Although the hope is that divorce ends amicably, that is simply not the case for many families. In a high-conflict divorce, it is common for judges, lawyers, psychologists, and other professionals involved in the case to recommend a parent coordinator to assist parents in finding a resolution to disputes outside of the courtroom, including those involving child custody.
Parents involved in a contentious divorce may benefit from learning more about the role of a parent coordinator and if one is suitable for their individual situation.
What is a High-Conflict Divorce?
Most couples who divorce have some degree of anger, resentment, and frustration toward their former partner. Otherwise, they might not be getting divorced. But a high-conflict divorce has all of those elements, which are magnified.
A high-conflict divorce might include one or more of the following:
- Excessive litigation
- Inability to communicate regarding the care of minor children
- Physical violence or threats of physical violence
- Substance abuse
- Verbal abuse
In these cases, divorcing couples can barely even speak to each other, let alone discuss their differences in a calm manner.
What is a Parent Coordinator?
Parent coordinators evolved from a pilot program instituted in certain New Jersey counties from 2007 to 2012. The goal was to help parents in high-conflict divorces settle the day-to-day parenting issues they are unable to resolve. Although the original pilot program terminated in November 2012, New Jersey judges still have the discretion to utilize it when they believe it makes sense.
A parent coordinator is a neutral, third-party individual with experience in conflict resolution and dealing with children and issues that impact them. Parents can either agree on a parent coordinator or have one appointed by the court.
What are the Goals of a Parent Coordinator?
According to the pilot program guidelines, the parent 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.
More specifically, the parent coordinator strives to do the following:
- Assess parental behaviors.
- Clarify or revise an existing parenting plan.
- Educate parents on effective communication skills.
- Enable the child to love both parents.
- Flag any attempts at alienation.
- Improve the co-parenting relationship.
- Protect the child from conflict.
- Reduce the child’s stress.
- Reduce unnecessary litigation.
- Refer all involved to necessary services if applicable.
- Report non-compliance to lawyers and other officials.
The Child’s Needs Always Come First
When a marriage or relationship goes bad, parents can sometimes be so full of anger and resentment that they lose sight of what is best for their child. In extreme cases, one parent manipulates the child to hate the other parent or even accuse them of abuse or neglect.
In some cases, one parent can work to keep the child from seeing the other parent. This is called parental alienation, and it becomes a serious mental health issue for the entire family. Even in cases in which parents are not at each other’s throats, simply disagreeing about relatively minor issues such as changes in the parenting schedule, the parent coordinator is there to act as an advocate for the child’s best interests.
In New Jersey family law matters, the child’s best interests are paramount in any parenting decision. The parent coordinator ensures that child is seen and heard amid the chaos of a high-conflict or contentious divorce.
Who is Qualified to be a Parent Coordinator?
Different types of experts and professionals may qualify as a parent coordinator, including these individuals:
- Marriage counselors
- Social workers
Anyone with questions about their parent coordinator’s experience and/or qualifications should share their concerns with their divorce lawyer.
The Parent Coordinator Does Not Always Have the Authority to Make Changes
Although the guidance of a parent coordinator can be invaluable to help resolve high-conflict divorce issues, it is important to note their recommendations are not necessarily legally binding. In other words, while the parent coordinator can recommend temporary changes in the parenting schedule or different terms for drop-off and pick-up of the children, for example, the courts cannot order parents to comply.
If parents do not agree to cooperate with the parent coordinator’s suggestions, the case goes to court. It is only when both parties are open and willing to accept the guidance of a professional parent coordinator that they are empowered to make real and significant positive progress on the child’s behalf.
What can I Do if My Ex-Spouse Will Not Follow the Parent Coordinator’s Recommendation?
What happens when one parent does not comply with the parent coordinator’s recommendation? Unfortunately, this is not uncommon with ex-spouses who are determined to undermine each other along with the court-ordered parenting plan.
In some divorce cases, a parenting coordination order requires both parties to follow the parent coordinator’s recommendation unless and until it modified by the court. That puts the burden on the parent who objects to the recommendation to bring the issue to court and comply with the decision, even if it is not in their favor. The court always maintains the ultimate authority over decision making.
Any parent dealing with a co-parent who refuses to cooperate with the designated parent coordinator should meet with their lawyer as soon as possible to learn their legal options.
Other Child Custody Professionals Who May Play a Role in a New Jersey Divorce
There are times when a parent coordinator is appointed along with a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem. Often, it is the guardian ad litem or custody evaluator who actually asks the court to appoint a parent coordinator for the benefit of the child.
Custody evaluator. A custody evaluator is generally a psychologist or psychiatrist who is well versed in state divorce law regarding custody and parenting time. Their job is to meet and speak with the parents, observe the child and how they interact with both parents, interview other family members and experts, and determine the following:
- With whom should the child live?
- For how much parenting should the other parent be responsible?
The opinions of the custody evaluator bear considerable weight in court, as these experts have the training and expertise to assess what is in the best interests of the child.
Guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is another kind of child advocate who is either agreed on by both parents or appointed by the court. They are essentially an independent fact finder, who investigates to learn more about the family dynamic and make a determination as to what type of custody and/or parenting time arrangement is best for the child.
Like the custody evaluator, guardian ad litem might do the following:
- Interview the child and other close family members.
- Obtain any relevant documentation, such as medical reports and child care records.
- Meet with both parties’ divorce lawyers.
- Work with independent experts.
- Obtain the services of a lawyer for the child.
After conducting their investigation, the guardian ad litem submits a written report to the court. They should also be available to testify to their findings. A guardian ad litem can be a social worker, mental health professional, or a lawyer.
The Importance of Neutrality with Child Experts
Occasionally, one or both parents dealing with child custody disputes will hire their own professional to advocate their position in court. However, because these professionals are retained to essentially be partial to one side or the other, their testimony generally does not carry as much weight as a neutral parent coordinator, custody evaluator, or guardian ad litem.
That is why most divorce lawyers suggest parents split the costs of services for these professionals to avoid the appearance of trying to influence their opinion.
Although parents may want the best for their child, sometimes the anger one feels for an ex-spouse can cloud those good intentions. When parents lose sight of the bigger picture, a parent coordinator can help. They step in to teach parents effective communication skills, identify problems, and represent the child’s best interests every step of the way. They give children a voice and help ensure their physical, emotional, and mental health is always a priority.
Somerville Child Custody Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Advocate for Children of High-Conflict Divorce
Divorce is never easy for children, especially when parents refuse to put their anger aside and work together for a peaceful custody resolution. The Somerville child custody lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. believe strongly that children in New Jersey and across the nation need advocates working on their behalf at every stage of divorce. If you have questions about the role of a parent coordinator or fear your ex-spouse will not comply with their recommendations, reach out to our team. Call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.