Parenting Coordination is not Therapy

As a relatively ‘new kid on the block’ in terms of the Australian family law system, parenting coordination is still somewhat misunderstood.

There seems to be a general perception within the broader legal and dispute resolution fields that parenting coordination is a form of therapy, or counselling process, for separating couples. The truth of the matter is that parenting coordination is a Court ordered legal process best used in high conflict family law matters – it is the last step in the legal process intended to assist parents with the implementation of parenting orders.

An Overview of Parenting Coordination

So, what is parenting coordination? Parenting coordination is an alternative dispute resolution process that combines assessment, case management, dispute resolution, conflict and communication coaching, education and, sometimes, decision-making functions.

A parenting coordinator is typically appointed by a court order or private consent agreement to help parents in high conflict situations to implement, modify and comply with a parenting plan.

The process of parenting coordination helps by providing assistance with:

  1. dispute resolution arising out of the implementation of the parenting orders;
  2. education about co-parenting and parental communication;
  3. focusing on the psychological and developmental needs of the children;
  4. strategies to manage conflict and reduce the negative effects on children; and,
  5. effective post-separation parenting.

Parenting coordination can also facilitate referrals to mental health, counselling, therapy and community providers when necessary and involve input from other professionals who may already be working with the family.

Why Parenting Coordination is Different

Much has been written about the effects of ongoing conflict on children post relationship breakdown, including the potential negative impact on their education, social lives, mental health and even their own future relationships. Parenting coordination focusses on reducing children’s exposure to conflict by helping parents transition from a relationship defined by conflict, anger and hostility to one of effective co-parenting.

Unlike mediation and family dispute resolution, parenting coordination is not a tool used to reach an agreement on arrangements for children. It is an ongoing educational process used in high conflict situations and a dispute resolution tool for conflict arising out of the implementation of parenting orders or parenting plans.

The process can be lengthy as it involves significant attitudinal and behavioural change by the parties involved. In some jurisdictions, a judge will sign a court order mandating parenting coordination for a set period, such as one or two years. Couples can also revisit parenting coordination at any time in the future if they feel that they are regressing to a conflict-based relationship.

Whilst this may sound like some sort of ‘therapy’ or counselling, the reality is that a parenting coordinator is an independent, ‘neutral’ and specifically trained professional who can teach separated parents how to make decisions together, without conflict, and help them to both understand and interpret family court orders or parenting plans.

Importantly, unlike therapy or counselling, the parenting coordination process is non-confidential and reportable in a Court, so both parties are held accountable for their actions and behaviour. As well as coaching, education and conflict management, parenting coordination may also involve a degree of monitoring to ensure each party complies with any relevant court orders as well as the monitoring of emails and messages to evaluate communication skills and identify any improvements needed.

Who is the Parenting Coordinator?

A parenting coordinator is not required to act as an investigator, arbitrator, mediator, counsellor, lawyer or FDRP. They are appointed specifically to maintain a focus on the children’s best interests and assist both parents in developing constructive and effective communication skills as they co-parent.

Generally speaking, a parenting coordinator will be a mediator, social scientist or experienced family lawyer who has undergone specific training to develop the skills needed to act in the role. They require a strong understanding of the family law system, including the implementation of Court orders, as well as experience working with high conflict families.

Specific parenting coordination training, in addition to pre-existing and long-standing experience in working with high conflict families is essential for the parenting coordinator.

Whether the parenting coordinator best suited to each individual family is also a lawyer, social scientist or FDRP will depend on the needs of that family and the dynamics at work in the conflict. It is important clients and referrers of clients into the parenting coordination process have a choice of appointments across all disciplines, so clients’ needs can be properly matched to the qualifications and experience of the parenting coordinator.

Measures of Success

The ultimate goal of parenting coordination is to reduce children’s exposure to conflict. The way that goal can be measured is two-fold:

  1. If parents are able to negotiate the day-to-day issues that arise in the implementation of parenting orders with minimal conflict, or at least not exposing the children to that conflict, and no longer need the assistance of the parenting coordinator to navigate those issues.
  2. If children can manage their life between two households and see parents communicating effectively and making decisions together after experiencing parenting coordination, then the process has been successful. They are less likely to suffer any long-term consequences from their exposure to high levels of conflict and more likely to form positive relationships of their own in the future.
  3. Having parents not re-enter the litigation system by way of enforcement and contravention applications post final parenting orders or exit litigation earlier for PC appointments post interim parenting orders, and by learning how to communicate and resolve issues more effectively themselves, reduces stress on the Courts and avoids children being exposed to lengthy, protracted conflict through the legal system.

Initially developed in the United States, the application of parenting coordination in high-conflict family law disputes is growing rapidly in Australia. Used to avoid protracted litigation and reduce children’s exposure to conflict, it is a long-term solution that equips parents with the communication skills and strategies they need to co-parent effectively and maintain healthy relationships.

Understanding the difference between parenting coordination and co-parenting therapy or counselling is the first step in realising the true potential of the process and the value it holds for Australian families moving forward.

© Anne Purcell PhD and Cassandra Pullos, Co-founders of Parenting Coordination Australia