exEXPERTS transcript: Interview with Linda Schofel on parent coordination
Jessica: Is working through your custody and visitation schedule one of your biggest fears and challenges in your divorce? Does the idea of a parent coordinator sound scary to you? And are you afraid of what it means if you even need one in your situation? These are some of the things we’re going to be talking about today on the Divorce etc… podcast. We’re the exEXPERTS, Jessica and T.H., and we focus on helping you navigate your divorce and successfully move on with your life. Please follow us on all social media at exEXPERTS, and check out www.exexperts.com for tons of free divorce related resources. Let’s bring in today’s guest.
T.H.: Welcome Linda Schofel to our show today. She is an attorney and licensed clinical social worker. She actually has way more accolades than those two things. Qualifications, accolades, certifications, you name it, this woman is at the forefront of parent coordination in Bergen County in New Jersey. How I wish I had her as part of my divorce and custody arrangement. We are thrilled to have you on the show to share your knowledge.
Jessica: Thanks for being here Linda.
Linda: I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for inviting me. Let me just say, I do parenting coordination throughout the entire state of New Jersey, not just Bergen Country.
T.H.: Oh, great.
Jessica: Okay, good.
Jessica: So it’ll help so many more people listening.
T.H.: When I was going through my divorce many years ago, I didn’t know about a parent coordinator, but I was told that I needed a custody expert. I’ve got to tell you, a parent coordinator sounds a lot friendlier than a custody expert. Why don’t we just start with a basic definition of what is parenting coordination? What does that even mean for someone? What kind of a role would you play in their divorce?
Linda: Well, parenting coordination is a child-centered alternative dispute resolution process. It is different than having a custody evaluator who does an evaluation. This is a process that is used after the parties have a parenting plan. Well, usually in the state of New Jersey, both parents have joint legal custody. They may have joint residential custody, or one parent may be the parent of primary residence. Parenting coordination is basically used post judgment, although it can be used during the pendency of a divorce to keep high conflict parents out of court. That is the purpose. Generally, parents are returning to court not because of legal issues, but because of relationship issues. I will talk about the kinds of issues that a parenting coordinator will deal with. The court or the attorneys will realize, oh, these parents are arguing over which dentist the children should go to, what extracurricular activities they should be in, how are we going to initiate phone calls with the child when we’re not with the child, transferring clothing, those kinds of things that really involve relationship issues. They are not legal issues, like deciding who has custody.
Jessica: A parenting coordinator, you already said, generally, it is post judgment. But it sounds like it’s not even just post judgment. It’s once there’s already a pattern being set by them already arguing to go back to court. It’s not like you’re divorced, and by the way, as part of your whole situation, you’re also going to have this parenting coordinator. That comes in after you’ve established that you can’t get along.
Linda: Right. And that can be during the pendency of a divorce. Often, a person files a complaint for divorce, and the other party answers and maybe files a counterclaim. Then someone files an application, a certification, a notice of motion, asking for custody, asking for whatever they want. I mean, it could be financial too, because divorce involves custody and financial issues. When the court realizes that the parents are returning to court because they are arguing, and the court realizes the children are being placed in the middle of their conflicts, right away, they’re going to stop it. No, instead of coming to court, I am going to appoint a parenting coordinator to assist.
Jessica: At whose cost?
Linda: Okay that is very good question. I mean, that’s one of the biggest problems because it is at the cost of the parents. Well, what I have found is people with money tend to fight more because they have the money to fight. It is sad when there are high conflict parents who really don’t have the money. Now, I have a sliding scale. I’m doing it less now. I used to be a partner in my own firm, and now I’m a counsel to a firm. So I’m a little bit stricter. But I’ve done a lot of sliding scales when I realize that people need my help and they can’t afford it. I’m a social worker at heart.
Jessica: But it’s not like the court is saying to either the mother or the father, “You seem to be the problem here. You seem to be the one initiating most of these motions. So you’re the one who’s going to have to pay for this expert.”
