For a family law attorney, not a day nor week goes by without a client calling with a crisis. Seemingly the calls come in on Friday afternoons. “My husband won’t return the children. Fix it.” “My ex-wife signed the children up for soccer in the town she lives in with her new husband, and I have coached them for seven years in my town. Stop her.” “My husband won’t let me take the children out of state so that they can go to my sister’s wedding. Make him.” Even if the presiding judge were interested in addressing these disputes (which—hint, hint—they are not), by the time that the issue can be lined up before a judge, the time to resolve the issue has often passed. Other than calling an equally thrilled opposing counsel (who just got the other half of the story that your client may or may not have omitted in reporting the crisis to you), what can be done? One option may be a parent coordinator.
What is a parent coordinator? A parent coordinator is a trained professional who, depending on the jurisdiction and what responsibilities can be delegated to them, helps separated or divorced parents communicate more effectively, work together to make decisions about their children’s upbringing, and design or implement their parenting plan. A parent coordinator does this by mediating disputes between co-parents, educating parents about their children’s needs and, if the parent coordinator is vested with the authority by the court or the co-parents, making binding decisions where co-parents cannot agree. Parent coordinators are typically appointed by the court, and they may work with parents for a set period or on an ongoing basis. Depending on the jurisdiction, the parent coordinator may or may not be authorized and tasked with reporting to the court regarding the success of co-parenting interventions and recommendations for improvements. The source of authority for the appointment of parent coordinators differs between jurisdictions, as some states have statutes, others have court rules, and finally in other jurisdictions the authority to appoint parent coordinators has arisen through the case law. Each jurisdiction has different limitations on what can be delegated to a parent coordinator.
The hardest custody cases often end up with a parent coordinator. Accordingly, not just anyone should be selected. The required qualifications of a parent coordinator vary by jurisdiction and the requirements of the court. In some jurisdictions, specific training certifications are required to be appointed and serve in the role of parent coordinator, and careful attention should be paid to selecting a professional that meets those requirements.
General Required Qualifications for a Parent Coordinator
A parent coordinator should have an educational and professional background as a licensed mental health professional, family law attorney or certified, qualified, or regulated family law mediator under the laws of their jurisdiction.
A parent coordinator should have experience working with families in similar situations, including experience working with separating and divorced parents, dynamics related to parents who were never married to each other, and child development.
Knowledge of Family Law
A parent coordinator should have a good understanding of family law and the legal system, including familiarity with the laws and regulations regarding child custody and parenting time in the jurisdiction(s) in which they practice.
A parent coordinator should have experience and training in mediation to assist parents in reaching agreements that are in the best interests of the children and arbitration to make decisions when agreement between the parents cannot be reached.
That begs the question, should a parent coordinator be a mental health professional or an attorney? Both types of professionals can bring different skills and perspectives to the role, and the choice may depend on the specific needs of the parents and children involved. A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker, may be better suited to work with families where there are significant emotional or psychological issues that need to be addressed. They may have training in counseling and therapy, as well as conflict resolution and communication skills. They may also bring knowledge about child development. An attorney, on the other hand, may be better suited to work with families where there are complex legal issues that need to be resolved or specific court orders that require a keen understanding of their terms for enforcement purposes. An attorney may have expertise in family law and child custody, as well as experience with court proceedings. Ultimately, the most important factor in selecting a parent coordinator is finding someone who is qualified, experienced and a good fit for the issues presented by a particular family.
What a parent coordinator can do depends on the scope of the authority that may be delegated to a parent coordinator versus the amount of authority that is required to be retained by a judge. Even if a parent coordinator can be appointed, not every family requires a parent coordinator. Many cannot afford them. So when should an attorney consider recommending a parent coordinator?
Situations where a Parent Coordinator May Be Particularly Helpful
A parent coordinator may be necessary when parents are having difficulty working together to make decisions regarding their children’s care and the logistics of their parenting plan. This can include disagreements about parenting time, education, activities, communication parameters, and other child-related issues. In general, a parent coordinator could be beneficial in any case where parents are having difficulty communicating or making decisions together for their children, which describes almost all custody cases.
