How can Parent Coordinators help high conflict families? (or how to avoid death by a thousand cuts).

For a number of high conflict families after divorce, repeated trips to court yield nothing more than deeper wounds, more firmly entrenched positions, chaos and retaliation, resulting in a never ending spiral of emotional and financial damage to all concerned. And while some high conflict families eventually learn to coexist (parallel parenting) and some eventually learn to cooperatively coparent their minor children, there are a number of high conflict families who may never learn to get out of the cycle of provocation and reaction.

What do I mean by provocation and reaction? Let us use our example high conflict family.  

Parent A is chronically late returning the children, thus interfering with Parent B’s plans, or simply the efficient timing of what transpires in Parent B’s household. Parent A asks Parent B to trade weekends so that Parent A can attend a family wedding with the minor children.  Parent B simply does not respond to Parent A’s texts, emails, or telephone calls, until after the scheduled event, frustrating Parent A’s weekend plans to attend the wedding with the minor children.  These high conflict parents in our example family also naturally have ongoing disagreements regarding payment of unreimbursed uninsured medical expenses.  Some weeks after the wedding, which the children did not attend, Parent B asks Parent A if Parent B can have the children early on the day that Parent B is scheduled to commence vacation, to accommodate Parent B’s travel plans, and flight arrangements. Parent B also needs Parent A to provide the children’s passports or else the children cannot fly on vacation as planned. Parent A refuses to accommodate Parent B’s travel request, and further refuses to give up the passports. Parents B’s travel plans are ruined as a result. Sound typical?

While any of these aggravations in exclusion are unlikely to lead either party to go back to court to seek relief, the situation is what I have described in my lectures as “death by 1,000 cuts.”  Little by little, bit by bit, these parents are driving each other crazy, making each other miserable, and the never-ending cycle of provocation and response results in the children being collateral damage.

When one party or the other eventually files a motion to say, modify child support, the other party will inevitably file a motion to have the other parent held in contempt of court for every violation of the parenting plan that ever occurred, or worse, ask the court to terminate the shared parenting/joint custody plan.  The other parent naturally files their counter motion, asking for the same relief, or worse, relying upon all of the horrible things done to that parent and the minor children as the basis for the court to grant them the relief they seek.

How can a Parent Coordinator prevent this?  Can the Parent Coordinator affect change for this family?

For high conflict families, the inclusion of a Parent Coordinator as an alternative to litigation prevents the vast majority of high conflict families from ever returning to court. The Parent Coordinator can help the parents “be there best selves” by helping resolve these conflicts before they escalate, and before retaliation takes place. The Parent Coordinator can foster cooperation between the parties. When the parties are unable to reach an agreement, with the help of the Parent Coordinator, the Parent Coordinator may be authorized by court order to make decisions for the parties, in specific areas which are identified in the court order, and which can be tailored to the needs, and issues faced by the family in question.

In other words, when one of the parties initiates contact with the Parent Coordinator to help resolve an issue, the Parent Coordinator, after consultation with both parents, will discuss options, and help identify the underlying interests at play (in the same way that the underlying interests are identified in mediation, or collaborative divorce).   The Parent Coordinator is often able to identify options that the parties, in the heat of their high conflict ongoing disagreements after divorce, are unable to identify.

In rare instances (which I would anecdotally estimate to be less than 5% of the time) the Parent Coordinator is called upon to actually decide the issue for the parties. This means, that in the overwhelming majority of cases (once again anecdotally estimated to be 95% of the time) the Parent Coordinator is able to help the parties achieve a negotiated resolution of their disagreement.

When the Parent Coordinator is called upon in those rare instances to actually make a decision for the parties, the Parent Coordinator’s decision has the same binding effect as a court order, subject to either party’s right to object, or appeal that decision, to the court that granted the parties their divorce.

I have been actively engaged in doing this work as a Parent Coordinator since 2003, and I can tell you without exception, that eventually, all of these families learn that there is no longer a benefit to engaging in the cycle of provocation and retaliation, because there is an immediate, swift mechanism in place to address the provocation, or retaliation, which does not rely upon either party invoking the continuing jurisdiction of the court, hiring attorneys, engaging in discovery, filing motions, missing work, or any of the other barriers to resolution and peace.

The high conflict parents, once deprived of the opportunities to provoke, or retaliate, actually do learn skills necessary to coparent, with each other, or at least parallel parent.

Has your state adopted statutes, or rules regarding the utilization of Parent Coordinators in high conflict cases? Does the court where you practice appoint Parent Coordinators to help high conflict families resolve conflicts, and keep them from returning to court?

By | 2017-07-03T01:43:17+00:00 July 22nd, 2015|Blog|0 Comments

About the Author:

John J. Ready
Mr. Ready is a frequent lecturer on continuing legal education topics including domestic violence, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), guardian ad litem representation, parent coordinator practice and the examination of expert witnesses. His community activities include serving on the City of Lakewood Citizens Advisory Counsel and Board of Zoning Appeals. He served on Cleveland Catholic Diocese, Diocesan Pastoral Counsel and the St. Malachi Center Board of Trustees. Mr. Ready serves as a lector and lay minister at St. Malachi Church in Cleveland, and also serves as a lay minister at the hospice known as Malachi House.

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