I have written many times over the years regarding parent coordination, both during and after the end of the Supreme Court pilot program. A parent coordinator is a person, sometimes a mental health professional and sometimes a lawyer, that is appointed to assist parties in high conflict custody disputes. The description and function of a parenting coordinator under the pilot program were as follows:
A Parenting Coordinator is a qualified neutral person appointed by the court, or agreed to by the parties, to facilitate the resolution of day to day parenting issues that frequently arise within the context of family life when parents are separated. The court may appoint a Parenting Coordinator at any time during a case involving minor children after a parenting plan has been established when the parties cannot resolve these issues on their own.
The Parenting Coordinator’s goal is to aid parties in monitoring the existing parenting plan, reducing misunderstandings, clarifying priorities, exploring possibilities for compromise and developing methods of communication that promote collaboration in parenting. The Parenting Coordinator’s role is to facilitate decision making between the parties or make such recommendations, as may be appropriate, when the parties are unable to do so. One primary goal of the Parenting Coordinator is to empower parents to develop and utilize effective parenting skills so that they can resume the parenting and decision-making role without the need for outside intervention. The Parenting Coordinator should provide guidance and direction to the parties with the primary focus on the best interests of the child by reducing conflict and fostering sound decisions that aid positive child development.
The goals are laudatory and make sense. That said, they often didn’t work because the intransigent party would not follow the parent coordinator’s recommendations. In these circumstances, if the court order required the parties to bring parenting issues to a parent coordinator first before coming to court, and one party wasn’t going to follow the recommendation, the result was often a several month delay until something got decided by a court. Separately, the problem parent, assuming one was worse than the other, would present any issue, every issue to the parent coordinator, using the process as a way to abuse the other parent. This sometimes could be dealt with with a fee shifting provision, but again, if the party didn’t comply with the fee shifting provision, then back to court the parties went anyway.
Over the last several years, I have seen parenting coordination Orders that provide that the parties must follow the parent coordinator’s recommendation, unless and until it was modified by the Court and moreover, it put the onus on the objecting party to bring the matter to court (but comply pending the decision). Note that court’s cannot totally abdicate decision making to a PC and this is not a total abdication because there is a right to object to the Court.
That seemed like progress except when the parent coordinator refuses to enforce their recommendations. In a recent matter, both the Court’s Order of appointment and the parenting coordinator’s own retainer agreement provided language that his recommendations were binding until modified by a court. Except that the father would never accept or follow the recommendations, and also not go to court to set them aside)and the PC would often relent. I have heard of another recent matter with a similar mandate that was in a Consent Order requiring that the parties follow the PC’s recommendations or file a motion within a certain number of days from the recommendation if they objected. The objecting parent will not comply and the PC is not putting her foot down. Not only does this empower the offending parent, but it further delays resolution and continues to victimize the parent that is in the right.
Often, the explanation is that the PC wants the parties ultimately to come to a consensus. In most cases, however, if they were able to do that, they wouldn’t need a PC in the first place. More importantly, the role is not mediator or therapist. The goal is to not be even handed or Solomonic where you have one parent that is the offender the majority of the time. If the PC cannot make the tough recommendation and stand behind it, their appointment is pointless and a waste of the parties’ resources. Moreover, it allows the offending party to continue to use the process to harass and abuse the other party.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.