Research suggest that it's not divorce in itself that most harms children, but the tension between divorcing parents, some of whom repeatedly appear before judges to battle over drop-off times or visitation rights.
One review of studies in Children and Divorce, for example (Vol. 4, No. 1, pages 165-182), found that children whose parents bitterly fight over divorces scored as significantly more disturbed on standardized measures of maladjustment.
"In a lot of these cases, the individual parents 'parent' fine. It's when they interface that all hell breaks loose," says Matt Sullivan, PhD, a Santa Clara, Calif., psychologist, who works with many divorcing clients.
But help is at hand: Through the growing practice area of parenting coordination, psychologists are helping feuding parents call a truce, communicate and work out their disagreements with the goal of better-adjusted children and less-burdened courts.
"It can be helpful for parents to have someone who can help them work out how they're going to keep conflict away from the kids, and help them focus on what the kids need, as opposed to what's going on between the two of them," says Judge Judith Bartnoff of the District of Columbia Superior Court, who has seen the benefits of parenting coordination in several custody disputes.
With their communication skills, psychologists are uniquely qualified for parenting coordination, says Robin Deutsch, PhD, of Harvard Medical School who has served in the role and provided training as well. "Psychologists can help people stuck in ineffective communication patterns learn to communicate better," she says. "It's the bread and butter of what [we] know how to do."
A growing field
Parenting coordination typically starts with a court-ordered parenting agreement establishing a detailed custody schedule, with exact drop-off and pickup times listed, plus arrangements for vacations and holidays. When a dispute arises--such as which sport a child should play--the parenting coordinator can step in, halt the angry back-and-forth between the parents and gather feedback from all parties involved.
Besides hearing from the adults involved, a parenting coordinator pays close attention to the child's needs. After gathering the different perspectives, the coordinator--depending on the state where the parents live--either makes the decision, or recommends a solution.
Eight states have passed laws setting up parenting coordination procedures since 1989: Minnesota, Oklahoma, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Meanwhile, a number of other states rely on existing laws that give judges leeway to appoint parenting coordinators (see "State by state").
Sullivan and co-author Karl Kirkland, PhD, recently completed a survey of 54 parenting coordinators. They found that 44 percent of the responding parenting coordinators were licensed psychologists. Other mental health professionals such as master's level social workers and licensed professional counselors also do the work, with attorneys forming the third-largest share.
For all the different ways parenting coordination is carried out, psychologists say common issues arise for practitioners who move into the area of practice: chiefly, the need for balance, and avoiding falling into dual roles, Deutsch says. Parenting coordinators can't become therapists to their clients, and they have to make decisions fairly, Deutsch says.
"Maintaining impartiality is very important," she says.
From a practitioner's perspective, parenting coordination can be lucrative, without the hassle of third-party payers. In most cases, parents pay the parenting coordinator on a fee-for-service basis, says Sullivan, adding that many coordination agreements spell out the hourly cost of the service, how the parents will split the costs, and what happens if fees go unpaid. Some programs offer pro bono parenting coordination to low-income parents, such as one based in Washington, D.C.
The work is also attractive to many psychologists because of its flexible scheduling. And the field is growing, as more judges turn to the idea of using parenting coordinators to help defuse the most problematic cases, several observers say.
It can be very demanding though, judging from the comments of several psychologists experienced in parenting coordination. Getting in the middle of disputes where the parties are often very angry at each other requires a thick skin.
"It's just tough work," says Sullivan. "These are difficult people to work with." He adds that having a "directive, take-charge" personality helps a psychologist succeed as a parenting coordinator. "It takes a particular brand of psychologist to fit this role."