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Parenting coordination is a child-focused dispute resolution process that helps parents implement the parenting arrangements set out in a court order, arbitrator's award or separation agreement. Parenting coordinators are neutral third parties who work with parents over a lengthy term of between six and 24 months to resolve parenting problems as they arise, help parents put the needs and interests of children first, and improve parents' communication and dispute resolution skills. Parenting coordinators are experienced family law lawyers, mental health professionals, mediators, and arbitrators.
Parenting coordination is intended for higher-conflict parents who are often in court dealing with disputes about their children's parenting arrangements. It is not likely to be particularly useful for separated parents who get along relatively well with each other and are able to problem-solve and work their way through disagreements on their own.
This section provides a brief introduction to parenting coordination, an overview of the process, and links to some additional resources on parenting coordination.
Parents who have a separation agreement, an arbitrator's award or a court order with a parenting plan but find themselves arguing about the terms of the parenting plan and new parenting issues might find parenting coordination to be a better alternative for resolving future disputes than going back to court.
Parenting coordination was first developed in California in the 1980s as a response to high-conflict parents who were constantly in court. The Special Master Program, as it was then known, was established to help parents resolve ongoing parenting disputes by providing dispute resolution services while steering parents away from court and providing a more holistic, balanced alternative to the conflict and expense of adversarial court processes. Under this program, parents were referred to mental health professionals who tried to resolve parenting disputes through mediation but, if mediation failed, were able to resolve those disputes through arbitration. Although these professionals initially worked without any common guidelines, a group formed in the early 1990s to share their experiences and work together on creating a common concept of parenting coordination.
Today, both legal and mental health professionals — counsellors, social workers, family therapists, and psychologists — work as parenting coordinators, and professional associations have formed to discuss standards and promote best practices in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, all working under variations of the basic parenting coordination model currently used by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
Parenting coordination involves a trained professional who works with parents, over a long period of six to 24 months, to implement the parenting plan contained in the parents' final order, award or agreement. As with the Special Master Program, parenting coordinators first attempt to resolve parenting disputes through a process very much like mediation, but, if settlement cannot be found, will resolve those disputes through a process very much like arbitration. It is a child-centred process that also tries to address other goals such as helping the parents learn to communicate more effectively, keep their children’s needs and interests front of mind, and resolve future disputes without intervention. Mental health professionals who work as parenting coordinators have special training in family law, mediation, arbitration and decision-writing, while legal professionals have special training in family systems theory, family violence, child developmental psychology and conflict management.
The services parenting coordinators provide are limited to helping with parenting plans. They cannot make significant, long-lasting changes to those plans; they cannot appoint people as guardians, or deal with issues about support and children’s special expenses; they cannot give someone parenting time or contact who does not already have it; and, they cannot make decisions about relocation. (The limitation of parenting coordination to the implementation of final orders and agreements is intentional. Parenting coordination is not a process suited to developing parenting plans, and most parenting coordinators would not want to be caught in the awkward position of creating parenting plans in competition with the court.)
Working with parenting coordinators under the Family Law Act
A person meeting the requirements set out in the regulations may be a parenting coordinator.
Those requirements appear in section 6 of the regulation. Lawyers who qualify as parenting coordinators meet the training requirements of, and are accredited by, the Law Society of British Columbia. You can find out if a lawyer is a parenting coordinator by looking the lawyer up in the Lawyer Directory on the Law Society's website. The training requirements professionals other than lawyers must meet to qualify as parenting coordinators are set out in section 6(2) of the Family Law Act Regulation, and include:
- being a member in good standing with specific organizations,
- meeting specific educational and experiential requirements,
- taking continuing family dispute resolution training, and
- carrying professional liability insurance.
