By Laura Ginsberg
The 25th Judicial Circuit's Parenting Coordinator Program is helping reduce conflicts and eliminate unnecessary trips to court by teaching parents how to work together to make decisions in the best interests of their children.
As part of the 25th Circuit's unified family court program, Parenting Coordinators work with divorced or separated parents who have a history of being unable to cooperate and co-parent. Each Parenting Coordinator is a legal professional trained to help parents work through disagreements and come to a decision that is most beneficial to the children involved.
"We want to try to leave families better off than they are when we started working with them," said Katie Anderson, Parenting Coordinator and associate with the law firm Smith & Turley. "The program is meant to help parents learn to communicate better in the long term. Ideally, a Parenting Coordinator helps train the parents how to eventually resolve conflicts on their own."
Parenting Coordinators are assigned to a case by a judge, and the decisions they make must be within the scope the parties' existing parenting plan. However, as anyone who has children knows, in real life things often change and compromises need to be made. For example, a custody agreement may need to be temporary altered so a child can participate in an afterschool activity. In some cases, the parents' animosity toward one another may prevent them from being able to reach a solution that benefits their children, and this is where Parenting Coordinators step in.
"It's for the everyday things that come up along the way," Anderson said. "Parenting Coordinators are able to come up with creative solutions."
Common issues a Parenting Coordinator might address include healthcare management, school-choice issues, decisions regarding the child's possessions, phone time with the non-custodial parent and changes to regular visitation agreements.
Parenting Coordinators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help parents solve issues whenever they arise, and they have the judicial authority to make a binding decision. Parents always have the option to appeal, but overall, round-the-clock access to a Parenting Coordinator eliminates the need to go to court to ask for a modification of judgment in many situations. This saves the parties' money, and also reduces the court's docket.
"Not every dispute that arises requires a full-blown hearing before a judge," said John Beger, senior lawyer at the law firm Beger & Bushie. "If you can facilitate communication between parents of a child to the point where a problem can be solved without going to court, it is beneficial for the judges and all of the litigants who have cases pending."
Though not currently acting as a Parenting Coordinator, Beger has worked with families in the past, including one very high-conflict case that required his assistance for more than a year. He said the most important thing is to work within the confines of the existing agreement, but always with the children in mind.
"I make it plain to the parents that the guiding light in every situation is what is in the best interest of the child within the context of the court order," Beger said. "My job is not to rewrite the order or hear evidence, my job is to apply the order as-written and make judgment calls when necessary in the best interest of the child."
In most cases, families who are ordered to work with a Parenting Coordinator are eligible for up to 10 hours of free assistance. In addition to Anderson, Parenting Coordinators working with the 25th Circuit's unified family court program include: Frank Schweitzer, attorney and guardian ad litem; Dr. Gary Evans, Ph.D. and Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Breakthrough Counseling in Licking; Mark Calvert, attorney with the law firm Hickle & Calvert; Megan Seufert, attorney with Williams, Robinson, Rigler & Buschjost in Rolla; Ralph Muxlow, attorney with Muxlow Law Offices in Richland; and Dawn Clayton, guardian ad litem and private practice attorney in Vienna.