Linda: That usually doesn’t happen. Usually, the court determines the allocation of fees. That is not up to the parenting coordinator. It could be up to the attorneys, but usually the judge will allocate it 50/50. I do not believe that’s always fair, to be honest. I have a case right now, and one parent uses my time more than the other. Now technically, I’m allowed to allocate disproportionately if someone is – I put in my retainer agreement – abusing the process, or for some other reason. However, in my law firm, and right now I’m at a bigger law firm, they don’t want to do it that way. They’d rather be 60/40, or set some different way. When I find that one parent is using the process more, I advocate for them. And that person happens to make more money. But I do believe both parties should have skin in the game, and both parties should pay something.
Jessica: But it sounds like it would be less money than if they kept going to court. They’re probably still better off in the end.
Linda: Absolutely, because if they go to court, they’re each paying their attorney, whether it’s 400 an hour, or 450, 500. This way, if they’re paying a parenting coordinator 360, 375, 400, whatever–
Jessica: And sharing the cost.
Linda: They’re sharing the cost.
T.H.: So let’s go back for a minute. You come in to the process, “Okay, we’re arguing. My child’s coming back late. I can’t get in touch with my daughter. Where’s the homework? Whatever,” these seem like trivial things, but they become really big in your life, because you just want your life to move along easily at this point, and it’s really hard. You’re in this situation, like, literally, what do you do? Do you sit down with them in person? Do they meet with you together in person? Do you meet with them separately and then bring them together? What really happens?
Linda: Very good question. It’s very important that a parenting coordinator has a court order. Because a parenting coordinator has authority, it’s different than being a mediator where one has no authority, because a court cannot know what a mediator says. But with a parenting coordinator, you do have authority. What happens is the court should enter a court order. Or let’s say attorneys choose me and there’s no court order, I will ask for a court order, and I give them a form of court order. I want a court order. It gives me authority to do the job that I’m doing. It’s also very important after that happens that I have the party sign a retainer agreement. My retainer agreement spells my role. It says I’m not a custody evaluator, and I’m a more like a referee. I basically spell out how they’re to contact me. Let me answer that question. Initially, I meet each party alone. It is their opportunity to tell me what they see as the problem, what they would like me to do, what they’re looking for. It’s not a confidential process, but in that first meeting, I will allow the parents to tell me whatever they want. I’m not going to go tell the other person, “Oh, this person says that you’re a narcissist.” No, no, I’m not going to say that. I’m going to also tell people, “Don’t call your ex spouse a name like narcissist.” You might say, “Oh, you’re not showing much empathy or compassion,” but don’t label. And I don’t label. I do not call people names or diagnose them. This week I met with two people, Mom and Dad. I listened to them. Also, before I have that initial meeting, I ask them to send me a set of pleadings that involved custody or parenting issues so I can read what they’re saying. Of course, certifications are written by the attorneys. I won’t read an evaluation right away because then I’m reading what someone else–
Linda: I always read an evaluation after I have met with them, at least initially. While I have that initial meeting, I explain the process. I tell them what parenting coordination is about, what kinds of issues they can bring to me. I tell them I want them to email. Let’s say there’s an issue, don’t go into every detail. Just alert me to the fact that there is an issue. I will determine if I can help them resolve it by way of email, because it might be a swap of days, or it may be an issue that requires discussion. After I have met with each parent once, I want to schedule, as soon as possible, a joint meeting. So now we can go over the ground rules. I have ground rules. We must listen to each other. You can’t talk over each other. Sometimes I might say to someone, “Oh, would you put yourself on mute because you’re interrupting the other person. No, you have to listen to each other and hear what they’re saying and not be busy thinking about what you want to say. You have to listen, hear, and have active listening.”
Jessica: It’s one of the hardest things for people to do going divorce.
T.H.: Totally. I mean, you’re getting a divorce maybe because you’re not listening or communicating well. So this is a quick lesson.
