinator may prepare and submit written concerns to the court, he or she lacks authority to make any “recommendation affecting child support, a change of custody, or a substantial change in parenting time.” They are usually involved in custody matters after the court has issued custody orders, so much of their effort is focused on helping the parents work through the “devil in the details” issues that are unaddressed in the order.
When the parties choose a coordinator to help them make parenting decisions, their agreement must be written and state who is being hired, the compensation, the length and terms of service, and the nature of the issues to be resolved. The coordinator’s length of service may be extended if the parties are making progress.
To resolve disputes, the coordinator holds a series of meetings with both parents to discuss any concerns they have about the parenting plan. During these sessions, the coordinator will blend counseling, parent-education, and alternative dispute resolution techniques, like mediation and arbitration. Generally, the parties’ attorneys don’t attend these sessions. There are exceptions, however, as when the coordinator and parents agree to the attorneys’ presence, or when the court orders the attorneys present.
The goal of the coordinator is to help parents reach agreement on any issues that affect the future well-being of the children. To accomplish that, improving the communication between the parties has to be addressed head-on. The parents may need to be taught how to communicate with each other again for the benefit of their children. Reducing conflict may require educating the parents about a child’s developmental needs and how best to meet those needs. The coordinator may speak with third parties, grandparents, teachers, medical providers, or other persons involved in the children’s lives.
In facilitating negotiations between the parties, the coordinator attempts to resolve disputes before they escalate. Ideally, this process will help the parents reach a settlement that is fair, meets as many of their individual needs as possible, and is in the best interests of the children. The coordinator concludes by providing a report with recommendations to the court. Either parent may file a timely objection to the coordinator’s recommendations. The court may approve, modify, or reject the recommendations, or may set a hearing on the matter.
Time Sensitive Decisions
On occasion, the coordinator may need to make an immediate decision as an arbitrator on a parenting matter. These decisions are limited to circumstances demanding quick action because the welfare of a child or party is at risk. These are interim decisions and, although binding, they are not with prejudice — the court will review them at its earliest opportunity.
Of the situations the Parenting Coordinator faces, the most difficult may involve matters of domestic violence in the family. In those circumstances, the coordinator must remain vigilant to ensure that all responsibilities are fulfilled. With domestic violence, the coordinator must be keenly sensitive to the seriousness of the problem and the effect it can often have on the process. Perpetrators of domestic violence often attempt to assert control over their victims with threats and physical aggression. When these conditions exist, it can be difficult or impossible for the coordinator to mediate the parents’ issues. The very techniques that the coordinator uses in an effort to help can be manipulated by the domestic violence aggressor.
When domestic violence is involved, the parenting coordinator may adjust his or her approach by shifting emphasis to enforcement of the judge’s order. The coordinator will review the terms of the order and ensure that, as much as possible, the actions by each parent are in compliance. Even in this hostile environment, the coordinator must fulfill his or her responsibilities to the children and to the court, and remain neutral.
Neutrality, Fairness, and Accessibility
The coordinator cannot advocate for one party. Furthermore, the coordinator cannot compromise the parents’ equal access and ability to be heard or otherwise impede the fairness of the process. Neutrality, fairness, and accessibility are necessary to build the parents’ trust, both in the process and in the coordinator. Because many coordinators are trained mental health professionals, they are prohibited from providing counseling or other mental health services to a parent or child in the case they are appointed to.
There is no therapist-patient privilege between the coordinator and a parent or child in the custody case. While a parenting coordinator maintains a neutral posture at all times, everything that he or she witnesses may be offered into evidence in court. However, only the judge has authority to subpoena the coordinator to testify. This ensures that there is no conflict of interest and that actual neutrality in the process, as well as the appearance of neutrality, is maintained at all times. If the coordinator becomes aware of a situation that compromises the neutrality of the process, then he or she should consider resigning from the case.
The cost of compensating the coordinator for the professional services provided is usually split between the parties. Before the coordinator is appointed, the judge will decide how much of the fee each parent will pay. We know from experience that using the services of a coordinator can reduce the frequency of going to court, which can make their appointment very cost-effective.
Resignation and Litigation
Though the process is intended to avoid unnecessary litigation, returning to court is always a possibility for chronically high-conflict couples. If the parties remain inflexible and uncooperative, the coordinator can do little other than resign and let the parties return to court. Following such resignation, the lawyers and the judge will resolve the issues through litigation.
Using a Parenting Coordinator in a high conflict family law case can be very beneficial and represent a cost savings for the parents. With this form of alternative dispute resolution, the coordinator creates a safe and neutral atmosphere in what can be a storm of hostility, dishonesty, frustration, and emotional pain. When the coordinator is involved in a case, his or her guidance and experience helps everyone — the parents, the children, the attorneys, and the judge assigned to the case. Coordinators provide two kinds of assistance. First, they provide immediate relief from critical issues by offering short-term solutions. Second, they provide long term assistance by teaching the parents the skills and techniques necessary to continue parenting their children in a positive and harmonious way.