Feature

It's the aftermath of a bitter divorce: The parents return to court month after month to wrangle over drop-off times, holiday visits and child-care duties.

Their attorneys grow frustrated with midnight calls. Repeat court appearances flood judges' dockets. And the parents are so busy fighting each other that they fail to consider what's best for their children.

Such contentious divorce cases have become so common that judges, attorneys and psychologists across the nation are developing a new approach for families--appointing parenting coordinators to teach parents to put their children first. While the practice is far from universal, a number of jurisdictions are helping to shape this emerging niche.

Coordinators have expertise in family law and the psychological impact of divorce. They may be psychologists, social workers, attorneys or professional mediators, and their services are paid for by the conflicting parents. Judges appoint them to act as legal agents in helping parents develop or follow post-divorce custody agreements with the aim of reducing parental conflict and unnecessary court appearances (see box, page 48).

There is preliminary evidence that their efforts work: A 1994 unpublished study by psychologist Terry Johnston, PhD, found that parenting coordination reduced the average number of annual court visits from six per case to 0.22 in one year.

"The reality is that a very small percentage of cases use up an inordinate amount of resources of the court," says Washington, D.C., parenting coordinator and psychologist Bruce Copeland, PhD, JD. "The courts hate these cases, the lawyers hate these cases. They are looking for any port in the storm."

Here's how three jurisdictions--Washington, D.C., California and Massachusetts--are using parenting coordinators in varying ways to meet that need.

Washington, D.C.

The law: Judges appoint parenting coordinators as special masters of the court--meaning the judges delegate their decision-making to the coordinators because they have greater expertise. Through judicial appointment, coordinators have quasi-judicial immunity. Parenting coordinators can testify in court. In fact, judges sometimes request oral reports in front of both parties if litigation is ongoing. The information is useful in guiding decisions, says Judge Judith Bartnoff, whose court hears D.C.'s most complicated divorce cases.

The court order: The order typically enables coordinators to speak with professionals who work with families, such as teachers, custody evaluators and therapists. Judges usually appoint coordinators only when both parents agree to the services and can afford them.

Practitioner snapshot: Copeland handles six to seven coordination cases at a time; the rest of his practice consists of custody evaluations and other forensic work. His cases may be a few short sessions or years of intervention, but all require extensive documentation and after-hours work.

"You really deal with a lot of crises, often on the weekends and evenings," he explains, "because you are working with very angry and difficult clients."

While such situations require solid clinical skills to deal with family conflict, they also demand a thorough knowledge of family law and the courts.

"You have to be comfortable testifying and being challenged in a court of law," he says.

Copeland gained that expertise by earning a psychology doctorate in clinical psychology, working with children of divorced families and then securing a law degree. He conducted family therapy before broaching child-custody evaluations, mediation and arbitration.

The demand for parenting coordination, he says, took off about three years ago--and his experience positioned him to capitalize on the growing niche.

Moreover, coordinators are increasingly getting involved during divorce settlements, and not just after parenting plans are in place, says Copeland. For example, a coordinator may work with a family to set up a temporary schedule while the parents await a custody hearing, he says. The coordinator's involvement gets parents out of their combative mindset sooner, explains Bartnoff.

California

The law: Parenting coordinators are appointed under a variety of statutes--such as those for family mediators or arbitrators. However, one constant across jurisdictions is that coordinators will not be appointed if one or both parents object, says Santa Monica, Calif., psychologist Angus Strachan, PhD, who conducts parenting coordination as part of his group forensic practice, Lund & Strachan.

Moreover, as subordinate judicial officers, psychologists who act as parenting coordinators must follow California judicial regulations in addition to APA's Ethics Code, says Matthew Sullivan, PhD, a San Francisco-area parenting coordinator.