Linda: I let them know that. I say, “Probably you had poor communication skills, or you did not trust each other. But I’m going to teach you some communication skills.” And I do that. I teach them to own how they feel, don’t make “you” statements. People make all sorts of judgments about someone’s motivation – “Oh, you did this to upset me.” Well, maybe the person did upset you. That doesn’t mean they did it to upset you. So you can say, “When you came late, I was really upset. I was worried about the safety of our daughter. And if you continue doing that, I’m not going to be able to trust you. And I’m not going to value your time.” But don’t say, “Oh, you came late because of blah, blah, blah,” because the other person will say, “No, I didn’t,” and then you’re off to court.
T.H.: Right. So you’re teaching them how to be more productive communicators. We’re going to take a pause here for a quick minute. Because we know it’s hard to get honest and reliable information about your divorce, so we’ve done the work for you. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get exEXPERTS in your inbox. Join our virtual open house events where you can ask questions to top experts live. Sign up for private sessions with us so you can move forward and thrive. You can get all of this information at www.exexperts.com. That’s www.exexperts.com. We’ve lived it, so we got it. So back to the show. Linda, I mean, I know you don’t have people label each other. I understand all that. I actually came out of a marriage with a true narcissist. I had very little control in the process business side of my divorce. I was told that I had to be somewhere, and I went. He wasn’t listening to anybody. It’s not always a he, sometimes it’s a she, but this was just my situation. So as a parent coordinator, when you have a party that’s not listening, I mean, this is what most people are talking about right now, like communicating with someone who you can’t communicate with, what makes them listen to you when they’re not really willing to anybody other than themselves?
Jessica: Wouldn’t you listen to Linda?
T.H.: No, I’m saying they have it in their head that this is what they’re going to hear. And it took four years of preparing for trial till the day at the door that somehow the light bulb finally went off. But how do you do that? How can you help couples? And is that part of your approach and what a parent coordinator should consider?
Linda: That’s a very good question. Because one of the most important issues in being a parenting coordinator is that you have to have the education, training, and experience to deal with high conflict people. New Jersey does not–there was a pilot program. I’m going to answer that question. There was a pilot program that ended. Judges are using parenting coordinators. That’s a very good question that you asked. Because when I start as a parenting coordinator, I ask them, “Are you willing to make some behavioral changes?” I don’t expect me to change anybody. I’m not changing anybody, okay? You are who you are. By the time you’re a parent, pretty much your personality is set. But the most difficult cases are ones in which I find that one parent is reasonable and the other is not. I need to know is that person, I’m not going to say it, is that person narcissistic, borderline sociopathic tendencies, severe paranoia? So I’ve done a presentation on this very subject to judges and lawyers who use parenting coordinators. In our profession, we often say a one doesn’t marry a 10, a giraffe doesn’t marry a gorilla. Well, I say, well, maybe a one does marry a 10, or a giraffe does marry a gorilla. Maybe you went to college, you were attracted to the other person, you were studying the same thing, you thought you had similar values, goals, interests, and now you have children. One parent realizes, “Oh, my God, the other parent is…” well, you used the word narcissistic, which I wouldn’t use, but you know… no empathy, no compassion, they’re always right, they’re jealous of your relationship. I mean, you could look at the DSM–
T.H.: A difficult person.
Linda: Very. Very. When that happens, and there’s an example, and I went to court over this, parents often do not go to court to object to my recommendation. I mean, my job is to help them reach their own conclusion, but I can’t be a referee. If I cannot get them to reach an agreement, just this week, I had to make a recommendation as to Thanksgiving, who was going to get Thanksgiving and when it was going to be, because they couldn’t agree. I said, “Okay, you’re going to have Thanksgiving, and you’re going to have Christmas, blah, blah, blah.” But if I find that this person’s narcissistic, I’m not going to say, but I know that at some point they are just not going to listen to me, and the process will break down oftentimes if I know that. And I think it’s so important for parenting coordinators to have mental health training and to understand the DSM-5. Because if you do not know that you’re dealing with someone like that, well, then I’m not so sure you really can work with these people.
