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The posts in this blog focus on Florida family law issues including divorce , child custody/time-sharing , child support , mediation , domestic violence , parenting coordination , parenting rights of same-sex couples , and other family law topics. The posts discuss these topics under Florida law, and also focus on the family law local rules in Broward, Dade and Palm Beach Counties.

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Articles Posted in Parenting Coordination

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Parts I and II of this post went over some of the rules for parenting coordination, in particular some of the points of contention raised in the brief Sotero opinion, and that come up frequently in cases in Broward and Palm Beach counties also. Now the issue is how important are the rules, or rather how important is it if for the focus to not be on the legal rules once parenting coordination sessions start. I don’t think there is much disagreement with the idea that it is good to make the ground rules for parenting coordination clear at the beginning, in a Court order if there is one, and in a Parenting Coordination agreement between the parents and the parenting coordinator, so that everyone is clear regarding confidentiality, how the process works, fees, the goals, etc.

However, instead of or perhaps in between the worries and concerns regarding the rules, or legalities or what’s fair to one parent or the other, there have to be moments when there’s a focus on finding some small steps one or both parents can take to bring about even minor improvements or decreases in conflict, or increases in the period of time between difficulties. The small step might be something that has worked in the past, or a small adjustment that brings about a change in the way things unfold. This may sound far fetched as a way to improve a highly conflictual situation, but if you’re in a situation where it seems the conflict goes on and on, and nothing has worked, it might be worth going along and giving something else a try.

One of the hallmarks of a parenting coordination approach, I believe, is that it’s not really an “insight” oriented process. It’s not psychoanalysis where you’ll focus on your childhood, your “psyche”, etc., but one issue worth considering is whether one or both parents is holding onto the conflict between them, because there is some alternative that is worse. It can also be important in parenting coordination when progress seems stalled, for all of the participants to remember that the primary focus is on what’s good for the children, even though a solution or compromise, or taking a few days to think about an alternative, might not feel good for one or both parents at that moment.

The above is mostly focused on situations where there is very high conflict and things aren’t working very well. Parenting coordination is also useful where the parents simply want additional help working out the details of a Parenting Plan, time-sharing, etc, in a forum that allows time to address these topics in more detail. Parenting Coordination is a forum where there’s also an opportunity for the Parenting Coordinator to bring in any professional experience or opinions he or she has regarding time-sharing schedules, for example, that tend to work best for children the age of the children in the case, or to try to drawn on any available research results that can help the parents come to a decision about what is best for their children. In some respects, it’s going to a “specialist” in Parenting Plans.

I think a lot of it comes down to the relationship you’ll have with your Parenting Coordinator. You’ll want to develop a positive relationship where you’re working together for the most part, moving forward – there are always some problems, sidetracks along the way. You’ll also, though, want the Parenting Coordinator to feel free to let you know when he or she disagrees with you, and thinks something else might work better for you and the children.

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The primary issues raised by the Sotero case – the confidentiality of parenting coordination, and the authority the court can give to the parenting coordinator, are two issue often relevent to a Broward County divorce attorney or client, when they evaluate the possible use of a parenting coordinator in a contested divorce or other family law case. Even in contested cases, I believe parents in parenting coordination make efforts to address children’s issues for the sake of their children, but the parenting coordination happens within the context of an adversarial case, where the parents are often also going be concerned about how the parenting coordination may affect their case. So, issues parents may be concerned about are what information the parenting coordinator can bring back to the Judge regarding communications in the sessions or the parenting coordinator’s recommendations, and also the authority of the parenting coordinator.

There are some significant exceptions to the confidentiality rule for Parenting Coordination. Communications in parenting coordination are not confidential if:

  • The information is necessary to verify a written agreement between the parents during parenting coordination;
  • The testimony is necessary to identify an issue that is unresolved and needs to be resolved by the court, without otherwise disclosing communications made by either parent or the parenting coordinator;
  • The testimony or evidence is limited to the issue of a parent’s compliance with: the parenting coordination order; orders for psychological evaluation, counseling or substance abuse evaluation/treatment; or counseling recommended by a health care provider;
  • The testimony is the parenting coordinator reporting that the case is no longer appropriate for parenting coordination;
  • The parenting coordinator is reporting that he or she is unable or unwilling to continue to serve or is not qualified to address certain issues in the case and that a successor parenting coordinator should be appointed;
  • The parties agree that the testimony or evidence be permitted;
  • The testimony is necessary to protect any person from domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, or abandonment, or abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an elderly or disabled adult (there is more, very specific language in the stature regarding this provision); or
  • The testimony or evidence is that it is expected that the child is about to be wrongfully relocated/moved, with protections for a parent who moves to avoid domestic violence.

