Parenting Coordination: A new DR solution supporting families stuck in high conflict

December 4, 2017

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In this blog Family Law in Partnership consultant Felicity Shedden looks at how parenting coordination can help couples, particularly those in a high conflict situation.

What is parenting coordination?

Parenting coordination is a form of dispute resolution intended to support parents who have become enmeshed in high conflict to implement final child arrangements orders or parenting agreements. The role of the parenting coordinator is primarily to help the parents to find ways to work together to make parenting decisions and to understand the impact on their children of the levels of conflict which have arisen to date. Thereafter, the parenting coordinator helps to reduce the child’s exposure to this conflict by assisting the parents to resolve any disputes that do arise quickly and efficiently, without any further recourse to the Courts.

Who can be a parenting coordinator?

A parenting coordinator would be an experienced mediator, who has then undergone further in-depth training. Parenting coordinators are drawn from a range of professional backgrounds, including social workers, mental health professionals and lawyers. As a process, it has evolved from the outset as being a genuinely multi-disciplinary profession. The key element, however, is that the parenting coordinator should already have substantial experience of mediating with parents in high conflict situations before undergoing the training. It could also be said that, given the unique challenges of the role, the parenting coordinator will need to possess a broad range of skills and should have the temperament to be able to cope with working in this high conflict arena.

How does the process work?

Parenting coordination is effectively a hybrid model of three separate elements of work. The first is an educative role. Upon appointment, the parenting coordinator will meet with both parents, separately and jointly where appropriate, and will undertake work with them to help them to recognise the impact on the family, both on the children and the parents themselves, of the conflict in which they have been engaged. They will look at practical steps that the parents can take to evolve techniques to make decisions jointly and they identify areas where the family would benefit from additional interventions, for example, by referring to therapeutic services where appropriate. The parenting coordinator can liaise with other professionals working with the family so as to ensure, in the words of management consultants, that ‘joined up thinking’ is taking place and that the family are able to benefit as much as possible from the resources available to them.

The parenting coordinator is normally appointed for a fixed term, typically two years, during which time any disputes that arise in relation to the implementation of the final order or agreement will be referred to them. It is crucial to recognise that these are disputes on implementation not substantive decision making. The parenting coordinator has no role in deciding on matters that would typically fall within a Section 8 application, such as with which parent a child should live, relocation disputes or specific issue applications. Instead, the parenting coordinator works with the parents to deal with those niggling matters which tend to occur as children grow up and orders that have been put together, however carefully, at the conclusion of Court proceedings, need fleshing out or adjusting to accommodate the dynamics of the family. Typical scenarios that might arise would be, for example, if an order specified that school holidays would be divided equally at dates to be agreed between the parents, but the parents could not agree the dates. There might be disputes as to whether a parent could attend a child’s sports match on a non-contact weekend or, of course, the perennial arguments that arise around arrangements for handover. When these situations occur, the parenting coordinator will try to mediate with the parents to find a resolution. Ultimately, if needed, the parenting coordinator would make the decision to determine the conflict.

The archetypal situation which perfectly illustrates where a parenting coordinator would have a role is the case of T v S [2013] EWHC 2521, in which, amongst other things, the President was asked to make a decision as to on which platform on Clapham Junction handover should take place, a previous Court having determined that the venue should be Clapham Junction itself. In that case, Sir James Munby refused to give a decision, stating that it was ‘not for the Court to micromanage the parenting relationship’. Few would criticise Munby for saying that this was not a decision that needed Court involvement, but it still begs the question as to where that poor child should stand when meeting their parent.  In that situation, the parenting coordinator would be perfectly positioned to support the family to resolve the dispute. They would firstly try to assist the parents to reach an agreement themselves, acting in a mediator’s role, but if no agreement could be reached, they would be able to make a binding decision on the precise location of handover, so that the issue could be resolved quickly and efficiently.

Where does parenting coordination come from?

