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Proposed rules provide uniformity for parenting coordinators

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The use of parenting coordinators is increasing around the state. But depending on where you are in Indiana, the authority of the parenting coordinator – PC – may differ. In an effort to create uniformity, rules are being proposed that would regulate the role and authority of PCs.

Parenting coordination is still relatively new in Indiana as compared to other states, such as Florida and Colorado. Parenting coordinators – attorneys or mental health professionals – assist “high conflict” parents when it comes to resolving issues involving their children. These are the parents who may, for example, disagree as to what kind of clothes their child wears. Instead of running to the courts every time there is a disagreement, the use of a PC can help resolve issues and teach the parents to work things out without court involvement.

Allen Circuit Magistrate Judge Craig J. Bobay said he’s seen orders that permit a PC to make binding recommendations but believes changes to existing orders should be judicial decisions. Robin B. Niehaus, an attorney and parenting coordinator in the Indianapolis area, said she is able to write a recommendation that would be considered binding unless one of the parties object.

This disparity around the state in PC authority exists because there are no rules regulating this area. Currently, judges can enter any order and give any authority they deem appropriate to the PC. Some of that is based on the different authority levels of PCs used in the state.

As defined in the Indiana Parenting Coordination Guide produced by Families Moving Forward Inc. in 2005, there are three levels of PCs used in Indiana. Level 1 PCs work with parents to resolve issues, but can only make recommendations; Level 2 PCs have the same role, but may be able to make binding recommendations if the court allows. Level 3 builds upon the first two levels, and also allows the PC to select and manage a treatment team to attend to the medical or mental-health needs of the parents or children.

Magistrate Bobay said the use of PC levels varies in Indiana, but he does know of some county bar associations that have adopted those levels for PCs.

“There was no consistency in the authority that parenting coordinators were being given,” said Lake Superior Magistrate Judge Nanette Raduenz. “We want orders throughout the state that are consistent regarding authority.”

The proposed rules don’t recognize levels. PCs will not be able to unilaterally modify an existing order or parenting plan, but they will be able to make recommendations and reports to the parties. If the parties agree, those recommendations can be adopted in practice or submitted to the court as a modification in the form of an agreed order, she said.

Magistrates Raduenz and Bobay, along with other judicial officers, were part of a subcommittee created by the Indiana Judicial Conference’s Domestic Relations and Alternative Dispute Resolution committees that wrote the proposed rules. Steuben Superior Judge Bill Fee, chair of the Domestic Relations Committee, said the committees know that PCs are being used and it’s a growing practice, and they felt it was time to take a look at the issue.

The 10 proposed rules include defining the qualifications of a PC, terms of service, confidentiality, and immunity. Currently, parenting coordinators don’t fall under any court rules and instead follow guidelines instituted by organizations like the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

parentingKate Burroughs, a family law attorney at Cross Woolsey & Glazier, said she has heard concerns about how recommendations by PCs under these rules wouldn’t be binding, as is the practice in some courts. Niehaus also cites proposed Rule 7 regarding the timeline once a PC has made a recommendation to the court as a concern. The rule could lengthen the recommendation process to as much as 50 days when factoring in objections and responses to objections filed with the court. Currently, she is able to make a recommendation and allow the parties seven days to object before it becomes binding.

Courts cannot order parties to utilize parenting coordination, and that would remain under the proposed rules. Niehaus said many parenting coordinators would have preferred to see a rule allowing the court to order people to participate in parenting coordination.

Magistrate Raduenz said the subcommittee discussed that possibility.

“It was determined that this should be something the parents agree to do voluntarily, mostly because of the cost factor,” she said. “Our experience with litigants is if it’s something they voluntarily agree to do, then they are more vested in the program and we’re hoping that this will then be a more productive process if they are on board from the beginning.”

Niehaus also has concerns with a proposed rule that may allow the PC to decide how much each parent has to pay for the PC. She wants the court to continue to make those decisions.

“The parenting coordinator is supposed to be unbiased, and if the parenting coordinator decides who pays how much, you can imagine the first thing (a party says is), ‘That’s not fair to me, you’re being biased,’” she said.

Laura Ellsworth, a PC and licensed counselor in Evansville, likes that the proposed rules spell out the qualifications for being a parenting coordinator, but she has concerns with the rule requiring the PC to be a registered Indiana domestic relations mediator. She said a lot of PCs don’t want to do domestic mediation. Judge Fee believes being a mediator would be an advantage for PCs, as they would have immunity as described under Indiana Rules for Alternative Dispute Resolution, Rule 1.5. But this gives Niehaus pause, as she wishes the rules would have spelled out a specific immunity section for parenting coordinators instead of lumping them under the immunity provision for mediators.

Under proposed Indiana Parenting Coordination Rule 10, those who want to serve as a registered PC would have to register with the Commission for Continuing Legal Education and pay an annual $50 fee. Currently, courts vary as to whether they have a master list of parenting coordinators. Judge Fee said that his court does not keep a list to provide to parents who may want to utilize a PC, but he knows who the PCs are in the area. In Lake County, those who are trained as PCs notify the courts and ask to be put on a list.

Overall, judges, attorneys, and parenting coordinators are pleased that rules were introduced.

“We think it’s time for some consistent regulation across the state,” said Judge Fee.•

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