Keypoints for the Family Court Community
- gain insight into interventions prescribed by parenting coordination trainers across the country.
- To understand which interventions are seen as most important by a national sample of parenting coordinators.
- To explore the differences in perceived importance of specific interventions between legal and mental health professionals.
- To guide training and collaboration in the field of parenting coordination.
History and Background
Since its inception in the early 1990s, Parenting Coordination has steadily grown in popularity as an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) tool. For years, legal and mental health professionals have lauded the emergence of this child-centered process, by which de minimus issues can be resolved outside of the courtroom, and through which parents may learn to shield their children from the developmental dangers of high-conflict divorce.1 The roots of parenting coordination are planted in the fields of mediation, arbitration, co-parent counseling, and case management, which makes parenting coordination a unique amalgam of these frequently used ADRs.
While many ADR processes purport to save money, time, and reduce interpersonal distress, they tend to focus on the time leading up to the decision, and fail to provide adequate post-decision management. In other words, they offer an alternative to the problems of adversarial courtroom processes, but once custody is decided, they do little to protect the children (Boyan & Termini, 2005).
The negative effects of significant familial conflict on the development of children have been the focus of research for many years (Guidubaldi, Perry, & Nastasi, 1987; Allison & Furstenberg, 1989; Garrity & Baris, 1994; Downey, 1994; Amato, 2000; Amato & Fowler, 2002; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999). In an effort to protect the children involved in these heated disputes, and appreciating the general effectiveness of ADR interventions, it is logical to adopt a more child-centered approach. Parenting coordination seeks to do just that. The best interests of the child are protected because trained professionals help resolve specific conflictsafter the judge has ruled on custody matters. Thus, parents need not adopt adversarial roles wherein they continuously and needlessly return to court.
Reflecting its many potential benefits, parenting coordination has grown exponentially since like-minded psychologists and lawyers started organizing in the early 1990s. Parenting coordination is now practiced in jurisdictions across the country, and has been adopted by international court systems as well (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts [AFCC] Task Force on Parenting Coordination, 2005; Fieldstone, Carter, King, & McHale, 2011). Its growing popularity led to the formation of a Task Force by the AFCC in 2001, which was charged with exploring and developing the field (AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination, 2003, 2005).
The Evolution of Practice Guidelines
Originally, the AFCC task force aimed to establish standards and best practices to be applied across jurisdictions. However, they quickly discovered that parenting coordination was practiced differentially across jurisdictions, making standardization difficult and impractical. As a result, the task force decided to explore the various roles and issues within jurisdictions where parenting coordination was practiced. Their initial document focused on the implementation of issues surrounding parenting coordination work, and highlighted jurisdictional discrepancies that made standardization of procedures impossible (AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination, 2003). Explorations and elaborations of parenting coordination continued in the literature (Coates et al., 2004), and shortly thereafter, the AFCC released its “Guidelines for Parenting Coordination” (AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination, 2005).
As parenting coordination continued to grow, other professional organizations became involved, and in 2008 the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a task force to develop guidelines for psychologists involved in parenting coordination. Using AFCC’s body of work as a foundation, the APA task force developed a series of eight aspirational guidelines “intended to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and a high level of practice by psychologists” (APA, 2012, p. 2). Specifically, the guidelines addressed the complexity of the parenting coordination role, the specialized training necessary, and the ethical imperatives associated with domestic violence and other aspects of high-conflict work (APA, 2012).
Additionally, the APA and others highlighted the difficulties, risks, and pitfalls of parenting coordination (APA, 2012; Greenberg & Sullivan, 2012; Barsky, 2011). Recognizing the hybrid role of the Parenting Coordinator (PC), often blending legal authority with mental health knowledge, clarity and education were highlighted in terms of informed consent, role definitions, diversity, record keeping, and the importance of collaborative relationships with other professionals (APA, 2012; Barsky, 2011). Additionally, functioning as collaborative psycho-legal teams was posited as a means of managing the complexity of the dynamics in these cases (Greenberg & Sullivan, 2012).
Expanding Legal Authority
While the AFCC worked to organize the parenting coordination movement, formal parenting coordination programs were continuing to emerge across the country. Since 2000, statutes have been adopted in at least 11 states, and several other states have parenting coordination programs through related statutory authority, such as guardian ad litem and special master legislation. In addition to these formal statutory programs, other jurisdictions have implemented rules of procedure, pilot programs, and other less formal means of adopting parenting coordination as an ADR (Kirkland, 2008; Fieldstone et al., 2011). Since 2003, states with formal legal statutes governing parenting coordination have expanded from three to eight, with Oklahoma generally serving as scaffolding for the development of other states’ laws (Parks, Tindall, & Yingling, 2011). As states have continued to adopt statutory authority, differences between those laws have emerged, and legal researchers have begun a movement toward best practices in the development of parenting coordination legislation (Parks et al., 2011).
