Parenting Coordinators: A Good Concept Gone Awry?

Courtroom angst often rises to extreme heights in proceedings involving custody of children.  Most of these cases are ancillary to divorce actions which have the parents embittered before they ever walk into the courtroom.

Add to that the parties’ fear of having custody of their children taken from them, and all the elements for volatile behavior are in place.  Once a custody order has been entered, it is often hardly the end of disputes between parents.

Disputes over petty matters can lead to major conflagrations.  A father wants to pick up a child for soccer practice, but the mother will object to the timing.  A mother may have an opportunity to take the children on a special vacation; but the trip would concur with the father’s mandated visitation time, and he will not yield on substitution.

When these disputes erupt, without peaceful resolution they have to go back to the court for resolution.  Obviously, it is time-consuming and expensive, and an overburdened judicial system struggles to deal with matters which are often relatively minor but can cause enormous emotional distress, especially for the children.

Enter the parenting coordinator (the “PC”).  Over the past 15 years, or so, many states have put into practice the concept of having a properly trained person appointed with authority in theory to step in and resolve minor disputes quickly and relatively inexpensively; the goal of the PC is to reduce tension among all parties by virtue of his or her rapid and, one would hope, reasoned intervention.

Everyone wins, if the system functions as envisioned.  Disputes are not allowed to linger and fester; the children are not drawn into protracted arguments; legal fees are greatly reduced; and the burden on the courts to resolve non-legal issues is lifted.

Standards for those who were to act as PCs were established in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  To qualify they had to have significant training in psychology, custody law, and social work.  There are lawyers and judges who extol the system; but, no surprise, there are those who are highly critical of it.  So much so that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an order abruptly abolishing PCs as of May 23, 2013.

What went wrong?  The criticism seems to fall in two areas:  first, many have complained that the courts have abdicated their responsibilities in pushing off to the parenting coordinators decisions that only judges should be making; and second, the cottage industry spawned by the system has created parenting coordinators who are arrogant because of the broad authority bestowed upon them.  And, PC fees have become onerous to the point where they are a luxury reserved only to the very wealthy.

Because of the dreadful “kids-for-cash” scandals which occurred over the past decade in Luzerne County where thousands of juveniles were severely injured emotionally, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is especially sensitive to issues involving treatment of minor children.  That episode probably ranks as the darkest moment in the history of the Pennsylvania judiciary.

Still, there are those who lament the end of the PC program, arguing that when it was employed properly, it was enormously effective.  But the detractors are equally vocal in their criticism.  Those who favor the system have not abandoned efforts to have it reinstated; for now though, the issue is concluded.    
 Ken Butera


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