Over the last 20 years, the area of Family Law has gone through some major changes in the way conflicts between spouses are resolved. Families are taking the cases out of the courts and into their own hands with procedures that are called Alternative Dispute Resolutions. We have discussed Divorce Mediation, which is one of these alternative procedures. A major benefit of mediation is that the couple has more control over the details of the divorce having worked through all of the steps with the guidance of a mediator. Couples that utilize Divorce Mediation have a greater chance of an amicable break since the terms of the divorce were directly negotiated by the couple as opposed to the details being dictated by the courts. Oftentimes, the terms dictated by the courts can lead to animosity and bitter feelings by either spouse who feels the decisions did not go in their favor.
Alternative Dispute Resolution procedures can easily be utilized in cases where there are not high levels of conflict. However, these procedures can, likewise, be utilized in many cases even where there is high levels of conflict and even anger. Of course, there will always be cases where the terms of the divorce will require the backing of a judge and court order, such as cases where abuse is present.
Another alternative procedure is called Parenting Coordination. When it comes to parenting, custody, visitation, and anything related to the children, the level of conflict can become very high. In an effort to remove the burden of making parenting decisions for the family, which may not be in the parents’ or child’s best interest, the parents may agree to use a Parenting Coordinator, which the court will then make a court order. This is a process that is focused on the children. A professionally trained and experienced mental health or legal professional, called a Parenting Coordinator, would work with parents to resolve conflicts with the parenting plan that would be in the best interest of the child and take each of the parents wants and concerns into account. Since the Parenting Coordinator is usually working under a court order with guidelines, they can only make very minor changes to any court orders related to items such as custody or visitation. The Court will still have the final say if the parents cannot resolve the issue themselves or with the input of the Parenting Coordinator.
In some jurisdictions, the main function of the Parenting Coordinator is to create appropriate parenting plans, to build functional, enduring co-parenting relationships; and to resolve ongoing co-parenting disputes. In other jurisdictions, the main function is to help the parents resolve conflicts, enforce the custody orders, or help the parties clarify the implementation of order. Much like mediation, the goal is to take the details of an agreement out of the hands of the courts and give the responsibility to the parents. Even in high-conflict cases, the long-term relationship has less animosity since the terms of the agreement were directly negotiated and agreed upon.
While there is not a lot of data to declare Parenting Coordination a success, there are some numbers that do show its usefulness. Born out of the need to alleviate the pressure on the courts by parents who came back to court multiple times, Parenting Coordination was designed to give the parents a way to resolve their issues even before they come major. In one year prior to the appointment of a Parenting Coordinator in California, 166 cases accounted for 993 court appearances. That is an average of just about 6 trips back to court for each case. Not only does that put pressure on the courts, but each time, the parents had to disrupt their day, miss work, pay the lawyer, find babysitters.. it gets expensive. For these same 166 cases, after the Parenting Coordinators were appointed, there were only 37 court appearances. (1) Another survey found that on average, the level of conflict and stress of dealing with the other parent was decreased and a majority of cases were satisfied with the coordinator and the resulting agreement (2).
As with mediation, Parenting Coordination is not for everyone. It is up to the judge presiding over the case to decide if Parenting Coordination is a good fit.
(1). Johnston, T. Outcome study on special master cases in Santa Clara County, (unpublished study) (1994).
(2). Vick, M. H., and Backerman, R. (1996). Mediation/arbitration: Surveys of professionals and clients, paper presented at the Boulder, Colorado Interdisciplinary Committee on Child Custody