Limited Body of Research
Although the implementation and practice of parenting coordination has expanded and evolved over the past decade, the research on the subject has lagged. In part, this has likely been due to a general level of perceived effectiveness, reflected in the growth of parenting coordination programs across the country. However, the resulting dearth of literature on the practice and implementation of parenting coordination has been noted repeatedly (AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination, 2005; Bacher, Fieldstone, & Jonasz, 2005), and in recent years, more formal investigations have begun.
Research initially began by attempting to define exactly what this new role was, and explored the various complex issues surrounding parenting coordination work (AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination, 2003). As the national dialogue grew, and parenting coordination programs continued to emerge, the definition of parenting coordination and the role of the PC became somewhat clearer. The PC emerged as an educator, facilitator, referral source, monitor, conciliator, and decision maker (Bacher et al., 2005).
Investigations then turned to an examination of the demographics, training, and background of those professionals who engaged in parenting coordination work. Studies have included qualitative (Beck, Putterman, Sbarra, & Mehl, 2008; Hayes, 2010) and quantitative (Kirkland & Sullivan, 2008; Fieldstone et al., 2011) methods, and have highlighted an important aspect among professionals practicing parenting coordination. PCs are a diverse and varied group of legal and mental health professionals, with important differences in background, training, and practice. However, PCs understand the need for interdisciplinary training, and appear to seek it out in their own professional development (Fieldstone et al., 2011).
Studies that examined the background and training of PCs have also examined their perceptions of their role in parenting coordination (Hayes, 2010), as well as what interventions PCs are using in their practice (Fieldstone et al., 2011). These studies found further diversity among professionals, with respondents reporting their perceived roles as enforcers and implementers, encouraging parents’ compliance with existing legal authority, rather than creators of that authority (Hayes, 2010). Additionally, PCs reported little difference in their conceptualizations and interventions, regardless of whether they were primarily legal or mental health professionals (Fieldstone et al., 2011).
In recent years, the focus has shifted to an empirical investigation of the effectiveness of parenting coordination. Promising results have followed, revealing that parenting coordination may have a significant effect on the disproportionate amount of court resources demanded by this high-conflict population of parents (Henry, Fieldstone, & Bohac, 2009). Specifically, the number of child-related and non-child-related filings appears to decrease after the appointment of a PC (Fieldstone et al., 2011), as well as the amount of time spent by the courts in managing these cases (Brewster, Beck, Anderson, & Benjamin, 2011).
The Current Study
The present study aimed to determine the specific interventions that are critical to making parenting coordination effective. Effective interventions were defined as those that aid in resolving specific disputes before a PC. By culling interventions and facets of parenting coordination that educators are recommending, this study attempted to determine which aspects of parenting coordination work are seen as most effective, and which aspects are seen as less effective; all of this in an effort to move toward the development of best practices in the field, and to open the door for an evidence-based approach to parenting coordination.
The Survey of Parenting Coordination Practices and Practitioners was designed in three sections. The first section gathered relatively extensive demographic information, which has been of interest to contemporary researchers and practitioners (Beck et al., 2008; Kirkland & Sullivan, 2008; Fieldstone et al., 2011). The second section focused on PCs’ perceptions of the effectiveness of specific interventions. This section gathered data on both what interventions are being used, as well as how cases are referred and interventions are delivered. The third and final section was devoted to measuring the attitudes of PCs regarding components of parenting coordination and its process.2
The interventions section of the survey was designed to measure PCs’ perceptions of specific interventions. The outcome variable was the successful resolution of specific parental conflicts, or the overarching idea of de-escalating and reducing parental conflict. More specifically, participants were asked how effective the prescribed interventions have been—in their experience—at resolving the specific problems presented to them in their capacity as a PC.
