Commonwealth looks to legitimize roles of parent coordinators who strive to help divorcing families

Issue November 2003 By Andrea R. Barter, Esq.

Often alternative services from mediation to counseling aren't enough to prevent high-conflict divorcing families from ending up in the revolving door of litigation.

But one developing program may help buck this trend - parent coordinators.

Parent coordinators help parents learn to communicate more effectively and avoid conflicts that can propel them to court. This ultimately can reduce stress on children.

"A good parent coordinator also serves as coach for parents, teaching them how to communicate with each other," said retired Judge Arline Rotman, who chairs a task force studying parent coordination and who also serves as a parent coordinator.

A parent coordinator is appointed, pre- or post-divorce, by consent of the parties or by court order to help parents make decisions on issues including visitation, holidays, medical care, extracurricular activities, education or discipline. They also help parents create or modify a parenting plan, understand the developmental needs of their children and teach problem-solving strategies.

The role of parent coordinators

A parent coordinator is assigned to educate, mediate, monitor, ensure the court order and report back to the courts. One of the primary jobs is to ensure parental access, reduce stress for the child and teach parents conflict-resolution skills. They generally also assist parents in writing parenting plans, according to The Cooperative Parenting Institute.

Parent coordinators are granted different degrees of authority. Most orders include at least the authority to recommend additional services (such as a parenting class and drug screening); the authority to send updates to counsel regarding any noncompliance; and the authority to make temporary modifications to visitation, such as drop-off location and time to call the child, according to CPI.

Although parent coordinators' ultimate goal is to protect and insulate children in a divorce, they are not the functional equivalent of guardians ad litem. A court appoints a GAL to prosecute, defend or otherwise represent the interests of an infant or incompetent party. The GAL may perform an evaluation and make recommendations regarding custody and visitation.

It's not the parent coordinator's job to make recommendations regarding custody, according to Dr. Jane Appell, who is both a parent coordinator and a board member of the Massachusetts Association of Guardians Ad Litem.

"(The parent coordinator) works with a family within the custody arrangement they already have and helps to facilitate that arrangement or fine tune it," Appell said. "Coordinators manage day-to-day issues and facilitate decision-making."

Legislation and task force recommendations

More states - approximately one-third - are using parent coordinators. Although there is no uniformity among states as to when and how parent coordinators are used, the National Parent Coordinator Association is currently seeking to develop standards of practice and ways to encourage collaboration.

Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma and Oregon have parent coordinator statutes while Massachusetts is among seven states to use existing law allowing for "mediators" or "special masters" as a basis to appoint parent coordinators.

Benefits to parents and children

Parent Coordination benefits divorcing or divorced parents by:

•  Assisting parents shift their role from former spouses to co-parents;

•  Educating parents regarding the impact of parental conflict on their child's development;

•  Helping parents identify their contribution to conflict while increasing impulse control;

•  Teaching parents anger management, communication and conflict resolution skills, and children's issues in divorce;

•  Ensuring execution of the residence and living arrangements specified in the divorce decree or temporary orders;

•  Monitoring visitation and modifying time-sharing arrangements as a means of reducing parental conflict; and

•  Working with parents in developing a detailed cooperative parenting plan for issues such as living arrangements, discipline, holidays and communication.

Parent Coordination benefits children by:

•  Reducing the child's symptoms of stress as parental conflict decreases;

•  Diminishing the child's sense of loyalty binds;

•  Creating a more relaxed home atmosphere allowing the child to adjust more effectively;

•  Teaching effective communication and conflict resolution skills as modeled by their parents;

•  Increasing the likelihood of keeping two active parents in the child's life;

•  Ensuring the child's safety through open parental communication;

•  Enhancing the child's confidence and self-esteem by creating an optimal environment for growth;

•  Diminishing the likelihood of future relationship difficulties and divorce in the child's future; and

•  Reducing the possibility of adolescent drug and alcohol problems, teenage pregnancy, school dropout rates and crime associated with children of divorce.

About two years ago the Massachusetts Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the chief justice of Probate and Family Court appointed a task force to provide a clear mechanism to appoint parent coordinators and delineate requirements.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently reviewing legislation drafted by the task force. Supported by the Massachusetts Association of Guardians Ad Litem, the legislation aims to legitimize parenting coordinator roles and provide some measure of judicial immunity similar to that of guardians ad litem.

Today there are no formal requirements to become a parent coordinator, but most are mental health professionals or attorneys, Appell said.

If the legislation passes, the chief justice of the Family and Probate Court will be in a position to authorize appointments of parent coordinators post judgment and promulgate rules regulating parent coordinator practice. If the legislation passes, the task force also will draft training criteria and qualifications for parent coordinators as well as a standing order for the court to use to appoint parent coordinators.

"It's a highly skilled position and hopefully training would include mediation training, knowledge of family law, child development, family systems, domestic violence, sexual abuse and chemical abuse," Rotman said

In the past, parent coordinator orders have been vague, failing to delineate the scope of authority of the assigned coordinator.

"That has potential for increasing rather than decreasing conflict, because no one understands what the coordinator is supposed to do, including the coordinator," Rotman said. "There is no process in place for reviewing parent coordinator determinations and that's an important due process consideration."

Currently there are no limitations on the length of time a parent coordinator interacts with a given family. The court may appoint a parenting coordinator for any given period of time, but the task force recommends two years as the appropriate term with an option to renew at the end of that term.

"This is a transitional appointment and the parties should learn to communicate on their own," said Rotman.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute is not convinced the legislation as currently drafted is the right solution. The institute is concerned about the true scope of authority a parent coordinator may have in the lives of parents and their children, said Susan Elsen, a family law attorney with MLRI.

There are also unanswered questions, according to Elsen, such as how to insure voluntary and informed consent to the appointment.

"Another problem to resolve is that the legislation, as currently drafted, takes from the parties the freedom to terminate the services of the parenting coordinator and gives that decision to the judge," Elsen said. "Parties who find that the parenting coordinator is not helpful, or is creating even greater problems for them, may not necessarily be able to convince a judge to terminate the parenting coordinator's services."

While there is a consensus that standards, certification requirements and training are necessary to insure coordinator competence, the legislation "currently includes no requirement that the court establish a complaint system," said Elsen.

"Policy makers need to think realistically about the time and resources the Probate and Family Court would need in order to develop a system that will insure competent performance and accountability, particularly given that the legislation, as currently drafted, would give the parenting coordinator judicial immunity."

Parents' choice

Some families in the midst of divorce don't choose to have a parent coordinator appointed.

It's difficult to "turn over some decision making authority to a third party when the parents can't make a decision … That's why [the legislation and proposed rules say] both parents must agree to the appointment of a parent coordinator," Appell said.

But families who do opt for parent coordinators are finding rewards, she said.

"The upside is that you have someone available to manage a case, help parents communicate, make decisions, and perform parent education," Appell said. "The coordinator can do all those things for a family that needs support and help."

The program seems to be successful, said Children's Legal Services Director Henry Bock.

"It seems like people are happy to have a decision," Bock said. "Sometimes they are even happy to have a decision that they are not entirely in agreement with rather than enduring the constant uncertainly of what might happen and the constant necessity of having to go to court to seek relief."

Bock predicts even low-conflict divorces will start using parent coordinators to help resolve disputes that might otherwise require the attention of a probate and family court judge.