Parent coordinator is a tool that has been used over the last 10 years to help the children of high-conflict parents. A qualified third party professional works with the parents to help put the needs of the children first.
In some states, there is a statutory basis for appointing a parent coordinator. Massachusetts does not yet have a statute authorizing judges to appoint parent coordinators. Bay State judges will often still suggest or approve a parent coordinator in instances where one is needed, but they cannot mandate it.
Using a parent coordinator is in no way a judgment on one’s parenting ability. Rather, it is an effective and inexpensive alternative to going back to court and having a judge mandate a parenting solution without understanding the unique situation. Parent coordinators get to know the family so they can understand their issues, concerns, and priorities. Their goal is to ease the family’s stress and animosity for the sake of the children.
Why Are Parent Coordinators Needed?
The parental relationship between couples is often a very different one than their marital relationship. It is not uncommon for both parents individually to be quite pleasant and personable, but when put together, they turn into a chemistry experiment gone horribly awry.
While some couples might dislike each other or be very suspicious of each other’s financial habits, they are somehow still able to co-parent well. Other parents, however, cannot figure out how to co-parent together at all. In these cases, the children are, unfortunately, the ones caught in the middle.
One parent, for example, may want a daughter to enroll in ballet classes, while the other parent says absolutely not. Even ordinary day-to-day interactions can lead to a build-up of suspicion or hostility that eventually boils over, resulting in scenarios like these:
“You’re 5 minutes late. That’s it – you’re not taking the kids today!”
“I will not switch weekends with you! Forget it, they’re not going with you.”
“Why did your father forget to pack your jacket? What kind of a father does he think he is?”
Make no mistake: when kids witness this kind of behavior, they are thrown into the position of having to take sides. Naturally, they love both parents and don’t want to hurt either parent. They may even be experiencing some misplaced guilt over the divorce. When pressed for details such as what was served for dinner or what mommy’s new boyfriend is like, kids will often tell one parent what they think they want to hear while coming up with a different take for the other parent, in an effort to juggle their relationship with both. While well-intentioned, this only escalates hostilities.
No child should be placed in this kind of situation. Regardless of what kind of turmoil is going on between parents, they need to be focusing on the needs of their children, especially when they are spending time with them. A parent coordinator takes the children out of the middle and encourages – or even forces – the parents to start acting like the adults in the situation.
What Does a Parent Coordinator Do?
When I first meet with a couple who has engaged me as a parent coordinator, I tell them that my first goal is to make my role obsolete as soon as possible. I aim to do this by helping them come up with processes that will enable them to effectively co-parent. I remind them that while they do not have to like each other, it is important to focus on what is in their kids’ best interest – and a cooperative, civil relationship between their parents would definitely qualify.
I tell the parents that somebody has to be the adult in their children’s lives. While I would rather it be them, if they do not step up to the plate, I will take over. Interestingly, sometimes just realizing that a parent coordinator has been appointed for their family is enough to make a couple get their act together and start acting responsibly.
A parent coordinator is often seen as a safety net. The parents can first try to work things out on their own, but if they cannot reach an agreement, the parent coordinator steps in as a neutral third party to help them out. Knowing that someone is “watching” helps keep people on their best behavior, and the children benefit.
There are many ways to set up an ongoing parental relationship that gets the job done while maintaining a degree of separation that is comfortable to both parents. For example, we can set up a joint calendar that each parent can add to and view, which allows them to understand schedules without needing to communicate personally on a regular basis.
Parent coordinators can assist with children of any age. Occasionally a parent coordinator will talk with the children separately, or with other significant people in the children’s lives, when it is difficult to determine the actual facts.
What Does a Parent Coordinator Not Do?
A parent coordinator does not have authority to change custody or support provisions. The parent coordinator only addresses routine scheduling concerns, medical/dental issues, or activity issues.
Who Is Qualified to Be a Parent Coordinator?
There are a number of individuals who advertise their services as a parent coordinator, but relatively few – at least in Massachusetts – have been trained to meet the guidelines of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). I have personally been through this training, as well as advanced training as a parent coordinator, and am an AFCC member.
Your lawyer may be the one who exposes you to the concept of a parent coordinator, and may even suggest one by name. If so, make sure the individual has the proper credentials and experience.
One of the AFCC’s guidelines is that the parent coordinator must be a qualified mediator. The reason behind this requirement is because the goal should be for the parents to hopefully resolve their issues themselves. That is obviously preferable to having an outside party step in to try to solve the problem with a cookie cutter answer that may not fit the particular circumstances. A mediator is skilled in hearing both sides of the story and getting the parents’ take on their challenges before making recommendations.