I know this isn’t a good way to start but I have to apologize at the outset because I am not sure how strongly I believe the ideas and sentiments expressed in the first part of this article. First, I am not certain that having parent coordinators is a good idea. I think we expect too much when we want more than what an informed and involved court can and should give to divorcing parents and their children1 (see endnotes).  I know that attorneys and courts can be frustrated by the vicissitudes of parental strife in connection with divorce but the parent coordinator may not be a good “solution” to whatever this problem is.  In fact, there might not even be a problem, especially if courts and attorneys step up to their responsibilities and learn to live with the various stresses that occur in the divorce process2. Second, I am not convinced that it matters (I could write a paragraph on the word “matters” in this context but will do so elsewhere) who performs in the role of parent coordinating so long as parent coordinators are regulated by the courts and the appropriate licensing boards, hopefully in compatible ways. At the same time, I feel that there are categories of professionals who should not be permitted to perform this role, especially those without formal, extensive training, education and experience in a recognized field of mental health. Third, since I spend most of my new professional life as a plaintiff’s attorney in professional malpractice suits, I have an informed view of the vulnerabilities of professionals, such as parent coordinators, and there are many. Fourth, I acknowledge that representing mental health professionals, acting as parent coordinators, who have had licensing board complaints lodged against them, may give me a skewed sense of the kinds of parents who participate in the parent coordinating process. 

Please consider these four points as qualifications on what follows immediately below. I especially apply this caveat to the fourth point above. My comments may be only applicable to a discrete subset of parents who wind up working with a parent coordinator.

The overwhelming majority of divorced or divorcing parents do not manifest levels of child-related conflict that warrant the involvement of a third party in the most intimate parts of their relationship. The parents who need this kind of help are atypical in other ways. They often are brimming over with complicated psychological problems, interpersonal deficits, cognitive deficits, and very poorly controlled emotions, usually intensely negative.  

In developing the following suggestions, I have assumed that parents who need the services of a parent coordinator are experiencing serious psychological problems. I concede however that it takes only one parent with psychological problems to force both parents into the embrace of a parent coordinator. I would also agree that the serious psychological problems I refer to may be of transient nature such as in the case of an Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Disturbance of Emotions (and Conduct).  However, more refractory cases may involve parents who present with virulent and enduring Axis II problems.

I find it difficult to justify the time and expense that come with the services of a parent coordinator in cases that are not very difficult or where the parenting problems are not complex, refractory and suffused with unconstructive thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In easier cases of parental conflict over children, the court should be able to reach a resolution without a parent coordinator3.

My experience has taught me that working with difficult cases can be very challenging even for the most astute mental health professionals. This work should be undertaken with a great deal of humility, circumspection and preparation. At the same time, for their own sakes, parent coordinators must recognize and realistically accept their role as emotional shock absorbers for the courts, attorneys, and for society as a whole. That’s the job. What did you think? They should not be surprised when the inevitable parent lashing out occurs. While such episodes are very predictable, and should be taken into account before one agrees to take on the parent coordinator role, it is still difficult to foresee and prepare for the intense anger, vitriol and irrationality that can erupt and spill all over the parent coordinator. For these reasons, parent coordinators should be prepared to help themselves by using techniques such as stress inoculation, relaxation, cognitive reframing and peer supervision.  The avenging parent who accepts the services of a parent coordinator, who is a licensed mental health professional, has an additional weapon in her arsenal: lodging a complaint with a licensing board4

The legal status of parent coordinators is likely to change in the near future. However, whether it does or does not, the question arises of what can be done by professionals in the meantime and afterward in order to reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes in the parent coordinatung process. I would offer what I have termed Rules of Engagement:

1. Know your licensing regulations. If the court establishes rules for parent coordinators, they are unlikely to simply replicate the licensing laws and regulations. This will mean two things. First, parent coordinating practices may conflict with licensing laws and regulations. Second, these differences may vary depending on what kind of professional is performing it5.  For example, a licensed psychologist who performs parent coordinating is still subject to the laws and regulations that govern the practice of psychology. The same goes for social workers and marriage and family counselors. To the extent that these licensing laws and regulations are different, the rules governing the parent coordinator will be different from one another. If mental health professional licensing laws and regulations are somehow eventually co-opted by the parent coordinator role and do not apply to the process, then certain issues such as confidentiality, HIPAA compliance, etc. must still be explicitly addressed if only to eliminate possible confusion over what rules apply to parent coordinating.

2. Know yourself. Since these are complex cases, you should not agree to function as a parent coordinator unless you have a solid background of training and experience in a recognized field of mental health. I believe that taking on such a role without this background is reckless and unprofessional. This stance is does not conflate parent coordinating and more traditional psychological therapies but recognizes that these two types of interventions share many commonalities. For example, both deal with and attempt to modify, shape or change feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Both deal with persons who have been unable to make basic life adjustments that most others have been able to make. Both deal with persons who exhibit moderate to severe impairments in thinking, feeling or behaving. Both heavily rely on talking as a medium of promoting change.

