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On the Front Lines: Parenting Coordinators in Child Custody Cases

Most people know a judge can make rulings in custody cases, but did you know that in North Carolina, a Parenting Coordinator (PC) can too? Our state requires them to have a masters or doctorate degree in psychology, law, social work, or counseling, and must have specialized training in topics related to the developmental stages of children, the dynamics of high-conflict families, the stages and effects of divorce, problem solving techniques, mediation, and legal issues. There are other eligibility requirements.

What Do Parenting Coordinators Do?

Courts always maintain the exclusive right to determine fundamental issues of custody and visitation, and to determine the way the case will proceed. Courts appoint PCs to make decisions that help the parties comply with custody orders, resolve disputes about issues that might not specifically included in the orders, orders that are ambiguous or orders that have conflicting terms. Although PCs can’t change custody orders, they can supplement or implement them with their own written orders.

How Do You Get a Parenting Coordinator?

The judge must decide that appointing a PC is in the best interest of the child, that the parents can afford to pay the fee charged by the PC and that their case is a high-conflict case. The law defines high-conflict case as one with an ongoing pattern of any of these: Excessive litigation, anger and distrust, verbal abuse, physical aggression or threats of it, difficulty communicating about and cooperating in the care of the child. Usually the court requires a meeting called an appointment conference. At that meeting the judge will enter an appointment order, which must say how the PC will handle matters, how his or her fees will be paid, and list the specific issues that the PC is authorized to handle. The judge must also explain the PC’s role, authority, and responsibilities that are in the appointment order. The rules regarding communications among the parties, the court, the attorneys and the PC must also be explained.

What Issues Can Parenting Coordinators Address?

When a judge appoints a PC, he or she can give the PC very limited authority or very broad authority, depending on the circumstances. The 2019 revisions to the law authorize a judge to appoint a PC who can specifically address: alterations to a child’s appearance, including tattoos or piercings, transition time, pickup, or delivery, sharing of vacations and holidays, the method of pickup and delivery, transportation to and from visitation, participation in child or day care and babysitting, bed time, diet, clothing and recreation.  Also included is the right to make decisions on before-school and after-school activities, extracurricular activities, discipline, health care management, phone contact, education, passports and participation in visitation, including significant others or relatives.

PCs can’t be involved with finances, nor can a PC provide any professional services or counseling to anyone in that family. PCs may also prepare a court report if he or she believes the current custody order is not in the child’s best interest, a party is not complying with the order, the PC encounters issues that he or she is not qualified to address, or the PC wants to end his or her appointment or make changes to the appointment order. The PC may release any of his or her records to the parties or attorneys.

What Oversight Do Parenting Coordinators Have?

PCs can’t speak to the court unless both parties are present, either in a scheduled meeting or in court.  But they can meet and speak with a parent, child or other involved person informally and individually.  Communications between the PC and the parties are not confidential. Parents may be required to sign releases to allow the PC to communicate with third parties, such as a doctor or school counselor.  A party can request a review hearing to have the judge review the PC’s written order. The judge will overrule the order if the PC acted beyond the authority set out in the order that appointed him or her, or if the PC’s order is not in the child’s best interest. The judge can assign the cost of the review hearing. The court can modify or terminate the appointment of the PC for cause.  That includes a lack of reasonable progress, the judge decides that the parties no longer need the PC, someone has an impairment that significantly interferes with his or her participation in the process or the PC is unwilling or unable to act.

Laws change. This article is current as of 2020.

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