Editor’s note: The following was submitted as a letter to the editor.
I read with interest the article titled, "Concerns Over Judicial Authority Drove Parenting Coordination Elimination," published in the May 7 edition of Pennsylvania Law Weekly. While I found the opinions of the various attorneys interviewed quite interesting, given the concerns that were raised about the use of psychologists and psychiatrists as parenting coordinators (PCs), I was somewhat surprised that you did not attempt to interview any psychologists, and that you made little attempt to verify some of the skewed and biased statements made by at least one of the attorneys interviewed.
I am president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. However, this response is not provided as the president of the organization. It is my own personal opinion.
We are a multi-disciplined, international organization whose mission states that we are dedicated to improving the lives of children and families through the resolution of family conflict. Our members include psychologists, social workers, judges and attorneys from all over the world, including Pennsylvania. The AFCC has been deeply involved in the development of parenting coordination as a process that is consistent with the mission of the organization.
As such, we were the first organization to publish guidelines for parenting coordinators. You may find those guidelines on our website at afccnet.org and you will notice that they include strong statements about the level of training necessary to be a parenting coordinator and the limits on the use of parenting coordination. Subsequent to the publishing of the AFCC guidelines, guidelines were published by the American Psychological Association. Those guidelines are consistent with the guidelines published by the AFCC.
Some historical background might be helpful for your readers to understand the context in which this misguided and ill-conceived change by the Supreme Court has occurred. The use of a hybrid process of mediation and arbitration to help resolve post-divorce conflict in families has been employed since the late 1980s. Although it was mental health providers who were being asked by concerned family lawyers and judges to involve themselves in this manner with families encountering intractable conflict, there were also attorneys who were involved in these early cases.
As the acceptance of alternative dispute resolution processes became increasingly accepted in the family court arena, the AFCC appointed a task force in 2001 to study the use of the PC process and to develop guidelines regarding ethics, training and practice by practitioners using the process. As mentioned above, those guidelines were finally published in 2006. The APA guidelines were published in 2010.
It is important to understand why PC use has increased so dramatically. First, allow me to point out that 15 states have PC statutes and another 13 states have court rules to guide the use of parenting coordination. Another 10 states utilize PCs based on related statutes and there are states, including New Jersey and New York, in which PCs are being used based on local jurisdiction rules. Thus, many of Pennsylvania’s sister states, including Maryland, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, are actively employing PCs to help the courts deal with these very difficult, high-conflict families.
It has long been recognized that it is the children of high-conflict parents who suffer the consequences of their parents’ disputes. The research shows that children who are exposed to chronic conflict experience significant negative effects with respect to academic, cognitive, social, psychological and behavioral adjustment.
Furthermore, anyone involved with divorcing families, including some of those highly competent attorneys interviewed in the article, knows that the court system cannot respond in a timely manner to many of the ongoing disputes in which families who have been defined as "high-conflict" families engage.
Parenting coordination arose within that context as a means by which the court could gain assistance in dealing with some expediency with conflicts that would negatively affect children. It was not conceived of as a means by which judges could shirk or delegate important judicial functions and responsibilities to nonjudges. On the contrary, the appropriate use of the PC process includes the understanding that every decision is open to judicial review if questioned and requires the ongoing support of the court.
I have been involved in the use of hybrid processes like mediation-arbitration and parenting coordination for more than 15 years. With all due respect to those attorneys who have had bad experiences with mental health professionals as parenting coordinators, my motivation has been to help families deal with the chronic distress of their separations and divorce and has never been to supplant the power or authority of the court.
More importantly, the mental health professionals and attorneys who I know and who I have trained in the use of the process are dedicated to helping to reduce the conflict for children, not in usurping some authority from the court. Furthermore, if properly trained, as per the guidelines of the AFCC or APA, the non-attorneys have been taught the relevant legal components of the process, and the attorneys have been taught the relevant psychological components of the process. All PCs must be trained in mediation as well. If the parenting coordination process is being misused, it may be the result of improper training or poor practice or improper designation of PCs who have not been trained. However, all professions suffer from those individuals within their profession who, unfortunately, fit that description. The answer to that problem is not to do away with the entire profession or practice. It is to ensure quality in the practice.
Additionally, if judges are misusing the process, the answer is not to do away with the process. Perhaps judges need greater training in the appropriate use of parenting coordination or in the identification of well-trained parenting coordinators. Another possibility is that judges need to be reminded of the boundaries regarding their delegation of powers.
However, to simply eliminate parenting coordination or eliminate mental health professionals (who originally conceived of and who have worked to increase the appropriate use of the process) as parenting coordinators is inconsistent, short-sighted and a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Furthermore, to make such a momentous decision without bringing all of the practitioners and invested parties together to discuss the issues and problem-solve together ways of improving whatever the problems might be is, in my opinion, inappropriate and extremely poor process. In the final analysis, it is not attorneys, mental health professionals or judges who suffer from this decision. The people who suffer are the parents and children who are the beneficiaries of interventions of well-trained PCs. •
Arnold T. Shienvold is president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.