By Andrew D. Taylor, Esq.
Almost four years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court abolished parent coordination in Pennsylvania.
Many high conflict custody cases were left in the lurch and parents had to once again file petitions to have a judge decide even the smallest of custody disputes. However, parent coordination in Pennsylvania may soon get a second chance at life after all.
What is Parent Coordination?
Generally speaking, parent coordinators were typically either family law attorneys or mental health professionals who resolved disputes between parents in high-conflict custody cases. When disputes arose between the parents on relatively “minor” issues, parent coordinators would either meet with the parties, conduct a phone call, or communicate via email to get both parents’ stories, and make a decision. An example would be if there was a dispute about a pick up time, whose holiday it was, interpretation of a vacation provision in a custody order, whether to enroll a child in a sport, etc.
While a parent coordinator could not make major custody decisions, they could quickly (and cheaply) deal with minor issues that would otherwise require filing a petition and going to court. What could cost thousands of dollars in counsel fees and weeks or months of waiting to get a resolution by a judge, could be resolved by a parent coordinator in a couple of days. If one of the parents was dissatisfied with the decision, they could object to it and the judge who would make the final decision. In the meantime, the parent coordinator’s decision would control.
Parent Coordination Abolished
In April 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court abolished parent coordination. The mindset at that time from one or more of the justices was that only judges could decide issues of custody (regardless of how small the issues were) and a court could not delegate its decision making responsibility to a third party.
Following the elimination of parent coordination, many judges, family law attorneys, and parents were left with major headaches. Minor issues (but major issues to the parents and children) which were time-sensitive could no longer be resolved timely due to the backlog of the court system. Arguably, this lack of resolution only increased the level of conflict between the parties (and ultimately had a negative effect on the children involved).
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Domestic Relations Rules Committee, at the end of 2016, drafted Recommendation 155, which, if adopted by the Supreme Court, would revive parent coordination in Pennsylvania. The Recommendation can be found by clicking here. The public comment period for Recommendation 155 closed in February of 2017. This means that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is now considering adopting this Recommendation and making it into a Rule. As of today’s date, there has been no word on whether the Supreme Court will adopt this rule, adopt it with changes, or outright reject it.
Recommendation 155 places strict requirements on a trial judge’s appointment of a parent coordinator. Previously, there was no real guidance given to trial courts as to what they could or could not do in the appointment of a parent coordinator. Of particular note, Recommendation 155 requires that a parent coordinator be an attorney licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and have actually practiced family law for at least five years. The attorney-parent coordinator is also required to have training in the parent coordination process, family mediation, domestic violence, and maintain additional education credits on parent coordination. The Recommendation gives specific examples of what a parent coordinator can decide (times and places for custody transfers, temporary variation from the schedules, the children’s participation in extracurricular activities, etc.) and specifically prohibits a parent coordinator from deciding other major issues (a change in legal custody, a change in primary custody, a relocation, financial issues, major decisions regarding health, education, and religion of the children).
The recommended rule requires a parent coordinator to issue a written recommendation to the court. Any party disagreeing with the recommendation must file a written objection within ten days or the recommendation may become an order. If a party objects, a court must have a hearing on the issues as soon as possible. However, in the meantime, the parent coordinator’s recommendation acts as a temporary order binding on the parties. Recommendation 155 also contains form orders that judges and parent coordinators must use.
Parent coordination serves to quickly resolve time-sensitive issues that may seem minor and insignificant to some, but are usually very important to one or both of the parents (and children) involved. Parent coordination is a creative way to resolve disputes quickly. Recommendation 155 seems to strike a balance between concerns that a judge may not abdicate decision-making responsibility and the need for quick resolutions in custody matters. With any luck, the Supreme Court will adopt Recommendation 155 and resurrect parent coordination in Pennsylvania.