Bar News - November 19, 2014
Family Law: Parenting Coordination: A Tool for Resolving Family Conflict
By: Jeanmarie Papelian
Parents who cannot agree on parenting issues are not well served by endless litigation, nor are their children.
Parenting coordination is a child-focused alternative dispute resolution process in which a neutral lawyer or mental health professional assists high-conflict parents in implementing their parenting plan.
Parenting coordinators are especially useful to parents who have difficulty making important mutual and timely decisions about their children. The Family Division is not well equipped to resolve such disputes, which arise frequently, require speedy resolution, and often involve issues the court system cannot repair or resolve.
In a recent opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognized the valuable role that parent coordinators play in assisting families in dispute and referred the matter to the Massachusetts Probate & Family Court to consider the promulgation of a rule governing the appointment of parent coordinators.
In Bower v. Bournay-Bower, decided Sept. 15, the parties frequently filed allegations of contempt against each other on issues relating to parenting. The family court judge explained that she was appointing a parenting coordinator because she hoped to implement a process that could help prevent the sorts of disputes that had given rise to the complaints for contempt. The judge stated: “I have to decide first how to get you out of this cycle where you gather up a bunch of stuff, you come in like a volcano overflowing, and all the bad stuff has actually already happened, and I can’t get a handle on how it happened... I’m [going to] try to get... a system in effect… that maybe gets a little bit ahead of these problems and starts to give some relief.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated the appointment of the parenting coordinator on grounds that the lower court exceeded the bounds of its authority by granting the coordinator binding decision-making authority without the consent of a party. However, the appeals court noted the important role that parenting coordinators may play in dispute resolution and asked the Probate and Family Court to promulgate a rule governing the appointment of parent coordinators.
The Supreme Judicial Court envisioned that some parents might agree to have the parenting coordinator issue decisions – an arrangement a few other states permit – while others prefer “recommendations,” which could be reviewed by a court.
in New Hampshire
New Hampshire has a small but active group of parenting coordinators, the Parenting Coordinators Association of New Hampshire (PCANH). Founded by the late John Cameron, PCANH is committed to improving the process of family transition in New Hampshire by managing and reducing inter-parental conflict and creating healthier outcomes for children of divorce and separation.
Like Massachusetts, New Hampshire’s Family Division lacks a rule governing the use of parenting coordinators. Nevertheless, counsel involved with high-conflict parents can engage a parent coordinator by agreement. The types of issues submitted to the parenting coordinator can be agreed on in advance.
Attorneys involved with high-conflict families are familiar with the battles that erupt over everyday issues like school activities, snow days, doctor appointments, and so forth. While high-conflict parents often resist engaging in any form of alternate dispute resolution, this approach may help to expedite resolution of conflicts.
One particularly helpful aspect of parent coordination is that coordinators can help resolve issues about common, day-to-day parenting disputes and resolve them much sooner than a hearing in family division can be scheduled. Waiting many months for a hearing often exacerbates tension between the parties.
The Parenting Coordinators Association of New Hampshire (PCANH) is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary organization dedicated to fostering the understanding and use of parenting coordination and to supporting professionals who serve as parenting coordinators. For more information, visit www.pcanh.org.
Jeanmarie Papelian is a director at McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, where she serves as co-chair of the Family Law Practice Group.She serves on the board of the Collaborative Law Alliance of New Hampshire and is an experienced collaborative practitioner, marital mediator and parenting coordinator. She also chairs the NH Bar Journal Advisory Board.