Special Master/Parenting Coordinator

Over the last 30 years, Family Court has been struggling with ways to help children of divorce reduce conflict in their lives. In the 1980’s, the State of California required mandatory mediation prior to parents going to Court and filing an action dealing with custody disputes. This tool was somewhat successful in reducing litigation in low conflict cases.

The major problem that continues for children and for the legal system is the continual high conflict cases in which there are many, many Court interactions following disputes over such issues as haircuts, clothing, extracurricular activities of children, and the list goes on and on. In many high conflict cases, the parents are more interested in trying to make each other look bad than focusing on what is best for the children.

In an attempt to reduce these problems for the children and the number of times parents go back to Court, the State of California did invoke the power to force the parents to conjoint therapy under Family Code 3190. This vehicle seemed to have some success for moderate conflict cases.

The return to Court by parents fighting continually seems to dominate a significant part of the Court’s time. Courts are hearing conflicts about when and where the child is to be exchanged, whether the child shall be enrolled in a private or public school, who is to have contact with the child, who can be the nanny for the child, and the list continues.

In some of these high conflict cases, there have been previous 730 Evaluations which required remediation process. There really was no one to monitor the remediation process. Furthermore, after a Custody Child Evaluation there were often other elements needed to be implemented, which required an overseer and an arbitrator to make decisions. The trial Court may assign a Parent Coordinator (PC) to ensure implementation.

The trial Court, in some cases, will assign a Parent Coordinator (PC) in lieu of a 730 Evaluation. This is done after the trial Court determines there are two fairly healthy parents but have basic parenting conflicts and need assistance to resolvFamily Picturee those conflicts with some arbitration. This use is much less expensive than a 730 Custody Evaluation and is more immediate. The conflict is these cases may be high, but certainly not as high as those cases in which there are major psychological and other problems with the parents that require a full 730 Custody Evaluation.

The Parent Coordinator (PC) has been developed to act in a quasi-judicial fashion to assist in these high conflict complicated cases. The PC works in the following ways:

  1. The attorneys, along with the Court and the parties, draft a very detailed and specific order. This order is usually based on the recommendations made by the Court and the previous 730 Evaluator. These orders are put in a PC Contract, which clearly defines the powers of the PC. It discusses the degree of ex-parte communication the attorneys can have with the PC. The PC could be empowered to either speed up or slow down some specific reunification plans that were outlined. The PC would have the power to oversee and communicate with the children’s therapist. The PC can make orders regarding activities of the children, as well as educational and medical decisions or disputes, when the parties are having difficulties agreeing.

  2. All the parties and the PC sign the PC agreement. The agreement specifies the PC’s quasi-judicial powers, immunity, and cites other procedures delegated to the PC. It also designates the PC’s date of commencement and termination.

  3. Once the document is signed and ordered by the Court, the PC then implements and begins his/her role. In many cases, the PC will review pertinent Court data and documents that were agreed to be forwarded to the PC. The PC will then make appropriate contacts with the necessary people. Often weekly communication conjointly by phone with both parties is used in a proactive manner. Communication of the orders made by the PC is often done by fax to all parties, counsel, as well as significant others.

Only experienced mental health workers working with very difficult cases should be appointed in these positions. They need to understand the legal system extremely well and they need to understand their role is not that of a therapist or a mediator, but that of an arbitrator/quasi-judicial officer. There have been problems in the past with PC’s that have not clearly understood this role and attempted to do mediation and therapy.

The association of Family Conciliation Courts, known as AFCC, has produced some guidelines for implementing a vehicle to reduce these problems in high conflict cases. They define the parent coordination as follows, “Parenting coordination is a child focused alternative dispute resolution process in which a mental health or legal professional with mediation training and experience assist high conflict parents to implement their parenting plans by facilitating their resolution of their disputes in a timely manner, educating parents about children’s needs, and with prior approval of the parties and/or the Court making decisions within the scope of the Court Order or appointment contract.”

The PC may be granted the authority to make decisions for parties when they cannot agree. The PC also may be allowed to make recommendations to the Court. The scope of the PC’s decision-making authority may be limited in some jurisdictions by constitutional law or statute. The PC shall have the authority that is delegated in the Court Order or Consent by the parties. If written in the Order the PC may have authority to resolve the following types of issues:

  1. Minor changes or clarification of parenting time, access, schedules, or conditions, including vacations, holidays, and temporary variation from the existing parenting plan.

  2. Transitions/exchanges of the children including date, time, place, means of transportation and transporter.

  3. Health care management including medical, dental, orthodontic, and vision care.

  4. Child rearing issues.

  5. Psychotherapy or other mental healthcare including substance abuse assessment or counseling for the children.

  6. Psychological testing or other assessments of the children and the parents.

  7. Education or daycare including school choice, tutoring, summer school, participating in special education testing, and programs or other major educational decisions.

  8. Enrichment and extracurricular activities including camps and jobs.

  9. Children’s travel and passport arrangement.

  10. Clothing, equipment, and personal possessions of the children.

  11. Communication between the parents about the children including telephone, fax, e-mail, notes in backpacks, etc.

  12. Communication by the parents with the children including telephone, cell phone, pager, fax, and e-mail when they are not in the parents’ care.

  13. Alteration of the parents of the children including haircuts, tattoos, ear and body piercing.

  14. Role and contact with significant others and extended families.

  15. Substance abuse assessment or testing for either or both parents or a child including access to test results.

  16. Parenting classes for either or both parents.

It is crucial in drafting the assignment and authority of the PC that the Court Order and the Stipulation clearly specify what powers are granted to the PC. This is a new area and a new vehicle that appears to be very helpful. Studies in Canada indicate the frequency of Court appearances was cut down by six times in one year in high conflict cases. A Parent Coordinator may be a significant help if properly defined and implemented.

Dr. Mann is an experienced Special Master/PC who has successfully helped over 30 families in this role.

Dr. Mann can be reached for further information for this service by phone or E-mail.

04.21.17

 

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