It is no surprise that a hard-fought custody battle between two parents can become unfriendly, at best.  One of the small ironies of this is that it is rarely the big, life-altering issues that cause the greatest amount of conflict. Parents are more likely to argue over where they will meet to exchange the child/ren or whether one can alter a previously agreed upon drop off time, than they will over important medical and educational decisions.

Unfortunately, finding a win-win scenario in these situations is rare. Finding a win-win-win-win scenario is even rarer. Yet, for many high conflict custody cases, this win-win-win-win scenario is just what a parenting coordinator can accomplish. Parenting coordinators help parents (win) by teaching them how to make decisions together and reduce the daily conflict over trivial decisions. By helping parents resolve these small issues, parenting coordinators reduce the crushing load on courts and judges (win) by limiting or eliminating many of the hearings and conferences that can choke the system. Parenting coordinators reduce the gigantic amounts of time spent by lawyers (win) in counseling their clients and negotiating with opposing counsel. Most importantly, the use of parenting coordinators reduces the overall amount of conflict the divorcing family experiences. This means that the final “win” is for the most defenseless victims of difficult custody battles: the children.

What are parenting coordinators?

Parenting coordinators employ a child-focused method of alternative dispute resolution used in high conflict child custody cases. A parenting coordinator is a neutral third-party brought into custody cases to reduce the level of conflict by helping the parents make better decisions concerning the parenting of their child/ren.

Parenting coordinators don’t decide which parent will be a child/rend(s) primary caretaker; that decision remains the responsibility of the judge. The parenting coordinators typically (though not always) become involved in a case after a judge has issued a custody order. Much of their work involves helping parents work out the issues that fall between the cracks of a judge’s order.

Parenting coordinators help in a variety of ways. First, they help the parents improve their communication skills when discussing parenting issues. Poor communication is one of the hallmarks of a marriage that ends in divorce, a factor that is doubly present in high conflict custody cases. It is not possible for parents to co-parent effectively without first being able to communicate with one another. Parenting coordinators also teach the parents about particular developmental issues faced by their children as they proceed through the divorce. They will referee the conflicts between the parents in an attempt to help them reach mutual agreement. When necessary, a parenting coordinator will actually make the decisions if no agreement can be reached.

What is a high conflict custody case?

The definition of a high conflict custody case, is one in which the parents demonstrate an ongoing pattern of any one or more of the following:

1) excessive litigation; anger and distrust; verbal abuse
2)physical aggression or threats of physical aggression
3)difficulty communicating about and cooperating with one another regarding the care of their minor children
4) other conditions that the judge believes warrants the use of a parenting coordinator.

It is not unusual for parents in a typical custody battle to have difficulty communicating and cooperating, or for a certain level of anger and distrust to be present. What makes a high conflict custody case different than an average case, though, is an ongoing pattern of these types of problems, as well as the additional, even more problematic issues such as mental or physical abuse.

How does a parenting coordinator get involved, and what is s/he authorized to do?

Judges cannot order parenting coordination without the consent of the parties. If the parties do not agree to the appointment of a parenting coordinator, the court has to rule on the issues without the use of a parenting coordinator.

If the parties do in fact agree to the appointment of a parenting coordinator, as most do, the parenting coordinator has a dual job. First, to try and get parents to come to an agreement, and second, to make difficult decisions where agreements cannot be reached.

These two areas of authority (facilitation and decision-making) combine to make the parenting coordinator position incredibly beneficial to everyone involved in a high conflict custody case. They combine collaborative teaching and consensus building skills with the authority and ability to make the difficult decisions when necessary. The best and most effective parenting coordinators spend the bulk of their time and energy teaching the parents skills they will need to co-parent for a lifetime.

Are there any high conflict custody cases where using a parenting coordinator is not appropriate?

It is beyond appropriate – it is actually essential to involve a parenting coordinator in all high conflict custody cases. The neutral third-party perspective, high degree of training, and alternative approaches to reducing conflict that a parenting coordinator brings to the process are invaluable to the child/ren, parents, lawyers and judges. There are, however, certain situations in which a parenting coordinator encounters additional challenges and must remain vigilant to ensure that all responsibilities are being fulfilled. The most common of these situations is when domestic violence is present in the family.

When there is domestic violence, the parenting coordinator must maintain keen sensitivity to the issue and the effect it can have on the work with the parents. Perpetrators of domestic violence frequently seek to assert control over the victim through the use of threats and physical aggression. In such situations, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for the parenting coordinator to employ the numerous of mediation, collaboration and dispute resolution skills at their disposal. In these situations, a parenting coordinator must adjust the approach taken. In place of collaborative tools, he or she must instead shift the emphasis primarily to the enforcement of the judge’s order. The parenting coordinator will review the terms of the order and ensure that, as much as possible, the actions by each parent are in compliance. It is essential that the parenting coordinator remain neutral – even in these challenging scenarios – to ensure that all responsibilities to the child and the court are fulfilled.