As a parent coordinator who helps to resolve custody disputes in divorce cases, Bruce Copeland, PhD, JD, has seen his share of high-drama conflict.

"I had one case involving the father's infidelity with a close relative of the mother's," the Bethesda, Md., psychologist and attorney recalls. "You can imagine the level of intensity around that issue."

Despite the high-octane feelings between the couple, Copeland acted as a conduit so they could exchange information about their two young children. The process went well enough that six months later, "They were able to have a conversation, to make some decisions and to coordinate their children's care," he says.

Parent coordination-a growing niche for qualified psychologists (see the September 2004 Monitor)-addresses an important research finding: The level of conflict between parents is one of the key predictors of children's long-term adjustment following a divorce.

"Children in these cases are often caught in a tug of war," says Michelle Parker, PhD, a clinical psychologist and parent coordinator in Washington, D.C. "Much of the energy of the family is being diverted toward the conflict, which doesn't leave an appropriate level of energy and space for the children to grow and develop."

Parent coordinators are meant to help create that space. Unlike mediators and custody evaluators, they have, in many instances, quasi-judicial clout allowing them to make binding recommendations to the courts about parenting arrangements, even if the parents can't agree. Often their work centers on helping parents create specific, developmentally appropriate schedules and plans for their children and teaching them communication skills so they can eventually co-parent without intervention.

Because of the complexity of the work, parent coordinators need special backgrounds, including expertise in child psychology, dispute resolution, marital conflict and legal issues, says Copeland. They also need a solid emotional foundation, since their task is to remain neutral vis `a vis the parents, while ensuring-and enforcing if necessary-that children receive the best possible arrangements.

"You need all your clinical skills and more," he says.

The role is gaining in importance, Copeland adds: Courts are calling in coordinators at increasingly early stages of the process to help contain conflict before it gets too toxic for children. Such early intervention also can serve a reporting function, he notes, where coordinators are able to give courts useful psychological information if the case ends up litigating.

-T. DeAngelis