It is widely known that a hard-fought custody battle between two parents can become adversarial, antagonistic and hostile. One of the small ironies of these battles is that it is rarely the big, life-altering issues that cause the greatest amount of conflict. It is the constant stream of everyday logistical decisions that provide the unending fuel for the fire.
Parents are more likely to be at each other’s throats over deciding where they will meet to exchange the children or whether one can alter a previously agreed upon drop off time than they will argue 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 in North Carolina, 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 quotidian decisions. By helping parents to resolve these small daily 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.
Additionally, by acting as neutral, well-trained third parties in the middle of highly contentious custody cases, 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 are 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 children.
While the mandate of parenting coordinators may vary somewhat from case to case, their focus is on the multitude of small daily decisions the parents must make about their children – precisely the same small decisions that provide so much grist for the mill. Individually, these decisions may each be small, but when aggregated as a whole, they comprise a huge portion of the problems encountered in custody cases.
Parenting coordinators don’t decide which parent will be a child’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 could be reached.
What is a high conflict custody case?
It is tempting to believe that all custody cases are inherently high conflict. While it is undoubtedly true that there is a certain level of conflict present in all custody cases, the cases considered to be high conflict have issues of a certain magnitude.
High conflict custody cases may have many of the same types of problems that exist in the average custody case, but the intensity level is markedly higher. The definition of a high conflict custody case, according to the North Carolina General Statute on parenting coordinators, is one in which the parents demonstrate an ongoing pattern of any one or more of the following:
- excessive litigation
- anger and distrust
- verbal abuse
- physical aggression or threats of physical aggression
- difficulty communicating about and cooperating with one another in the care of the minor children
- other conditions that the judge believes warrant 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 differentiates a high conflict custody case from an average case, though, is the presence of a sustained and 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 he or she authorized to do?
In North Carolina, parenting coordinators derive their authority directly from the General Statutes. Specifically, North Carolina General Statute 50-90 is the statute which governs how a parenting coordinator gets involved in a case and what he or she is authorized to do.
In order for a parenting coordinator to become involved in a custody case, the individual must first be appointed by a judge.
There are two situations in which a judge may appoint a parenting coordinator:
- if the parents agree and consent that a parenting coordinator should be utilized in their case, the judge may appoint one at any time, even before the judge has entered an order.
- the judge can appoint a parenting coordinator even if the parents do not agree and consent that one should be utilized in their case.
If the judge determines that it is a high conflict custody case, and the children’s best interests would be served by the appointment, a parenting coordinator will be assigned to the case. When a judge appoints a parenting coordinator in this second situation, it can only be done after the judge has entered an order or parenting plan in the case.
Once a parenting coordinator has been appointed, the judge enters an order that lists in detail the issues for which a parenting coordinator is authorized to give aide and bring to decision. If the parents agreed and consented to the use of the parenting coordinator, the order may also contain any other agreements the parents reached about the role of the parenting coordinator.
Throughout the process, one item remains constant: the parenting coordinator never determines the fundamental issues of custody, visitation or support. Those issues always remain within the purview of the judge.
The parenting coordinator has two primary areas of authority.
The first is to help the parents resolve problems and make decisions related to their children. The parenting coordinator is authorized to help the parents figure out which issues are in dispute, to reduce the misunderstandings and miscommunications between them, and to foster collaborative decision-making by the parents.
The parenting coordinator will often help the parents clarify their mutual and individual priorities, as well as develop methods to reach a consensus regarding those priorities. The overall goal of this work is to teach the parents the skills required to resolve their disputes and make decisions in the future, without lawyers, courts, judges or even parenting coordinators. Parenting coordinators labor to do as the Chinese proverb states: “feed a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
A parenting coordinator is sometimes given a second area of authority by the court to actually make decisions and resolve issues between the parents. A parenting coordinator may only decide issues regarding parenting which are not specifically governed by a judge’s order. When a parenting coordinator utilizes authority to make a decision, the parents must comply with that decision just as if a judge handed it down. Until such time as the judge reviews the decision rendered by the parenting coordinator, that decision is law.
