Obtaining evidence in high conflict parenting disputes, Part 4: parenting coordination.
It's a bit misleading to talk about parenting coordination in the context of obtaining evidence in high-conflict parenting disputes. That's not what parenting coordination is mainly about. Although parenting coordination can produce evidence, its primary purpose is to help resolve conflicts about the implementation of parenting plans made in an agreement or final order. However, since Sarah mentioned it and since practices vary across Canada, I'll write about it now.
Parenting coordination began in California in 1993 as a court-attached process for high-conflict parents. The Special Master Program, as it was known, was intended to address the needs of the small percentage of separated couples who found themselves caught up in frequent disputes over often insignificant parenting problems, and demanded a disproportionate amount of time before a judge as a result. A special master would be assigned to such parties, to step in when a parenting dispute erupted and to attempt to mediate a solution to the problem. If successful, the parties would avoid another application to court, and the court would be spared the task of hearing it.
Parenting coordination has evolved as it has grown in popularity and spread to other jurisdictions in the United States and Canada. At present, parenting coordination is available in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. In its present form, parenting coordination is a child-oriented dispute resolution process that:
1. assists with implementing parenting plans; 2. attempts to refocus parents toward the needs and interests of their children; 3. attempts to reduce parental conflict, and improve communication and independent dispute resolution skills; and 4. keeps parents out of court by resolving parenting disputes as they arise, either by the parties' agreement or the decisions of the parenting coordinator.
There are differences between how parenting coordination works in Alberta and how it works in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. I'll talk about parenting coordination in British Columbia because the British Columbia process is the one I know best; I was one of the people involved in establishing the BC Parenting Coordinator Roster Society in 2006.
The parenting coordination process in British Columbia is fairly straightforward, and begins when the parents agree, or the court orders, that a parenting coordinator be retained. (Parenting coordinators are lawyers or mental health professionals with special training in mediation, arbitration, child development, family systems and family conflict, among other things.) Each party then has an initial meeting with the parenting coordinator to:
1. sign a parenting coordination agreement; 2. provide copies of their parenting plan and other important documents like parenting assessments, which I wrote about in Part 3, educational assessments and medical reports; 3. sign authorizations allowing the coordinator to talk to the children's teachers, and medical and mental health professionals; and 4. discuss the parenting coordination process and the nature and causes of the parents' conflict.
When a dispute later arises about a parenting issue, the parent with the complaint contacts the parenting coordinator. The parenting coordinator talks to each parent to get their perspective on the problem, and attempts to reach a resolution by gathering information, negotiating and attempting to build consensus between the parents. If an agreement can't be reached, the parenting coordinator makes a decision that resolves the dispute. This is binding on the parents as a result of the parenting coordination agreement or the court order appointing the parenting coordinator. When the next problem comes up, the parents return to their parenting coordinator and the process begins again.
Along the way, the parenting coordinator works on longer-term issues, such as helping the parents learn to communicate more effectively with each other and build their ability to resolve disputes themselves. For these purposes, and to provide consistency, parenting coordinators are retained for lengthy terms ranging from six months to two years. The parenting coordinator will continue working with the parents until his or her retainer expires, or when the parents agree or the court orders that the parenting coordination process be terminated.
The types of issues parenting coordinators deal with range from the profoundly important to the surprisingly trivial, yet all are the sort of problems that high-conflict parents will take to court. In my practice, I have been asked to hear evidence and make a decision about the parenting schedule for an eight-year-old child of parents with significant personality disorders, and plan the extent of the contact children would have with their physically and emotionally abusive father. However, I have also been asked to deal with the one-time return of a child to a location other than that specified in a court order, and decide whether a child should play baseball or soccer, which dentist a child will attend, and whether a child should wear an amulet to allay her fear of ghosts. I always tried my best to help parents find a resolution on their own, and treated my power to make a decision about a problem as a last resort. My paramount goal was always to help parents get to a point where they no longer needed me.
Parenting coordination has been warmly welcomed in British Columbia. At present, parenting coordination is seen as a useful and effective means of: reducing litigation after trial or settlement; developing parents' ability to cooperate; and improving parents' ability to recognize the needs and interests of their children. The appointment of parenting coordinators has become unexceptional when parents are identified as high-conflict and have the means to pay for the service. Provisions for the appointment of parenting coordinators have even been included in the province's new Family Law Act.
That last bit about payment continues to be a problem for parenting coordination, and really is the Achilles' heel of an otherwise effective dispute resolution process. Public funding for parenting coordination, even through legal aid, is not yet available. Since the people who work as parenting coordinators are, at least in British Columbia, lawyers and mental health professionals with special training and a great deal of experience, the cost of parenting coordination can be prohibitive. In my respectful opinion, government should perhaps consider the significant cost savings realized from diverting high-conflict parents away from the court system against the lesser cost of parenting coordination, and reassess its funding priorities.
By John-Paul Boyd