Parent Coordinators: A Bad Idea Finally Put to Rest

For several years Pennsylvania judges have had the option in custody cases to appoint a “Custody Parent Coordinator” to make decisions for parents who could not agree on day-to-day, routine or mundane issues in their children’s lives.  When Pennsylvania formalized the use of Parent Coordinators in custody cases in 2008 following a Superior Court decision, there was much support for the process, reasoning that judges should not be bothered with routine day-to-day conflicts between the parents.

The use of Parent Coordinators was never a good idea and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now ended the practice, by Court rule, effective May 23, 2013.

Originally the Superior Court held that the appointment of a Parent Coordinator in a high conflict custody case was a reasonable exercise of judicial discretion and did not constitute the delegation of judicial authority to the Parent Coordinator. The Superior Court also had established that parents had a right to appeal and have a hearing of the Parent Coordinator’s decision, if one or both of the parents objected to a decision of the Parent Coordinator.

The original idea in practice pre-supposed that in high conflict cases a “neutral” Parent Coordinator could quickly and efficiently listen to the parents’ dispute and make a binding decision.  The Parent Coordinator would allegedly know the personalities, the family dynamics and the background of the legal case, and would be able to make a well reasoned decision.  The practice was based upon the assumption that judges did not need to be bothered with routine family issues that often end up in Court.  There were also advocates who believed that since the parents engaged in high conflict, a “reasonable person” was needed to make family decisions where the parents could not.

Clearly there are some families in which the parents are simply nasty to each other, often without regard to the impact on the children and without regard to the issue in dispute.  The argument for Parent Coordinators was that in such situations by placing a neutral party in charge of disputed issues there would be peace and harmony.  Obviously this did not come to pass.  The argument ignores the fact that in some cases there is simply a difference of opinion that can never be reconciled by agreement, and in such cases the litigants, in this case parents of children, have a due process constitutional right to their day in Court.  By appointing a Parent Coordinator to make a decision for the parents, thus avoiding the opportunity to be heard in Court, parents were systematically being deprived of their due process rights.

Frequently parents involved with a Parent Coordinator would become displeased with the neutral decision maker, and move on to a new Coordinator.  On occasion there were Court approved Coordinators who discovered that the more conflict that existed the more money there was to be made.  Finally, with providing to disgruntled parents the ability to appeal a decision of the Coordinator to the Court, litigation really was not avoided in many situations and Court backlog was not alleviated.

When one considers the practical application of a Parent Coordinator into a high conflict case, it is not surprising that an alleged neutral party, who possesses no ability to discipline the parties or force upon an unwilling participant a decision, is destine to fail.  Additionally, the supposition that a lawyer or other trained person is better suited to make parental decisions than is the child’s parent reflects a “Big Brother” attitude and treats the parents as children themselves.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now recognized that appointing Parent Coordinators to oversee custody cases is not a good idea.  The recent abolition of the Parent Coordinator practice puts an end to what in theory might have been a good idea, but in reality simply acted to take away parental rights and decision making ability, not to mention deprived many of their due process right to a day in Court.

In Custody Cases Parents & Judges Have the Final Say

Recently the Pennsylvania Superior Court reiterated its long standing policy in child custody cases that the ultimate decision making authority regarding child custody issues rests with the judge assigned to the case, not third parties such as psychologists, counselors, or in the most recent case, a parenting coordinator.

In the case of A.H.v.C.M., the parents of 7 year old child were assigned a Parenting Coordinator according to the Custody Order issued by the York County Court.  A dispute between the parents occurred in February 2012, and the Father contacted the Parenting Coordinator.  A month after the incident the Parenting Coordinator issued a finding that Mother disagreed with.  Mother filed a petition requesting that the York County Court review the Parenting Coordinator’s decision.

Rather than conduct a hearing on Mother’s motion, as was provided for by the Order appointing the Parenting Coordinator, the custody judge heard argument from the parents’ lawyers, and then dismissed Mother’s petition.  The judge also added that if Mother filed any future petitions the judge would dismiss them as well, without reviewing them.

Mother appealed the dismissal of the petition to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  On appeal the Superior Court reversed the York County judge’s decision, stating that the decision of the York County judge to deny Mother’s request for a hearing not only violated the York County Court’s own Order appointing the Parenting Coordinator, but also denied Mother her due process right to a hearing before the Court.  The Superior Court discussed its long standing policy that the trial court cannot merely adopt the judgment of a parenting coordinator as being the final word in a custody matter, and that it was the duty of the court to conduct a hearing and thereafter to make a decision based upon the evidence produced at that hearing.

In child custody matters, it is often helpful to have professionals who assist children through difficult family problems.  However, if the parents cannot agree on a course of action they should be cautious not to simply defer their decision making authority to a counselor, therapist or parenting coordinator.  If parents cannot come to an agreement regarding decisions that affect their children, the ultimate authority is the Court and parents should not be hesitant to seek Court intervention if they seriously disagree with a professional’s opinion.  The Court always retains the authority to review the decisions of a parenting coordinator, or other professional, and should not “merely substitute the parenting coordinator’s judgment for its own.”