Massachusetts Dispute Resolution Services

Parenting Coordinators: Who are they and what do they do?

By C. Michele Dorsey, Esq.

No one who watches the news on television or reads a newspaper would be surprised to learn that the incidence and intensity of family conflict is on the rise. Whether it is because of the economy, the introduction of social media or environmental influences, what we do know is that many families are in trouble now and desperately need help.

Unfortunately, children are often caught in the cross-fire of their parents’ conflict, held hostage by the people who love them most, but can’t get out of each other’s way long enough to make sound decisions on their behalf. In these high conflict situations, parents go to war over which extra-curricular activities or sports the children can participate in, where they will attend school and which pediatrician to use.

Sometimes the conflict escalates while the parents are engaged in divorce proceedings but abates once the divorce is finalized and tension dissipates. But for other families, filing a complaint  for divorce is just the execution of a declaration of war which can be waged for decades in a series of battles, leaving parents and children scarred, exhausted and depleted.

These parents are the frequent flyers at the courthouse, returning repeatedly until they run out of money or are more frustrated by “the system” than they are by each other. Some will try mediation to see if they can resolve their disputes out of court, but since mediation is voluntary, often one party opts out in a huff.

Parenting Coordination is a relatively new hybrid form of Alternative Dispute Resolution.  It allows a neutral third-party professional, often a psychologist, social worker or attorney, to work with families who are steeped in deep conflict by first attempting to help them reach a mutual resolution through mediation. Consensus building is the optimal process because it gives the parents control over their own lives and children and also helps them acquire skills to draw upon in future disputes.

For the same reasons that mediation is frequently unsuccessful with high conflict couples, the Parenting Coordinator’s efforts at consensus building can be equally so. But a Parenting Coordinator, either through a court order or an agreement entered by the parties, depending on the jurisdiction, has the authority to issue a binding decision on issues related to the children if the parents are unable to reach an agreement. Either parent can appeal the Parenting Coordinator’s decision to the court, but unless and until a court modifies the decision, it is binding on the parents. Children no longer languish while their parents engage in endless conflict and escape the consequences of the maxim from Harvey Cox : “Not to Decide is to Decide.”

As a lawyer, mediator and former nurse whose professional focus has been on children, I am gratified that a process which places children’s needs above all has been developed. While I am acutely aware of and respect the rights of parents, children must always come first.