Parenting coordination is a disputed resolution process, which assists high-conflict parents in the implementation of their existing parenting plans or the parenting terms of a court order.
The roles of the parenting coordinator have been identified as follows:
- Implementation and modification, where necessary, of the existing parenting plan;
- Ensuring compliance with the plan;
- Resolving disputes and issues in a timely manner.
Why is there a need for parenting coordination? Regrettably, there are some parents who are unable to co-parent effectively or even cooperate in regards to minor issues (such as out of country travel arrangements, holiday plans, etc.) even several years after separation or divorce. Although (and fortunately) these high-conflict parents represent a minority of the separated parents, their continuing struggles continue to consume a significant amount of court time and resources. For example, courts are often asked to address issues such as contempt of a court order, pick up and drop off arrangements, ability of a non-access parent to attend a child’s extracurricular activity, etc. Although these are relatively minor issues (as opposed to the significant issues of custody and time-sharing) these issues nevertheless consume much of the court’s attention and, as importantly, legal fees to the parties; upon entering the court system, the same procedural steps must be taken to have minor parenting issues dealt with, as a major issue, such as custody.
Rather than proceed with a costly and lengthy court battle, many parents turn to parenting coordination in order to resolve their issues in a more cost-effective and timely manner.
In my view, the need for parenting coordination is often the result of inadequate attention being given to the need for specificity in regards to the parenting terms of the Separation Agreement. In other words, in high-conflict cases, a lawyer can usually anticipate that clear and detailed parenting arrangements will need to be specifically set out, given the expected lack of cooperation and flexibility between the parents. In such cases, an access provision such as “generous and liberal access, including every Friday afternoon to Sunday evening”, will simply not suffice. In high-conflict cases, such a parenting provision not only invites conflict, but it ensures it. A more appropriate access term in the circumstances will specify not only the times for pick-up and drop-off, but also the parent responsible for same, as well as the pick-up and drop-off arrangements for holiday times. Essentially, an experienced family law lawyer should be able to put his or her mind to any and all of the anticipated parenting difficulties which the parties may encounter once the Separation Agreement has been signed and the parents are left to deal with one another after their lawyers are out of the picture. The experienced lawyer will negotiate detailed parenting arrangements, which can guide the parents through the various issues that may arise from time to time.
Parenting coordination picks up the pieces from where the terms of the Separation Agreement or court order have left off, in order to resolve any ongoing issues that may arise and which are not specifically dealt with under the Agreement or court order.
Parenting coordination is a completely voluntary process, which cannot be ordered by the court. Once parents consent to the process, a term of service (usually between 12 and 24 months) must be decided and agreed upon, both between the parents and with the parenting coordinator. The parenting coordinator usually meets with the parents separately and, where appropriate, together. Children may be interviewed, with or without their parents. Information may be gathered from both personal and professional third parties. A parenting coordination agreement is entered into between the parents and the parenting coordinator, setting out the specific issues to be addressed in parenting coordination. Subsequent contracts may be entered into with the parenting coordinator to address further issues that may arise from time to time, during the period of service of the parenting coordinator’s involvement.
A parenting coordinator will always attempt to have the parties reach an agreement themselves, on the outstanding issue or issues. However and in the event of a continuing dispute, the parenting coordinator will ultimately make a decision on a particular issue or issues.
In addition to addressing any existing issues, a parenting coordinator will attempt to assist in parent communication and information exchange, in an attempt to enable the parents to communicate with one another, if possible, in regards to any ongoing issues. Parents are reminded of the fact that it is contrary to their children’s best interests to continue the conflict. Parenting coordinators can often monitor communications between the parents, by suggesting that such communication be limited to e-mail, with the parenting coordinator copied on any e-mail exchanges between parents.
In effect, the parenting coordinator is assisting the high-conflict parents in communicating better, by modelling and teaching effective communication, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills.
In extremely high-conflict cases, it may be appropriate to move parents from a co-parenting regime, to a form of parallel co-parenting which essentially minimizes any communication and the necessity of cooperation between the parents. Parallel parenting plans essentially split parenting responsibilities between parents, so that each parent can fulfill their respective parenting roles and responsibilities independently of one another.
The parenting coordinator is not permitted to make binding decisions for disputes related to a re-location (change in geographic residence), legal custody (decision-making authority over major decisions) or significant permanent changes to the parenting time schedule. This raises an important distinction between parenting coordination, and mediation/arbitration. A parenting coordinator’s scope of authority to arbitrate is limited to relatively minor issues, whereas a mediation/arbitration process can deal with the more significant issues of custody and time-sharing.
Again and to summarize, parenting coordination is a very helpful tool in dealing with dispute resolution over relatively minor parenting issues; however, the best way to minimize such conflict is, in the first place, to attempt to negotiate and draft a very comprehensive parenting arrangement within the Separation Agreement.