This component of the survey was aimed at dismantling what it is about parenting coordination that makes it effective. The list of interventions was constructed after reviewing the training materials of seven parenting coordination trainers from across the country. The seven trainers, whose materials were used in the construction of this survey, were all either doctoral-level psychologists or attorneys, and licensed in at least one state. They were identified by reviewing the literature on parenting coordination, and their training materials were subsequently obtained by either contacting the authors, or were already publicly available online. All seven practitioners had at least 15 years of experience working with families of high-conflict divorce, and more specifically, working with these families in the family court arena. Additionally, all the trainers had multiple publications in parenting coordination, or a related field, and many had experience serving on task forces, subcommittees, or boards of organizations that focus on the development of ADR processes. They all had conducted many parenting coordination trainings both nationally and internationally, and were thus considered experts in the field.
While reviewing the training materials, the interventions prescribed by each trainer were cross-referenced with those recommended by others. The interventions were organized into three categories, distinguished by the phase of treatment in which they might be found. Once cross-referenced, and sorted into the three categories, eleven items were created to measure each of the constructs recommended by the parenting coordination trainers (see Table 1). Each item was measured using a seven-point Likert-type scale with response options ranging from 1 = Not Effective to 7 = Very Effective, with a Not Applicable option available for those who had never used the intervention. Intervention categories were conceptually distinct from one another, and each set of interventions represented a respective phase of parenting coordination.Categories and prescribed interventions rated by survey respondents
|Assessment and Conceptualization||Reviewing professional evaluations|
|Identifying the parenting strengths and weaknesses of individual parents|
|Consideration of functioning and needs of children involved in the specific case|
|Education and Information||Informing parents about the developmental needs of their children|
|Teaching effective communication skills for parents|
|Providing information on the effects of high parental conflict on children|
|Case and Conflict Management||Communicating with other family members/caretakers|
|Communicating with other professionals|
|Interpreting court orders, custody agreements, and other legal documents|
|Facilitating communication as an objective third party|
The first category of intervention included those used to assess and conceptualize a parenting coordination case. These interventions concentrated on setting up the parenting coordination relationship and process, and determining how best to proceed with a unique case. Within the assessment and conceptualization group, four constructs emerged, which were written as the following items: reviewing professional evaluations(psychological, custody, and others), identifying the parenting strengths and weaknesses of individual parents,assessing general co-parenting skills, and consideration of functioning and needs of children involved (see Table 1).
The second category focused on interventions aimed at education and information, measuring the perceived value of conveying specific data to clients. The prescribed interventions were represented with the following items: informing parents about the developmental needs of their children, teaching effective communication skills for parents (active listening, perspective taking, etc.), and providing information on the effects of high parental conflict on children (see Table 1).
The third category of intervention was intended to capture those interventions aimed at case and conflict management. Specifically, these components addressed the interdisciplinary, adjudicative, and ongoing aspects of parenting coordination. The prescribed interventions were represented with the following items:communicating with other family members/caretakers, communicating with other professionals (schools, therapists, physicians, etc.), interpreting court orders, custody agreements, and other legal documents, andfacilitating communication as an objective third party (see Table 1).
Embedded within the interventions section, an item looked at how PCs receive their referrals, as well as howthey meet with their clients. Given the level of hostility present in these relationships, as well as the demand for expedience in handling many of the issues that come up, it stands to reason that multiple methods of communication may be used. Considering the multitude of methods a professional may use to resolve a dispute, the items were developed to reflect how the professional goes about implementing interventions. These items assessed frequency of utilization using a seven-point, Likert-type scale with response options ranging from 1 = Rarely to 7 = Frequently and included a Never Used option. The items included: face-to-face meetings with both parents present, face-to-face meetings with one parent present, telephone, email, tele-conferencing (Skype, etc.), and social networking site (Facebook, MySpace, etc.). As for referrals, one specific question focused on the means by which PCs receive their referrals. The aim was to see how many cases are referred through mandatory court order, signed consent agreement or stipulation, and private means without the involvement of the court.