High Conflict between Parents
When there is a high level of conflict between parents, it can be difficult for parents to make decisions together about their children’s welfare. Decisions do not get made because of the conflict between the parties. A child’s needs may get lost in the shuffle of angry accusations about the deficiencies of the other parent. A parent coordinator can facilitate communication between parents, monitor communication and educate the parents about how to communicate more effectively (or with less hostility) and, failing the ability of the battling parents to change, make the decisions so that a child’s needs are not left unmet in limbo by the warring parents.
Difficulty Following a Parenting Plan
If one or both parents are having difficulty following the parenting plan that was agreed upon, a parent coordinator can help mediate and find a solution that works for both parties or, failing an agreement, to enforce the plan that is already in existence (i.e., a parent can go on vacation on these specific weeks in the summer).
Different Parenting Styles
If parents have different parenting styles or values, it can be challenging to make decisions jointly about their children’s upbringing or concerns may arise with one parent given the diverging approach to parenting in the other parent’s home. A parent coordinator can help bridge the gap to bring some harmony or understanding when these differences of opinion present themselves or resolve the dispute if they are so empowered (i.e., a parent can—or cannot—take the child out of school to travel to a family wedding).
Child with Special Needs
If a child has special needs, requires specific accommodations or requires a higher level of coordination between parents to thrive under the parenting plan, a parent coordinator can help ensure that the child’s needs are met and that both parents are on the same page in presenting a unified front to the other service providers (be it the school, therapist, or medical professionals) rather than having conflict spill over into meetings with the professionals.
While a parent coordinator can be a useful tool in helping parents efficiently resolve conflicts related to co-parenting, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution to every difficult case.
Situations where the Appointment of a Parent Coordinator May Not Be Appropriate
If there is a history of domestic violence, abuse in the relationship, or ongoing child maltreatment concerns, a parent coordinator may not be appropriate. In these situations, safety concerns need to be prioritized and addressed first. That being said, a parent coordinator may be appropriate with sufficient safeguards built into the process that protects the victim of domestic violence and does not permit the parent coordinator process to be one where the cycle of abuse is replicated. Absent a parent coordinator, the victim of domestic violence may be left to deal directly with their abuser. The parent coordinator can serve as a buffer.
If one or both parents have substance abuse issues, a parent coordinator may not be able to effectively address the issues or help parents resolve conflicts until proper treatment is obtained. A parent coordinator may, however, be helpful in monitoring specific interventions (such as compliance with soberlink or other monitoring programs) so that the parent without the substance abuse issue is not left to monitor the other parent.
Mental Health Issues
If one or both parents have significant untreated mental health issues, his/her illness may interfere with his/her ability to participate meaningfully in the parent coordination process and keep that parent from effectively communicating and collaborating with the other parent. A parent coordinator may, however, be helpful in monitoring compliance with treatment.
In these situations, other forms of intervention may be necessary, such as counseling, therapy or a return to court. It is important to work with professionals who are qualified and experienced in dealing with these types of situations to ensure the safety and well-being of all parties involved.
As may be clear from the caveats about whether to use a parent coordinator, it is important to select a professional that has the requisite set of skills to help a particular family. The key to selecting an effective parent coordinator is research. Which professionals will have helpful insight into the circumstances of a specific case? Which parent coordinators are respected by the courts? Would a mental health professional who can educate the parties about more effective communications styles or child development be a better fit than an attorney who is going to call the proverbial balls and strikes and render decisions for the family? Which parent coordinator will have the personality to work with a particular family (versus a clash of personality styles)? The answers to those questions may help select an individual who can help a particular family rather than exacerbating existing disputes.
Additional Considerations in Selecting a Parent Coordinator
Look for someone who has experience working with families that has the skills that match a particular family. A good parent coordinator should have training in conflict resolution, family dynamics, and child development. But training alone is not enough. In some cases, a gruff lawyer who can inform the parties what a judge will do in a particular situation and make a decision will be more effective than a therapist who will focus on a child’s particular needs at a particular age. In other cases, the opposite may be true.