Both the statute and the form order say that communications during Parenting Coordination “sessions” are confidential. Many if not most parenting coordinators do some of the work over the phone, e.g. if a parent calls with an issue that has come up. I believe “during sessions” would be treated as including the communications over the telephone.

The Parenting Coordinator rules allow the Parenting Coordinator to have temporary decision-making authority to resolve specific, “non-substantive” disputes between the parties, but only if both parents agree in writing that it is ok for the Parenting Coordinator to have this authority. A “substantive” change is something that significantly changes the time a child spends with either parent or modifies parental responsibility. So, the Parenting Coordinator is not permitted under the Family Law Rules, to have the authority to make big changes to time-sharing/visitation, or to parental responsibility – i.e. who gets to make decisions regarding the significant issues in a child’s life – schooling, religion, medical treatment, significant extra-curricular activities. The Rules, however, permit the Parenting Coordinator to be given the authority to make recommendations to the court regarding changes to time-sharing or the parenting plan, but again, only if the parents agree in writing for the coordinator to have this authority.

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A Florida appellate court, for the appeals district covering Miami-Dade County, recently entered a decision dealing with the authority of Parenting Coordinators in family law cases, and the confidentiality of communications in Parenting Coordination — Sotero v. Sullivan. In this case, the Mother appealed the decision of the trial court based on the trial court without the consent of the Mother:

  • giving the parenting coordinator the authority to make binding decisions regarding the minor child in the case;
  • giving the parenting coordinator the authority to impose monetary sanctions upon the parents; and
  • waiving the confidentiality of communications with the parenting coordinator.

The appeal also dealt with the confidentiality of the Mother’s communication with her own individual therapist. The Father, through his attorney, consented to the trial court’s order being overturned. The appeals court treated that as a “confession of error” and based on that “vacated” the trial court’s order and “remanded” the case back to the trial court, for it to make a decision consistent with the rules governing parenting coordinators.

The rules for Parenting Coordinators are found in Florida’s Statutes – F.S. ยง 61.125, and the Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure, Rule 12.742 (if you follow this link just scroll down until you come to the text for Rule 12.742). The Florida Legislature passes the laws/statutes of the State of Florida, and Florida’s Supreme Court adopts Rules of Procedure, including the Family Law Rules of Procedure, which are binding rules and must be followed also.

Parties can voluntarily meet with a Parenting Coordinator if they want, without a court order, and agree between themselves and with the Parenting Coordinator what the rules will be, and the rules specifically applicable to court ordered Parenting Coordination would not apply. If there’s not a great deal of conflict between parents, and they simply want some help working out children’s issues or a Parenting Plan, they may not be concerned about confidentiality or a court order. There could be or there could be a way to fashion confidentiality for non-court ordered parenting coordination, but there are actually several legal issues to address for that. There are some potential advantages if parenting coordination is not confidential. There are different “schools” of thought about the importance of confidentiality in parenting coordination– some Parenting Coordinators strongly believe confidentiality is important to help people feel free to address issues in the sessions. Some believe it should be waived by the parties, so the Parenting Coordinator, if necessary, can come to court at some point, make his or her recommendations or report, and help to get the children’s issues resolved. The Parenting Coordination statute reflects the view that confidentiality, with the exceptions discussed in Part II of this post, is important.

The next piece to this rules/statute explanation, is that if the Parenting Coordination is Court ordered, the Court Order is going to look very much like Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure, Form 12.998, so you can look at that to see what is in a Parenting Coordination Order. A Court Order referring parents to a Parenting Coordination must be in “substantial compliance” with the Form Order — Form 12.998.

(Continued in Part II)