As a 10-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., Superior Court, Judge Judith Bartnoff has observed a troubling trend: Divorcing parents often spend more energy trying to make each other look bad than thinking about what's best for their children.

In her view, this happens because courts ask parents to prove they deserve custody of their children exactly when the emotional and financial tensions of their split put them at an all-time low. For many families, the psychological shockwaves needlessly prevent both parents from being actively involved in their children's lives.

That's why Bartnoff has increasingly turned to an emerging service for families and courts--appointing a parenting coordinator who helps divorcing and separating parents focus on making decisions in their children's best interests.

In fact, she is supporting a yearlong parenting-coordinators pilot project soon to be launched in the Washington, D.C., Superior Court. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration among the court, APA's Practice Directorate, the D.C. Bar's Pro Bono Program and Family Law Section, the D.C. Psychological Association (DCPA) and Argosy University. The parenting coordinators will be Argosy University psychology graduate students supervised by an Argosy psychologist and supported by volunteer judges, lawyers and other psychologists from the collaborating organizations.

The project is funded by an initial $15,000 grant from APA's Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice to DCPA for the project's management; other collaborators are donating time, space and funding for particular project aspects. For example, Argosy is funding the coordinators' supervision, and DCPA will collaborate with Argosy on the project's management and evaluation. Moreover, Bruce Copeland, PhD, a local parenting coordinator expert, is serving as a consultant to the project. The collaborators plan to tap his expertise to help train the parenting coordinators.

The project went out of its way to involve professionals from all parts of the city's family court system, says Shirley Ann Higuchi, JD, past-president of the D.C. Bar and assistant executive director of legal and regulatory affairs in APA's Practice Directorate.

"It's important from a political, strategic as well as just-doing-your-homework perspective to have all of those affected involved," Higuchi says. "Without all of the players present it's difficult to effect change."

What is a parenting coordinator?

Parenting coordinators are a relatively new role in family court--one that's an outgrowth of psychological research: As researchers have shown that children generally do better when both parents are active in their lives, courts have increasingly preferred to give parents joint rather than sole custody. But joint custody comes with its own difficulties, says Linda Delaney, JD, a family law attorney who specializes in high-conflict divorce cases and is working with the pilot project.

"Usually the parents are so consumed by their own losses, which are many, and their own fears, that they are unable to empathize with the kids," Delaney explains.

Parenting coordinators--usually psychologists or social workers--are appointed by judges to change that. As a "special master" of the court, they help divorcing parents resolve conflicts on day-to-day issues--from drop-off times to who washes the soccer uniforms--and teach parents communication skills so they can eventually work through such issues on their own. If parents can't agree on a particular issue, parenting coordinators have the authority to make a decision on day-to-day arrangements until the next hearing, where they report on families' progress to the judge and make recommendations.

Parenting coordinators don't, however, salvage marriages or conduct therapy, says Bartnoff. "This isn't traditional family therapy or marriage counseling," she emphasizes. What parenting coordinators do provide is guidance on working out practical solutions that give children consistency and keep them out of the conflict.

As such, the role is a departure from the typical way psychologists are involved in custody cases--as custody evaluators who recommend to the judge whether one or both parents should have custody. Even when child custody evaluators spot ways to help families ease tensions, they are ethically prohibited from helping because it's outside the scope of their charge.

An emerging model

Currently, only a handful of state and local court systems are using parenting coordinators regularly--and only when parents can afford the out-of-pocket expense.

The pilot project, however, will offer pro bono parenting coordinator services to indigent parents and other involved caregivers.

The pilot project was unveiled in June with an afternoon seminar explaining the role of parenting coordinators to D.C. Superior Court judges. The two or three judges selected for the pilot project will attend a two-day training this month along with the parenting coordinators and other project participants. There, project leaders will detail the project's logistics as well as the criteria for selecting eligible families. For example, both parents or caregivers must agree to participate in the project and, in the initial phase, families with ongoing child or sexual abuse will not be eligible. Once the court better establishes the factors that make the model most effective, organizers hope to expand the service to all families.

The parenting coordinators will also attend an additional workshop that will train them in the skills they'll need to work with families and educate them on matters such as D.C. family law and how to create and implement a parenting plan. The coordinators--fourth-year Argosy students Kay Hughes, Karen Daum and Jenita Charmian Griffin--also will attend weekly seminars throughout the year that will cover specific aspects of family law and child development as they arise in practice.

Moreover, their supervisor, Argosy University psychology faculty member Giselle Hass, PsyD, and other members of the project's oversight committee--lawyers, psychologists and child specialists--will be on call to consult with the parenting coordinators.

"What's nice about this is that the students will be getting both a psychological as well as a legal education as part of this training," says Stephen Lally, PhD, a professor at Argosy University, who first began working on the pilot with APA's Higuchi when he was DCPA president in 2002 and she was president-elect of the D.C. Bar. Higuchi's unique position as an APA assistant executive director and D.C. Bar president was key to getting the project up and running, says Lally.

A boon to all

The team's efforts will come to fruition next month, when judges start appointing coordinators to cases. They plan to start with two cases per graduate student and then evaluate their status after the first month to determine what the future caseloads should be.

Current DCPA president Barbara T. Roberts, PhD, and a DCPA-hired project manager, Erin Ferreyra, a former paralegal working on her psychology master's degree at Argosy, will coordinate the caseloads and project evaluation. At regular intervals, they'll look at such variables as:

  • Whether court appearances have been reduced.

  • What kinds of intervention were necessary.

  • Whether children say their family situation has improved.

  • What judges say about the program's impact.

"We want to make sure it's an effective use of the time of the students involved and that it benefits the parents and children--and the judicial system," says Roberts. "If it is, we need objective data to support getting funding beyond the first year."

Indeed, the project presently has funding for one year, but Roberts says she hopes hard numbers showing benefits to families and the court will attract future funding.

If the model proves effective, other psychologists will hopefully replicate it elsewhere, says Lally: "Our training in terms of assessment and counseling as well as our knowledge base in things like child development and family systems prepares us well for this kind of role."