In the past two decades, there has been significant growth in the spectrum of alternative dispute resolution processes. More recently, parenting coordination has been added to that spectrum. High-conflict families that litigate often, many times over frivolous things, occupy a disproportionate amount of the court’s time and resources. These highly adversarial couples not only expose their children to toxic and hurtful conflict, but also create much frustration among judges. Courts and judges have therefore begun, over the last decades, to gradually delegate limited and specifically defined areas of authority over the parties’ parenting plan to parenting coordinators (PCs).
The PC, in that sense, is functioning as a type of arbitrator for co-parenting issues. The typical clients of a PC would be couples who experience unusual difficulty in reaching mutually acceptable decisions in their co-parenting.
While an attorney works with and advocates for one side, a PC works with both parties and must remain neutral at all times, in spite of having to take stances and decisions.
While the court’s pilot program for parenting coordination ended at the end of 2012, PCs are still quite often appointed by judges across the state to assist with the co-parenting woes of adversarial divorces.
So how does parenting coordination actually work? There are seven rules of thumb, all equally important and crucial to the success of the process.
1. Structure is Key.
When a PC works with a high-conflict couple, she work with chaos. And chaos, unfortunately, creates anxiety and leads to an escalation in adversarial behaviors. For example, one party might feel that the other is being nasty and not co-parenting as he or she should, which causes the first party to want to behave in kind, and the negativity grows from there. With this type of couple, all rules and procedures must be spelled out and clarified: from billing policy to what to expect from the process itself. The parties need to know when and how they can contact the PC. What they can and cannot do if the other party triggers them or instigates a conflict. Clients going through a highly adversarial divorce are typically demonstrating very angry, anxious and suspicious behaviors. While the parenting coordinator cannot turn chaos to structure overnight, rules and procedures need to be put in place over time as the PCs work with the parties unfolds. Structure not only reduces the conflict, but also assists those clients who are anxious and demonstrating neurotic behaviors to conduct themselves within a more structured environment, at least as far as co-parenting is concerned.
2. Establishing rapport is crucial.
You can be the most prestigious, well-respected parenting coordinator, but if the parties do not respect you and your professional authority, and do not feel that you are being fair to both of them equally (hard task on this one, but very doable), they will not listen to you and will not follow what you have arbitrated on. On the other hand, a client that has established rapport with their parenting coordinator is far more likely to cooperate willingly with the process even when the PC makes decisions that are not favorable to him or her.
3. This process is all about being proactive.
The goal of the PC is to establish rules and procedures that are not covered by the custody agreement, or that require more specific interpretation. Crisis? Conflict? Misunderstanding? This must be immediately, proactively channeled to working with the parties on setting up rules and procedures to make sure that the hole has been sealed, no such misunderstanding will happen again, and the parties are clear on what the rule is and what the expectation is going forward. For example, if the agreement says that the kids are to spend Thanksgiving with the father on even years and with the mother on even years, a conflict might arise with the father assuming that Thanksgiving is for the weekend, and the mother assuming that Thanksgiving is for the day. The PC’s role here would be to set the guideline. For example, Thanksgiving is for the weekend, commencing at school pick-up time on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, until school drop-off time on the Monday morning following Thanksgiving.
4. All decisions must be backed by a logic that can be explained.
Decisions that seem to come out of nowhere, and do not make sense to the parties, create a great deal of frustration and anger in the party, who now has to accept a not-so-favorable decision. However, if the PC is able to back the decision up with a rationale that the parties can comprehend, the decision of the PC is easier for the parties to accept. It also teaches the parties to think proactively, based on the preceding rationale. While they may be far too angry and adversarial to practice this on their own in the near future, it does teach them a skill that they will hopefully be able to use at some point. For example, in the case of Thanksgiving visitation time, the PC may back his or her decision with a precedent that Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day are weekend visitations as well, hence the decision.
5. The PC must never get sucked into the conflict.
This one is rather hard, with each of the parties doing their very best to convince the PC that they are just and right while the other party is the devil in what seems to be a great disguise. This is tricky, because the rapport with each of the parties must be maintained for the benefit of the process, nevertheless, not at the expense of the PC’s neutrality. It is important to remind the parties that you are a neutral, third-party professional, and that you have no vested interest in favoring one solution over the other. Remind them that these decisions are typically based on precedents in the custody agreement or in the co-parenting procedures, and that they are external and rational.
6. Clarity is required for compliance.
When a PC communicates a decision to the parties, it must be spelled out in a manner that does not leave any room for interpretation. It must be easy to read, easy to understand and easy to work with. Long documents can be tedious to the parties, and complicated professional language will scare them, in case there is some kind of hidden meaning that will set them up for failure. Use simple, clear language and be detailed: Who is picking up? Who is dropping off? At what time exactly? What about the piano lesson or the doctor’s appointment on that day? Any misunderstanding can turn into a huge conflict, which is what the PC is trying to avoid.
7. Setting boundaries is an essential step for the PC, and for the parties.
PC clients can be very demanding. There is always some kind of huge problem that demands your immediate and full attention. A PC must clarify to the parties what they can and cannot do in their communications with the PC. Can they call the PC’s cellphone? Can they call on the weekend if there is an emergency? What do you tolerate and what do you simply not? If boundaries are not set, you will not be able to do anything else. This could be, in many cases, a full time job. However, if boundaries are set and kept, you will more than likely be able to create a more workable environment with the parties, which will enable you to be effective in your work. •