Participants were recruited through an invitation describing the study that was sent out to an AFCC list-serve (complete demographic information is presented in Table 2). This list-serve (N = 326) includes those members of this interdisciplinary organization who are interested in issues pertinent to parenting coordination. It includes PCs, as well as judges, students, parents, and other family law professionals who are interested in keeping up with the national dialogue on parenting coordination. Eighty-nine people (27.3 per cent) responded to the survey but ten failed to complete critical portions of the questionnaire and were therefore excluded from the analyses. The final sample consisted of 79 identified PCs (24.2 per cent; 51 female, 26 male, two non-identified). All respondents held a bachelor’s degree, 31 (39.2 per cent) held master’s degrees, 23 (29.1 per cent) held law degrees, and 24 (30.4 per cent) held doctoral degrees in a mental health area. One respondent identified as a medical doctor, and five (16 per cent) of those holding law degrees also held master’s degrees in mental health related fields.Respondent demographics from AFCC’s PC Network
|Family Court Advisor||1||1.3%|
|% Practice Devoted to PC||79|
|Less Than 10%||32||40.5%|
|Presence of Legislation||79|
|Legislation Type (if present)||37|
|Mean # Years in Practice||22.14||9.78|
|Mean # Years Practicing PC||7.00||5.79|
|Mean # PC Cases||34.63||13.80|
Respondents reported a wide range of positions and official titles including the court-granted titles of “Parenting Coordinator” (N = 66; 83.5 per cent), “Special Masters” (N = 4; 5.1 per cent), “Mediator-Arbitrator” (N = 2; 2.5 per cent), “Parenting Facilitator” (N = 2; 2.5 per cent), and “Parenting Consultant” (N = 2; 2.5 per cent). One person each (1.3 per cent) reported the titles of “Expeditor,” “Parenting Referee,” and “Family Court Advisor.” It is also relevant to note that 41 (51.9 per cent) respondents reported having formal parenting coordination legislation in their jurisdictions, 23 (29.1 per cent) reported a Statute, six (7.6 per cent) reported a Court Rule, and eight (10.1 per cent) were unsure of what type of legislation was in use. Four respondents (5.1 per cent) reported “Other” including: “minimal statute that doesn’t name PC specifically,” “Guardian Ad Litem Statutes,” and “Parenting Time Expeditor.” Forty-one (51.9 per cent) respondents reported that they do not have formal legislation in place that allows judges to court order parenting coordination services, 34 (43 per cent) reported the existence of some form of legislation, and four (5.1 per cent) were unsure.
Key Demographic Variables
Before analyzing the primary results, we conducted a preliminary analysis to determine if those identifying exclusively as legal professionals (N = 17) would respond differentially to their preference for various interventions in comparison to those identified as exclusively mental health professionals (N = 56). It appeared probable to us that, given the different focuses of education and training, they would rate items differently. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed that legal and mental health professionals differed in their perceived effectiveness only in considering the developmental needs and functioning of children. While both groups rated this intervention as significantly effective, mental health professionals rated it as significantly more effective than did legal professionals (M = 6.45 and 5.76, respectively, F = 5.596, p = .021, r = .29).
Also germane to the overall analyses is the presence of formal legislation in the jurisdiction of respective respondents. It is likely that having legislation that condones, governs, and possibly mandates parenting coordination, would influence the perceived effectiveness of specific interventions. Forty-one (51.9 per cent) respondents reported they do not have formal legislation in place that allows judges to court order parenting coordination services, 34 (43 per cent) reported the existence of some form of legislation, and four (5.1 per cent) were unsure. A multivariate analysis of variance revealed that the presence of formal legislation did not have an effect on the perceived effectiveness of any interventions (Wilks’ Lambda= .609, F(34, 118) = .978, p = .512).
Referral to PC
In order to examine how cases are referred to PCs, respondents were asked to report what percentage of their caseloads were referred through mandated court order, consent agreements signed by both parties, and/or without the involvement of the court system. Respondents reported their referrals in terms of approximate percentages, including less than 10 per cent, 10–25 per cent, 25–50 per cent, 50–75 per cent, and 75–100 per cent (see Table 3). Twenty-six respondents (32.9 per cent) indicated that less than 10 per cent of their cases were referred by mandatory court order, 11 (13.9 per cent) reported that court orders make up from 10–25 per cent of referrals, nine (11.4 per cent) reported from 25–50 per cent, six (7.6 per cent) reported from 50–75 per cent, and 17 (21.5 per cent) respondents reported that 75–100 per cent of their cases were referred via mandated court order. Twenty (25.3 per cent) respondents reported that 0–25 per cent of their cases were referred through consent agreement, with nine reporting less than 10 per cent. Eleven (13.9 per cent) reported 10–25 per cent, 15 (19.0 per cent) reported 25–50 per cent, 11 (13.9 per cent) reported 50–75 per cent, and 29 (36.7 per cent) reported that 75–100 per cent of referrals arrive via consent agreement. Forty-four (55.7 per cent) respondents reported that 0–25 per cent of their cases were referred without the involvement of the courts, with 34 (43 per cent) reporting less than 10 per cent. Of these 44 respondents, four (5.1 per cent) reported 25–50 per cent referred this way, three (3.8 per cent) reported 50–75 per cent, and three (3.8 per cent) reported 75–100 per cent of referrals arriving without the involvement of the court system.Referral method for parenting coordination cases
