When I went through a family dissolution about twenty-six years ago it was a real mess. My ex was a Deputy Attorney General (PA) and I was a Family Law practitioner. We fought like arch enemies – we were. It was amazing. Just a few years before we had promised, before God, to love one until death do we part. Now here we were using every dirty trick we learned as Attorneys on each other just to gain what?
But What About the Children
Perhaps an even greater tragedy was there was an innocent child involved. The child was relegated to the status of a favorite painting. Never once did we give way to the best interests of the child. This went on for seven years. We subjected our child to a series of indignities at a very tender age of twenty-four months. Our only care was to hurt each other.
You Would Think
You would think the Attorneys would reign us in. The reality was we were an Attorney gold mine. Imagine billing at $200 an hour for two Attorneys dead set on destroying each other. No less than six Attorneys eagerly jumped into this matter just to get a piece of the pie. Looking back, it was ridiculous. We each wound up with no less than $85,000 in Attorney bills. For what? Life went on, our child became a man, and we wasted what could have been a significant contribution to his college costs.
Turning the Hands Ahead
Fast forward time to the year 2000. Now there are a number of programs dedicated to help high conflict families. Yes, there are still families like ours only now we have some new tools.
One such tool is the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program. According to the National CASA program they are; volunteers appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home.
While CASA is not necessarily a Family Law specific program, the value of a CASA volunteer in a high conflict family, that gives little regard to the children, cannot be understated.
Another very exciting program is called Parent Coordination. According to the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the Parent Coordination performs the following,
Parenting coordination is a child-focused alternative dispute resolution process in which a mental health or legal professional with mediation training and experience assists high conflict parents to implement their parenting plan by facilitating the resolution of their disputes in a timely manner, educating parents about children’s needs, and with prior approval of the parties and/or the court, making decisions within the scope of the court order or appointment contract.
The overall objective of parenting coordination is to assist high conflict parents to implement their parenting plan, to monitor compliance with the details of the plan, to resolve conflicts regarding their children and the parenting plan in a timely manner, and to protect and sustain safe, healthy and meaningful parent-child relationships. (AFCC, 2005)
Imagine, now the Court can appoint a trained professional, often possessing legal and/or mental health training and education, to do what Attorneys will not and Courts cannot. That is to assist the family to focus on the needs of the child. These professionals can teach parents how to make better decisions in regards to their children. They can help parents reduce the destructive conflict that can be multigenerational and can have intergenerational implications. Perhaps the greatest advantage is it reduces the financial burdens on families that are often at their financial low. Parent Coordinators can help the family move ahead when it is easy to get stuck in the cycle of vitriolic litigation.
Always a Critic
As one should expect Parent Coordination is not without critics. One article entitled, Parenting Coordination Issues – Pros and Cons. Parenting Coordination is a Bad Idea, Why: (The Liz Library, 2009), presents the most frequently raised objections. Many of the arguments in this article border on the absurd. Anyone who has experienced a family dissolution knows these assertions are without merit.
However, as an Attorney, I understand the reaction of many bar associations. It is not unlike the reaction of the National Association of Social Workers when states began to offer licenses to other types of Mental Health Providers. They are simply not comfortable with other professionals offering viable alternatives at often a lower cost.
The question remains, however, what is better for the family?
We also Have Supporters
One of the staunchest supporters of Parent Coordination is the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). The AFCC is the premier interdisciplinary and international association of professionals dedicated to the resolution of family conflict. AFCC members are the leading practitioners, researchers, teachers and policymakers in the family court arena. AFCC members include;
Judges, Lawyers, Mediators, Court Commissioners Court Administrators
Psychologists, Researchers, Academics, Psychiatrists, Counselors, Social Workers
Custody Evaluators, Parenting Coordinators, Parent Educators
Together they write, Parenting coordination is appropriate for high conflict cases dealing with child-related issues, such as when (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 2011);
– there is a high rate of litigation, especially concerning the implementation of a custody order or parenting plan;
– mediation has not been successful or has been deemed inappropriate;
– parents need assistance developing, modifying or implementing their parenting plan;
– parents have difficulty communicating information about their child’s welfare;
– parenting are unable to agree on substantive issues concerning their child;
– there are complex child-related or family issues that require intensive case managing; and
– parents can afford to pay for the parenting coordinator’s services or the services can be provided at no expense.
More, to insure Parent Coordination remains a viable program and to address some of the criticisms of the Parent Coordination Process, the AFCC has proposed model guidelines for Parent Coordinators. In the preamble they write.
The purpose of these Guidelines for Parenting Coordination (“Guidelines”) is to provide:
1. detailed guidelines of practice for PCs;
2. guidelines for PCs regarding their ethical obligations and conduct;
3. qualifications for PCs, including relevant education, training and experience;
4. assistance to jurisdictions that are implementing parenting coordination programs by providing guidelines of practice that they can adopt; and
5. assistance to jurisdictions, professional organizations, educational institutions and professionals in the development and implementation of parenting coordination programs.
In February 2013, a man entered the New Castle County Courthouse in Delaware. There he proceeded to murder two young women and wound two Delaware Police Officers. He was ultimately killed by the Police that morning. It turns out the gunman was the father in law of one of the murdered women. They were all on the way to a Family Court proceeding.
A few years earlier, 2005, a Family Court Judge was shot and wounded in a Nevada Courthouse as he stood near an open window. The accused shooter was alleged to be a litigant before this Judge.
Again in 2005, a Judge was murdered in an Atlanta Courthouse. Perhaps most noteworthy were comments from a Georgia Attorney that said,
“You’re dealing with people who are not happy with something and have sued someone or are potentially facing jail or are fighting over custody of children, the kind of things that bring out the raw emotions that can cause problems,” (emphasis added).
“I would be surprised if a judge doing criminal cases, or family-law cases, or certain civil cases, hadn’t had somebody make a threat against them,” Judge Gayle Nachtigal, president of the American Judges Association”.
All that can be said is if these cases are producing this sort of public violence against our Judges and Police Officers, we have to acknowledge there is something fundamentally wrong in the way we are handling these matters.
These are not isolated, unusual, incidents. Rather this is a very real reality in how the system is currently addressing the reshaping of our families and the consequences thereof.
This should clearly tell us the status quo is not working. What do we have to lose by trying new approaches. Especially new approaches designed expressly for the purpose of working with high conflict families.
Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2005) Guidelines for Parent Coordination. Retrieved from the APA Website.
Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2011). Understanding the Parent Coordination Process. Retrieved from Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Website.
The Liz Library. (2009). PARENTING COORDINATION issues – pros and cons . Retrieved from the Liz Library Website