Parenting Coordination with High Conflict Families

I have been providing Parenting Coordination (PC) since 1995. I learned of this service at the Association of Family Conciliation Courts (AFCC) Annual Conference in 1994. PC is a service often provided by Psychologists for co-parents in post-divorce situations. Parenting Coordinators provide 3 roles: educators, mediators, and arbitrators to help co-parents resolve conflicts related to co-parenting problems. The process of PC is dynamic and requires Parenting Coordinators to utilize all 3 roles at various times, particularly arbitration when co-parents are entrenched in conflict.

I am passionate about making a difference in the lives of individuals, families and community. There are co-parents who benefit from my education, counsel and mediation services. Many graduate to effective co-parenting for the welfare and peace of their children and themselves.

In protracted PC cases with high-conflict co-parents, it is my experience that arbitration, accountability, and case management are essential for success. As previously stated, the process of PC is dynamic. Each role is inter-dependent and necessary for the Parenting Coordinator to be effective. In fact, some families with whom I have worked for over 3 years, unfortunately still need me in the role of arbitrator because they won’t make the requisite changes to conclude PC. The education, counsel, and mediation efforts on my part are washed away by the tide of chronic anger and entrenched conflict. In the absence of authority to make decisions during impasses, co-parents end up no longer invested in mediation and return to previous positions of recalcitrance, control, acting out, and litigation.

High-conflict co-parents usually have one or both parents with characterlogical disorders. Consequently, they are prone to harbor deep resentments, to act out feelings, and avoid accountability. They aren’t interested in solving conflict or protecting the welfare of their children as much as they are invested in exacting revenge, getting or maintaining control, and self-fulfillment. These co-parents need to be held accountable and they need help making decisions for their children because they are sacrificing their children on the altar of perpetual conflict, bitterness, self-righteousness, and unresolved ex-spousal issues.

“Simple” decisions such as where the parent parks to pick up the kids, who cuts the children’s hair, and whether the children take swimming lessons in the Spring can unleash intense emotions, control issues and irrational acting-out behaviors. In the event that the Parenting Coordinator doesn’t have the ability to arbitrate these decisions in the moment of crisis, the co-parents will likely continue these destructive patterns with no hope of change.

Early in the PC process, the co-parents often receive education about co-parenting, child development, divorce recovery and the like. They also experience, at times, successful mediation when they craft agreements supplemental to the court order that are supposed to guide their behavior and decisions. Nonetheless, the years of making agreements, and receiving education and counsel don’t get internalized and manifested in behavioral change, hence the problems in character development.

Consequently, the co-parents improve at finding loopholes in agreements, while avoiding accountability. They are uncanny in getting various professionals in the system to argue amongst each other. Eventually, these characterlogically disordered co-parents learn that the Parenting Coordinator only has the power to help them mediate conflict and the co-parents aren’t interested in that, only in controlling, and hurting their co-parent, while gaining control and satisfaction in the process. Also, they grow wary of the process because they believe that PC doesn’t work, saying in exasperation, “there is no accountability”. Interestingly, this is a retort said not looking in the mirror, but pointing their finger at the co-parent sitting across from them in my office.

Eventually the process disintegrates into co-parent accusations of Parenting Coordinator incompetence, bias, and collusion with the divorce industry. I’ve heard many of complaints including, “I’ve lost respect for you, you have no power to do anything about this”, “If we are supposed to be meeting with you to keep us out of court why has [my co-parent] taken me to court time and time again while meeting with you? This makes no sense to me, we now get to pay lawyers fees and your fees. I guess that works well for you guys.”

This disintegrating process is frustrating for Parenting Coordinators like me. I am interested in solving problems rather than being powerless in the middle of problems. The inability to arbitrate in the moment to promote accountability and the lack of coordination amongst professionals creates an inadequate system to effectively work with these difficult co-parents. Essentially, the dysfunctional co-parents remain in control. And the history suggests that when they are in control, the children suffer.

I envision that some day we will have a family court that operates similarly to a drug court. This would involve working with these high-conflict families very intensely in a team/case management approach, where communication and cooperation is essential to be effective. The high-conflict cases would perhaps be involved in parenting coordination and counseling while at times litigating and being evaluated. The professionals involved at such time (Judge, Parenting Coordinator, Attorneys, Guardian Ad Litems, Counselors, Evaluators, Mediators, etc) would meet together at regularly scheduled times to make decisions in the best interest of the children. This would be intensive and expensive for a short period, yet likely successful and cost effective in the long run.

I predict that the majority of the co-parents would experience a system of professionals that didn’t unwittingly perpetuate litigation, disorder and conflict, but a system that pro-actively fostered accountability, communication and resolution. The systemic case management approach would discourage the very problems we are all interested in resolving. Instead, I believe the current system of working with these high conflict families is designed to be less than effective. Although, the system has historically evolved from a highly adversarial paradigm, it is my hope that we can continue to evolve to meet the needs of these families and truly serve the best interests of the children.

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