These two areas of authority combine to make the parenting coordinator position incredibly effective, efficient and 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. However, when the process becomes derailed, as it does with some frequency in high conflict cases, the skilled parenting coordinator will not hesitate to step into the breach and make decisions.
Who can become a parenting coordinator?
The role of parenting coordinator is a powerful one which includes the capacity to greatly impact the parents and children in a high conflict custody case. Therefore, the guidelines set forth by the North Carolina General Statutes on who can become a parenting coordinator are very stringent.
First, applicants who wish to become parenting coordinators must be highly educated in a subject area germane to the work. The statute requires that parenting coordinators have a master’s or doctorate degree in psychology, social work, counseling, medicine, law or a related subject matter.
To ensure that a parenting coordinator brings a healthy dose of life experience in addition to education, it is further required that a candidate have at least five years of relevant professional experience since obtaining his or her degree. The candidate must have and maintain a current license to practice in his or her field, whether that is law, medicine, psychology, or social work.
Additionally, the candidate must attend twenty-four hours of specialized training in areas such as the developmental stages of children, the dynamics of high conflict families, the stages and effects of divorce, problem-solving techniques, legal issues and mediation skills.
The requirements are basic training for people who will be put on the front lines of high conflict custody battles. These guidelines ensure that the people who undertake the quest to become parenting coordinators are suited by background, temperament and training for this exceptionally important work.
A parenting coordinator who tries to wade into the morass of legal, psychological, developmental, and interpersonal challenges of high conflict cases will find the work fruitless, if not impossible, without having met these stringent requirements.
How is the parenting coordinator’s work different from a mental health practitioner’s?
Since a substantial portion of people who become parenting coordinators are trained mental health professionals, it is sometimes difficult to understand the differences between the work of a parenting coordinator and the work of a mental health professional.
The first thing to know is that parenting coordinators are specifically prohibited by the statute from providing any professional services or counseling to either parent or any of the children in a case in which they are serving as a parenting coordinator. This is to make sure that the parenting coordinator’s role does not get muddied with any possible conflicts of interest.
Beyond this prohibition, there are several differences between the work of a parenting coordinator and a mental health professional. A mental health professional may have either of the parents, the children, or the family as a whole as clients, while the parenting coordinator’s “client” is the court system.
A mental health professional takes a helping, therapeutic role relative to the family, while a parenting coordinator maintains a neutral posture at all times. Yet another important distinction is that while mental health practitioners enjoy a therapist-patient privilege (meaning they cannot be compelled to testify in court), the parenting coordinator enjoys no such privilege.
Everything that a parenting coordinator witnesses in his or her work can be offered into evidence in court. To maintain neutrality and ensure that the parenting coordinator does not become unfairly aligned with one party, however, the judge has the sole power to subpoena the parenting coordinator to provide testimony.
Perhaps the most critical distinction between a parenting coordinator’s role and that of a treating mental health practitioner, however, lies in what each view as the ultimate goal of the relationship with the family.
A mental health practitioner will generally view the aim of his or her work as a helping one, to improve the mental health of the client. The ultimate aim of a parenting coordinator’s work is to protect the child by reducing the conflict present in the family and ensuring that the parents follow the court orders issued by the judge.
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 children, 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 multitude of mediation, collaboration and dispute resolution skills at his or her disposal.
These collaboration tools, which are so useful in many high conflict families, can instead become weapons manipulated by the domestic violence aggressor. By their very nature, collaboration tools depend on increasing the parents’ mutual sense of trust and fair dealing – something that can’t be relied upon in domestic violence situations.
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 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.
The use of parenting coordinators is one of the most helpful and beneficial forms of alternative dispute resolution to come along in high conflict custody cases in many years.
Parenting coordinators become a still, safe, neutral spot at the middle of the swirling maelstrom of anger, hurt, hostility and conflict. They are a boon to the children, parents, lawyers and judges in these exceptionally challenging and often damaging cases. They provide immediate relief from critical issues by offering short-term solutions, as well as providing lasting aid by teaching the parents the skills they need so that they, and their children, can have a brighter, more hopeful and harmonious future.