Parenting coordination originated in the States in the 1990s. It developed more or less simultaneously in two separate areas, in Denver, Colorado and in California.  It quickly became widespread across America, and is also practised widely now in Canada and in parts of South Africa. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the Western Cape of South Africa, some 70% of divorce cases involve the appointment of a parenting coordinator. Astrid Martalas, a psychologist who has been appointed as a parenting coordinator in more than 300 cases, and is part of the task team that drafted guidelines for the ethical practice of parenting coordination in South Africa in 2016, says;

‘Every week I consult with a minimum of three families and assist them in resolving disputes concerning their children. Disputes which otherwise would have had to be resolved in court.’

Why do we need it here?

The reality is that our current system of resolving high conflict parenting disputes is, arguably, failing many families. With the increasing pressure on funding for those providing out of Court intervention such as therapeutic services, there is very little available to support families during and after Court proceedings. What tends to happen now is that parents, if they have solicitors at all, have access to legal representation through a court process but upon receiving their final order, the solicitor’s file is closed and the parents are set adrift to manage implementation alone. For many more families, of course, they do not even have legal support during the Court process.

The adversarial nature of the Court system means that parents are required to write devastating accounts of their criticisms of the other parent, followed by being cross-examined themselves, when their own parenting will be scrutinised and criticised and their confidence in their abilities as parents reduced to rock bottom. After putting the parents through this immensely destructive process, we then expect them to work together without help to implement an order which may well have been drafted in haste at the end of the day, and which, even if drafted very carefully, inevitably cannot cover every situation that is likely to arise over the course of a child’s minority. As a result, the Courts are full of families for whom repeated applications are made to deal with the sorts of disputes that arise again and again, such as who should hold the children’s passports, where children should be during teacher inset days, or how the introduction of new partners should be managed. Courts are struggling to handle the volume of work, and inevitably the conflict surrounding the children who are the subject of these proceedings is prolonged and exacerbated.

We are now all horribly familiar with the conclusions of research showing the profound and long-lasting impact on children growing up surrounded by these levels of unresolved conflict. Everything from their neurological and social development and their future success in education, in personal relationships and in work can be jeopardised by long term exposure to unresolved conflict. More immediately, and heartbreakingly, we know the extent of the appalling anxiety, not to say misery, that children experience in watching their parents arguing repeatedly, particularly when they know those arguments to be centred around themselves. Whilst parenting coordination is no more of a panacea than any other form of dispute resolution process, and clearly cannot offer all the answers, it is one more potential tool in our kit which can help to support some families and to avoid some of these situations recurring.

How is it being introduced in this jurisdiction?

Parenting coordination is an unregulated profession, both in the majority of those jurisdictions where it is widespread, and here in England and Wales.  It has evolved gradually, and takes a range of slightly varying forms in different parts of the world. The basis upon which the parenting coordination agreement is enforceable, for example, varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as does the term for which the parenting coordinator is appointed. In order to introduce parenting coordination here, and to allow it to be offered as an option to those families desperately in need, a group of dispute resolution professionals including psychologists, psychotherapists, mediators and lawyers has collaborated to put together a model that is tailored to our specific social and legal context. This model has been designed to reflect the guidelines put together by the Association of Family Courts and Conciliators, which set out the standards to be expected of a parenting coordinator working with families in this role. It is being launched by the FLIP Faculty early in 2018, with the first training course due to run in February 2018.

Conclusion

The words of the President, that it is ‘not for the Courts to micromanage the parenting relationship’ echo in our ears. He may be right, but the reality remains that there are parents who are unable to manage that relationship themselves. Parenting coordination will allow us to support those parents and help the children affected by the high levels of conflict to which they have been exposed. It also provides an avenue to mediators from a range of professional backgrounds to broaden and deepen their practices.  In huge swathes of the States, Canada and South Africa, parenting coordination is a well-established and well regarded process option, providing many professionals with regular and remunerative work. Its introduction here in this jurisdiction offers an exciting and invaluable opportunity both to professionals and families alike.

Felicity Shedden is a consultant at Family Law in Partnership. She is a family dispute resolution specialist, whose innovative work has gained her an international reputation. She has particular expertise in financial cases with family businesses and overseas elements. In children cases, Felicity has many years of experience in acting for parents through the court process, experience that she brings to bear in helping families to find solutions that best meet their children’s needs.