|Mandated Court Order|
|No Court Involvement|
Method of Delivering Services
We next considered the means by which the interventions are delivered. Specifically, participants were asked to report how frequently they meet with clients in face-to-face meetings with both parties present, face-to-face meetings with one party present, meetings via telephone, meetings via email, internet conferencing, and the use of social networking sites. Respondents reported how often they used respective methods of communication on a seven-point scale with response options ranging from 1 = Rarely to 7 = Frequently. Means and standard deviations are presented in Table 4.Methods of communicating with parenting coordination clients
|Communication Method||Mean||Standard Deviation|
|Face-to-Face Meetings (Both Parents Present)||5.28||2.00|
|Face-to-Face Meetings (One Parent Present)||4.65||1.15|
|Internet Conference (Skype, etc.)||0.95||1.39|
|Social Networking Site (Facebook, MySpace, etc.)||0.35||0.55|
In order to determine which interventions were perceived to be most or least effective in each of the three intervention categories, a within-subjects ANOVA was conducted. Mean effectiveness ratings and standard deviations for each intervention are presented in Table 5. ANOVA assumptions being met, Pairwise Comparisons using a Bonferroni correction were conducted in order to compare the perceived effectiveness of each intervention with the others in its respective category.Means and standard deviations for perceived effectiveness of interventions
|Intervention Category||Intervention||Mean||Standard Deviation|
|Assessment and Conceptualization (AC)||COPChild|
|Education and Information (EI)||EffectComm|
|Case Management and Conflict Management (CM)||ThirdInterp|
Assessment and Conceptualization
The within-subjects ANOVA revealed a significant main effect (Wilks’ Lambda = .69, F(3,76) = 11.43, p = <.0005). Pairwise Comparisons were then conducted in order to compare the perceived effectiveness of each intervention to each of the other interventions within the category. These comparisons indicated that reviewing prior evaluations (M= 5.27, SD = 1.60) was rated as significantly less effective than all other interventions within the category of assessment and conceptualization. Respondents reported that assessing the general co-parenting skills (M = 6.29, SD = 1.06), assessing the individual strengths and weaknesses of parents (M = 6.03, SD = 1.25), and assessing the developmental needs of the children involved (M = 6.27, SD= 1.08) are all equally effective in the resolution of conflict.
Education and Information
The ANOVA addressing the Education and Information group of interventions revealed a non-significant main effect (Wilks’ Lambda= .97, F(2,77) = 1.11, p = .37). Results indicated that respondents did not report a perceived difference in effectiveness between the three interventions. Informing parents about the developmental needs of children (M = 4.77, SD = 1.27), teaching effective communication skills (M = 4.92, SD= 1.95), and teaching parents about the effect of high-conflict divorce on children (M = 5.00, SD = 1.43), were all rated as equally effective in the resolution of conflict.
Case and Conflict Management
The within-subjects ANOVA measuring interventions within Case and Conflict Management revealed a significant main effect (Wilks’ Lambda = .30, F(3,76) = 57.87, p = <.0005). Pairwise comparisons revealed significant differences between all four interventions, such that the perceived effectiveness of each may be distinctly ranked. Functioning as an objective third party (M = 6.37, SD = .86) was rated as most effective (p < .0005), followed by interpretation of legal documents (M = 5.69, SD = 1.34), involvement of other professionals (M = 5.10, SD = 1.32), and involving other family members/caretakers (M = 3.81, SD = 1.46), respectively.
Results from this national survey of PCs reflected the evolution of this growing ADR field. Although many of the findings appear to be consistent with the anecdotal and empirical state of parenting coordination, appropriate caution should be exercised when interpreting these conclusions. The sample of PCs was a relatively small group, albeit a network organized by the leading national organization on parenting coordination (AFCC), and while this is the largest sample obtained to date, it is still limited in its scope and representation. That being said, the data obtained paint an important picture of this evolving field.
The demographic picture of parenting coordination appears to have shifted somewhat in recent years. As one would likely expect, all of the respondents held bachelor’s degrees, and the vast majority held graduate degrees. Since its inception, parenting coordination has been viewed as a complex forensic discipline, which requires advanced training and education that is reflected in this demographic information. Furthermore, many jurisdictions now require a law degree or a graduate degree in the mental health professions.
