By Casandra Ringlespaugh
Each year, millions of married couples with children file for divorce. While some parents can make co-parenting work, there are other parents who seem to continuously make child-related decisions a battleground. I am talking about parents that argue over things ranging from their children’s hairstyles to the brand of underwear they wear to being five minutes late to an exchange, all of which can lead the parents running into the courtroom every time there is a disagreement. Clearly, this type of relationship is not in their children’s best interest and can also be a huge financial drain. When making co-parenting decisions constantly results in conflict and potential litigation, a parenting coordinator can make a world of a difference.
Although parenting coordinators have been around for a while, Indiana has only within the last 10 years or so started to create uniformity in the rules and regulations regarding parenting coordinators. The Hon. Judge K. Mark Loyd of Johnson Circuit Court spoke at the annual Indy Bench Bar conference in June of this year. He gave a brief summary of the history on how he and several others began working toward establishing the regulations. The guidelines in Section V of the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines were initially a part of a much lengthier and more detailed text, intended to be a part of Indiana rules and regulations. However, there was some back and forth on how to implement the parenting coordinator protocols.
Ultimately, it was decided that the guidelines would be dwindled down from the original proposed drafts to the six pages we now see as Section V of the guidelines. Section V includes defining the qualifications and responsibilities of a parenting coordinator, terms of service, report recommendations and actions, and confidentiality. Prior drafts also included a section on immunity, which were not addressed in the guidelines approved by the Indiana Supreme Court on Sept. 2, 2016. Several members of the drafting committee reported that it was their hope that after the implementation of Section V of the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines, which became effective Jan. 1, 2017, attorneys, parenting coordinators, courts and families alike would have the opportunity to apply Section V in practice and to provide feedback.
This has certainly been a long time coming. If these high-conflict parents could not agree to the brand of underwear their child would wear, it is no surprise that they also would not agree to the terms of the parenting coordinator. This behavior previously left the courts without many options. Section V now gives the courts authority to order a parenting coordinator for “high-conflict” parents, provided the court supplies a written explanation in the order as to why the appointment is appropriate.
Section V also provides the qualifications required for who may be appointed as a parenting coordinator, which is a change from years past. Previously, there were no court-adopted uniform rules that defined the qualifications for a parenting coordinator. Most people in these roles were mental health professionals or attorneys. Section V provides that a parenting coordinator “shall be a registered Indiana Domestic Relations Mediator, with additional training or experience in parenting coordination satisfactory to the Court making the appointment.” If you are currently a parenting coordinator, or have one in a case appointed whom does not meet these newly required qualifications, don’t worry. Section V also states that orders appointing parenting coordinators made prior to Jan. 1, 2017, shall remain unaffected, as Section V only applies to appointments made after Jan. 1, 2017.
However, there is one caveat. Any individual who does not meet the mediation registration requirements of B(1) in Section V, but has served as a parenting coordinator in an Indiana circuit, superior or juvenile court prior to the effective date of these guidelines, may obtain a waiver from the court in which the person served; and the person receiving such a waiver still must fully comply with all qualification requirements within two years from the date these guidelines are adopted.
Among other details, one of the most talked about changes to the previously applied standards defined in the 2005 Indiana Parenting Coordination Guide, produced by Families Moving Forward Inc., is the interpretation of binding recommendations made by parenting coordinators. Previously, binding recommendations made by parenting coordinators were considered by most people effective upon filing with the court. However, Section V appears to have aborted this prior notion. Under the new Section V, recommendations by a court-appointed parenting coordinator now must be approved by order of the court. While the court can in some cases issue an order approving the recommendation immediately if necessary, Section V also states that “if a party files an objection to the recommendation, the court shall set an expedited hearing to consider the recommendation and arguments of the parties in favor of and opposing the recommendation.”
There has been some discussion that the reasoning for this is to allow parties sufficient due process and to keep authority with elected and appointed officials. This comes as a striking change. Where parenting coordinators used to quickly resolve disputes between parents without involving the courts, this change may result in putting the issues back in front of the court again. How these guidelines will change the effectiveness of a parenting coordinator is to be determined, and only time will tell.
Overall, judges, attorneys and parenting coordinators seemed to be pleased at the addition of Section V into in the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines. This is a much needed aide to high-conflict parents and provides consistency across courts in Indiana. A complete copy of the 2017 amended Parenting Time Guidelines can be found at in.gov/judiciary/rules/parenting/parenting.pdf.•
• Casandra L. Ringlespaugh is an attorney for Cohen & Malad LLP. Ringlespaugh focuses her practice on family law matters, education law and appellate work. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.