State Leadership Conference

Warring parents can unknowingly trample on their children's best interests in bitter divorce court battles. To confront this all-too-common problem, mental health professionals and court officials in some jurisdictions have pioneered a new practice niche--court-appointed parenting coordinators who help parents focus on what's best for their children.

Psychologists have become increasingly involved in the niche, said Shirley Ann Higuchi, JD, past-president of the District of Columbia Bar and assistant executive director of legal and regulatory affairs in APA's Practice Directorate, at a session focused on this new practice opportunity at the 2005 State Leadership Conference.

"This is an emerging service that courts and family law lawyers are requesting," said Higuchi. "Parenting coordinators are truly working as an arm of the judiciary system." Higuchi and other speakers discussed the benefits of parenting-coordinator projects, pulling from their experience with the Washington, D.C., parenting coordinator program, which is an interdisciplinary collaboration among the D.C. Superior Court, the D.C. Bar's Pro Bono Program and the D.C. Bar Family Law Section, the D.C. Psychological Association (DCPA), APA's Practice Directorate and Argosy University/Washington, D.C. (see September 2004 and January Monitor issues for more information.)

How does it work?

Psychologists--or other professionals such as social workers, attorneys or mediators--who choose to work in this role must have a mix of professional, legal and conflict-resolution skills to fit the job description: part counselor, part evaluator, part mediator and part educator, said SLC speakers. Coordinators use these skills to put children's needs first, facilitate appropriate parenting, reduce conflict and avoid recurring court cases, speakers noted.

In the D.C. project, parenting coordinators are Argosy University psychology graduate students, supervised by an Argosy psychologist and supported by psychologists, lawyers and judges from the collaborating organizations, as well as some local parenting-coordinator experts.

SLC speaker Robert Barrett, PhD, DCPA president and chair of clinical psychology at Argosy, said that at the school level, faculty are seeing more student interest in specific concentrations, such as this one. This project gives students--and the psychology program as a whole--a chance to collaborate with members of the legal field, said Barrett.

"It really gives us the opportunity to gain experience and learn best practices in an emerging area," he noted. "We'd like to see this grow into a training program."

The program is especially unique, noted Stephen Lally, PhD, DCPA past-president and professor of clinical psychology at Argosy, because it provides parenting-coordinator services to low-income and indigent parents or caregivers. Typically, parenting-coordinator assistance has only been available to families able to pay for the service, which can cost upwards of $200 per hour, and even then there were very few parenting coordinators available.

Many benefits

So far, there are seven cases in the D.C. program, and three more had been accepted at Monitor press time. Though the outcome data isn't available yet, SLC speakers said preliminary feedback is promising.

"Lawyers and judges really seem to want psychologists involved," said Higuchi.

"We hope the eventual data will provide evidence to increase the use of parenting coordinators by the courts, and that in turn will increase funding for parenting-coordinator services," said Lally, who is also the supervisor of outcomes measures for the D.C. project. He and the others involved hope state associations will replicate the work in other jurisdictions.

Hard numbers aside, for the families involved, the benefits are obvious if parenting-coordinator projects are successful. And certainly less litigious wrangling is a boon for the legal system. But psychology stands to gain too, said the SLC speakers. Parenting-coordinator projects can bring highly beneficial working relationships with the legal field, and help more people understand how psychology can benefit society, noted Higuchi.

Jennifer Daw Holloway is a writer in Washington, D.C.