Until recently, separated and divorced parents in Pennsylvania could rely on a new, popular program to help facilitate joint custody arrangements. Until the change this past April, Pennsylvania was one of an increasing number of states to permit its courts to assign “parenting coordinators” to high-conflict custody cases.
Parenting coordinators are typically either licensed mental healthcare professionals or attorneys, usually with some specialized training, who act as liaisons between high-conflict parents, dealing with custody arrangements for the former couples’ children. Parenting coordinators typically meet regularly with the parties, and, depending on the state, may have some enforcement authority with regard to court-ordered custody arrangements. While the coordinators cannot make decisions that are binding upon the parties, they have a strong influence on conflict resolution suggestions because of the potential weight of their future court testimony concerning the parties’ actions.
In 2008, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the use of parenting coordinators in Yates v. Yates, in which the Court explicitly gave coordinators the “limited delegation of judicial authority to address ancillary custody matters” not involving the “core issues regarding legal, physical, or shared custody.”
As a result, although parenting coordinators could not substantially alter the custody arrangement between the parents, they did have the authority to make minor adjustments, such as determining where parents can bring their children on a visit and what topics parents can and cannot speak with their children about while visiting with them. The intention was to utilize this mechanism to free up the courts to determine the formal custody arrangements of a higher volume of cases, leaving the day to day implementation to a trained professional who would have frequent interaction with and oversight of the parties.
Dr. Steven Cohen, a Bucks County-based psychologist focused on family law issues, served as a parenting coordinator in over 30 cases in Pennsylvania. He commented that, “both the people in the trenches and those in the courts found this system very useful. The parents would sometimes say ‘I don’t like your decision, but at least it is decided.’” Dr. Cohen further stated that not a single one of his parenting coordination decisions was ever challenged in court by the parents.
This past May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted Rule 1915.11-1, which reads, in part, that: “Courts shall not appoint any other individual to make decisions or recommendations or alter a custody order in child custody cases.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to abolish parenting coordinators comes just five months after the Superior Court’s decision in A.H. v. C.M. In A.H., the Superior Court upheld the notion that parents are entitled to de novo review of parenting coordinator determinations, thus greatly limiting the authority of parenting coordinators and foreshadowing the abolishment by the Supreme Court this past May.
The decision in A.H. and the ensuing Supreme Court rule have led to much speculation in the legal and mental health communities as to why the sudden and large shift in the paradigm. Among the theories bandied about are the following:
The Supreme Court has spoken. So how does this affect these high-conflict custody cases and the courts that must preside over the disputes?
Clearly, the families affected by the abolishment of parenting coordinators will have much slower turnaround times on decision making, and the courts will be overwhelmed by having to deal with mundane parenting issues. “Parenting coordinators dealt with the day-to-day, micromanagement level of these high conflict cases,” says Jane Adams, a Carlisle-based family law attorney in practice for 17 years. She has had several clients in custody matters with parenting coordinators assigned, and knows that “these parents need an extra level of support; but that’s essentially been gutted.” She also commented, “As soon as the coordinators left, the parents went right back into court. But parents sometimes wait four months or more for a court date, and then they’re told ‘the judge needs to take care of another matter’ or ‘the judge is on vacation.’”
The “flip side” is that the constant complaints from other parents that parent coordinators were overstepping bounds and attempting to act as judge in these cases, have now abated. So the additional layer of bureaucracy has been removed.
While parents are now armed with fewer alternatives at their disposal, there are still some substitutes for going back to court every time a minor dispute arises.
Christine Coates is an attorney practicing in Boulder, Colorado. She is past president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, co-author of Working with High-Conflict Families of Divorce: A Guide for Practitioners, and was instrumental in creating the model for the first parenting coordination program in the country. She has offered some alternatives to the parenting coordinator program for parents that she has seen work effectively across the country:
There are also some potential alternatives for parents that require the Pennsylvania court system to alter some policies in the wake of the decision to abolish parenting coordinators:
Irrespective of the opinions of those with the closest connection to the system, coordinators are now a thing of the past. The additional burden once shouldered by parenting coordinators will now fall on judges, attorneys, and ex-spouses. However, there are alternatives to the old structure of custody cases which, if utilized properly, should allow parents the opportunity to advocate their rights without overburdening the court system or their attorneys.