Check to see if the parent coordinator is available to work with the family. It is not easy work, and given demand, many parent coordinators have a waiting list or can only work with so many high-conflict families at a time. If the parent coordinator is not available to address disputes, then the proverbial Friday afternoon crisis phone calls will resume.
Parent coordinators typically charge an hourly rate. Given that some clients thrive on conflict between the parties, it is advisable to set expectations (both for the client and the professional) at the outset of the process. Some ways that are helpful are to cap the number of hours that a parent coordinator can spend with a family in any given year or the total amount that they can charge. Another option is to empower the parent coordinator to shift fees from one parent to the other if one parent is being unreasonable or obstructionist.
Once the decision is made to proceed with an appropriately qualified parent coordinator, the next step is determining what issues can be delegated to a parent coordinator. A parent coordinator’s authority will be determined by the court’s order of appointment in each case. In that order, the judge or the parties by agreement ought to set out the tasks and responsibilities of the parent coordinator. In all cases, the parent coordinator’s authority is limited to that which they are granted by the court. (Parent coordinators should beware of the pitfall of exceeding their delegated authority. In some jurisdictions, a parent coordinator can open themselves up to liability or complaints to their respective licensing boards if they exceed their delegated authority and one parent—as inevitably is the case—is less than pleased with the decision.)
Examples of Tasks That May Be Delegated to a Parent Coordinator
A parent coordinator can help parents communicate with each other effectively by setting up regular communication methods and providing guidelines for respectful communication. Simply copying a parent coordinator on emails can have a chilling effect on the less than helpful responses that a client may be inclined to give if they have the knowledge that a third party will be monitoring the tone and substance of their communications.
Implementing a Parenting Plan
A parent coordinator can help parents implement the parenting plan by monitoring compliance, addressing any disputes or conflicts that may arise, and make nonrecurring adjustments as needed to fit the parents and the children’s schedules.
Providing Education and Resources
A parent coordinator can provide educational resources to parents about co-parenting, child development, and communication skills. They can also refer parents to outside resources, such as therapists or other professionals, when needed.
Developing a Parenting Plan
While only available in limited jurisdictions (as others have taken the policy position that only a judge may establish a parenting plan and cannot delegate that authority to a nonjudge), a parent coordinator can assist parents in creating a parenting plan that outlines custody, parenting schedule, and decision-making arrangements.
In some cases, a parent coordinator may be given decision-making authority over certain issues, such as scheduling or other nonsubstantive matters, where parents cannot reach an agreement.
It is important to have discussions with a client before a parent coordinator is appointed as to what they want a parent coordinator to be able to do (and just as importantly, not do). Setting the client’s expectations at the outset of the process can increase the likelihood of success throughout.
As with many higher-conflict cases, once a decision has been made, one party wants to challenge that decision. It is important to discuss with a client what happens if they feel that they are aggrieved by the parent coordinator’s decision. The process for reviewing a parent coordinator’s decision is both jurisdiction and court order specific. In general, there are two ways that a parent coordinator’s decision can be reviewed by the court: (1) the objection by one parent; or (2) automatic periodic reviews by the court. In either case, the court will review the parent coordinator’s decision and consider any objections or evidence presented by the parents. The court may then approve the decision, modify it, or reject it altogether. It is worth considering whether a provision should be included in the orders appointing a parent coordinator that automatically awards reasonable legal fees to a party if the other party challenges a parent coordinator’s decision in court and does not prevail. It is also worth considering the standard of a review that a court will apply to the issue. Are they reviewing the parent coordinator’s decision under an abuse of discretion type standard? Is the issue reviewed de novo? If the issue is reviewed de novo, then what information is the court provided regarding the parent coordinator’s decision? Is it just a written directive rendered by a parent coordinator or do the parties have the right to cross examine the parent coordinator? Addressing these issues clearly in advance can help streamline the process when inevitably disputes arise.
A parent coordinator is not a panacea for high-conflict cases. In the right situations, where an individual with the requisite skills for a particular family is appointed, they can make a world of difference for the parties and the children. Issues can be resolved quickly and efficiently to provide clear answers for the inevitable disputes that arise between co-parents. And, if done correctly, your phone will stop ringing on Friday afternoons with a crisis.