T.H.: So does the judge say, “I want you now to work with a parent coordinator.”? Or do they say, “I am assigning Linda Schofel as your parent coordinator.”? Do you pick your own? Or do they tell you who you’re going to see?
Linda: Okay, judges will sometimes pick, or a lot of times, judges will ask the attorneys, “Give me a list of two to three,” and then want the attorneys to consent. If they cannot consent, usually, the judge might look at someone’s resume. I have served between 450 and 500 times as a parenting coordinator. That’s the bulk of my practice right now, because of my dual background. A lot of times, lawyers will pick. But there are some judges who will use me and know who they can trust.
Jessica: Do you find that when you are starting with a couple, that generally, the feelings that they have are fearful and scared about what it means that now there’s another person involved in making these decisions in their life and in the case of their kids?
Linda: It’s not so much fear. It’s some people resent that a third party is here to help them raise their children. Well, I let them know if you get along, you’re not going to need me. And one of my goals is to get rid of myself. Let me teach you the skills. Let me teach you problem solving skills. “Okay, you can’t decide what activity your child should be in? Let’s do an exercise. Let’s go over the pros and cons. The cost, the time commitment, whether it takes place on both person’s time, whether their friends are there, what time is it taking place?” So I’ll teach them the skills and problem solving, dispute resolution. Let’s look at the pros and cons. Also, a very important thing I teach parents, it’s so important to present a united front to your children. I give examples. Hypothetically, let’s say Dad wants a child to play lacrosse, and Mom wants them to play soccer. Maybe Mom thinks it’s less dangerous. I say, “You ultimately agree upon whatever it’s going to be.” I say to the parents, “Don’t tell your kids, oh, I wanted you to play soccer, but we’re going to do what your dad wants, and I don’t want that.” I say, “Go to your child and say, you know what? Your dad and I talked about what you want to play. You want to play a team sport, but together, we decided that for this reason, the time of the day, blah, blah, blah, your friends, we think you should play soccer.” That way the child isn’t mad at one parent. I teach people to present a united front. The child can know that you don’t agree. People don’t always agree, but you can compromise for the best interest of the child. It is all about the best interest of the child. I tell parents I do not have a bias for mothers or fathers. My bias is for the child. I want you to make decisions, or I will help you make decisions that are in the best interest of the child, not in your best interest, Dad, and not in your best interest, Mom. What’s truly in the best interest of the child?
Jessica: So you said that you help teach them these lessons of dispute resolution and open communication, with the idea being that then they won’t need to have you. So how does that work? Generally, how long is it that you are working with a family? What are the specific requirements that you need to see for them to not use you anymore? Are you the one going back to the judge and saying, “You know what? They’ve outgrown me. They’re good now.”
Linda: Well, I don’t go back to the judge. They may not need me anymore, but I’m not going to go back to the judge about that. Basically, parents will use me until they no longer contact me. Generally, people use a parenting coordinator between 18 months and two years. Right now, the orders don’t specify a sunset clause, a time when it’s going to end. I’m on a task force–or the task force has ended, and we presented our findings to the Supreme Court Practice Committee, because we would like there to be a new rule or statute in New Jersey that talks about the qualifications, that defines the roles, sets the time, things like that. I believe that’s going to happen. But 46 states have parenting coordination programs. Some have court rules, some have statutes. We had a pilot program from 2007 to 2012. It ended, and I won’t go into the reason why. It really had to do with whether judges could appoint non licensed mental health practitioners. Clearly, lawyers are capable of being parenting coordinators, but they should have some kind of mental health training. They should understand, with the DSM-5, their diagnoses. That’s the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. They should know childhood development. There are a lot of psychological issues that they should understand. Likewise, if you’re a parenting coordinator and you are let’s say, a licensed clinical social worker, well, you need to know what happens in court. You need to know what the court considers a major issue, such as relocation. A parenting coordinator can’t decide that a parent can move to Pennsylvania with the children. That needs to be decided by the judge, or the parents can agree. There are certain issues that a parenting coordinator is authorized to address, which involve issues of daily life, not major decisions like relocation, who is the parent of primary residence, what is the child support, or what religion is the child going to be raised? I have lots of cases where one parent’s Jewish, and one is Catholic, and they’ve agreed that they’re going to be raised both. They may come to me and decide, well, how are we going to do Hebrew school and CCD? I’m just helping them figure that out. I might make a recommendation. I’ve had cases where a child has ADHD. One parent wants the child to be medicated, and the other wants no medication.
