Parenting Coordinator’s Role In NY High Conflict Custody Cases

Parents arguing in fron of child in high conflict case

Child Custody Articles / By Paul Matthews

For some years, parents who have “high conflict” custody or visitation cases in the New York Courts, have occasionally used professionals, usually lawyers or psychologists, as “parenting coordinators”, sometimes called parenting coaches. In the past, the use of a parenting coordinator (also known as a parent coordinator) was optional and was almost never mandated or formalized by the court.

Recently, there has been a big push in the New York Court towards alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) in all types of cases. This trend accelerated during the pandemic as a way of dealing with a large backlog of cases and disposing of them without requiring court appearances and reducing the work load of the court. 

Parenting coordinators are not common when conflict between parents involves actual domestic violence or threats of violence, as the parenting coordinator could be exposed to safety risks, especially if one of the parties harbors a lot of anger. 

Who Are These Parenting Coordinators?

Parenting coordinators are usually premier family law attorneys or mental health professionals, such as forensic psychologists, who perform court-appointed forensic evaluations in custody cases. Their fees are usually quite high, commensurate to their experience and high standing in their fields. Parenting coordinators can be brought in during divorce proceedings, but more often are brought in after the divorce because the custody and visitation order is either not comprehensive enough, or there are problems with communication or adherence to the custody order or visitation order.

Because these parenting coordinators can charge fees of $500 an hour or up, they are more common in families who live in Manhattan or other high-income neighborhoods of New York City, Westchester, or Long Island.

Some parenting coordinators are licensed social workers who have extensive experience dealing with children and families. A parenting coordinator will need to have some kind of license, either in law, psychology, or social work. 

The role of the parenting coordinator should be distinguished from the role of the attorney for the child, even though both roles are frequently filled by attorneys. The attorney for the child is, in most cases, a pure advocate for the wishes of a child or children, while a parent coordinator has a different and broader role. The parenting coordinator, on the other hand, does not represent or advocate for any of the parties, and is impartial. 

What Do Parenting Coordinators Do?

Parenting coordinators usually work with parents who have “high conflict ” cases in court or distrust one another to such a high degree that they have difficulty communicating with one another when there is no case active in court. 

Some parents who have been in court for many years on custody and visitation disputes, have become so used to having all communications be through their attorneys that they absolutely refuse to communicate with each other. 

 Typically, these parents have grown to dislike or even despise one another, and are unable to communicate civilly about any issue. Parenting coordinators help them resolve disputes about custody and parenting time, help parties re-establish communication with each other, and try to educate them about their children’s needs and the importance of minimizing conflicts for the benefit of the child or children.

In these situations, co-parenting is impossible without the aid of an impartial facilitator who can help the parties with conflict management and, eventually, collaboration. In the beginning stages, parenting coordination looks more like an intervention.  For parenting coordination to really work, the parenting coordinator must gain the respect of both parties. 

Parenting coordinators meet with the parents and sometimes with the children, and can make referrals for helpful services. In situations where civil communication between the parents is impossible, parenting coordinators are the “go -betweens” for all sorts of decisions and issues, both minor and major.

In the most extreme high conflict cases, the parenting coordinator will likely make referrals to one or even both of the parties for individual psychotherapy. Older children are sometimes referred for counseling. 

Parodically, when dealing with high-conflict parents, NY judges are more likely to make very detailed and specific orders for parenting time, but because the visitation orders are so specific, it is very difficult to deal with minor changes, requiring a neutral third party to intervene for even the most minor schedule changes. 

The same professionals who work as parent coordinators often also have mediation or arbitration practices, as the roles of a parent coordinator and a child custody mediator are similar, although mediators deal with coming up with a parenting plan and parent coordinators deal with the actual implementation of the parenting plan and have more of a conflict resolution role. Experience in mediation and builds important  negotiation and dispute resolution skills .

 Attorneys who become parenting coordinators should have basic knowledge of psychology, and of child development, although this knowledge can be gained by a combination of experience and study, but not necessarily formal classes. 

Because parenting coordinators may be called as witnesses, they should have experience giving testimony. For most attorneys, this experience is likely to come by participation in mock trials. 

Can Parenting Coordinators Make Decisions?

New York Appellate Courts have, for a long time, been resistant to the idea that a Court can make an order that delegates the power to make decisions about custody or visitation to third parties. Typically, parenting coordinators can only make recommendations to the judge. Some other states have allowed parenting coordinators to actually make certain decisions, but usually only if they have already consented to be bound by the parenting coordinator’s decisions.

The Eighth District’s ADR Program Formalizing The Role

In 2021 the Appellate Division, Eighth District, created a panel for court appointed parenting coordinators. This panel is modeled on panels which have long existed for court appointed forensic custody evaluators. The plan contemplates formal assignment of coordinators with or without the consent of the parties. Sample orders shown on the court’s website include provisions for the coordinators making certain decisions for the parties if they are unable to agree.

The parenting coordinators on the panel are to be screened for education, experience, and training and will probably be professionals such as family law attorneys, forensic psychologists, or some other mental health professional, such as a  licensed social worker with special training and experience. 

The idea of having a parenting coordinator make decisions without the consent of the parties is at odds with case law in the other departments, and it remains to be seen if these provisions will spread to the other departments.