What Exactly Is a Parenting Coordinator?

What is Parenting Coordination you ask? While it is tempting to give a quick definition based upon the Florida legislative vision of what it is supposed to be, the vitriol which some writers have heaped upon it requires a more in-depth answer.

When I returned to law school in my early forties, I was not going to law school because I didn’t have anything to do at home. At the time, law school was one of the most highly competitive schools a young person could attempt and, it was a nearly impossible task for a change of lifer with a family, and a full set of grown up responsibilities. I went to law school to study Constitutional and Environmental law. I ended up practicing family, administrative and criminal law.

Family court is an interesting place to practice law. It is the place where the most important people in our lives, the very fabric of who we are, are affected by every decision, every action, and every failure to act. Kindness to your ex can be used against you and an agreement to modify the schedule for a special occasion may become a demand to modify it whenever and wherever it is demanded. It is a place where grandparents can become the enemy, and significant others give world wars an inferiority complex.

Parenting coordination in Florida was proposed several years before its eventual enactment. It was passed by the legislature, but vetoed by then Governor Jeb Bush. He believed the original concept granted too many powers to the parenting coordinator and not enough court supervision. The idea was modified several times, and there were many reports and committees working together to try to find a good balance for the parents, the children, the courts and the overall family structure while still protecting vital individual rights. It was signed into law by Governor Charlie Christ in 2009 and adopted by the Florida Supreme Court in 2010.

Florida Statutes: 61.125 states: “The purpose of parenting coordination is to provide a child-focused alternative dispute resolution process whereby a parenting coordinator assists the parents in creating or implementing a parenting plan by facilitating the resolution of disputes between the parents by providing education, making recommendations, and, with the prior approval of the parents and the court, making limited decisions within the scope of the court’s order of referral.” The statute clarifies that where there is a judgment or order in which a parenting plan has been established, that the parents can request, or the court can appoint, a parenting coordinator to assist the parents in resolving disputes concerning that parenting plan.

Okay…in English. If the court orders or adopts a parenting plan, and the parents can’t seem to work together to carry out that plan, the court can appoint a parenting coordinator to help them. The court gives the parenting coordinator the authority to use many different resources to help the parents. The key words here are “court orders or adopts a parenting plan.”

Parenting is a very hard job. Probably one of the hardest things we do in our lives. When there are two people working together to raise children, we have to face the challenges with a united front, or at least try. What happens when we can’t do that? What happens when we decide to split up and try to raise the children together…apart? What happens to the grandparents? Who takes the kids to school? Who goes home from work when the kids get sick? What happens when we meet someone else and they become involved with the children?

All of these questions can lead to stress and tension even in the most amicable breakup. No one starts off believing that they will fight for 18 years over each child. But, sadly, it happens. It happens to good people who mean well, and who are trying to do the best they can, taking care of the children they love. It happens to people who have been ordered by a court to do things with their children that they don’t want to do.

For years, the court system has tried to work with parents to fashion solutions that are in the best interest of the children. The court does the best it can with the information it is given. Unfortunately, that information is limited by time, the quality and/or presence of attorneys, and the individual sitting on the bench. Over the past 30 years mediation has gone far to assist parents and the courts in reaching more personalized solutions for individual families. For the majority of parents that system works.

Then there are the parents who cannot work together. Those who return to court again and again and again with disputes about the children, the new significant other, the grandparents, the choice of day care, when to take vacations, and hundreds of other issues that come up every day. That is where parenting coordination comes in.

Parenting coordination is a child-centered approach, and that means working with the parents to break the patterns, find solutions, and try to enhance communication between two people in a child-centered focus. Modern day courts are not equipped to quickly resolve issues that come up, and so the battles go on, sometimes for months, and the children and parents get caught in a pattern that just keeps repeating. Keep in mind that while all the fighting is going on, there is a court order. It is not a court “suggestion” and that can create new problems for parents and the children.

In Florida, parenting coordinators must be trained in psychology, psychiatry or law.* They must be familiar with family dynamics in a family court setting including domestic violence, child abuse issues, and they must be trained in family mediation. They must be able to work with families from all backgrounds.They must have thick skins and they must be willing to creatively use all the tools given to them by the courts and the legislature to help parents find methods, ideas and programs that put the children’s needs first. They must be able to use their experience and knowledge of the system, the family court process and real issues dealing with intensely personal situations confronting parents and children. They must be able to think outside the box of traditional remedies that are never going to work for a particular set of people.

Parenting coordination is not for everyone. First, a court must make a determination that the parents can afford it. Contrary to some articles written on the subject, the rates are often set by the court and it is the court, not the parents, who decide how to divide the costs. Parenting coordination can last for weeks, months or years depending upon the parent’s ability to comply with the court’s orders. The court can periodically review the process and the parties always have access to their attorney. Traditional court remedies are available to parents, and to the parenting coordinator, and a judge retains authority over the case at all times. A court order determines what the parenting coordinator can do, and not do, and the legislature has set strict standards that must be followed. Confidentiality is strictly enforced except for specific situations set out in the statute.

Parenting coordination is usually ordered by the court after several disputes, and many appearances, that result in further disputes Parents can also proactively request a parenting coordinator to help them if the conflict in the relationship becomes too difficult, or if they find themselves returning to court many times for issues they just cannot seem to resolve on their own.

Parenting coordination is a process. It is not a mediation, where you go once or twice, sign an agreement and move forward – but mediation is a tool that can be used. It is not subject to arbitration because a real judge has already heard the issues, several times, and issued an order – although arbitration techniques are tools that can be used. It is not facilitation – although many supporting people such as doctors, extended family and counselors, can be brought in to brainstorm and develop personalized solutions. It is not psychology – although an understanding of psychology and family dynamics is a critical piece of the puzzle. It is not law – however, the parenting coordinator must have a working knowledge of law and procedure to help the participants comply with the court’s order, or direct them to seek counsel when necessary. Parenting coordinators may not act as judges, or lawyers, or psychologists, or therapists but they must be able to see the whole picture from these perspectives. While doing all this, they must remain neutral and be willing to take steps necessary for the children, the courts and the parents to move the process along successfully.

It is not a program for the faint of heart or for the rookie. The legislature and the courts have set out stringent, detailed requirements and codes of professional conduct and they are strictly enforced for the protection of parents, and parenting coordinators.

Parenting coordination can be intensely rewarding for all concerned. There is no greater result than finding a path that leads to everyone being able to work together toward successfully raising children, and providing those children loving relationships with both parents wherever possible.

One caveat for those reading this article. There has been a great deal of criticism leveled regarding parenting coordination efforts and domestic violence. Domestic violence comes in many forms. It is not always obvious, or physical, and it is not something to take lightly. Parenting coordinators receive training in domestic violence, and for the most part, where domestic violence is a significant factor in the relationship, parenting coordination is not recommended. For a domestic violence case to be recommended to a parenting coordinator the courts are required to make specific findings, and obtain informed consent from all parties. There will be other articles on this site dealing with domestic violence, but it should be noted that courts cannot, under most circumstances, refer a case if domestic violence is ongoing.