Section 6 of the regulation imposes two extra duties on parenting coordinators: they must use written participation agreements; and, they must provide the parties with confirmation that they qualify as a parenting coordinator under the regulation. Section 6(2) says this:
(2) The following practice standards apply to a parenting coordinator:
(a) before assisting the parties to a family law dispute in his or her capacity as a parenting coordinator, he or she must enter into a written agreement to provide parenting coordination services with the parties to the family law dispute;
(b) before assisting the parties to a family law dispute in his or her capacity as a parenting coordinator, he or she must provide written confirmation to the parties to the family law dispute that he or she meets the professional requirements set out in subsection (1).
The parenting coordination process
Once you have a final court order, arbitrator's award or separation agreement that says how parental responsibilities, parenting time and contact with your child are going to work — a parenting plan — you may hire a parenting coordinator. A parenting coordinator may be appointed by your agreement, or by an arbitrator's award or court order made under section 15 of the Family Law Act. The appointing agreement, award or order should specify who is being appointed and a deadline for signing the parenting coordination participation agreement and paying the required deposits and retainers.
Your lawyer will have the names of three or four parenting coordinators they prefer to work with or think well of. If you don't have a lawyer, you can look at the membership lists of organizations like the BC Parenting Coordinators Roster Society, although many accredited parenting coordinators may not have decided to spend the money to join these organizations. You probably want to choose someone who has a lot of experience as a parenting coordinator, someone who has a good reputation in the legal or mental health community, and, most importantly, someone you see as being neutral, fair-minded and unbiased.
Starting the process
Starting the parenting coordination usually requires that: the parents sign the parenting coordinator's parenting coordination agreement; the parents pay the retainer and deposit requested by the parenting coordinator; sign a bunch of consent forms so that the professionals involved with your family can talk to your parenting coordinator; and, the parents, and sometimes the children, have an initial meeting with the parenting coordinator.
The parenting coordination agreement
After the parenting coordinator is appointed, you will be asked to sign a participation agreement, usually called a parenting coordination agreement. Your parenting coordinator will likely want you to get legal advice about the meaning and effect of the agreement. Your lawyer will usually be happy to give you this advice; if you don't have a lawyer, you can hire one just to give you this advice.
Parenting coordination agreements do four things. First, they serve as the parenting coordinator's retainer agreement and describe how the parenting coordinator will charge for their services and when they will expect to be paid. (You can read more about retainer agreements in the Understanding the Legal System chapter, in the You and Your Lawyer section.) Second, they describe the parties' rights and responsibilities in the process, as well as the responsibilities of the parenting coordinator and the scope of their authority. Third, they summarize any specific issues the parenting coordinator will focus on. Finally, they specify the term for which the parenting coordinator is being hired, usually somewhere between six and 24 months.
Section 15(4) of the Family Law Act says that the maximum term parenting coordinators can be hired for is for 24 months. This is usually the best length of time to work with a parenting coordinator. 12-month appointments are fairly common, however. Parenting coordinators have been hired for shorter appointments, but the benefits of parenting coordination generally require a longer engagement. Parenting coordination agreements that have come to an end may be renewed, if the parenting coordinator and the parents agree.
Retainers and deposits
Most parenting coordinators require that each parent provide a deposit and a retainer before they begin work. Retainers commonly start at $4,000 to $5,000, and work like a lawyer's normal retainer. The retainer secures the parenting coordinator's future fees, and the parenting coordinator draws on the retainer to pay their accounts after each account is sent to the parents. When the retainer runs out, the parenting coordinator will ask the parents to pay a new retainer. And if there is money left in a parent's retainer when the parenting coordinator's term is finished, that money goes back to the parent.
Deposits are often between $500 and $1,000. They are also a kind of retainer, and are meant to pay for the parenting coordinator's services if a parent's retainer has run out and the parent refuses to pay a new retainer. This lets the parenting coordinator finish dealing with any last outstanding issues. Like the retainers, any money left in a parent's deposit when the parenting coordinator's term is finished goes back to the parent.
You will also usually be asked to sign a number of forms so that the professionals involved with your family — usually people like the children's doctors, care providers, teachers, therapists, and anyone else with important information or insight about your family — can talk to your parenting coordinator. It is often very helpful for your parenting coordinator to be able to talk to a child's teacher, for example, to get their views about problems with homework, behavioural challenges, and any issues transitioning between homes.
