Custody battles, visitation rights, juggling your kids back and forth…these are some of the biggest fears and challenges that happen when you get divorced with kids. But many people are assigned a “parent coordinator” and don’t really understand what that is, or worry that it sends a specific message about your parenting abilities.
Linda Schofel understands the discomfort that comes with the idea of having a parent coordinator. An attorney and licensed clinical social worker, as well as a parent coordinator in New Jersey, Linda spoke to Jessica and T.H. on the Divorce etc… podcast to help break down her role in the process, to give a better understanding of why someone like her can help families through divorce.
What is a Parent Coordinator?
Your mind might jump to “custody expert” when imagining what a parenting coordinator does, but it’s a little bit different than that. “Parenting coordination is a child-centered alternative dispute resolution process,” explains Linda. “It is different than having a custody evaluator who does an evaluation. This is a process used after the parties have a parenting plan.”
This is used typically post-judgment, but can also be used while a divorce is still pending, to keep high-conflict parents out of court. High-conflict parents typically return to court, not because of legal issues, but because of relationship issues – arguing over which dentist the kids should go to, what extracurricular activities they should be a part of, transferring their clothes between homes – fights no longer about custody, but fights that put the kids in the middle of the conflict. That’s when a parenting coordinator can help find a balance in your roles as co-parents.
Fees in Parent Coordination
Even if you’re assigned a parent coordinator by the court, having one comes at the cost of the parents. Courts determine how the fees are to be split up by the parents, but typically, it’s a 50/50 split between the two.
Though you might be thinking this will drive up your costs during divorce, Linda says it’ll pay off in the long run. Rather than having to pay each of your attorneys hundreds of dollars, with a parenting coordinator, you pay about half that rate since you split the cost between the two of you. There’s also a retainer agreement that each party signs, stating that no, she’s not a custody evaluator, but rather, a referee.
Face Time With a Parent Coordinator
Initially, Linda will meet with each party one-on-one. “It’s their opportunity to tell me what they see as the problem, what they would like me to do, what they’re looking for,” Linda explains. Before going in, she’ll have them send her a list of pleadings that involve custody or parenting issues so she has some background. After that, she has the first meeting where they can tell her whatever they want her to know.
During this initial meeting, she’ll explain the process and what exactly she does as a parent coordinator. After these separate meetings with each parent, she’ll bring in both for a joint meeting to go over the ground rules. After this, for the most part, communication will happen over email. She’ll teach them how to understand their side, the other parent’s side, and how to navigate the emotions that they each are feeling. She helps them to understand the why behind their actions and navigate a better path of communication.
This is where we see a major difference between a standard mediator and a parent coordinator. A mediator doesn’t have a lot of authority, since the court can’t know what the mediator says. But parent coordinators do have authority from a court order.
The Time Period
“One of my goals is to get rid of myself,” Linda says in all seriousness. “Let me teach you the problem-solving skills.” Her job is to help people learn to find a resolution to the conflicts that come up between them, when it comes to the kids. And one major lesson she teaches all parents is to present a united front to their children.
For example, let’s say Dad wants their child to play lacrosse, and Mom wants them to play soccer. Maybe Mom reasons that it’s not as dangerous. Instead of telling them, “I wanted you to play soccer but we’re going to do what your dad wants, and I don’t want that,” go to them and say, “Your dad and I talked, but together, we decided that for these reasons, we think you should play soccer.” That way, the child isn’t mad at one parent. They’re not being pitted against one another and made to feel like they have to choose sides. Compromises like this are always in the best interest of the child. And a parent coordinator’s job is always in the best interest of the kids.
Lessons like that take some time for parents to fully learn and implement, and Linda finds that parents typically use her for a maximum of two years. Linda won’t go back to the judge and tell them she’s not needed anymore, but parents will usually just start contacting her less and less until they find that they no longer need her support.
Not a Perfect Match?
What if you’re assigned a parenting coordinator that just doesn’t understand your needs? Can you go to the judge and request a new one?
Linda’s been added on as a new parenting coordinator before, as well as taken off of cases, so it’s not out of the question. But it depends on the situation. If you’re trying to replace the parenting coordinator to see if a new one would side with you more, that’s probably not going to happen. Any time there’s a switchover, they’re still going to see the documents, the notes, everything that the previous coordinator had. And there have been times when Linda will fight her removal if she sees it’s going to hurt the kids in the situation. But if someone is requesting a new coordinator because it’s simply not benefiting the kids in the way they need, then yes, there is a way to request a new coordinator.
All in all, a parenting coordinator might be a frightening thing, but what Linda wants to emphasize is that the main goal is to help you and your kids. Parent coordinators want to help you all move forward, have an amicable relationship with your co-parent, and benefit everyone involved. Parenting coordinators are a helpful tool and a resource for your family.