Psychologists, lawyers and judges have unveiled the nation's first official, court-established parenting coordination office, which matches psychologists and a team of advanced psychology doctoral students with families embroiled in contentious custody disputes.

Although courts nationwide use parenting coordinators—who are often psychologists—to assist families locked in child-care disputes, the program within the District of Columbia's Superior Court is the nation's first formally recognized and court-funded effort.

The office grew out of a pilot program co-sponsored by APA, Argosy University, the D.C. Bar and court officials since 2004. Many believe the program can serve as a model for other courts around the nation.

"The parent coordination program [is] of national significance and hopefully will be replicated by other courts struggling with finding effective ways of resolving high-conflict custody cases," says Judge Anita Josey-Herring, presiding judge of Family Court when the office was established.

APA's Practice Organization helped the court organize the program by offering the model it had developed, running the pilot program, consulting with the court on implementing the model and agreeing to share the results of future research on the program's effectiveness.

Deciding what's best

Through the program, family court judges can appoint a psychologist as a special master on a case that meets the admissions criteria—a family or relationship breakup where there is no ongoing domestic violence or child abuse, but a moderate to high degree of conflict between parents or caregivers.

The psychologist supervises a team of three or four advanced doctoral psychology students in their pre-internships, says Giselle Hass, PsyD, an associate professor with Argosy University in Washington, D.C., who is the program's clinical director. If caregivers can't agree on what's best for a child—such as which school they should attend or activities they should be involved in—the special master can make those decisions, she said.

Besides helping caregivers learn to communicate better, improve parenting styles and work out disputes, the team focuses on each child's needs by tracking his or her developmental progress academically, socially and emotionally. The team doesn't offer individual therapy, but can connect caregivers and children with community resources if they see deficits in a caregiver or child's functioning.

Meanwhile, APA's Practice Directorate will spearhead research on the effectiveness of such parent coordination programs, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Researchers want to measure whether a family involved in parenting coordination comes back less often for court appearances and whether improvements in a child's academic and social functioning from start to finish can be shown. They hope to have results by the end of this year or early 2010.

If parenting coordination can be expanded nationwide, there are benefits for everybody, says Shirley Ann Higuchi, JD, APA's assistant executive director for legal and regulatory affairs.

Parents communicate better, children's needs are met, less time is taken in court and psychologists find a new practice niche, Higuchi says.

"We see this as a growing initiative that one day will be a lot larger than it is today," she says. "We help the public, we help the court, we help the legal profession and we help our own psychologists."

Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield said the program is already helping children by helping the adults in their lives get along better, demonstrating a way out of the constant parental conflict children have witnessed.

"That's why we believe that this program has been so beneficial already and should become a more permanent program for our community," Satterfield said.