In high-conflict divorce it can be difficult for parents to make joint decisions regarding their children. When parents seem more invested in winning the conflict than in finding resolution for the sake of the child, it’s time to consider a Parenting Coordinator (PC). The PC is appointed by a judge who believes that a trained professional is needed to minimize conflict in a particular case. This helps protect the child and keep courtrooms clear of parental battles. It also means that attorneys do not have to participate in hostile disputes over parenting conflicts, and can focus on their job while letting the PC handle the tasks involved in helping the clients make certain decisions. The role of the PC is to identify disputed issues, reduce misunderstandings, clarify priorities, and help the parents develop skills around communication, negotiation, and compromise. If the parents are unable to come to an agreement about an issue then the PC has the legal authority to make the decision for them. The court document appointing the PC makes it clear to all parties in what areas the PC is allowed to make decisions. PCs must comply with the court’s decision about custody, visitation, and guardianship, and they may not make financial decisions. PCs are licensed mental health professionals and attorneys with at least a master’s degree and several years of post-degree experience in their fields, have undergone PC training (which involves education about pertinent legal and psychological components of high-conflict divorce), and are involved in ongoing PC education and peer supervision.
Though the PC role was created back in the early ‘90s, many but not all states, and many but not all NC counties, make use of PCs. Why? There are some understandable concerns involved with appointing a stranger to function as an arm of the judge. First – why would a stranger be better able to make decisions for the child than the parents? PCs are appointed only when the level of conflict is so high that decisions are not getting made and the child is suffering. It is reasonable to think that a third party with some expertise in the area of child development, negotiation, and decision-making, whose only investment is to decrease hostility and do what is best for the child, will be a competent arbiter if they end up having to make the decision. While parents may sometimes be concerned about loss of control, using a PC effectively can actually help parents have more control. A PC is brought in when the situation is already out of control. They work with the parents to identify problems, communicate about them in healthy and effective ways that decrease hostility, and problem-solve. Parents who are using PCs effectively will learn skills so that they can work problems out together in the future, without the help of a PC. Or, if one or both parties don’t learn these skills, they have the PC who can make a decision and bring resolution to topics. Sometimes parents are worried that using a PC will be inconvenient and that they will have to have regular meetings with their ex-spouse. In reality, PCs are able to do the work mostly over the phone and email on an as-needed basis, so actually PCs make the process far more convenient than arguing with each other ad nauseam or going to court to have the judge make a ruling. This brings us to another concern that sometimes prevents courts from utilizing PCs – cost. Parents pay for PCs and it is not reimbursed by insurance. However, the cost of a PC still is far less than the cost of engaging attorneys to battle over the minutia of daily parenting, or going to court when you factor in attorney fees, legal fees, and time taken off work.
The benefits of using a PC are significant. First of all, it keeps the child in focus and not only gets big and small decisions made for the child to keep their life keep running as smoothly as possible, but also helps create an emotionally healthy family environment for the child. Far too often in high-conflict divorces the child gets caught in the middle. Low parental conflict is one of the primary determinants of a positive outcome for a child, meaning it contributes to the likelihood that the divorce will not be a damaging factor in their mental and emotional development. Decreasing hostility improves the parents’ lives too. Feeling provoked, dreading interactions, anticipating angrily or with fear – all these contribute negatively to a person’s mental and physical health and interfere with people being the parent they want to be. In addition to teaching communication and negotiation skills, the PC acts as a buffer so parents don’t antagonize each other as much and can more easily get to a place where they start to feel peace in their lives.
In fact, “peaceful” is one of the most-used words we hear our PC clients use to describe life after having an effective PC in place. It’s not all rosy all the time after a PC, but the landscape changes significantly from daily or weekly negative interactions between parties, to a primary state of calm. This comes about by having a trained professional – the PC – who keeps the child in focus while having everyone’s best interests in mind, teaches co-parenting skills, and is able to make neutral decisions if needed.