Additionally of interest is the evolution of the term “Parenting Coordinator.” A majority of respondents (83.5 per cent) reported operating under that title. Reflecting on the discrepancies outlined in the literature from early in this century, it appears that the term is becoming somewhat standardized, as per the report of these 79 respondents. PCs also appear to be a veteran group of experienced professionals (see Fieldstone et al., 2011; Kirkland & Sullivan, 2008), with an average of 22 years in practice. At the same time, there was a high level of variability in the number of years they had practiced parenting coordination, the number of cases they had accepted, and the percentage of practice devoted to parenting coordination. The vast majority of respondents (70 per cent) reported devoting 25 per cent or less of their practice to parenting coordination work. Nevertheless, variability in these figures is expectable, given how demanding of time and energy this population can be. Another likely source of variability relates to the discrepancies of various jurisdictions regarding referrals and acceptance of parenting coordination in general.
Another point of interest can be found in the presence of new legislation governing parenting coordination work. Of those who responded to the survey, approximately half reported the presence of legislation in their jurisdiction. The past ten years have seen a movement toward legislating and pushing for formal inclusion in laws and court rules. However, while the standardization and protection afforded by formal legislation is undoubtedly beneficial, it does not appear to have an impact on the perceived effectiveness of parenting coordination by PCs. This finding may provide some solace to those struggling to develop legislation in certain jurisdictions.
Also of note with regard to the spread of legislation is the finding that 15.2 per cent of respondents reported that they operate under some legal authority, but were unsure or unaware of the type, scope, or specifics of the legislation. This is particularly concerning as jurisdictions vary tremendously with regard to nearly every aspect of parenting coordination, including who can practice, how parents are referred, and the power of the PCs to make decisions. This finding highlights the importance of a local facet to continuing education and parenting coordination training. While learning research and effective interventions at national conferences or trainings appears to provide a solid foundation for parenting coordination work, it is also just as important to understand the authority under which a PC operates in his or her home jurisdiction.
In general, the PCs who responded to this survey indicated that those interventions prescribed by parenting coordination trainers are at least somewhat effective in aiding the resolution of parental conflict. This should be seen as positive feedback for those experts who design, coordinate, and implement parenting coordination trainings. However, while all of the interventions were, on average, rated as somewhat effective, there were specific facets of parenting coordination that stood out.
Assessment and Conceptualization
In the realm of assessment and conceptualization, the interventions prescribed by parenting coordination trainers appear to be largely of equal value to PCs. In general, assessing parenting skills of both parents, their ability to co-parent, and assessing the developmental needs of children involved, are all seen as highly effective in the eventual resolution of conflict. However, PCs identified reviewing the evaluations of other professionals, (e.g., therapists, doctors, etc.) to be particularly less helpful than the others. This may have been rated lower due to a combination of factors. First, parenting coordination is generally ordered as a post-decree intervention, which means that the court has already considered any significant medical, psychological, or other professional opinions. It is likely that any salient findings from these evaluations are already incorporated into the parenting plan. Second, the high-conflict, venomous nature of these divorces often produces many versions of the same report (psychological testing with opposite findings, contradictory medical advice, etc.). Therefore, these existing evaluations may have little bearing on the assessment of a case by a PC.
Education and Information
In the arena of education and information, none of the three interventions was rated more or less effective than the others, and all three were rated as generally effective. It is hypothesized that these educational interventions may be inconsistently beneficial, in general, due to the high-conflict nature of the clientele. With only 8–12 per cent of divorcing couples falling into this high-conflict category (Bacher et al., 2005; Boyan & Termini, 2005), people with problematic relationship styles likely abound in this group. Many get so attached to the conflict itself that logical explanations of knowledge-based concepts are nearly impossible to effectively convey. In other words, their resistance may be emotionally based. These parents may be so far beyond any desire to learn how to communicate with their ex-partners that the intervention is largely moot. Additionally, PCs may not see it as their role to teach parents about the developmental needs of their children. In many jurisdictions, great concern has been raised about “telling” parents how to parent their children. Finally, and perhaps most tragically, PCs also rated informing parents about the effects of conflict on their children as being only somewhat effective. The tragedy lies in the extensive research on the predisposition of children of high-conflict divorce to have extensive and pervasive difficulties of their own throughout their lives. Most important to this discussion, the difficulties appear to be largely the result of exposure to conflict, rather than simply divorce occurring in the family (Garrity & Baris, 1994; Downey, 1994; Amato, 2000; Amato & Fowler,2002). Examining the relative importance of educational interventions, especially in the context of high-conflict personalities, is an area in need of further research. Specifically, enhancing the ability of PCs to effectively convey these important messages may be an area for further development.