I think that parent coordinating might benefit following more traditional psychological therapies by basing its interventions on some explicit theories of human behavior. For example, how is it that the parent coordinator helps parents change? At this stage, parent coordinating is bereft of any widely accepted theory of how to understand and change parental behavior.  I recently read a comment by a practitioner in this area that an advantage of parent coordinating would be to “force parents to face reality”. Courts have coercive authority; parent coordinators do not and should not have such coercive authority. A professional who is experienced in working with persons suffering with acute mental and emotional problems knows that nothing is forced…not ever. This is not how change takes place in this area. In addition, while attorneys and trial courts have been quite ready to grant some kind of coercive authority to mental health professionals, appellate courts have always been properly critical of such surrendering of the court’s authority6

3. Always Prepare Ahead of Time. Before the first session, a parent coordinator should have read all of the relevant documents. For example, child custody reports should be reviewed.7 There should be some kind of preliminary assessment of the case and the participants. This should include at least a nod to adult developmental issues and considerations based on the literature on child temperament ala Chess & Thomas8.

4. Have Documents on Hand. The parent coordinator should have all documents prepared for the first session. The most important of these is the engagement letter and a description of your services and billing practices. It is important in this letter inform the participants as well to shape and control their expectations as well as your own. The engagement letter should set down ground rules. These ground rules should deal with the scope of the parent coordinator’s authority, remedies for disagreements with the parent coordinator, confidentiality, and the use of and access to the parent coordinator’s records and notes. The engagement letter should define emergencies and explain how emergencies will be managed. The engagement letter should address what will happen to the parenting coordinating process if one or the other parent files a complaint with a licensing board or files a malpractice suit. Billing practices must be carefully described. This would include policies on missed sessions and insurance reimbursement. Duties to warn and protect, protection of the children and other similar issues also should be addressed. The engagement letter should forecast the kinds of problems and eruptions that inevitably occur. This will help to diffuse and dilute anticipated problems. By anticipating the inevitable anger, disappointment, projections and displacements, the engagement letter can serve as a symptom assignment or paradoxical intention and thereby reduce the likelihood that these destructive dynamics and outbursts will crop up. 

5. Avoid Cases with Severe Parental Impairment. No case should be accepted in which one or both parents are so impaired and lacking in control that they are not able to participate in a constructive way. In other words, it is acceptable to decline to take a case. Courts who assign parents to parent coordinators should understand that declining a case may be a sign of professional judgment and maturity rather than a lack of interest in or stamina for being a parent coordinator.

6. Avoid Open Ended Commitments. No parent coordinating case should be accepted on an open ended basis. Parent coordinating should be conceptualized in incremental units with each unit including the option of discontinuing for lack of progress or inability to pay.

7. Document everything.

8. Formulate specific goals that are operationally defined. Progress toward these goals should be assessed periodically and should serve as one basis for deciding to continue or terminate the process.

9. Set realistic goals and expectations. Remember, parent coordinators are not miracle workers.

10. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Parent coordinating should be limited to a number of sessions even if every goal has not been fully achieved [….life goes on]. Adding extra sessions should be done only with the agreement of the parents, the parent coordinator and the court and should be based on current achievements and prospects for gains in the immediate future.

11. Use Multiple Formats. Multiple formats should be available to participants including e-mails, telephone conferencing, audio and videotaping sessions.

12. Flexible Therapeutic Scheduling. Sessions do not have to occur on a weekly basis. Sessions can be bunched up or spread out. Shorter or longer sessions may be more effective than the traditional hour-long session at some junctures.

13. Use Various Techniques. Role reversal, role playing, psycho-drama, and guided imagery should be used as problem solving techniques.

14. Seek Consultation. Find someone or ones to talk to about your work. Parent coordinating can be emotionally and intellectually taxing. These difficulties include having to deal with attorneys on both sides and with courts that may seem unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to the dilemmas encountered by the parent coordinator9.

9 In doing their respective jobs, attorneys and various mental health professionals who work with the same clients, always have different roles and responsibilities. Mental health professionals have to be vigilant in order avoid being manipulated into inappropriate roles. This dynamic can be very wearing for the mental health professional.  See for example, Moser & Barbrack (2004)

15. You’re not Freud so don’t try to act like him. Clarify your role and stick with it. Avoid confusing the participants by going back and forth between being a parent coordinator and some other brand of professional.

16. Be realistic regarding your fees. Anticipate what you will do when the initial retainer runs out and one or both participants refuses to pay any more.

17. Have Realistic Expectations. Get clear regarding what you might expect from the court vis-à-vis the court, the lawyers, and the Boards.

18. Avoid a Jaded Outlook.  Appreciate that there is a fine line separating being highly experienced and being jaded. If you protect yourself by having to know precisely what a case is about and where it will wind up and if you communicate this to participants, some of them will react very negatively and complain that you are too brusque, biased and unsympathetic. If you psychologically swagger into a consultation or find that your patience is short, you may have a problem in this area. (Keep my phone number handy).

