Ian Maxwell: Making court orders work as intended for the child

Ian Maxwell

Ian Maxwell discusses how parenting coordination can reduce conflict in shared parenting arrangements. 

Once an agreement has been reached between parents or a court order made, the arrangements for sharing parenting time with children in a separated family are settled. Right?

If only that was the case.

Sometimes it is only the start of a new saga when the two parents continue to wrangle over the day to day detail within the overall order or agreement.

At two events organised by Families Need Fathers Scotland in Edinburgh in January, Felicity Shedden from Family Law in Partnership gave a stark example of the limitations of what a family court can do when communication between parents remains poor or their concept of putting the child first still eludes them – hardly surprising when they may have spent many months and a great deal of money telling the judge of the other’s parenting failings and character weaknesses.

In a 2014 court hearing in front of Sir James Munby, it had been agreed that the handover of the child should be at Clapham Junction but the parents couldn’t agree which platform. Sir James refused to decide, saying, “The courts cannot micro-manage the parenting relationship”.

Felicity described how a new professional role, the Parenting Coordinator, has been developed to address this issue of making arrangements work and resolving disagreements about what is often in reality trivial detail. “Parenting Coordination” was originally developed in the USA and now also operates in Canada, South Africa and England.

Families Need Fathers Scotland arranged for Felicity to talk about Parenting Coordination at an afternoon briefing session for Scottish practitioners on January 15th followed by an evening presentation to the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Shared Parenting.

Parenting Coordination is defined as:

‘A child-focused alternative dispute resolution process in which a mental health or legal professional with mediation training and experience assists high conflict parents to implement their parenting plan by facilitating the resolution of their disputes in a timely manner, educating parents about children’s needs, and with prior approval of the parties and/or the court, making decisions within the scope of the court order or appointment contract.’

All models of Parenting Cordination are based on the same three principles: education, mediation and arbitration/determination. In all cases the process starts after the court order or parenting plan has been settled. It is primarily useful in high conflict cases. The Parenting Coordinator is usually appointed for a period of two years with the aim being to work themselves out of a job by the time the two years is up.

In some countries the Parenting Coordinator is appointed by court and reports back if a court order is not being complied with, whereas in others the appointment is agreed by the parents. The Parenting Coordinator doesn’t re-examine the issues between the parents but starts at the point where those issues have been decided by court order or by binding agreement.

The Parenting Coordinator can help with:
(a) conflicts in the arrangements for the children’s day to day care;
(b) difficulties related to the children’s transitions between the parents, including codes of conduct and transportation;
(c) developing any necessary clarifying provisions that were not anticipated when the parenting plan was developed;
(d) assisting the parents to communicate more effectively where appropriate;
(e) assisting the parents to develop effective means of disengagement in their parenting and communication where appropriate;
(f) assisting the parents with the exchange of information about the children (i.e., health, welfare, education, religion, routines, day-to-day matters, etc.)

Family lawyers, mediators, child welfare reporters, curators and any of the other professionals involved in family support could become parenting coordinators if they undertake suitable training. Family Law in Partnership is holding this training in England.

It is a tricky task to build up working relationships with parents who can’t bring themselves to agree with each other about anything much.

This is the area of micro-management that Sir James referred to – and we hear from sheriffs up and down Scotland - where there is no real role for judicial input and expensive court time. An example given during the briefing session was an order based on allowing a separated parent to take his child to football training on a Tuesday. A year later the training was shifted to a Wednesday. One parent states, “the order says Tuesday”, the other says “but it was about football training”.

A Parenting Coordinator could attempt to persuade the parents to work it out, or mediate between them urging them to think about what works best for the child. But in the end, the coordinator can make the decision for them.

Ian Maxwell is national development manager, Scotland for Families Need Fathers

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