High conflict divorces often result in unnecessary and contentious custody or parenting time disputes. The conflict between parents regarding their perceptions as to the fault of the other parent, the involvement of third parties, asset distribution or alimony often destroy the parties’ ability to objectively focus upon the best interests of their children.
When that occurs, the children’s relationship with one or both of the parents is almost always affected and the contentiousness is almost always damaging to the children. The conflict between the parents becomes so intense that they are no longer able to focus on the best interests of the children and, in the worst case scenarios, the children often become helpless pawns in the parents’ “war.”
There are two very constructive and generally successful alternatives provided by the Court system as useful alternatives to mitigate such adverse consequences to the children. Both alternatives can be of significant benefit to the children, but both require an honest and good faith effort by the parties themselves. Each involves utilization of an objective third party with the hope that the objectivity of a third party can help well meaning and well intended, but temporarily misguided parents to see their way through their own divorce conflicts and to refocus on the children’s best interest.
The alternatives are:
New Jersey Rules of Court provide that when “the Court finds that either the custody of children or parenting time issues, or both, are a genuine and substantive issue the Court shall refer the case to mediation.”
Each county has its own Court employed mediators. The mediators employed by the Court system are trained by the system and handle nothing but custody and parenting time mediations. The mediation process is conducted directly by the parties themselves and almost always without the involvement of attorneys. Anything which is said during the mediation is completely confidential and cannot be subsequently used by either party if the mediation is not successful.
All evaluations or expert analysis are deferred while the mediation is in progress, and the mediation cannot last any longer than two (2) months from the date it commences unless specifically extended by the Court. If the mediation is successful in resolving the matters at issue, the mediator prepares a memorandum outlining the parties’ agreement and submits the memorandum directly to the Court for incorporation into and entry as an Order of the Court.
If the mediation is not successful, the mediator simply reports that to the Court and to counsel for the parties without comment as to the reasons for the failure and the Court will process the matter to its ultimate conclusion without reference to anything which was said or occurred in the mediation. The process is highly successful. It is generally believed that between 60% and 70% of the cases which are submitted to mediation are ultimately resolved. Because the mediators are employed by the Court system themselves, there is no charge to the parties for the services of the mediator.
The use of Parenting Coordinators is a growing trend now being used by the Courts on a limited, trial basis. Parenting Coordinators are, for the most part, mental health professionals who have applied to and been approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court as Parenting Coordinators. Once approved, they are placed on an list from which the parties, their attorneys or the Court may select the Coordinator who they feel is appropriate for a particular case.
Unlike the Court employed mediators, the Parenting Coordinators are privately employed and are compensated for their services. The Court Order appointing the Parenting Coordinator will stipulate how the Coordinator is to be paid–whether by one party or the other, in equal percentages or in proportionate percentages and will often designate the hourly rates for the Coordinator. Unlike the mediator who simply facilitates discussion between the parties themselves, the Parenting Coordinator may act as an impartial decision maker when the parties are unable to come to their own agreement.
The parties’ agreement and/or the Order appointing the Parenting Coordinator can stipulate the specific areas to be determined by the Coordinator. Common issues submitted to Parenting Coordinators include time schedules, holiday sharing, school vacations, religious schooling or training, involvement in extracurricular activities and elective medial care. A Parenting Coordinator can be utilized while the divorce is pending, but are more often utilized after the divorce when parenting issues inevitably outlive the conclusion of high conflict divorces surface. A skilled Parenting Coordinator will utilize skills as a counselor, parent educator, mediator and, ultimately, arbitrator in bringing the parental disputes to a conclusion. Very often a competent Coordinator can resolve the matters and issues by simply being a good listener and a competent, objective educator.
Although the use of Parenting Coordinators is a relatively new development, it is hoped that the use of Coordinators will minimize the parties’ repeated return to Court for the resolution of parenting issues, and will favorably impact on the children’s best interests by reducing the conflict between the parents. Information regarding the parent coordination pilot programs implemented by the New Jersey Supreme Court can be found at www.njcourtsonline.com or at www.judiciary.state.nj.us “Notice to the Bar” by the Honorable Phillip S. Carchmen, dated April 2, 2007. There is also an excellent discussion of parenting coordination from a psychological perspective at www.apa.org/monitor/jan05/niche.html .
Although there are very valid reasons to make either mediation or the use of a Parenting Coordinator contra indicated, either or both are alternatives which should be considered in any case in which custody or parenting is a contested issue.