The Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court has recently launched its implementation of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Parenting Coordination Superintendence Rule (Sup.R. 90 – 90.12) in its Local Rule 38. Prior to this implementation, various judges tried parenting coordination on an ad hoc basis. It is from that experience that I draw the following observations as to why parenting coordination in Ohio will be effective and healing with high conflict post-divorce families. I believe that the overriding truth is this: parenting coordination addresses the most frustrating aspects of court litigation. It is economical where litigation is not. It is timely where litigation is not. The parenting coordination process does not have periods of inaction or ineffective action routinely attendant to court litigation. And, it does not involve lawyers, or at least does not have to.
- Parenting coordination is more economical than court. The court-established hourly rate for parenting coordinators in Cuyahoga County is $250 per hour. Most Parenting Coordinators (“PCs”) require a $2000 retainer per couple as a deposit. The typical meeting with the PC is an hour or so, plus an hour or less to write up the agreement of the parties or two hours to write the PC’s decision. Thus the transaction under this scenario is $500 to $750 total, i.e., $250 – $375 per party. It is difficult to imagine a court litigation preceding that would be so economical. Additionally, it is unlikely that there are going to be any unanticipated and often, crushing, economic surprises, i.e., no bills for thousands of dollars from counsel for the last three months when the parties did not realize anything was going on.
- Parenting coordination is “pay-as-you go.” Even when a modest retainer has been paid to the PC, the parties can decide on a case-by-case basis whether the current dispute is worth seeking professional help and/or resolution. Disputes presented to the PC tend to be fairly narrowly focused, rather than accumulation of grievances over months or even years. Typically, a specific result is desired, not just a general “he/she needs to change this behavior or that behavior.” More commonly, the issues revolve around unexpected opportunities for vacation time, unexpected events in the lives of the parent(s) and/or child(ren); or a crisis created by the alleged misbehavior of one party or another – often as retaliation for a prior mis- or non-feasance that went unaddressed. These situations enable the parents to decide whether the particular dispute of the moment is worth fighting. If it is, the PC gets a call; if not the PC will likely never know about it.
- Parenting coordination resolutions are timely. In parenting coordination cases there are no long delays such as those inherent to litigation. Typically the parties contact the PC via email or by telephone with their dispute. Occasionally a resolution may be accomplished over the phone or by return email. Probably more commonly, a meeting – to resolve the dispute – is set up within 24 to 48 hours. The expectation of all is resolution, not a discussion to schedule future activities which will hopefully reach a resolution. Even in the absence of a party negotiated agreement, a decision is usually available within a few days to a week. A post decree show cause motion is unlikely even successfully served on the adverse party within this timeframe. Parties find this effective and timely response most satisfying. The dispute does not fester during delays imposed by the due process provisions of the Civil Rules. People can begin healing and get on with their lives.
- Sometimes it is more satisfying to lose than to “give-in” by settling. I have seen this behavior specifically. A litigant would not participate in my mediation efforts, even when it was clearly in the best interest of the party to do so. But why? The party did not want to have to go back to a significant other, friend or some other sideline coach and report that she/he had “given in.” It was better to blame the outcome on that wrong-thinking PC who just did not get it. It was better to have the matter decided and over. No risk of being accused of being weak, wishy-washy, etc. He/she gave it a shot and lost. This approach is certainly less emotionally taxing, even if the desired outcome is not obtained. Additionally, it is my belief that as the relationship between the parties and the PC ages, this behavior may improve the parties’ ability to agree on their own. If one or both parties have a fairly good guess how the PC is going to decide, they may elect to just agree on the anticipated PC decision. The “I held my ground, but lost” blanket is still available – the PC was going to rule against me anyway. The PC gets blamed for the outcome and money gets saved as a bonus!
- It is more satisfying to speak for one’s self. Since lawyers are typically not present at PC sessions (although they certainly can be – it is economics that keeps them out), the parties have the experience of arguing their own positions. More importantly, with the guidance of the PC, they have the opportunity to state their interests. They are reasonably assured that the other side will actually hear what they say. And of course, vice versa. The parties are not compelled to contort their positions to fit within a legal theory that they really do not understand. It is more about real world fairness. Additionally, although the session with the PC is neither privileged nor confidential, it is a managed discussion and safe to the extent that bullying and other misbehavior is controlled by the PC. It gives the parties at least the opportunity to learn how to talk civilly with each other. This opportunity does not usually present itself while sitting in the hall while the lawyers battle it out in the courtroom or chambers.
- Parenting coordination is a safety valve in a crisis. Akin to #3 above, parenting coordination is a safety valve for the family if immediate intervention is needed. Medical emergencies, unexpected events or cancellations of plans can throw a fragile post-decree family unit into crisis. A decision needs to be agreed upon and the parties are just too emotionally involved to get there. The PC can step in and facilitate an agreement or, if need be, make whatever decision is necessary in time to address the crisis. I believe that the parties derive some comfort knowing the PC process is available.
- The parties have at least the opportunity to reach their own solution. Since the first phase of parenting coordination uses a mediation approach to dispute resolution, the parties have the opportunity to decide what is best for themselves and their family with the assistance of the PC. Only upon impasse will the PC arbitrate the outcome. The parties can craft their own solution without having one imposed upon them by a third party.
Lastly it seems to me, and I have no empirical data for this; but I believe that parenting coordination ages well. We are dealing with post-decree conflict that 90% of the divorced population as already worked through. These folks are special. Even repeated court involvement and likely thousands of dollars has not helped in any lasting way. It seems whatever the latest court resolution; it is breached by one party or both. In parenting coordination the parties begin to learn how to work through disputes on their own. The only fact that I can point to supporting this theory is that their PC visits become less frequent as time goes by. The parties are gradually weaned off of the process. Of course, a myriad of other factors could be at play: the children have grown, more stable influences have entered the family dynamic, somebody moved away, they got back together, etc. Whatever the actual cause, the parenting coordination process eases the pain and promotes healing; certainly much more than continued litigation.