My colleague Aaron Weems has already reported that late last month the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put an end to what was a five year experiment with court appointed ombudsmen tasked to decide minor custody disputes where the need to have a prompt resolution outweighed an assessment of how a particular custody issue affected a child’s best interests.
The Order from the Supreme Court came as a surprise to the domestic relations bar. The program was not without its problems and some of those problems were substantial. But parent coordination was created as a device to address “high conflict” custody disputes where the parties were already making frequent use of the judicial system to decide matters that had more to do with their power in contrast to the interests of the children. Because it often takes months to have a dispute decided by a judge, it was thought that it was both economically and temporally more efficient to assign routine disputes to an experienced family law attorney who would have more flexibility to resolve the dispute quickly and without fanfare. Parent coordinators were never intended to decide the underlying schedule for the children or the difficult issues of private school, relocation or the like. But when the questions related to summer vacation or whether the karate tournament was “trumped” by the decennial family reunion, it was felt by many on the bench and in the bar that a prompt decision was better than the wait and the cost associated with getting a judicial official to weigh in with his or her powers.
Obviously the Supreme Court saw this differently and said as much in its order repudiating the entire system. The Court noted that custody decisions were a uniquely judicial function and that judges were the only persons empowered to make decisions of this kind. In a technical sense, the Court was absolutely correct. The law has long held that child custody decisions were too important to be delegated to people who were not appointed or elected to serve as judges. But, in so doing, the Court seems to have missed a couple of major considerations. Those considerations merit some attention as does as discussion of what was wrong with parental coordination as it evolved over time. In the end, this writer submits that parent coordination needed reform but it abolition has worked to the detriment to all participants in the judicial process. The bench, the bar, parents and, yes, even the children, will ultimately lament the death of this quasi judicial system of dispute resolution.
The first and most important point is that what comes before courts in the guise of a custody dispute has evolved over time. Forty years ago custody law was pretty easy to predict. When a couple separated mother was awarded primary custody and father was assigned “visitation” not to exceed one day a week or every other weekend. Folks who came to court with lesser decisions such as whether their son should play football after his second concussion or whether private school was necessary were often told that the Court was not going to address “minutiae” and to “go out in the hallway and settle this.” In some Pennsylvania counties this is still the case. But times have changed and today Courts have seen an explosion in special relief petitions. Some of these disputes have been ever present. Each year parents seem to think that Thanksgiving and Christmas will magically be resolved, only to find that it is not. This week one of our lawyers will begin a custody trial to decide what should be done with the “odd” week of Summer, 2013 where the parties otherwise seem to agree to divide Summer equally. These disputes have much to do with poor planning and little to do with “best interests.”
The new breed of disputes includes whether children can be removed from school to vacation in Florida or the Caribbean. Parents now seem to be prepared to fight over what activities their children should or should not be involved in. They fight over what camps their children should attend. And last but no least are the weighty questions of whether the show rabbit contest or middle school play should prevent a child from attending his or her mother’s most recent wedding.
Respectfully, these decisions have nothing to do with best interests and everything to do with “power and authority.” If a child has been working with one parent to build a soap box vehicle only to learn that the derby is the same day the child’s mother is getting remarried, we have a conundrum but not one that affects the best interests or welfare of the child. Someone needs to resolve this dispute. That can’t be contested. But do we really require that a judge lay aside his or her other business to decide this. Is that an efficient use of judicial time in a world where more and more citizens are coming to court without lawyers. How many hours of testimony should be allocated to hearing Father testify about how the soap box car was built? Should there be a limit on cross examination? How many questions must mother endure concerning her ignorance or cavalier indifference to the needs of her son to attend the derby? I was recently slated to speak on a panel with an appellate judge. At the last moment he mailed all of his fellow panel members to advised that the seminar was the same weekend as his child’s bar mitzvah. Of course he has to cancel. But had he been a mere mortal who scheduled his son’s bar mitzvah on the same weekend as the playoff game, or the soap box derby or the rabbit competition, he might have had bigger problems than he faced with his fellow seminarians. He might have found himself sitting outside a courtroom while an elected official found time to weigh the benefits of bar mitzvah versus playoff game in which his son was slated to pitch.
These decisions cannot be dismissed as frivolous but as we noted, they have little to nothing to do with protecting children or assaying what is in their interests. They are the perfect place for a neutral outsider who has some experience with the family to call “ball or strike.” These parent coordinators do charge for their time but their cost is a fraction of what litigants spend to have pleadings prepared so that their attorneys can spend hours in the hallway of the courthouse waiting for a judge to break from his daily fare of litigation to take up the emergency baseball versus bar mitzvah dispute. Where a parent coordinator is familiar with the dynamics of the family, he or she can also bring to bear the experience of the family in making the decision. Perhaps Father has “won” the last three demands for intervention and it is time for Mother to get a “win” in her column. Judges are not going to bring that experience to the table unless this is one of those families who makes a court appearance every 8-10 weeks.
Having now sung the praises of coordinators, I close by observing that the system was not without its failures. The truth is that lots of high conflict families chewed through a succession of coordinators like weevils through cotton. There were reports of coordinators who were quick to intervene because it was a way to augment their professional practice income. Last but not least were those who were frustrated would be judges who loved to exercise “authority.” Many coordinators seemed to not apprehend that parent coordination was not a means to compensate for one party’s refusal to plan or even look at a calendar. Yes, there were problems. But in a world where Courts are being asked to live with fewer resources and more and more citizens have decided to dispense with attorneys, it is a system that warranted more consideration than it got last month.