As with all family dispute resolution professionals, if you do not have lawyers, the parenting coordinator will meet with each of you, separately, before starting the process to assess for the presence of family violence. Some parenting coordinators also invite parents to a short meeting to discuss the parenting coordinator's role prior to the formal appointment. This meeting might have a fixed cost or no cost.
After the parenting coordination agreement has been signed and the deposits and retainers paid, the parenting coordinators will meet with the parties again to talk about the history of the family, events since the parents' separation, and common areas of disagreement and conflict, as well as identifying any issues that need to be addressed in the near future. The parenting coordinator may also meet with the children and with any other adults, like teachers and therapists, who might have helpful information.
Parenting coordinators' work dealing with problems about children's parenting plans keeps parents out of court, and saves them the time and legal fees that they would pay making and responding to applications; especially if the parents experience higher than usual levels of conflict and frequently used court to resolve problems before they hired their parenting coordinator.
It's important to understand, however, that parenting coordinators charge by the hour for all of the time they spend working with a family, so their services can be expensive, especially if they are over-used. Although parenting coordination is usually quite cost-effective, when the fees of the parenting coordinator are compared to the longer-term benefits they provide and the amount saved on going to court, the cost of parenting coordination is sometimes more expensive than many families can afford. It would be great if the services of parenting coordinators were subsidized by the government or legal aid, but that hasn't happened yet.
How the parenting coordinator works
The primary job of parenting coordinators is to address and resolve problems with the implementation and day-to-day functioning of the parenting plan. In addition to dealing with short-term issues like these, parenting coordinators have the longer-term goals of:
- reducing the conflict between the parents,
- minimizing the effect of the parents' conflict on their children,
- helping parents focus on the needs and best interests of their children,
- improving the parents' communication skills, and
- improving the parents' ability to resolve their own disputes.
When a problem with the parenting plan comes up — which might concern the interpretation of the parenting plan, the need for a temporary change to the parenting plan, resolving an issue not addressed in the parenting plan, or adapting behaviour to make the parenting plan work better — a parent will contact the parenting coordinator. The parenting coordinator will then contact the other parents and try to find a solution to the problem in the information-gathering and consensus-building phase of the parenting coordination process. If a solution can't be found, the parenting coordinator will resolve the problem by making a decision in the determination-making phase of the process. Most parenting coordinators see making determinations as a last resort, and would much prefer to help the parents create their own solution to the problem.
As other issues develop, the process repeats. Some issues may be resolved relatively quickly by phone or email, while other issues will require in-person meetings. Where the parents and parenting coordinator work in different cities, parenting coordinators will usually rely on videoconferencing in place of in-person meetings.
Parenting coordinators will usually record the terms of any resolutions reached in the information-gathering and consensus-building phase through a memorandum to the parents, often in the form of an email. This is meant to remind the parents of the terms of the resolution and their obligations under that settlement. Determinations made in the determination-making phase are also provided to the parents in writing, but in a more formal manner.
Agreements reached in the parenting coordination process can be enforced by the court like any other family law agreement. Agreements about parenting arrangements are enforceable under section 44 of the Family Law Act; agreements about contact are enforceable under section 58 of the act. Determinations made in the parenting coordination process can be enforced by the court under section 18 of the Family Law Act.
What a parenting coordinator does do
Section 17 of the Family Law Act outlines the basic functions of parenting coordinators:
A parenting coordinator may assist the parties in the following manner:
(a) by building consensus between the parties, including by
(i) creating guidelines respecting how an agreement or order will be implemented,
(ii) creating guidelines respecting communication between the parties,
(iii) identifying, and creating strategies for resolving, conflicts between the parties, and
(iv) providing information respecting resources available to the parties for the purposes of improving communication or parenting skills;
(b) by making determinations respecting the matters prescribed...
