Custody battles between parents can become aggressive and unfriendly. Ironically, the issues that cause the greatest amount of conflict in these cases often aren’t the big, life-changing issues, but rather the small ones. Parents are more likely to argue over issues like where they will meet to exchange the children rather than over important decisions like education or health.

Sadly, finding a scenario where both parents get what they want is rare. Yet, for many high-conflict custody cases in North Carolina, a peaceful agreement is just what a parenting coordinator can accomplish.

Parenting coordinators help parents by educating them on how to make decisions together and reduce conflict over everyday decisions. By helping parents resolve these small issues, parenting coordinators reduce the courts’ caseload by limiting or eliminating many of the hearings and conferences that can jam the system.

Also, by acting as an impartial, trained third party in the middle of an extremely combative custody case, parenting coordinators can reduce the time lawyers spend counseling their clients and negotiating with opposing counsel. Using parenting coordinators also reduces the overall amount of conflict the divorcing family experiences – which is beneficial especially for the children involved.

What does a parenting coordinator do?

Parenting coordinators serve as an alternative method of dispute resolution in tense, high-conflict child custody cases and are primarily focused on the children. Parenting coordinators are neutral third-parties introduced into custody cases to reduce the level of conflict by helping parents make better decisions concerning their children.  Although the obligations of parenting coordinators vary from family to family, their focus remains the same. Parenting coordinators focus on the many small decisions parents make daily in regard to their children. These types of decisions may seem small, but when taken together, they make up a large portion of problems parents encounter in custody cases.

Parenting coordinators do not make determinations about which parent will be a child’s primary caretaker; the judge is responsible for such a determination. Parenting coordinators usually become involved after a judge has issued a custody order. A great deal of their work involves helping parents work out issues not addressed in the court’s order.

Parenting coordinators can help in a variety of ways. First, they help parents improve their communication skills when discussing issues. Poor communication is one of the issues of a marriage that ends in divorce, and is a factor that is present in most high-conflict custody cases.  For parents to effectively co-parent, they must be able to effectively communicate with one another.

Additionally, parenting coordinators educate parents about certain developmental issues their child may face as they proceed through the divorce. They will mediate conflicts between the parents in hopes of helping them reach mutual agreement. When necessary, a parenting coordinator will make the decisions if the parents are unable to reach an agreement.

What is a high-conflict custody case?

  1. While it is typical to think that all custody cases are high-conflict, they all are not. Even though it is true that there is a certain level of conflict in all custody cases, to be considered high-conflict, the issues must be of a certain magnitude. High-conflict custody cases may have the same types of problems present in typical custody cases, but the intensity level in high custody cases is much higher. North Carolina law defines high-conflict custody cases as those in which the parents demonstrate an ongoing pattern of:
  2. excessive litigation;
  3. anger and distrust;
  4. verbal abuse;
  5. physical aggression or threats of physical aggression;
  6. difficulty communicating about and cooperating with one another in the care of the minor children; and
  7. other conditions that the judge believes warrant the use of a parenting coordinator

It is common for parents in a custody battle to have difficulty communicating and cooperating, or for a certain level of anger or distrust to be felt. What distinguishes a high-conflict custody case from a typical one is the presence of an ongoing pattern of these types of problems, as well as additional issues such as mental or physical abuse.

How does a parenting coordinator get involved?

North Carolina General Statute 50-90  gives parenting coordinators the power to get involved in custody cases, and details what they are authorized to do. In order for a parenting coordinator to become involved in a case, the individual must first be appointed by a judge. There are two situations in which a judge may appoint a parenting coordinator: (1) if the parents consent that a parenting coordinator should be utilized in their case, the judge may appoint one at any time, even before the judge has entered an order; (2) the judge can appoint a parenting coordinator even if the parents do not agree and consent that one should be utilized in their case.

If the judge determines that a custody case is high-conflict, and the children’s best interests would be served by appointing one, a parenting coordinator will be assigned to the case. When a judge appoints a parenting coordinator in this situation, it can only be done after the judge has entered an order or parenting plan in the case.

Once a parenting coordinator has been appointed, the judge enters an order that details the issues a parenting coordinator is to aid the parents in coming to a decision about. If the parents consented to a parenting coordinator, the order may also contain other agreements the parents reached about the role of the parenting coordinator. Nevertheless, throughout the process, there is one constant: the parenting coordinator never determines the issues of custody, visitation or support. Those issues always remain within the discretion and exclusive authority of the judge.

