May 2

Gail Petrich & Jennifer Lavin: Parenting Coordination in High Conflict Divorce

Episode Description

High conflict parents often fight over their kids throughout their divorce, and for years afterward.  They become "frequent flyers" in the court system, embroiling their kids in ongoing legal battles that drain both parents' resources and cause enormous anxiety for their children. 

Parenting coordinators are specially-trained divorce professionals who work with parents to resolve their conflicts quickly, efficiently and OUTSIDE of the court system.  Yet, because parenting coordination is so new in the world of family law, people often misunderstand what parenting coordination is, and who it can help.

In this episode Dr. Jennifer Lavin, and Dr. Gail Petrich both discuss their roles as parenting coordinators, and how they work with high conflict parents to decide their parenting issues and keep them out of court.

Show Notes

About Jennifer
Dr. Jennifer Lavin is the principal attorney of Jennifer L. Lavin, P.C. Jennifer focuses her practice exclusively on divorce and family law matters. Jennifer is a divorce and family law mediator in Cook County, and a fellow with the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois. She's also a court-appointed child representative guardian ad litem and parenting coordinator in Cook County. As a child of divorced parents, a former college professor, and a litigant in her own divorce, Jennifer has a unique understanding of, and approach to, the divorce process that provides a comprehensive education for her clients regarding how their family law matters stand to impact themselves and their children. 


Where to Connect with Jennifer
You can find Dr. Lavin on Facebook at Jennifer L. Lavin, PC, on LinkedIn at Dr. Jennifer Rexroat Lavin,  or on her website Lavin Family Law 


About Gail
Dr. Gail Petrich has been an attorney and a psychologist for over 25 years. She focuses her practice exclusively on divorce and family law matters. She has many years of experience as a litigator and guardian ad litem, a parenting coordinator, a mediator, a co-parenting coach, a custody evaluator, and a divorce coach in litigation, mediation and collaborative divorce. Dr. Petrich is also a Collaborative Law attorney and Collaborative child specialist, a co-parenting group class leader, and a family, individual, child and adolescent therapist. Dr. Petrich helps families stay out of court whenever possible. For families already embroiled in the court process, she helps reduce the conflict so there's less harm to children. Families, even those who are in litigation, can learn as much about communication and negotiation as possible to take their conflict out of court. 


Where to Connect with Gail
You can find Dr. Petrich on LinkedIn at Dr. Gail Petrich and on her website Gail Petrich

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How Parenting Co-Ordination Works in High Conflict Divorce


parenting, parenting coordinator, child, court, conflict, gail, recommendation, attorney, people, jennifer, judge, confidentiality, divorce, cases, kids, haircut, appointed, cook county, guardian ad litem, decisions


Gail Petrich, Jennifer Lavin and Karen Covy

Karen Covy  00:10

Hello, and welcome to Off the Fence, a podcast where we deconstruct difficult decision making, so we can discover what keeps us stuck, and more importantly, how we can get unstuck and start making even tough decisions with confidence.

I'm your host, Karen Covy, a former divorce lawyer, mediator and arbitrator turned coach, author and entrepreneur.

With me today are two amazing guests. I am so excited to have this episode here today. It's a very, very special show. In today's show, we're going to talk about something that's relatively new in the world of family law and divorce. Because of that, it's often misunderstood. And that's why I am so excited to have us here and have these amazing guests here to talk about parenting coordination.

Now, joining me today to talk about parenting coordination is Dr. Gail Petrich and Dr. Jennifer Lavin. And if you'll excuse me, I'm going to have to read their introductions in their bios, which are just a tiny, tiny fraction of all of the things that these amazing women have done.

So, Dr. Jennifer Lavin is the principal attorney of Jennifer L. Lavin, P.C. Jennifer focuses her practice exclusively on divorce and family law matters. Jennifer is a divorce and family law mediator in Cook County, and a fellow with the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois. She's also a court appointed child representative guardian ad litem and parenting coordinator in Cook County. As a child of divorced parents of former college professor and a litigant in her own divorce, Jennifer has a unique understanding of and approach to the divorce process that provides a comprehensive education for her clients regarding how their family law matters stand to impact themselves and their children.

Dr. Gail Petrich has been an attorney and psychologist for over 25 years. She focuses her practice exclusively on divorce and family law matters. She has many years of experience as a litigator and guardian ad litem, a parenting coordinator, a mediator, a co-parenting coach, a custody evaluator, a divorce coach in litigation, mediation and collaborative divorce. A collaborative law attorney and collaborative child specialist, a co-parenting group class leader, and a therapist both family, individual, child and adolescent. Gail helps families stay out of court whenever possible. For families already embroiled in the court process, she helps reduce the conflict so there's less harm to children. Families, even those who are in litigation, can learn as much about communication and negotiation as possible to take their conflict out of court.