Jessica: Right, that’s hard.
Linda: Now, I say, “I’m not a doctor. I don’t have skin in the game. It doesn’t impact my life if your child is on medication or not. Let me contact the doctor. But I need a signed authorization.” It’s very important. I cannot contact anyone without a signed authorization.” So they’ll sign an authorization letting me speak to the doctor. I’ll call the doctor and tell them who I am, “What’s your opinion?” And if they say, “Well, yes, we think the child should be on medication,” I meet with the family and say, “This is what the doctor said. It’s not my recommendation. I’m recommending what the doctor recommended.” Another important thing, if the child is 14 years or older, to be HIPAA compliant, they must sign any authorization from. I cannot contact any treating doctor, mental health person, therapist, without a 14 year old signing that authorization form.
T.H.: Wow, I didn’t know that. I want to say that, I mean, Linda has brought up so many triggers for me. I feel like I have a little bit of post traumatic stress through this podcast. It was not a proud time for me in my divorce. I know so many of you are going through this. Your relationship with your soon to be ex is different than either of your relationship with your child. It’s so, so hard to be there for your kids and compartmentalize emotions and stuff like that. Linda, you saying coming as united front, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even be next to him. The snarkiness, the comments, the meanness, there was no united front because it was all so negative. That’s certainly not for every situation, but there are a lot of times when I literally did suck it up and just stood there as long as I agreed with it, for him to deliver the message. That’s all about learning to deal with a difficult person. I really encourage you to listen to our podcast about that if you’re in a high conflict situation, because that will help you leverage and take advantage of the opportunity of having someone like Linda as part of your negotiation. It will be a waste if you don’t do the work on your own when you are in a relationship with a difficult person, the support you need so that you know how to be successful in that high conflict relationship for your kids. Let someone like Linda help you through it and hope some of it resonates. But you need to be the best, strongest form of yourself in that situation. It’s hard enough. You disagree on the kids, you disagree on everything, you can’t stand being around her or him, and now you have to both agree on soccer or lacrosse? Like, F that. Honestly, you’re asking too much. If you’re in a high conflict situation, take care of yourself so you can do the things Linda’s asking. There was no way I could have done it if I didn’t have therapy helping me along the way.
Linda: And I often recommend therapy. I can do that. I’ll say one thing. Some parenting coordinators think they have the authority to make someone go to a therapy or anger management. No, I don’t have the authority. I will recommend it. I have to be careful. Am I going to recommend that to someone privately because I don’t want to insult them in front of the other parent? Or am I going to say that with them together? I have to decide. Will the parent be receptive? Or in what way do I share that opinion so that the parent is receptive?
T.H.: I have one more quick thing.
T.H.: If the parenting coordinator that you’re working with isn’t working for you, can you say to your lawyers, “We need somebody else. I’m not being heard. We’re not moving forward.”? It’s just like a therapist or your lawyer; you need someone who you can each trust, right? You feel like you’re on her side and his side and whatever. You’re representing them as fairly as you can. What if it’s not working? Can you be like, “I need someone new. I want this to work out. I need someone new.”
