Parenting Coordinators: A Referee for Mom and Dad

A Referee for Mom and Dad: Increasingly, Divorced Couples Enlist Professionals to Help Resolve Parenting Disputes is the title of the article by Rachel Emma Silverman in the Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2007; Page D1 (subcription required for online access). We have no statute in Kentucky regarding parenting coordinators, but in Jefferson County they are authorized by JFRP 707 at pp 85-86, available here. Note that the authority of the PC is only to make recommendations to the court unless the appointment is by agreement. Some quotes from the WSJ:

Generally, parenting coordinators are recommended by family-court judges or lawyers to ex-spouses who are in longstanding disputes. But in some places, such as Oklahoma, courts can mandate the use of a parenting coordinator even if the parents object. The service can get expensive, with coordinators typically charging anywhere from about $50 to $350 an hour.

Some of the issues parenting coordinators help resolve may be minor, but if left unaddressed, they can be the source of nasty fights that wind up in the courthouse, cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and clog family-court dockets. Robert Ross, supervising judge of the Nassau County, N.Y., matrimonial courts, had a case several weeks ago in which one parent was furious that the other parent was taking their child to McDonald's rather than Burger King.

"We have a limited amount of time during the day to deal with really important stuff," says Judge Ross. In the past few years, he says, parenting coordinators have helped reduce visits to his court over relatively small issues.

The article continues,

In the past decade, more states and counties have put in place statutes or programs spelling out rules and qualifications for parenting coordinators, though practices still vary widely across the country. About a dozen states, including Colorado, North Carolina and Oklahoma, now have statutes giving authority to parenting coordinators, most of them also setting rules for how they should practice, says Barbara Bartlett, a Tulsa, Okla., attorney who has tracked the laws. A growing number of jurisdictions, such as some counties in New York and New Jersey, use coordinators regularly even without state statutes.

The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, a group of family-law and mental-health professionals, issued guidelines in 2005 outlining appropriate practices and training. The group, based in Madison, Wis., also holds parenting-coordinator training sessions around the country. Still, states have yet to adopt formal licensing or accreditation for parenting coordinators.

As the field grows, with wide variation among states and counties in how the coordinators are used, some parents and legal professionals are becoming concerned. Some coordinators may not be well-equipped to handle extremely high-conflict parents or really tough situations involving domestic violence, substance abuse or severe mental illness.

The AFCC guidelines can be accesssed here. The article concludes,

There are some issues that are considered off-limits for parenting coordinators. Generally, courts don't allow them to address major issues that can substantially change the terms of the divorce agreement or affect the rights of parents, such as custody arrangements, relocation decisions or substantial decisions regarding religion. They typically can only decide a range of issues that the parents and the court agree on.

Despite these caveats, some clients say the service has been invaluable.
Jennifer Johnston was divorced several years ago and got along decently with her ex-husband. Earlier this year, however, their young son was in an accident and needed to have part of his leg amputated. "When this came up, there were some pretty big decisions that had to be made. Our communication with each other bottomed out," says Ms. Johnston, 37, an information-technology manager in Atlanta.

Susan Boyan, an Atlanta parenting coordinator and psychologist, helped the two parties work on their communication, encouraging them to limit oral communication and use emails. She also recommended that they tone down sarcasm in emails and avoid using all-capital letters.

"A parenting coordinator has the ability to defuse the emotion," says Ms.
Johnston. "She kept us out of court." That, she notes, is "hugely beneficial to our son. Anything we can do to keep him away from additional conflict and keep his life stable is good." Her ex-husband didn't respond to a request for an interview via an intermediary.