19. Work on listening. If in your life you have come across two people, therapists included, who listened to you, you are very fortunate. We all know that listening requires not talking a lot. But it also means not staring at the speaker in an attempt to convey interest while making the speaker very self conscious and uncomfortable. Being listened to should be a pleasant and satisfying experience. It requires refraining from thinking about your own special problems or what you will say next while you are listening. Listening is a skill that very few people recognize and appreciate and even fewer people possess. One reason listening is difficult is that it feels like giving up control and risking the prospect of being overwhelmed by the participants. I believe this is a misperception. The parent coordinator has to establish and maintain control of the relationship. However, listening does not mean giving up control rather it is a technique to allow parents to tell you what is wrong and what they need. You will not be overwhelmed. This issue is something to work on.

20. Work on sitting still, allowing the spotlight to be somewhere else, focusing on the other and on what is going on in front of you. Be patient and let things unfold.  

I am afraid that the Parent Coordinator juggernaut will not be stopped. I am grateful to not be in a position of having to promote or endorse this new role without any real idea of whether it is necessary, who should perform it, who should receive it, how it should be done or what the possible negative outcomes may be. When the welfare of children is involved there is a tendency toward a self righteous impulsivity to do something, anything. Sometimes, even when children are involved, the adage of, “Don’t do something, just stand there [and try to understand the unique situation before you]” should be respected.

Suggested Readings

(2000) Barbrack, C.R. Triggers for countertransference: Implications for training of experienced mediators in highly conflicted divorce and child custody cases.  Presented at Joint Meeting of NJ Institute for Continuing Education and New Jersey Association of Family Conciliation and the Courts 

(1991) Barbrack, C. R. Beyond the guessed interests of the child: The role of the expert in child custody evaluations. The Carrier Foundation Newsletter. Belle Mead, New Jersey

(2000) Baris, M.A., Coates, C.A., Duvall, B.B., Garrity, C.B., Johnson, E.T., LaCrosse, E.R.   Working with High Conflict Families of Divorce: A Guide for Professionals. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Publishers

 (2005) Boyan, S.M. & Termini, A.M.  The Psychotherapist as Parent Coordinator in High Conflict Divorce. New York: Hayworth Press.

(1997) Cohen, I.M. and Rodgers, A. (1997) Attorneys and Mental Health Professionals: Turning Litigants Back into Parents. The Colorado Lawyer, 26, p. 51-54.

(1992) Fisher, R. Ury, W.L. & Patton, B. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(2006) Friedlander, M.L., Escudero, V & Heatherington, L. Therapeutic Alliances on Couple and Family Therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

(1994) Garrity, C.B. and Baris, M.A. Caught in the Middle: Protecting the Children of High-Conflict Divorce. New York: Lexington Books. 

(1997) Johnston, J.R. and Roseby, V. In the Name of the Child. New York: The Free Press. 

(2000) Moser, R.S. & Barbrack, C.R. An urgent call: Treating psychologists are not expert witnesses. The Independent Practitioner, 278-281 (American Psychological Association).

(1999) Pearson, J.. Court Services: Meeting the Needs of Twenty-First Century Families. Family Law Quarterly, 33 p. 617-635.  

(2001) Sullivan M. & Kelly, J. Legal and Psychological management of cases with an alienated child. Family Court Review, 39, 299-315

 

ENDNOTES

1 See R 5:3-3

2 I know that this movement is all about the welfare of children but I am not convinced that this is all of what it is all about. I am also suspicious when professionals say, “…it’s about the children…” as I am when warring parents make similar declarations. What parent or professional for that matter can honestly think only about the children and not their own selfish interests which may or may not be congruent with the needs of children?

3 Something I rarely hear about is the fact that ordering a couple to work with a parent coordinator amounts to passing the cost of this judicial function on to parents, many of whom cannot afford to pay for it or at least cannot supplement the original retainer. I wonder if a Court, perhaps unwittingly, would ever make such a referral out of anger or frustration with the recalcitrant parents.

4 Clearly an unlicensed “psychotherapist” in the professional coordinator role enjoys a superior strategic position since there is no licensing board to receive complaints against her, to review her work or, for all practical purposes, to mete out sanctions against her.

5 These differences will depend on how the role is endorsed by the Supreme Court and how the role meshes with various licensing laws and regulations.

6See P.T. v. M.S., 325 N.J. Super. 193, (App. Div., 1999); Capell v. Capell, 358 N.J.S. 107 (App. Div. 2003), cert denied, 177 NJ 220 (2003);  Pergoy v. Pergoy, 358 N.J.S. 179 (App. Div. 2003)

7 I advise this while biting my tongue. Many of these mind numbing documents are not worth the paper that they are written on but still might contain a nugget or two that is useful.

8 (1986) Chess, S. & Thomas, A. Temperament in Clinical Practice. NY: Guilford Press.