The court order: Although they vary by jurisdiction, court orders generally include a checklist in which the parties select the coordinator's scope from an extensive list of possible functions--from one-time changes in the custody schedule to ordering parents into substance abuse treatment. The orders also outline how the parents, attorneys, judges and coordinators can communicate, how parents can appeal a coordinator's decision, the fees involved and waivers of confidentiality so that the coordinator can speak with pediatricians, therapists and other professionals.

Practitioner snapshot: Sullivan trained in family systems before moving into forensic work such as child-custody and juvenile court evaluations. Like many coordinators, he teaches clients how to be "parallel parents" who run separate households. To do that, his first step is to define the parents' hot-button issues. For example, a court-ordered plan may call for alternate weekends, but offer no instructions on who will deliver the children. Such vague custody orders are breeding grounds for conflict, he says. To remedy that, Sullivan coaches the parents to, for example, define a weekend as 7 p.m. Friday until 5 p.m. Sunday, and determine that mom will drop the children off at the curb, and dad will wait for them at the front door.

"We make the parenting plan extraordinarily detailed and eliminate these conflict areas by having protocols and default decisions built in," he explains. "Even though they want to conflict, there's no place to do it."

Still, says Sullivan, parents find ways to disagree, and the paperwork to document his interventions is extensive. As a result, he keeps parenting coordination to no more than a third of his practice.

Sullivan was also recently active in the California Board of Psychology's decision to hear complaints against parenting coordinators only if the supervising judge has reviewed the client's grievances against the coordinator--a protection against frivolous grievances that the state's psychologist-coordinators welcomed.

Massachusetts

The law: Judges frequently appoint parenting coordinators as ongoing mediators or guardian ad litems, who are court-appointed child advocates. However, the legal footing of that practice is unclear, says retired family court Judge Arline Rotman.

That's why she and other advocates in the state have proposed new legislation that would specify coordinators' roles and duties. The bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Creem and vetted by the Massachusetts Bar, also provides coordinators with some judicial immunity and instructs the court to develop rules to put the parenting coordination law into action.

The court order: Under the proposed law, court orders would require both parents' consent and last for one year, with a potential one-year extension. The bill also stipulates that if the parents contest a coordinator's decision, the coordinator cannot testify in court unless the parents sign a waiver. Rather, the judge will hear the facts of the disagreement from scratch.

Advocates included the fresh-review provision to protect the potential law from a legal challenge, says Rotman, since Massachusetts judges are prohibited from delegating decision-making about children.

But for now, parenting coordinators can testify in court. They also largely focus on helping parents once they have a custody plan in place; mediators and others take the lead during the divorce, says Boston-area parenting coordinator and psychologist Robin Deutsch, PhD.

Practitioner snapshot: Deutsch works as a parenting coordinator and child-custody evaluator, and spends a lot of time promoting the niche as well: She conducts training sessions on parenting coordination across the United States for the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), and she's a member of an AFCC task force that's developing standards on parent coordinators' qualifications and roles. She also co-directs the Massachusetts General Hospital Children and the Law Program, which provides postdocs with training on custody evaluation, parent coordination and other forensic roles.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about parenting coordination? Read a background article in the September Monitor or contact the Office of Legal and Regulatory Affairs at (202) 336-5886. APA's Practice Directorate will sponsor a symposium on parenting coordination at APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

  • Baris, M.A., Coates, C.A., Duvall, B.B., Garrity, C.B., Johnson, E.T., & LaCrosse, E.R. (2000). Working with high-conflict families of divorce: A guide for professionals. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Publishers.

  • Coates, C.A., Deutsch, R., Starnes, H., Sullivan, M.J., & Sydlik, B. (2003). Parenting coordination for high-conflict families. Family Court Review, 41, 1–17.

  • Garrity, C.B., & Baris, M.A. (1994). Caught in the middle: Protecting the children of high-conflict divorce. New York: Lexington Books.

  • Johnston, J.R., & Roseby, V. (1997). In the name of the child. New York: The Free Press.

  • Association of Family and Conciliation Courts: www.afccnet.org.