Evolving Roles for Psychologists
In The Best Interest Of The Children
The past couple of decades have witnessed considerable growth in the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms by family courts in the United States. Judges and others clearly recognize that the adversarial nature of the legal system makes it ill-equipped to serve the needs of families or function in the best interests of children experiencing separation or divorce. Parenting coordination (PC) has become well established and continues to evolve as a highly regarded, child focused ADR process. “The main goal of parenting coordination is to reduce conflict between parents and re-establish families with high levels of entrenched conflict involving their children,” says Joan B. Kelly, PhD, a clinical psychologist who served
15 years as a PC and formerly was executive director of the Northern California Mediation Center.
Primary Roles Of Parenting Coordinator
Parenting coordination typically begins with a court order or stipulated agreement between the parents or legal guardians that provides the authority for psychologists and others serving as PCs to make binding decisions. According to Kelly, the PC role combines several functions:
- resolving parents’ disputes about their child and/or children in a timely manner. For example, involving temporary variations in parenting time schedules, as well as decisions about children’s recreational and enrichment activities.
- helping parents comply with parenting plan established by the court.
- making decisions or moving to arbitration if parents cannot settle disputes with the PC’s assistance (if specified in the PC agreement or court order)
- refocusing parents on their children and providing education about their children’s development and psychological needs.
- communicating with children to understand their views and perspectives.
Debra K. Carter, PhD, co-founder and clinical director of the Florida Institute for Cooperative Parenting in Braden, notes that PC’s focus on reducing parental conflict, minimizing stress for children and encouraging parents to resolve their conflicts without litigation. “Parental coordinators work to ensure that children maintain access to both parents as appropriate, and have the freedom to maintain a loving relationship without fear of reprisal or adverse consequences” says Carter. She adds that psychologists in particular may more readily identify the needs of parents or children for interventions such as psychotherapy or psychological evaluation and make appropriate referrals.
Psychologists’ Suitability for PC Work
Parenting coordination is not the sole province of psychologists. It is a multi-disciplinary function also practiced by attorneys, social workers, licensed counselors and others. Even so, psychologists who are versed in PC work identify several reasons why many of their colleagues are suited for the role.
Carter emphasizes that parenting coordination requires an integration of personal skills and experience to help families that are caught in conflict to disengage, emotionally and behaviorally, from dysfunctional parenting relationships and to develop child-focused communication and problem-solving techniques. Psychologists’ understanding of human interactions and their knowledge of how individuals function within systems allows for interventions not typically afforded by the family court system.
”Mental health training helps the parenting coordinator understand behaviors and reactions of adults and children when the family system is in flux and under stress.” she says. Dr. Kelly notes other facets of the skill and experience that psychologists contribute to the PC process. These attributes include understanding the dynamics of divorce, effective parenting, the impact of cont1ict on child development and adjustment, personality disorders and ethical behavior. Kelly adds that” Psychologists also bring their clinical experience in complex case management, establishing appropriate boundaries with clients and maintaining objective in their work.”
But not all have the characteristics that enable successful PC work. “Some psychologists have difficulty recognizing when they must simply make decisions rather than continue to work on the disputes,” says Kelly. It is important that psychologists bring to the table extensive experience working with high cont1ict parents and families, she says while cautioning that those that function as PCs are likely to receive little if any positive reinforcement from these clients.
The Need For Specialized Training
Doctors Carter and Kelly observe that while psychologists generally may have skills needed to serve as effective parenting coordinators, there are significant differences in the PC role and the professional experience of many practitioners. For example, even though psychologist PCs use their therapeutic knowledge and skill to work with difficult clients, parenting coordinators arc not engaged in psychotherapy or psychological assessment. Unlike the more traditional clinical role as psychotherapists, the psychologist PC serves as an objective third party and is not an advocate for either parent- provided the children arc not in danger or at risk of physical or emotional harm. Yet another distinction between parenting coordination and psychotherapy is that the former is non-confidential intervention.
Both psychologists emphasize that the nature and demands of the PC role require specialized training. Such training can help familiarize the psychologist with:
- creating parenting plans that meet the needs of both parents and children and that integrate the child’s views
- sort through the complexity of parental disputes and enhancing skills in working with challenging clients
- the importance of working with a court order or signed consent agreement that authorizes his or her authority
- functioning effectively in the interdisciplinary environment, for example, involving attorneys
- understanding ethical and risk management issues associated with the PC role
A Growing Market Opportunity
Eight states already have statutes that pertain specifically to “parenting coordinators,” and the number of state laws is growing. In other states such as California, parenting coordinators function under the authority of “special masters” appointed by the court.
Psychologists involved with PC work observe that as judges more fully understand and appreciate the benefits that parenting coordination brings to children and families, many are eager to help facilitate the expansion. “The demand for parenting coordination is developing rapidly,” says Dr. Carter. “The considerable need provides psychologists with a unique opportunity to expand their services.”
Dr. Kelly sums up the reward of PC work with a focus on strengthening families. “It is a fascinating, complex intervention with significant positive benefits for parents and particularly for children,” she says.