Case and Conflict Management
The third phase of interventions, case and conflict management, revealed an interesting hierarchy of interventions. Although all of the interventions were rated as somewhat effective, this category demonstrated the widest range of average ratings, such that a statistically significant hierarchy emerged. PCs rated functioning as an objective third party as the most effective intervention. This finding reveals just how powerful the simple notion of objectivity is in these high-conflict scenarios. In short, this is why people go before judges. To be heard by an objective third party adds balance to an otherwise chaotic relationship, and united under the banner of the best interest of the child, all three parties share a common goal. This serves to reduce the conflict, defuse the perceived threat, and resolve disputes in a timely and effective manner. Thus, the difficult task of remaining objective as a PC is underscored, and cannot be overstated.
Second only to functioning as an objective third party, interpreting court orders and other legal documents emerged as highly effective as well. In many ways, this intervention goes hand-in-hand with the former. These are two critical components that make up the role of the judge, and represent judicial authority, in general. By holding a legal document in hand, written and signed by a legal authority, the PC (now functioning as an objective third party) becomes somewhat of a proxy for the court. Additionally, some documents can simply be difficult to understand to those untrained in professional writing, and a PC may sometimes function in an explanatory role to parents who may not know what the order says in a given scenario.
Following these two interventions, respondents appear to find involving other professionals effective in the resolution of conflict as well. This is a logical conclusion, as parenting coordination is a truly collaborative process. In order to understand the problems faced by the parents, it may be necessary to contact teachers, doctors, lawyers, or other professionals familiar with the family. Additionally, it is critical to the process to have contact with the courts in some manner. Involving court professionals, including judges, is likely a common and important procedure.
The involvement of other family members and caretakers was rated as the least effective of the four interventions within this category. This finding may highlight the PC’s desire to shield other family members from the conflict. Many families of high-conflict divorce have likely struggled with containing the conflict within the parental dyad. It may be the case that PCs, by limiting the involvement of other family members or caretakers, are focusing on improving the ability to co-parent effectively and autonomously.
A Collaborative Approach to Parenting Coordination and Training
Findings from this study encourage a more targeted approach in educating future PCs and providing continuing education. Specifically, those professionals conducting parenting coordination trainings should emphasize the importance of impartiality and objectivity in the process. Because of the nature of the clientele involved in parenting coordination and the presence of intense triangulation, PCs are constantly pulled in different directions. Strategies for remaining objective, and reiterating the importance of impartiality, can bolster and support the often quasi-judicial authority given to the PC. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, remaining objective appears to be a highly effective intervention in resolving conflict.
Additionally, as interpreting legal documents was seen as highly effective, it follows that parenting coordination trainers should spend increased energy addressing this intervention. Mental health professionals may not receive instruction on the identification and interpretation of various types of legal documents, and they should seek out this training to stay abreast of best practices. Learning the difference between stipulations, consent decrees, custody agreements, parenting plans, and other documents appears to be critical to effective resolution of conflict in these cases. Therefore, spending time teaching professionals how to interpret these documents gives them the concrete framework on which to build their decisions.
Assessing the general co-parenting skills of clients was another intervention that emerged as highly effective, in addition to identifying the strengths and weaknesses of just one parent. The implications for this are important, reflecting the PC’s role in assessing the dyad as well as the individual parents. Parenting coordination trainers should focus on how to conduct an assessment of co-parenting skills, implicating the role of mental health professionals in the training process. Similar to mental health professionals possibly not having training in legal documentation, it is also likely that lawyers do not receive formal training in assessing the skills of parents. Therefore, it is important for lawyers to be trained in the assessment of parenting skills. The Parenting Alliance Measure (Abidin & Konold, 1999), for example, provides a method of assessing the co-parenting skills of clients, and has established validity and reliability. Investigation into the role of formal assessment instruments in this venue will likely help to improve delivery of parenting coordination services.
Additionally, parenting coordination trainers should be influenced by the finding that consideration of the functioning and needs of children involved emerged as a highly effective intervention. Again, this finding implicates the role of developmental psychology in effective parenting coordination training. Legal professionals may not receive formal training on how to assess the developmental stages and/or the psychological functioning of children. Parenting coordination trainings, thus, should include a component of developmental assessment.
