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Parenting Co-Ordination explained. Does your client need it?

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Parenting Co-Ordination explained and why it might be useful for some parents… 

I am very glad to welcome Claire Molyneux, of Mills & Reeve solicitors, who is a a driving force in the world of children law and in particular Parenting Co-ordination.   So, Claire what is Parenting Co-ordination?

Claire: Thanks Jo for giving me the opportunity to talk to you about Parenting Coordination. 

Parenting Coordination is a dispute resolution process that operates quite differently in different countries or legal areas across the world. 

In England and Wales, those of us trained by the FLiP Faculty follow the Association of Family and Conciliation Court’s guidelines, which I’ve included a link for here: https://www.afccnet.org/Portals/0/Guidelines%20for%20Parenting%20Coordination%202019%20%281%29.pdf.  Most people will have heard of mediation, and possibly even arbitration, but parenting coordination will be a new term for most in England and Wales.

Parenting Coordination, or ‘PC’ for short, is designed to help families in which the parents are caught in medium or higher level ongoing or chronic conflict which prevents them from communicating constructively in the best interests of their children.  Parents themselves may not recognise that they have become stuck in a high level of conflict – as might be normal human nature for any of us caught in a particular situation in which we cannot be fully objective.  But as a friend of family member watching on, or as a professional such as a solicitor or mediator trying to help, you may recognise that the child or children’s parents are unable to unbundle the areas in which they need to agree in order to continue supporting their children to flourish in the way that both parents would acknowledge they actually wish to do.

In England and Wales, PCs only become involved once parents already have in place a parenting agreement, or a court order (known as a child arrangements order).  Their main focus is to help parents they are assisting to implement the terms of the agreement or order to avoid further ongoing conflict.  For example, many court orders say that the children will share their annual school holidays equally between their two homes.  Parents who are stuck in conflict may find trying to agree how to divide this time a real challenge, if not impossible. 

It is well documented that our court system, regrettably, often encourages parents to focus on the negative aspects of one another or one another’s parenting.  At the end of the court process, any professional support comes to an abrupt halt, and it is no wonder that parents (and their wider family support networks) then struggle to rebuild parenting bridges.  As PCs, our job is to help parents do that in a very constructive, gradual and supported way so that they can leave the process with skills that enable them to overcome or manage their feelings and emotions and work reasonable cooperatively to parent their children.  We know from the research that even relatively small improvements can help children’s wellbeing in ALL areas of their lives not just now, but throughout their lifetimes.

And so PC is more involved than mediation for example, as we know that some parents require a higher level of support.  Each family will require a different level of support, but typically a parenting coordinator might cover the following types of things with parents:

  •          Educating – we help parents to understand the effects of conflict between them on children – based entirely on research outcomes that are now widely available for anyone to read and learn about.  

Many parents – once again completely understandably – may have differences of opinion about lots of minor points concerning their children’s wellbeing.  By explaining to parents the effects of conflict and the fact that these disputes are often more damaging for children than the outcome of what they’re actually arguing about, it can help parents to think in a more broad-minded way about what they’re actually trying to achieve.  But it isn’t the case that one parent should just give in – it is also about helping parents to recognise the important of mutual and equal compromise and to hearing and taking on board one another’s concerns.

  •          Teaching and practising communication and problem solving skills – before parents can actually move into mediating their own disputes, we spend time helping them identify what communication patterns they might be in that are negative in nature, rather than constructive.  For example, we will observe the type of communications styles the parents have, and explain that to parents.  Sometimes it’s that both argue, or another common approach is that if one tries to address something, the other closes off completely and these things become vicious circles.  And then we look at better ways of discussing problems or concerns.  We may start with looking at hypothetical case studies and problem solving using different techniques, before moving onto look at disagreements relating to the family itself.  There are lots of communications strategies and techniques we teach and put into practice, and the point of PC is that the parents meet with us regularly over a longer period of time until these techniques form new habits that can be relied upon for the future.  We essentially aim to work ourselves out of a job as quickly as is possible!
  •          Mediating disputes – one of the main elements of our role is to help parents mediate the terms of the court order or parenting agreement.  With the best will in the world, most agreements contain room for ambiguity and this can lead to ongoing conflict.  As a PC, we support parents to talk through the challenges and reach sensible and workable solutions using the skills we have identified and used together in the PC sessions.
  •          Decision-making function – if parents cannot agree and get stuck on a particular point, they will have agreed in the initial phase of employing their parenting coordinator to the parenting coordinator being able step-in and make a decision relating to the implementation of the agreement.  To make this very clear, we can’t impose a decision on parents that strays outside of the court order, so if parents suddenly can’t agree to a permanent change to the court order, a choice of school or a medical treatment for a child, they would have to seek the assistance of the court.  But if they couldn’t agree to swapping a weekend for a family wedding, or to the implementation of something in the order that is relatively clear, such as which week the children will spend with which parent during the forthcoming two week long Easter school holiday, the parenting coordinator could step in and decide on the parents’ behalves.

  Jo: Thanks for that comprehensive answer.  Three final questions:

1. Who pays the PC's fees? 

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no pot of funding for parents to access to receive help towards the cost of PC.  Parents will therefore need to pay for their parenting coordinator’s time.  Although this may seem costly after a run of court proceedings, given that there is evidence to show the process of PC very much reduces the chances of a future return to court, it is hopefully a good investment.  Most importantly, of course, if it improves the parenting relationship, the wellbeing of every family member will be enhanced.

2.Is a PC appointment always by court order and therefore enforceable?

Claire: No, in England and Wales, it is not an appointment by court order, but rather a voluntary choice of the parents.  This is in contrast to other countries, in which it can be mandatory and court ordered.  But within the contract the parents sign up to there are contractual terms that state that both parents have to agree to end the PC process together if they don’t feel it is working for them.  One parent isn’t able to do this alone.

  1. How would you say the PC role differs from that of the Family Consultant?

Claire: The main difference is that in PC there is a contract in which the parenting coordinator is in charge of the process and the experience is a mandatory one for a period of up to two years.  The parents who appoint a parenting coordinator are also those that are typically more stuck in conflict than those who a family consultant might support during mediation or the collaborative law process.  In that context, the family consultant will identify and help build certain skills, but wouldn’t necessarily work to embed those skills over an extended period of time of up to two years, or continue helping the parents once all the other formal processes have come to an end.  And so there are similarities in some of the work a family consultant or parenting coordinator do, of course, but the two roles in reality are rather different.

Jo: Thanks so much Claire. I hope more parents at war with each other sign up for this option to try and make things easier for their children.