Resolving Child Custody Disputes With Help from a Parenting Coordinator

Before a trial is conducted, the level of conflict between some couples may be so persistent and intense that the parties are incapable of implementing a parenting plan, which is something they are required to do. If conflict impedes the parents' ability to make decisions in the best interests of their children, then involving a Parenting Coordinator may be both beneficial and cost efficient. Function of the Parenting Coordinator. Rule 74 of the Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure establishes the role of the Parenting Coordinator in any family law case involving a child. The coordinator helps the parties put their parenting plan into action by assisting in dispute resolution. Although he or she may prepare and submit written concerns to the court, the coordinator lacks authority to make any "recommendation affecting child support, a change of custody, or a substantial change in parenting time." Qualifications. The most common qualifications are an advanced degree in psychology and several years experience in therapy and mediation. Often a coordinator is trained as a lawyer or a mental health professional, with additional training in mediation. The coordinator must have the following qualifications as well: Well-developed listening and communication skills. Substantial knowledge of child and adolescent development. Substantial knowledge of family dynamics in separation and divorce and the impact on parent-child relationships. Substantial knowledge of intervention techniques effective in high-conflict relationships. Substantial knowledge of behavioral health issues. Be fair, tolerant, patient, and neutral throughout the process. Be decisive when the time comes to make a decision. Court Appointment. The parties may agree to use a coordinator to help them get through the parenting issues in their case. Either parent may request that a coordinator be appointed, or the court may decide independently to appoint a coordinator. Before making such an appointment, Rule 74 requires that the court make one of the following findings: 1. [P]arents are persistently in conflict with one another; 2. [H]istory of substance abuse by either parent or family violence; 3. [S]erious concerns about the mental health or behavior of either parent; 4. [C]hild has special needs; or 5. [It's] in the children's best interests to do so. Written Agreement. When the parties choose a coordinator to help them make parenting decisions, their agreement must be written and state who is being hired, the compensation, the length and terms of service, and the nature of the issues to be resolved. The coordinator's length of service may be extended if the parties are making progress. The parents must waive all claims against the coordinator and agree to exonerate him or her from liability (with the exception of malicious acts). The Process. To resolve disputes, the coordinator holds a series of meetings with both parents to discuss any concerns they have about the parenting plan. During these sessions, the coordinator will blend counseling, parent-education, and alternative dispute resolution techniques, like mediation and arbitration. Generally, the parties' attorneys don't attend these sessions. There are exceptions, however, as when the coordinator and parents agree to the attorneys' presence, or when the court orders the attorneys present. The goal of the coordinator is to help parents reach agreement on any issues that affect the future well-being of the children. Reducing conflict may require educating the parents about a child's developmental needs and how best to meet those needs. The coordinator may speak separately with one or the other parent, and with third parties, grandparents, teachers, medical providers, or other persons involved in the children's lives. In facilitating negotiations between the parties, the coordinator attempts to resolve disputes before they escalate. Ideally, this process will help the parents reach a settlement that is fair, meets as many of their individual needs as possible, and is in the best interests of the children. The coordinator concludes by providing a report with recommendations to the court. Either parent may file a timely objection to the coordinator's recommendations. The court may approve, modify, or reject the recommendations, or may set a hearing on the matter. Time Sensitive Decisions. On occasion, the coordinator may need to make an immediate decision as an arbitrator on a parenting matter. These decisions are limited to circumstances demanding quick action because the welfare of a child or party is at risk. These are interim decisions and, although binding, they are not with prejudice — the court will review them at its earliest opportunity. Neutrality, Fairness, and Accessibility. The coordinator cannot advocate for one party. Furthermore, the coordinator cannot compromise the parents' equal access and ability to be heard or otherwise impede the fairness of the process. Neutrality, fairness, and accessibility are necessary to build the parents' trust, both in the process and in the coordinator. If the coordinator becomes aware of a situation that compromises the neutrality of the process, then he or she should consider resigning from the case. Compensation. The cost of compensating the Parenting Coordinator for the professional services provided is usually split between the parties. Before the coordinator is appointed, the judge will decide how much of the fee each parent will pay. We know from experience that using the services of a coordinator can reduce the frequency of going to court, which makes the use of a coordinator very cost effective. Resignation and Litigation. Though the process is intended to avoid unnecessary litigation, returning to court is always a possibility for chronically high-conflict couples. If the parties remain intransigent and uncooperative, the coordinator can do little other than resign and let the parties return to court. Following such resignation, the lawyers and the judge will resolve the issues through litigation. If you need legal advice concerning your rights in a dispute concerning child custody, contact an experienced family law attorney at the Law Offices of Scott David Stewart today. Resources: Arizona Judicial Branch: Court Rules Arizona Superior Court, Pima County: Parenting Coordinator Program

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