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Getting Out of Dodge: When to Pull the Plug on Parenting Coordination Clients
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
This paper is based on the workshop by the same title, presented at the AFCC 49th annual convention in Chicago, June 2012. The workshop and survey questions on which they are based were developed as a collaborative effort between Siri Gottlieb, JD, LMSW, Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW and Christine A. Coates, J.D. The Honorable Mr. Justice George Czutrin sat as a panel member for the workshop, representing a judicial perspective.
response to the frustration of judges that
certain families were repeatedly returning to court to handle disputes about
their parenting plans, a few courts began to delegate (with the consent of the
parents) limited areas of authority over child custody issues to experienced
mental health professionals and attorneys to settle parental disputes in an
immediate, nonadversarial, court-sanctioned forum. The use of this new, quasi
legal-mental health-ADR role that combined assessment, case management,
mediation, and arbitration functions, began to spread and is now called
Parenting Coordination generically across states and provinces. In addition,
the role of the Parenting Coordinator (PC) has been increasingly specified and
defined, with common standards of practice emerging across jurisdictions.[i]
respect to the efficacy of Parenting Coordination, the same writers found:
research is sorely lacking on the effectiveness of parenting coordination,
there is evidence that the intervention can substantially reduce relitigation
rates. In one California study, in the year prior to the appointment of a PC,
166 cases had 993 court appearances. The same 166 cases had 37 court
appearances the year following the appointment.[ii]
et al. found:
a reduction of approximately 75% in child-related court filings, as well as a
40% decrease in other motions, resulting in a decrease of 50% in all motions
filed, thus saving these once high-conflict couples, and the court,
significant time and resources.[iii]
paper addresses the question of when a PC should terminate a case prior to the
end of the PC’s term. In 2011, Fieldstone et
al. reported on the first
statewide study on parenting coordination in the US. On the matter of
termination, their study found:
reported that relatively few of their cases were terminated early. Asked to
estimate the percentage of cases that had terminated permanently for various
reasons, 78% of respondents reported that 0–20% of cases had permanently
terminated at the parties’ request. Ninety-six percent reported that 0–20%
of their cases had been terminated at the court’s motion, and 76% reported
that 0–20% of their cases had been terminated prematurely by the PCs
there is comment and agreement in the social science literature on the need to
have a mechanism for termination and that termination should be contemplated
as a term of service
is no literature on those factors leading to a PC’s determination to
terminate a case early.
address this paucity of information about early termination, we developed a
questionnaire to explore the factors PCs consider in arriving at the
conclusion to withdraw from a case. The questionnaire was sent to all the PCs
on the AFCC listserv.
what of those cases that are terminated early? Why are they terminated and how
do practitioners go about the process of termination?
50 respondents, 98% completed the 12-question survey. 62% identified
themselves as mental health professionals and 28% as lawyers. Sixty percent of
respondents had been practicing within their respective professions more than
20 years, and 84% had discontinued service at least once before the expired
asked to detail the circumstances of early withdrawal, the respondents’
replies fell into three categories: Practitioner-related variables;
client-related variables; and lawyer-related variables.
overwhelmingly cited anxiety, countertransference and safety/intimidation.
Anxiety symptoms included not
sleeping at night, ruminating about the case, obsessing over a decision, and
worrying about threats of reprisal (board complaints/lawsuits
or threats to personal safety). Countertransference was evidenced by feelings
of bias and/or anger toward the client(s). Safety issues were both personal
and professional in nature, including direct threats of harm and professional
complaints and lawsuits.
variables were predominantly related to non-compliance
failure to pay. Non-compliance included refusal to participate in the process
and/or not following binding
Other concerns included fear of retaliatory behavior in reaction to
the PC which were contrary to the desire of the client.
might take the form of
board complaints, threats of lawsuits and non-compliance. Many PCs also
resigned if one or both clients were intransigent and not making gains in the
variables included lawyers fueling controversy; lawyers threatening legal
reprisal; and lawyers returning to court unbeknownst to the PC.
Of those who terminated a case prior to the expiration of their term, the vast majority indicated they did so by way of letter or email, either to the parties, respective lawyers, the court, or a combination thereof. In addition to their notification of termination, several PCs offered closing reports to detail their involvement and in some cases, made a final recommendation. Depending on the legal nature of the case, some were required to make a request of the Judge to facilitate termination. A limited number of respondents indicated that they spoke directly with the clients about the decision to terminate prior to the end of the contractual term of service.
percent of respondents indicated that they have provisions in their service
agreement specifying the protocol for termination. Those terms typically
include the discretion of the PC, non-payment, at the
request of both parties, or if the process is not achieving stated
are times when an early termination is initiated by the client. Of those
circumstances where a client has initiated termination through
Court, results have varied. Generally, the courts have held the clients
accountable to the PC process, typically maintaining the appointed PC and at
times with the appointment of a new PC. Where a client has initiated
proceedings to remove a PC, a few PCs have
terminated their own involvement, viewing
the process as not working.
Many PCs attempt to save a case from early termination by conferring with the difficult client’s lawyer, with the hope that the lawyer will encourage appropriate participation on the part of the client. The lawyer may or may not include the PC in the discussion with the client. A few respondents suggested that where the behavior of the PC may have contributed to the upset of the disgruntled parent, the PC should offer an apology and not be afraid to do so. In other circumstances it was suggested that the PC hold individual sessions with the clients, at times throughout the PC process, whereby the PC can gauge response to service, hear complaints and coach the parties on how to better communicate/interact when necessary. Other suggestions included obtaining a peer consultation or even paradoxical interventions (suggesting the PC will terminate first, reminding the client of costs associated with Court intervention).
PCs reported that difficult cases intrude on sleep, create mood disturbances,
and impair the ability to deliver service. As if this service weren’t
difficult enough by virtue of client-related factors, it is also telling that
several respondents commented on the role of the lawyer in the determination
to terminate a case early. Lawyers were at times identified as non-compliant,
threatening/intimidating and adversarial. One respondent stated:
…The attorney of the client was threatening in his manner. I sought advice
from a colleague who said, I know the
attorney and he will make a licensing complaint.”
do you pull the plug on parenting coordination clients? It seems when one’s
own counter-transference may interfere with the process, the client is
non-compliant or simply out to get you one way
or another, and/or the client’s lawyer behaves in a manner antithetical to
A. Coates; Robin Deutsch; Hon. Hugh Starnes; Matthew J. Sullivan; Bea Lisa
Sydlik; Parenting Coordination For High-Conflict Families, Family Court
Review, Vol. 42 No. 2.
2004, 246-262. p 247
Ibid – p 247
J. Henry, Linda Fieldstone, and Kelly Bohac, Parenting Coordination And
Court Relitigation: A Case Study, Family Court Review, Vol. 47 No. 4,
October 2009 682–697. p 682
Fieldstone, Debra K. Carter, Timothy King, and James P. McHale, Training,
Skills, And Practices Of Parenting Coordinators: Florida Statewide Study,
Family Court Review, Vol. 49 No. 4, October 2011 801–817. p 807
Article edited by Siri Gottlieb, JD, LMSW
Article edited by Siri Gottlieb, JD, LMSW
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
For information on Direnfeld's book, Raising Kids Without Raising Cane, click here.
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