Parenting Coordinators: Helping Parents Through High-Conflict Custody Cases

What happens in a situation where two parents simply cannot put aside their differences and reach a harmonious approach to parenting their children?
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If you ask people going through a separation, divorce or litigation to describe the nature of the situation between themselves and their ex-spouse or ex-partner, most would probably agree with the label of "high-conflict." This is especially the case when children are involved. What was once a family unit is now torn apart. That shift in dynamics frequently pits two parents against each other, often to the detriment of themselves and/or their children. So what happens in a situation where two parents simply cannot put aside their differences and reach a harmonious approach to parenting their children?

Many states provide the option of having a parenting coordinator appointed in high-conflict cases to assist parents facing difficulty in co-parenting their children or implementing a court's custody order. For example, North Carolina General Statutes define high-conflict custody cases warranting the appointment of a parenting coordinator as those involving any of the following: excessive litigation, anger and distrust, verbal abuse, physical aggression or threats of physical aggression, difficulty communicating about and cooperating in the care of the minor children, or any conditions that in the discretion of the court warrant the appointment of a parenting coordinator. Appointment of a parenting coordinator may be an avenue agreed upon by the parties or accomplished through a court's own motion. Therefore, sometimes a parenting coordinator is an option sought by the parties, and sometimes it is a mandate that is thrust upon them.

The parent coordinator's role is typically defined by court order, specifically outlining how the parenting coordinator is to assist the parties. A parenting coordinator does not represent either party. Rather, their role is to guide and lead the parties to overcome the issues that led to the parenting coordinator's appointment. This may be in the form of assisting in decision-making for the parties' children and sometimes being the final decision-maker in the face of an impasse between the parties. Often a parenting coordinator is integral in ensuring that the parties communicate effectively for the benefit of their children. The parenting coordinator's role can be as general or specific as a court or the parties, if by consent, deem appropriate and necessary.

While the appointment of a parenting coordinator may seem like a cure-all to the high-conflict custody case, it often is a bumpy road for everyone involved. The parenting coordinator frequently has to make decisions and give opinions that are not well-received by one or both parties. The parenting coordinator is not on anyone's side, nor does the parenting coordinator work for either party. The parenting coordinator's goal is to address the issues that make the particular case high-conflict, keeping the focus on the children involved. The parenting coordinator may also have to make reports to the court that may be unfavorable to one or both parties, but makes the court aware of important issues to be addressed.

It is key to remember that a parenting coordinator is there to help, but that requires both parties giving up a certain amount of anger and control that led to the present situation. If both parents are committed to abiding by a parenting coordinator's guidance and decisions, the parenting coordinator can be the voice of reason and source of focus in a high-conflict custody case.


Robin Goulet is a practicing attorney at Sodoma Law, P.C. with a concentration in family law. A graduate of Western Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, she is a member in good standing of the North Carolina and Union County Bar Association Family Law Sections. Her association positions include Vice-Chair of the American Red Cross Union County Chapter Board of Directors, and Committee Member of the Union Symphony Society.