All of these recommendations have implications for parenting coordination training and point to an interdisciplinary and collaborative model for parenting coordination in general. It seems apparent that both legal and mental health professionals report similar effectiveness in specific interventions, yet standard educational instruction for each profession falls short of addressing those components associated with the other. For this reason, it is imperative that parenting coordination training includes both legal and mental health components, in an effort to model the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Results indicate, specifically, that parenting coordination training should focus on assessing general co-parenting skills of both parents, assessing developmental needs of children, remaining neutral as an objective third party, and identifying, interpreting, and explaining legal documents. On the other hand, while parenting coordination training might focus less on those interventions that are rated as less effective, it should be noted that some of the respondents may simply be untrained in those interventions. For example, active listening is a skill in which some professionals may not receive formal training. Others include informing parents about the developmental needs of their children and reviewing existing evaluations from other professionals.
The majority of parenting coordination cases present through consent agreements, in addition to mandated court orders. However, in this sample, far more cases are referred through the former than the latter. Most cases, according to this sample, are referred by judges who are obtaining the agreement of the parents involved, rather than simply decreeing the parties go to parenting coordination. In many jurisdictions, the legislation reflects this value in its language, making consent agreements the only method by which a judge may refer clients to parenting coordination. It is likely that this trend in referral style is due to the toxicity that has existed in this population, prior to and during divorce proceedings. With such hostility, even parenting coordination may not be the answer for some of these parents, and an agreement to try something different may be viewed as a gesture of good faith. By obtaining consent of both parties, the judge has eliminated another level of conflict, and the parents can then enter into a service seen as highly effective for many families.
An examination of the methods of communication used by PCs revealed that PCs use an array of strategies. PCs most frequently meet with clients in face-to-face meetings, with both parties present, as one might logically conclude in cases where both parents are invested in the care of the child. However, given the hostility involved in the relationship, having both parties in the room at the same time may be counterproductive. As mentioned previously in this discussion, the litigious, contentious, and often frustrated nature of these clients makes it important to give equal voice to both parents. Thus, face-to-face meetings with both present make sense. However, the use of email also emerged as a frequent method of communication. This seems more productive in that one side can present his or her argument to the PC, who can then request a response from the other party. The PC can act as a filter for the toxic language, again triangulating him or herself into the relationship, but armed with the ability to defuse the conflict. In this manner, the parents may not speak at all, but rather handle all communication through the PC. Not only does this defuse the conflict, it creates a paper trail that the PC can then show the judge, and the PC can use these editing processes to educate parents on appropriate communication skills.
The results of this survey reflect the opinions of 79 professionals, which could differ in important ways from the opinions of other PCs, as well as from those of the parents they serve. Additionally, the AFCC list-serve contains many members who are not PCs themselves. There are judges, parents, students, and other professionals, who may not be PCs, but are interested in keeping abreast of the issues. With this in mind, an effective response rate of 24.2 per cent is likely a low estimate given these complicating factors. While this number may be low due to the inclusionary criteria being PCs only, it may also be due to a technological factor as well. One hundred people attempted to complete the survey, yet 11 failed to complete any portion of it. Additionally, two individuals contacted the researchers to inquire about how to complete the survey. It is likely that a number of individuals had difficulty with the technological component of the survey.
This survey only scratched the surface of research in the field of parenting coordination. With the lives of children and the happiness of families on the line, it is critical to continue examining best practices in parenting coordination. While it is valuable to ask the PCs, obtaining the opinion of former parenting coordination clients would provide powerful data to compare with these findings. Additionally, researchers may opt to examine how the process affects the children involved. Measuring levels of psychological distress and adjustment in the children before, during, and after parenting coordination, would undoubtedly reveal a great deal about the effects of parenting coordination on children of high-conflict divorces. However, this type of longitudinal study, where access to children is granted, comes with its own set of difficulties and frustrations.
It would also be helpful to begin an examination of who uses parenting coordination. This type of research would focus on personality characteristics of individuals involved in high-conflict divorces, as well as seek to identify inclusion and exclusion criteria for parenting coordination cases. Finally, it is likely that this type of conflict is not unique to the middle or upper socio-economic classes, so the question of access becomes important. Not only would it be helpful to see who currently uses parenting coordination, but also seek to increase access to these services by underserved populations.
The field of parenting coordination has emerged as an important option in the ADR arena, and further exploration is critical to its success. The findings in this study affirm the interdisciplinary component of parenting coordination, and underscore the need for psycho-legal practitioners to work collaboratively in an effort to develop best practices.
- 1For the purposes of this study, this term is defined as parents involved in custody disputes, marked by high levels of verbal and emotional conflict, and multiple, ineffectual court appearances. This definition is consistent throughout the article, and was used in the development of the survey.
- 2This third section is not being reported in the present study due to the volume of data obtained.