Section 6 of the Family Law Act Regulation talks about the determinations parenting coordinators can make:
(3) The following are the matters in respect of which a parenting coordinator may make determinations:
(a) parenting arrangements;
(b) contact with a child.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (3), a parenting coordinator
(a) may make determinations in respect of
(i) a child's daily routine, including a child's schedule in relation to parenting time or contact with the child,
(ii) the education of a child, including in relation to the child's special needs,
(iii) the participation of a child in extracurricular activities and special events,
(iv) the temporary care of a child by a person other than
(A) the child's guardian, or
(B) a person who has contact with the child under an agreement or order,
(v) the provision of routine medical, dental or other health care to a child,
(vi) the discipline of a child,
(vii) the transportation and exchange of a child for the purposes of exercising parenting time or contact with the child,
(viii) parenting time or contact with a child during vacations and special occasions, and
(ix) any other matters, other than matters referred to in paragraph (b), that are agreed on by the parties and the parenting coordinator...
Some examples of what a parenting coordinator may do include:
- settling disputes or ambiguities about parenting schedules, extracurricular activities, travel arrangements, holidays, and special events,
- making temporary adjustments to the children's parenting plan,
- deciding what school a child will attend,
- determining if a child needs tutoring, therapy, or routine medical treatment, and
- working out protocols for dealing with a child’s belongings, communications between parents, communications between a child and a parent, and the parents' attendance at a child's school, sports and social events.
What a parenting coordinator doesn't do
Section 6 of the Family Law Act Regulation also talks about the subjects that parenting coordinators may not make determinations on. Subsection (4), noted above, continues and says that a parenting cooordinator:
(b) must not make determinations in respect of
(i) a change to the guardianship of a child,
(ii) a change to the allocation of parental responsibilities,
(iii) giving parenting time or contact with a child to a person who does not have parenting time or contact with the child,
(iv) a substantial change to the parenting time or contact with a child, or
(v) the relocation of a child.
Although section 6(4)(b) doesn't explicitly say so, parenting coordinators are also prohibited from making determinations about child support, including children's special expenses, spousal support, and the division of property and debt. None of these issues fall within "parenting arrangements" and "contact with a child" under section 6(3). If you need someone to help with these issues, you should probably hire an arbitrator. You can get more information about arbitration in the previous section in this chapter, Family Law Arbitration.
Ending the process
At the end of the parenting coordinator's term, parents and the parenting coordinator may agree to renew the parenting coordination agreement. If the parents can't agree whether the parenting coordination agreement should be renewed, the parenting coordination process is finished until a judge or an arbitrator orders that the parents return to the parenting coordination process.
Under section 15(6) of the Family Law Act, a parenting coordination agreement can be terminated before the end of a parenting coordinator's term in one of three circumstances:
(a) in the case of an agreement, by agreement of the parties or by an order made on application by either of the parties;
(b) in the case of an order, by an order made on application by either of the parties;
(c) in any case, by the parenting coordinator, on giving notice to the parties and, if the parenting coordinator is acting under an order, to the court.
Section 18 of the Family Law Act says that parenting coordinators' determinations are binding on the parents and that they may be enforced by the court:
(5) Subject to section 19 [changing or setting aside determinations], a determination
(a) is binding on the parties, effective on the date the determination is made or on a later date specified by the parenting coordinator, and
(b) if filed in the court, is enforceable under this Act as if it were an order of the court.
- BC Parenting Coordinators Roster Society
- Association of Family and Conciliation Courts
- Parenting Coordinators from the Ministry of Attorney General
- Parenting Coordinators from Legal Aid BC
- Sample parenting coordination participation agreement (PDF), BC Parenting Coordinators Roster Society
- Sample parenting coordination participation agreement (PDF), John-Paul Boyd Arbitration Chambers
These sample participation agreements may not resemble the participation agreement you are asked to sign. They provide a more or less accurate picture of what parenting coordination participation agreements usually look like, but should be used as a reference only.
- "Guidelines for Parenting Coordination" PDF from the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd, 25 August 2021.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|