Use and Misuse of the Parenting Coordinator – Part I

by Annette Burns on January 20, 2013

This is a slightly updated version of a post from October, 2011.   Most of the information about parenting coordination remains the same but it never hurts to refresh.

Parenting Coordinators have different training, backgrounds, and styles. If you are involved in the choice of the PC (as opposed to simply having the judge choose a name from the Maricopa County court roster), consider what background and style will best suit the family you’re working with. Although judges can use the roster to randomly choose a PC, the judge may not have enough information about the family to give the background and styles enough weight.

Is this a very high conflict case, with little communication between the parents? Or is this a family where the parents attempt to communicate but need help with doing so effectively? Are there Orders of Protection in place; are there therapists and counselors involved with any family members? Is the purpose of a PC to coordinate between other professionals, or to work out a few missing elements of the Parenting Plan? Should the therapist take on a more therapeutic model in order to work with the parents together to create a better working relationship, or do these parents need strict rules and structure with fairly quick decision-making done for them? All of these considerations will help the parents and the attorneys choose an appropriate PC.

It’s helpful if each attorney will speak carefully with his client to let them know that some PCs are counselors and some are attorneys, to find out which the client will be more comfortable with.

It’s also possible that after trying a PC with a particular style, the family or the PC (or both) determine that a different type of PC would be of more assistance, and in that case a change of PC can be accomplished by stipulation.

Care and Feeding of Parent Coordinators

It’s a good idea to check with the office of the proposed PC, before he is appointed, to make sure that person has time to get involved with your case.  This is especially important if immediate action is necessary or a hearing is coming up. If the family has been in the court system for awhile and has had contact with multiple attorneys or mental health professionals, also do a conflicts check ahead of time. When money is an issue (which is almost always), find out the PC’s payment and advance fee deposit requirements, and ask for a copy of their PC Agreement so your client is familiar with it before the appointment is made.

Be sure to use the appropriate form of Order to appoint the PC. Although the attorney can prepare the Order, it’s generally best to ask the Judge to enter the Court’s form of Order.  This ensures that all provisions required by Rule 74 are covered in the Order. In the Maricopa County form of Order, the provisions for payment, division of financial responsibility between the parties, requirements for the PC’s recommendations, and specific instructions to the clients are included in the appointment Order.

Please emphasize to your client that it’s very important to READ the court’s order of appointment, and important to READ the PC’s Agreement.  Those two documents explain the vast majority of questions that your client will have.  Every PC’s office spends a great deal of time answering questions that were already answered in those two important documents.

Please note that a PC cannot ethically get involved with a case or either of the clients until the Court’s Order of Appointment is signed. Even if the parties have stipulated to a PC, or included a statement in their Decree such as “Annette Burns will be the parties’ PC”, that is NOT an Order of Appointment. Until the court signs a formal Order appointing a PC, the PC has no authority in the case. It would be a waste of everyone’s time and money if anticipated PC met with one or both clients before the Order is entered, as the PC would have no authority to make any recommendations or get anything done in the case.

Note that the Court’s Order of Appointment can be supplemented with a separate Order (usually a minute entry) that gives the PC more information about specific issues that need to be covered. The most helpful supplemental Orders will tell the PC that a hearing is being held in 60 days on the issues of [for example] “school choice, a change of the exchange location for the children, and the allocation of spring break”. This tells the PC what to focus on immediately. It is also VERY helpful if the PC is provided with any current Orders of Protection or other restraining orders immediately.  While a domestic violence assessment is done early in each PC case, having the documents up front is very, very helpful.

If your PC is an attorney, he will likely have access to the entire court file through the ECR system (Maricopa County), so he can see all documents and pleadings filed in the case. If your PC is not an attorney, ECR may not be available to him, so keep in mind that non-attorney PCs may need to be provided more court documentation from either the client or the attorney.

There is usually little if any attorney involvement with the PC. Attorneys are welcome to write to the PC and provide necessary documentation or information, so long as all writings and documents are simultaneously provided to the other party. The standard appointment Order in Maricopa County specifically provides “If either or both parties are represented by counsel, there shall be no ex parte communications between the Parenting Coordinator and counsel except if such communication relates solely to scheduling matters.”   (Emphasis mine.)     So, if one parent’s attorney calls up the PC and says “I’d like to chat about the Jones case”, the response from the PC’s office will be “Sorry, can’t do that.”     When I am PC, I am always glad to set up a conference call to speak to both attorneys together, and I imagine that most PCs will do that if requested.

Note that a change to Rule 74 that took effect on January 1, 2011 provides: “Counsel are not permitted to attend parenting coordinator meetings unless agreed to by the parties and the parenting coordinator, or ordered by Court.” While I’ve never had a situation where counsel wanted to attend a parenting coordinator meeting with his client, I’ve heard that this was an issue with other parenting coordinators, so the 2011 rule change resolved that issue.

Part 2 of this post will address what information the attorney can offer to the clients and to the PC ahead of time to make the PC experience better for everyone.

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