Anyone who has had their chance to participate in a child custody proceeding at any level knows that the procedures are slow. Typically courts are requiring parents to attend a parenting class and/or informal mediation before the real games begins and we get to a ruling or order. This is frustrating but it has a purpose particularly for those who are new to the system. But some families find that the power struggle between parents produces the need to return to court again and again; often over relatively trivial matters. The other factor that plays into this is that in most instances, what is needed is not a complete record and adjudication but just a “decision”. Can a four year old travel to the Middle East with his Father? Should a nine year old play football if he has already had a concussion? Does the father’s fiftieth family reunion take precedence over mother’s previously scheduled vacation plans? In each of these cases, the timeliness of the decision is usually more important than the result. This has given birth to a new business called Parent Coordination.
The parent coordinator is conventionally a lawyer or mental health profession appointed by agreement of the parties to make these “little” decisions on an informal basis and without the need for a record hearing or legal advice. They are not appointed to change custody decisions but to smooth them out. They are supposed to apply practicality and speed to a process that often lacks both features. I recently watched a full hearing on whether a young child could/should travel to Lebanon for a family reunion. The “trial” consumed about two hours of judicial time. As a neutral observer, it occurred to me that most of the issues fully explored at trial could have been pretty careful explored in about 30 minutes of careful informal interview.
So what kinds of things do these coordinators take on? The language from a Mercer County, NJ form agreement does a nice job of explaining:
Each party specifically agrees that the Parenting Coordinator may make recommendations regarding possible conflicts they may have on the following issues and that such recommendations are effective as orders when made and will continue in effect unless modified or set aside by the Court of jurisdiction (the parties may exclude specified items from the list):
Dates and times of pick up and delivery
Sharing of vacations and holidays
Method of pick up and delivery
Transportation to and from visitation
Participation in child care/daycare
After school and enrichment act ivies
Health care management and cost
Alteration in schedule which do not substantially alter the basic time sharing agreement
Participation in visitation (significant others, relatives, etc.)
The Parenting Coordinator will have the authority to make recommendations on the following issues. The recommendations shall be submitted to the Court, which may approve them and enter them as Court orders. These recommendations will be effective when adopted by the Court, and can be reviewed only upon a hearing de novo at which the moving party has the burden of proof.
Private school education and cost
Religion and religious training
Attendance at religious services
Significant changes in vacation and holiday schedules
Supervision of visitation
Time share changes which do not alter the child's primary residence
Appointment of counsel for child
Participation by parents and/or child in physical examinations.
Participation by parents and/or child in psychological examinations, assessments, and psychotherapy including selection of a therapist for the child when the parties cannot agree. The cost of psychotherapy for the child shall automatically be shared by the parties equally in the absence of any provision to the contrary in a current Court order.
Participation by the parents and/or child in alcohol and drug monitoring/testing.
The Parenting Coordinator’s role can become a powerful one and therein lies the rub. A common complaint is that the parties have gone from too little access to judicial intervention to too much. Because they charge an hourly rate for their services, clients have had access to parent coordinators on weekends and evenings. That can seem like a good thing but, in some instances, one party will insist that every dispute, no matter how trivial, requires a “ruling” from the parent coordinator. This is something you may want to think about before signing up. In many instances these agreements are tailored to limit access to parent coordination.