Areas of Authority

The first area is to help the parents solve problems and make decisions related to their children. The parenting coordinator is permitted to help the parents figure out the issues in dispute, to reduce miscommunications between them, and to support collaborative decision-making. The coordinator will often help the parents clarify their individual and shared priorities, as well as identify ways to reach an agreement regarding those priorities. The goal of this is to teach the parents the skills required to resolve their disputes and make decisions in the future, without the aid of lawyers, courts, judges or even parenting coordinators

Sometimes the court gives parenting coordinators a second area of authority to make decisions and resolve issues between the parents. A parenting coordinator may only decide issues regarding parenting that are not specifically regulated by a judge’s order. When a parenting coordinator issues his/her authority to make a decision, the parents must comply with that decision just as though the judge handed it down himself. Until the judge reviews the decision of the parenting coordinator, that decision is law.

Taken together, these two areas of authority allow the role of parenting coordinator to be effective and beneficial to all involved in high-conflict custody cases.

The best parenting coordinators spend the majority of their time teaching the parents skills they will need to co-parent for a lifetime – not just for the moment. Nevertheless, when the process is disrupted, the parenting coordinator steps in and makes the decisions.

Who can become a parenting coordinator?

Parenting coordinators hold a powerful position in custody cases because they have a significant impact on both the parents and the children. The North Carolina General Statutes guidelines setting forth who can serve as a parenting coordinator are fairly strict. First, applicants who want to become parenting coordinators must be highly educated in a subject area related to the work. Such applicants must have a master’s or doctorate degree in psychology, social work, counseling, medicine, law or a related subject matter.

Additionally, a candidate must have at least five years of relevant professional experience since obtaining his or her degree. The candidate must have and maintain a current license to practice in his or her field, whether that is law, medicine, psychology, or social work.

Similarly, the applicant must attend 24 hours of specialized training in areas such as the developmental stages of children, the dynamics of high-conflict families, the stages and effects of divorce, problem-solving methods, legal issues and mediation skills.

The requirements are essentially training for people who will deal directly with high-conflict custody battles. The guidelines guarantee that the people who desire to assume the role of parenting coordinator have the necessary background, personality and training for this type work. A parenting coordinator who tries to sift through the tangle of legal, psychological, developmental, and interpersonal challenges of high-conflict cases will find the work ineffective, if not impossible, if he or she has not met these rigorous requirements.

Because many people who become parenting coordinators are also trained mental health professionals, it is sometimes hard to understand the differences between the work of a parenting coordinator and that of a mental health professional. However, there are a few differences. First, parenting coordinators are specifically barred by law from providing professional services or counseling to parents or children of a case in which they are serving as the parental coordinator. Such a requirement is in place to ensure that the parenting coordinator’s role avoids any possible conflicts of interest.

Aside from this restriction, there are additional differences between the work of a parenting coordinator and a mental health professional. A mental health professional may have either of the parents, the children, or the entire family as clients, while the parenting coordinator’s only “client” is the court system. A mental health professional takes a therapeutic role relative to the family, while a parenting coordinator maintains a neutral position at all times. Additionally, mental health professionals enjoy a therapist-patient privilege (meaning they cannot be forced to testify in court), while parenting coordinators do not have such a privilege.

Everything a parenting coordinator witnesses can be offered into evidence in court. However, to maintain impartiality and ensure that the coordinator does not unfairly side with one party, the judge has discretion to subpoena the parenting coordinator to provide testimony.

A critical difference between a parenting coordinator’s role and a mental health practitioner’s goal rests on what each view as the ultimate goal of the relationship with the family. A mental health practitioner will generally view the purpose of his work as providing help, to improve the mental health of the client. On the other hand, the ultimate goal of a parenting coordinator is to protect the child by reducing the conflict present in the family and making sure that the parents follow the court orders issued by the judge.

It is vital for parent coordinators to be involved in high-conflict custody cases.  These neutral third parties with specialized training and alternative approaches to reducing conflict are invaluable to the custody process. The children, parents, lawyers and judges in a custody case all benefit. But, there are certain situations in which a parenting coordinator encounters additional challenges and must remain attentive to ensure that all of his responsibilities are being fulfilled. The most common situation is when domestic violence is present in the family.

When there is domestic violence, the parenting coordinator must maintain extreme sensitivity to the issue and the effect it can have on the work with the parents. Domestic violence perpetrators often try to assert control over the victim through the use of threats and physical aggression. In such situations, it can be very tough, if not impossible, for the parenting coordinator to enforce the usual mediation, collaboration and dispute resolution skills.

These collaboration tools, which are valuable in high-conflict families, can instead become weapons manipulated by the offender of domestic violence. Collaboration tools depend on increasing the parents’ mutual sense of trust – something that can’t be relied upon in domestic violence situations.

In these situations, a parenting coordinator must modify his approach. Thus, in place of collaborative tools, he would instead shift his efforts towards enforcement of the judge’s order. The parenting coordinator will review the terms of the order and ensure that parents’ actions are in as much compliance as possible. It is essential that the parenting coordinator remain neutral to ensure that all responsibilities to the child and the court are fulfilled.