Linda: Now that’s very interesting question. Recently, I was just appointed as a second parenting coordinator, and the first parenting coordinator was different in each case, because the parenting coordinator was not responsive. Let me say this, my practice is almost exclusively devoted to parenting coordination and mediation, maybe some guardian ad litem work still. I stopped representing people for the most part. Because if you’re a parenting coordinator, and a client calls you or emails you and there’s an issue, you can’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of writing a certification. I’m responding to a certification.” That is not fair. I think that people who serve as parenting coordinators, not that their entire practice needs to be that, but it’s not fair to be busy doing other things and you don’t have the time. Let me just say this, that’s a very good question, but there are some people who feel like, “Oh my god, I’m stuck with a parenting coordinator. I can’t get rid of this person.” That may be true. Or sometimes you can get rid of the person. I started saying something before about when I know that there’s someone who’s a narcissist. I’ll just give a small example. There was a case where the person was a narcissist. I tried to tell this parent, “You’re going to lose your children if you continue to do this. I’m telling you, you’re going to lose your children when they become adolescents. Their needs are different than your needs. I want to help you, okay?” The person didn’t want to listen. Okay. The way to get me out was the person just stopped paying me. But the person made so much money, so of course they could afford me. I had the right to write to the court, because it was in the old pilot program, which is still sort of effective, and wrote that the person owed me money, blah, blah. I won’t go into the details. The judge said okay, and I had an order to show cause. The other person did not want me out because the other person realized that I saw what was going on. It was, “Oh, my, Linda, help me! Help me!” So in a few cases, I would say about four cases out of 450 to 500, I’ve actually called the court when someone has filed a certification to say, “I don’t want to work with Linda.” I call the court and say, “There’s a motion pending, and there are comments about me. May I submit a certification and only respond to that?” If I feel that it’s someone who is character disordered, and they’re recalcitrant, and they’re making it impossible for the other person, and now the other person, the only recourse they have is they have to go back to court, I will write that and say, “I shouldn’t be out. That’s not fair. Because if you find a new parenting coordinator, the new parenting coordinator has to read the custody evaluation, the pleading, and there’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing as a parenting coordinator. These are the issues.” Do you know, I think that’s happened four times? I’ve not been taken off the case. There’s a few times where someone might not want me. And it’s fine. You don’t like me? That’s okay. But if someone has a character disorder, and I know that, oh, my god, this is not right to the other parent… Now, there are a lot of parenting coordinators who will not do that. They’ll say, “Okay, you don’t want to work with me? I’m not going to fight.” But I don’t feel that’s right to the child or the family in some of these cases.
Jessica: Well, I mean, it’s obvious from even our prior conversations, with your background and all of your experience, and as T.H. said, all of different certifications and licenses and accolades and all of that, that your breadth of knowledge and expertise, I mean, I respect the fact that you’re like, “Okay, look, if someone doesn’t want to work with me because personalities, we’re not meshing, that’s one thing. But if they don’t want to work with me because they’re trying to get me off so they can try to have an advantage with a different parent coordinator, that is kind of BS.” This conversation, we’re going to have to continue with at some point. This is really important information. We know that when people are going through divorce, the idea of a parent coordinator, someone in your decision making that has to do with your kids, can be a really frightening thing. I hope everybody listening really understands that what Linda is telling you is that if you have a parent coordinator assigned to you, or you’re told to work with one, the idea is that it’s going to help you. It’s going to help you to move forward in productive ways, both with your children and with your ex, and can teach you really good skills moving forward to be able to have a compatible and hopefully somewhat amicable co-parenting relationship, which at the end of the day is better for everybody. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about all of this stuff.
T.H.: Thank you Linda.
Jessica: We really appreciate it. For everyone listening, if this was as useful of an episode for you as it has been for us, then do us a favor and help us out. When you subscribe, rate, and review our podcast, it helps us get the word out so we can support more people like you going through divorce and beyond. Check out our show notes for more info on Linda Schofel. And of course, share this episode with anyone you know who could benefit from listening. Have a great day.