The Parenting Coordinator Program

Law Lessons from MOSES SEGAL v. CYNTHIA LYNCH, App. Div., A-2134-09T3, January 31, 2011: The history leading to the adoption of a Pilot Parenting Coordinator Program stems from the recommendation from the Family Practice Committee Report of January 15, 2004. Revised recommendations were contained in the "Out of Cycle" report of the Family Practice Committee Report of January 17, 2006. In making such recommendation, the report had this to say about the expected effect on the court system: The Practice Committee believes that the use of parenting coordinators positively affects the court process and significantly reduces the motion practice of already burdened court calendars, particularly in connection with high conflict cases. The Conference of Family Presiding Judges is in favor of the use of parenting coordinators in an attempt to facilitate non-judicial resolution of parenting implementation issues. Anecdotally, the members of the Practice Committee are aware that appointed parenting coordinators have performed a significant service to assist parties in resolving issues of daily living, such as selection and scheduling of activities, pick-up times and locations, disputes over switching time, and other such issues. The Practice Committee believes that it is not prudent or necessary for disputes about such issues to be processed by the court in the first instance. Moreover, our judicial members believe that the use of parenting coordinators positively and significantly reduces the motion practice of already burdened Court calendars, particularly in connection with high conflict cases. The Conference of Family Presiding Judges is in favor of the use of parenting coordinators in an attempt to facilitate resolution of parenting implementation issues. On July 28, 2006, the Supreme Court, through Acting Administrative Director Carchman, did not adopt a proposed rule at that time, but asked that a pilot program be developed and submitted for its approval. The Pilot Program was approved by the Supreme Court on March 5, 2007. The role of the parenting coordinator is well defined by the program guidelines: The parenting coordinator's goal is to aid parties in monitoring the existing parenting plan, reducing misunderstandings, clarifying priorities, exploring possibilities for compromise and developing methods of communication that promote collaboration in parenting. The parenting coordinator's role is to facilitate decision-making between the parties or make such recommendations, as may be appropriate when the parties are unable to do so. One primary goal of the parenting coordinator is to empower parents to develop and utilize effective parenting skills so that they can resume the parenting and decision-making role without the need for outside intervention. The parenting coordinator should provide guidance and direction to the parties with the primary focus on the best interests of the child by reducing conflict and fostering sound decisions that aid positive child development. The authority of the parenting coordinator is set forth by way of illustration in the Guidelines. The parenting coordinator is prohibited from making any modifications to "any order, judgment, or decree, unless all parties agree and enter into a consent order." Guidelines II.C.(3). While the parenting coordinator "may recommend minor departures from a parenting plan when a situation arises that may warrant such an adjustment . . ." the "parties must agree to the change or file a motion to have the recommendation reviewed by the court." Ibid. The Guidelines also describe the qualifications to become a parenting coordinator and the application procedure. Guidelines II.D; III. It is undisputed that Ms. Schofel was qualified and on the approved roster of parenting coordinators. The parenting coordinator is directed to hold the "initial meeting with the parties and define her role and describe for the parties in the retainer agreement, the role limitations and fees of the parenting coordinator." Guidelines IV(6). Included in the retainer agreement should be the hourly cost for services and method of payment. Guidelines IV(6)d. The parenting coordinator is also responsible for maintaining "adequate records to support fees and expenses." Guidelines IV(6)i. The Guidelines prescribe a grievance procedure, which reads as follows: (8) Grievance Procedure – A party having a complaint or grievance shall discuss the matter with the Parenting Coordinator in person in an attempt to resolve it before pursuing it in any other manner. If the issue remains unresolved, the parties shall submit a written letter to the Parenting Coordinator detailing the complaint or grievance, with a copy to the other party, to both attorneys (if any), and to the attorney for the child(ren) if one is in place. The Parenting Coordinator shall within thirty (30) days provide a written response to both parties and the attorneys. The Parenting Coordinator at his/her discretion may schedule a meeting or conference call with the attorneys or with the attorneys and the parties in an effort to resolve the complaint. In situations where the grievance or complaint is not resolved by this process, the dissatisfied party may request a court hearing to make a determination on the issue(s). Parenting coordinators are to be compensated "in accordance with their stated fees and for expenses incurred, which shall be clearly set forth in the retainer agreement and/or in the information materials provided to the parties at the initial conference." Guidelines IV(9). Where there is a pay dispute, the court should resolve the non-payment and "may issue a sua sponte Order to Show Cause as to why the parenting coordinator's bill should not be paid." Guidelines IV(10). The grounds for termination of a parenting coordinator are set forth in IV(12) of the Guidelines where a party may petition the court for termination of a parenting coordinator's services "whenever the parenting coordinator has exceeded his/her mandate or has acted in a manner inconsistent with the approved procedures, or has violated professional conduct, provided the approved grievance procedure has been utilized." Parenting coordinators perform a thankless, and, on many occasions, hopeless task of negotiating issues involving children between hostile parents. They are frequently of immense help to the court by way of keeping minor disputes out of litigation, one of the objectives of the parenting coordinator program. They are also subject to and the focus of extreme hostility by one or both of the parents. It would be crippling to the program if a parenting coordinator was not compensated for the time spent in responding to, as in this case, what amounted to baseless grievances. The Guidelines do not require that a hearing be held, only that a grievant "may request a court hearing to make a determination on the issue(s)." Guidelines IV(8). It is up to the trial judge to decide if a hearing is necessary to resolve the alleged grievances. A hearing is only required when there is a genuine issue of material fact and the trial judge determines that a hearing would be helpful to resolving the issue. (Citing Shaw v. Shaw, 138 N.J. Super. 436, 440 (App. Div. 1976)); see also Hand v. Hand, 391 N.J. Super. 102, 105 (App. Div. 2007). Guideline IV(9) addresses Compensation of Parenting Coordinators and provides: Parenting Coordinators shall be compensated in accordance with their stated fees and for expenses incurred, which shall be clearly set forth in the Retainer Agreement and/or in the information and materials provided to the parties at the initial conference. Parties shall pay the apportioned percentage agreed upon and set forth by the court. Under Guidelines IV(10), the procedure for resolving a pay dispute is set forth: A Parenting Coordinator who has not been paid in a timely manner may fax a letter to the court in the county of venue detailing the lack of payment. In such situations, the court will attempt to resolve the nonpayment. The court may issue a sua sponte Order to Show Cause as to why the Parenting Coordinator's bill should not be paid. Nowhere in the Guidelines does it call for the holding of a hearing. Rather, it is left up to the trial judge to decide how the dispute is to be resolved. 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