Parenting Coordinator: Rules for the Rule-makers

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and the use of parenting coordinators (PC) in the context of family law litigation has gained popularity in recent years. Many ADR options, such as mediation and conciliation, provide an opportunity for the parties rather than a Court, to resolve issues, such as a plan for sharing custody of the children. But implementing shared parenting plans can be difficult unless the parents are able to agree on matters as they arise. High-conflict co-parents can end up using the courts as a forum to dispute the day-to-day issues that arise in shared custodial arrangements. Revolving door litigation is a financial drain on the system, the parties and, most importantly, often compounds dysfunction in co-parenting which can be detrimental to a child's well-being. Lawyers, courts and mental health practitioners familiar with divorce and custody conflicts began developing parenting coordination as an alternative to repetitious court intervention.

A parenting coordinator (PC) can help high-conflict parents implement and comply with their parenting plans, make timely decisions in a manner consistent with children's developmental and psychological needs, reduce the amount of damaging conflict between caregiver adults to which children are exposed, and diminish the pattern of unnecessary re-litigation about child-related issues.

Although parenting coordination has gained substantial recognition, the role of a PC is not uniformly regulated. For example, only eight states have passed PC legislation.1 In other jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, PCs are authorized by state and local courts. Most local courts will approve separation or modification agreements that provide for a PC, but in the absence of a statute addressing PC appointments, most judges feel they lack inherent authority to order to make such appointments.2

In Massachusetts, the PC process is generally as follows: A PC who is a lawyer or mental health professional is chosen and the parties sign a services contract with the chosen PC. He or she is authorized to communicate with the parties to assess a dispute. The PC will first attempt to facilitate a negotiated compromise, but, if that fails, the PC is typically given the authority to issue recommendations and many times the recommendation is binding on the parties.3
There have been attempts to unify and organize the practice of parenting coordination. For example, the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts (AFCC) and the American Psychological Association (APA) have both issued guidelines for PCs.4 The guidelines that have been presented are intended to provide ethical obligations for PCs, provide guidance for training and certification of PCs, and assist jurisdictions implement and develop PC programs.
However, these are guidelines, not binding standards. Sometimes, the PC becomes a personalized arbiter of custodial issues between parents, regularly making important legal and physical custodial decisions. This creates a potential risk of bias and abuse. Until statutory oversight for PCs is developed, parents should very carefully consider the need and potential consequences of using a PC.

1 Parks, L.S., Tindall, H.L., & Yingling, L.C., Defining Parneting Coordination With State Laws, Family Court Review, 49, 629-641 (2011).
2 Fiske et al, Mediation and Other Dispute Resolution Alternatives, 16th Annual Family Law Conference, MCLE (2013), 650-652.
3 Fiske et al, Mediation and Other Dispute Resolution Alternatives, 16th Annual Family Law Conference, MCLE (2013), 650-652.
4 Id., Guidelines for Parenting Coordination Developed by The AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination, May 2005.

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