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High-conflict custody cases losing Parenting Coordinator option

Pennsylvania’s experiment with Parenting Coordination for high-conflict custody disputes is over. The PA Supreme Court has declared all Parenting Coordination orders and programs vacated, effective May 23, 2013. Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1915.11-1 was adopted April 23, 2013, effective May 23, 2013. The language of the new rule is as follows:

Only judges may make decisions in child custody cases. Masters and hearing officers may make recommendations to the court. Courts shall not appoint any other individual to make decisions or recommendations or alter a custody order in child custody cases. Any order appointing a parenting coordinator shall be deemed vacated on the date this rule becomes effective. Local rules and administrative orders authorizing the appointment of parenting coordinators also shall be deemed vacated on the date this rule becomes effective.

Everyone sort of knew this was coming after the Superior Court’s opinion in A. H. v. C.M., 2012 PA Super 277 (pdf), in which the Court made it clear that there is a right to a de novo hearing on any decision made by a Parenting Coordinator. The issue in A.H. v. C.M. was whether a party has a due process right to de novo review (like new; a judge looks at the question without consideration of what happened before) and what that review should involve. In this case, Mother appealed the Trial Court’s decision to affirme the Parenting Coordinator’s decision without conducting a hearing. The Superior Court found this to be inappropriate.

Parenting Coordinators are a relatively recent creation, intended to help the parents in a high-conflict custody case reach decisions on issues that don’t necessarily warrant involving attorneys and the court. Always an uncomfortable cross between judges and mediators, they were a tool available when a court felt overwhelmed by the parties in the case and, rather than award full custody to one parent and cut the other parent out completely, the case would be referred to a Parenting Coordinator. The goal was lofty: get the parents talking, save them money, and (hopefully) resolve disputes without the involvement of the court.

If you are a parent who was successfully working with a Parenting Coordinator, this may come as a blow. You probably have lots of questions. Do you need to go back to court? What happens to orders already put in place? You should talk to a child custody attorney as soon as possible to understand where this leaves you. Attorney Justin P. Miller in Bellefonte understands the issues facing parents in high-conflict custody disputes.

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