Parenting coordination has two primary functions, one legal and the other psychosocial. The legal side of parenting coordination revolves around the implementation of parenting plans, resolving disagreements about their interpretation, dealing with unforeseen circumstances and facilitating a reasonable degree of compliance. The psychosocial side involves a cluster of less tangible objectives, including working with parents to improve their communication and dispute resolution skills, helping them recognize and prioritize the children’s interests, and reducing the children’s exposure to their conflict. The legal side has the narrow, mechanical purpose of resolving parenting disputes as they arise; the psychosocial side has the broader, longer-term purpose of attempting to wean chronically disputatious parents from their hostility and their need for professional intervention.
Not every parent is well-suited to the psychosocial aspect of parenting coordination. The parents who are not tend to be extraordinarily invested in their discord and their dysfunctional relationship with the other parent. They tend to be incapable of understanding points of view that differ from their own, and their preference for pushing disagreements into polarized extremes makes compromise unpalatable to them, and often impossible as a result. Unsurprisingly, they often demonstrate features of the Cluster B personality disorders, most frequently borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
From the perspective of the beleaguered parenting coordinator, the parents who have the most difficulty engaging in the psychosocial side of parenting coordination are usually the most difficult to manage. They tend to see their parenting coordinator as part of the problem rather than the solution; they often conflate their feelings about their former partner with their feelings about their parenting coordinator; they casually toss about accusations of bias, overreach, breach of contract and other injustices; and, they are far more likely than other clients to lodge complaints with the parenting coordinator’s governing body. They are the parents parenting coordinators dread and the ones most likely to provoke happy daydreams of abandoning their file.
From my point of view, the dual functions of parenting coordination are among its key strengths as an out-of-court dispute resolution process. I firmly believe that, as a parenting coordinator, my job is to resolve parents’ day-to-day disagreements while helping them learn to handle future disagreements with less conflict and more cooperation. I want to not only work myself out of a job, I want to improve my clients’ conflict-management skills to the point where they don’t need anyone else to intervene either.
However, I have come to appreciate, to my sincere regret, that parents who cannot engage with the psychosocial function in good faith are likely not worth the stress, the aggravation or the abuse they inflict. There are easier ways to make a living. But rather than abandoning these parents to the court system, they and their children can still be well-served by a streamlined model of parenting coordination focused solely on its legal function. Even if the implementation of parenting plans is all this model offers, parents will save money and anxiety by avoiding repeated trips to court – a lot of the early research on the efficacy of parenting coordination strongly supports this particular outcome of the process – and their children will benefit from the decreased duration and intensity of their parents’ conflict.
Here’s how my model works for these ultra-high conflict parents. First, I make it absolutely clear that this dispute resolution process is more akin to mediation-arbitration than parenting coordination. (In fact, it is mediation-arbitration, save for the fact that my jurisdiction is both limited and continuing.) No special effort will be made to dive into the sources of conflict, explore mitigating opportunities or improve the parents’ communication skills, and while I may interview the children or solicit input from other professionals involved with the family from time to time, I will do so in a limited manner and only for the purposes of specific disputes. My sole function will be to resolve parenting disputes as efficiently and expeditiously as possible.
Next, I outline the rather rigid series of steps, and I’ll describe these in a moment, that the parents must follow to bring a dispute to me and have it resolved. I emphasize that the goals of the process are to shift the bulk of the burden onto their shoulders, to encourage them to craft clear and concise complaints, and to resolve each dispute in a manner that is as quick as possible and as cheap as possible yet nevertheless satisfies the basic requirements of natural justice.
If the parents are prepared to proceed, I then provide them with a participation agreement and certificates of independent legal advice to complete. I also collect a retainer divided into two portions, a traditional retainer that I use to pay my accounts and have replenished as needed, and a reserve retainer which I hold aside to cover my fees in the event that a parent tries to escape a decision by defunding the process.
Finally, I caution the parents that I will not tolerate allegations of bias, favouritism and partiality, I will not tolerate abusive language or behaviour, and I will not tolerate threatened or actual complaints to my law societies. I will usually allow each party one or two slips and let them off with a warning each time – people habituated to conflict often respond to stress and disappointment with intimidation and insults by default – but I’ll withdraw from the file in a heartbeat if they slip again.
Once I am properly retained, the dispute resolution process is triggered when a parent sends an email to me and to the other parent succinctly stating:
a) the specific issue which must be resolved;
b) the date by which the issue must be resolved, if any;
c) the specific provision or provisions of the parenting plan that apply to the issue; and,
d) the outcome they think is best for the children and why they believe that outcome to be best for the children.
The parent must include with their email the specific information or evidence I need to understand the problem and the facts most pertinent to the issue. (This is not as easy as it sounds, and I often find myself working with parents to help them understand the sort of information that is relevant to an issue and material, and that which is not. Most parents manage to get a grip on the idea after one or two rounds of the dispute resolution process.)
The other parent has 48 hours from the date the email is sent to provide, by email, one of three possible responses:
a) they consent to the outcome preferred by the parent triggering the process, regardless of what they think about the issue or the merits of the outcome;
b) they consent to the preferred outcome, on certain terms and conditions; or,
c) they object to the preferred outcome.
Where the other parent is prepared to consent on terms and conditions, they must succinctly state those terms and why they believe the terms are in the children’s interests.
Where the other parent objects to the outcome preferred by the parent triggering the process, they must succinctly state the outcome they think is best for the children and why they believe that outcome to be best for the children. They must include in their email the specific information or evidence I need to understand the problem and the facts most pertinent to the issue.
I then meet with the parents by videoconference for at most 30 minutes to discuss the issue, the parents’ preferred outcomes, the applicable terms of the parenting plan and the evidence provided. I use the first 10 minutes to get a better understanding of the problem and each parent’s thoughts on the other parent’s position, and use the remaining time to try to move the parents toward an agreement. If agreement is reached, the meeting concludes and I provide the parents with a memorandum summarizing their settlement. If agreement is not reached, I give my oral decision resolving the issue on the spot and the meeting concludes. Within 48 hours, I provide the parents with a memorandum summarizing my decision along with exceedingly brief reasons for that decision. Whether the parents appreciate the reasoning behind my decision or not, the issue is at least decided and they can move on with their lives.
I have found this process to work reasonably well. The first few applications of the process are challenging for most parents, but once they get the hang of things the process becomes much easier to administer. While I grieve the loss of parenting coordination’s psychosocial function, which can yield results in the long term that are arguably of far more importance than the resolution of today’s petty dispute about baseball versus soccer or the correct amount of screentime to allow on weekends, this application of the parenting coordination concept still provides a palpable benefit to the pathologically conflictual and, more importantly, to their children.
In my next column, I’ll write about a closely related frustration shared by all parenting coordinators, enforcement, and an idea about how the controlled reapportionment of fees can be used as an effective alternative to contempt proceedings.