The Administrative Office of the Courts is scrapping its five-year-old Parenting Coordinator Pilot Program, due to an apparent lack of enthusiasm among participants.
“We couldn’t find any level of satisfaction,” says the AOC’s assistant director of family services, Harry Cassidy. “There are no positive reviews to express.”
In a notice to the bar released on Monday, acting Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant said the decision to shut down the program as of Nov. 26 came at the urging of the Conference of Presiding Family Judges and the Supreme Court’s Family Practice Committee.
All standardized forms approved for the program — which had been running in the Bergen, Middlesex, Morris/Sussex and Union vicinages — are rescinded. In addition, the judiciary will remove the list of approved parenting coordinators from its website.
However, Family Part judges may still appoint parenting coordinators on a case-by-case basis, either with the consent of both parties or upon motion. In the latter instance, judges will have to ensure the coordinators are qualified in the same manner as expert witnesses.
To that end, the notice to the bar comes with model orders that judges may use in either situation.
Cassidy says the pilot program ran into trouble primarily because the people it was meant to help — parents disputing custody or visitation provisions — were often beyond consolation.
By the time a parenting coordinator is needed, both parents usually are fighting over every issue, he says.
“In order for the program to be successful, both parties must be willing to engage with each other and engage with the parenting coordinator. We were not finding that,” he says.
Marie Napoliello, an approved parenting coordinator under the pilot program, agrees. “It’s like anything else; participants must be committed, willing and receptive,” she says.
Another factor that may have hastened disinterest in the program was the Appellate Division’s published Sept. 12 ruling in Milne v. Goldberg, A-4062-10, that parenting coordinators should generally be psychologists or social workers, not lawyers.
“Courts just aren’t appointing lawyers,” says Napoliello, who is a licensed social worker as well as a family law attorney at Hackensack’s Aronsohn Weiner & Salerno.
Parenting coordinators were in use before the court launched the pilot program, but the program marked the first time that there were written guidelines for judges to follow. The court in Milne applied those standards statewide.
Under the guidelines, coordinators must be qualified as a family mediator under R. 1:40-12 and must be approved in advance by a credentials review committee. Social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists may serve as parenting coordinators, as can attorneys, but the coordinator must remain impartial and must not have a dual role in the case. The rules allow for the party to make use of a layperson of their own choosing, such as a family minister.
A judge’s order appointing the coordinator may specify the issues the coordinator is authorized to address. Examples of such issues are:
• Time, place and manner of pick-up and drop-off of children.
• Child-care arrangements.
• Minor alterations in parenting schedule with respect to weeknight, weekend or holiday parenting time that do not substantially alter the court-approved parenting plan.
• First and last dates for summer vacation.
• Schedule and conditions of telephone communication with the children.
• Selection and scheduling of activities.
• Referrals to other professionals to improve family functioning.
The order of appointment may also specify which recommendations will be immediately effective and which will require judicial review.
Parties enjoy no confidentiality in their communications with the coordinator, who must share copies of written or electronic communications with lawyers or the court on request. The coordinator must be provided access to school, medical or psychiatric records needed to resolve a disputed issue.
Linda Schofel, another lawyer who has been a parenting coordinator by virtue of also being a licensed social worker, says she supported the program and would have preferred a statewide expansion.
Schofel, of Roseland’s Newman, McDonough, Schofel & Giger, says she has been a parenting coordinator in about 130 cases.
“It has helped many parents resolve their issues,” she says. “They were able to work things out with my assistance.”
Schofel’s support comes despite the fact that she was involved in a contentious case that eventually had to be decided by the Supreme Court, Segal v. Lynch, A-127-10.
One of the parties, dissatisfied with her recommendations, filed ethics grievances against her after she continued to bill for services. The court ultimately ruled that while she could bill for her time spent on answering motions and other work related to her role as a parenting coordinator, she could not bill for the time she spent fighting the ethics grievances.
There are cases, she says, in which the use of a parenting coordinator may not always work.
“If there is only one party that is willing to participate, it can be difficult,” Schofel says. “Ideally, both parties need to be involved.”