Gail and Jennifer, thank you so much for agreeing to be on the show.

Jennifer Lavin:

Thanks for having us.

Karen Covy:

Now, ladies, I want to start by diving in right into the meat of what we're talking about today, which is parenting coordination. This is something that's relatively new, and there's a lot of misconceptions about what it is and what it's not. So, Jennifer, would you like to start by just explaining what is parenting coordination?


Jennifer Lavin:

Well, I'm certainly happy for Gail to chime in too, because Gail has been doing this longer than I have even. So, ultimately, I'm happy to start us off, but it's not exclusively my domain either to comment on this definition. I think one of the things to think about and to use Gail's term, and I know it's yours, Gail. So, I'm going to say it with credit to you because it's mediation with teeth, is what Gail talks about. That's where I've also stolen that fair and square because it really is true. At least in Cook County, the way that the local rule is written is that you do have to be a mediator in family law matters to even be a parenting coordinator. So, that's the first qualification that you have to have.

So, we have to have that facilitation and neutrality and ultimately, alternative dispute resolution training and background anyway. But then the part that's the teeth part is that we also help parents beyond just trying to help you figure out your own agreements and dispute resolution, because we can be prescriptive about that within our authority to actually make recommendations to resolve your conflict, where you have an issue with the implementation, the interpretation of your parenting plan, as it pertains to the parenting time, as it pertains to who's going to make decisions on certain things. Because this is where people get tripped up a lot in family law matters. They have this document. They may not have read it for however long, but now they're in trouble because they have a disagreement about something. They don't understand it because they don't have the legal knowledge to be able to interpret it themselves. They might need some help with that. So, enter us in terms of the parenting coordinators to be the sort of backstop before they then have to go to court to litigate again. And we are the ones who are the resource put in place, specifically, because these are typically high conflict cases to some extent. We know that they're going to need help in the future. So, that resource is there as a preventative measure to hopefully avoid the need for them to come back to court in the future. And so, we are the stop gap, if you will, between them and going back to court.

And within that, there's a lot of different things we can talk about what that authority consists of. But in principle, that's what we're there for.

Karen Covy  05:30

Awesome. Thank you. Gail, do you have anything to add?


Gail Petrich

Yeah, I would add that we are actually training them new ways of communication, new conflict resolution skills. I tell my clients, it's my job to work myself out of a job. If I can train you to do the right thing in making agreements for your children, you don't need me anymore. And I love to cut you lose and stop paying my bill whenever you're ready, let me know. Sometimes I actually end up referring them to a very skilled family therapist where they go over there and pre-process the issues, and then come back to my office. And if they can't reach an agreement, then I make a recommendation to the judge. And we go on from there. So, it's both coaching and learning and educating. And then it's also interpreting and following through on the parenting agreement.

I want to say one other thing that we do with the parenting agreement. We help them prioritize a lot. So, my favorite line in that regard is, is that the hill you want to die on? Okay. I don't think so. I think we could pick another thing that more represents what it is we're trying to do here. And maybe some of the other things will fall into place later if we can get ourselves back to a more positive approach to how we're doing this. So, if I'm

Karen Covy  07:06

So, if I’m hearing the two of you well, parent coordination or parenting coordination is used for couples that can't agree on parenting issues themselves between themselves. And Jennifer, to your point, the parenting coordinator is the person that's inserted in between the parents and the court system. So, you tell me if I'm getting this right, you're either making decisions that hold for the parents until they can get to a judge, or you're making decisions? A lot of people think you're making judicial decisions in the place of a judge, can you speak to that either one of you?


Jennifer Lavin

Gail, please feel free to chime in again. So, the local rule in Cook County specifically gives certain authority in terms of what we can do. But most importantly, it also talks about what we can't do. So, one of the things that we talk about are sort of the more day-to-day kinds of issues that parents have in terms of are we going to trade parenting time on Friday? Are we going to be able to have a transportation shift for one of our days, because we might need to have a change up in our schedules? These are the short run issues that parents often have. And we don't want to have to go back and litigate. Quite frankly, pragmatically, you can't wait to litigate because ultimately, it's too much too soon. And you need an answer right away typically for these things. So, you wouldn't even be able to get to mediation usually, because you're talking about some of the things that are happening right now in this family's life and they need help with it right now. They can't wait for the judge. They can't wait for mediation. They need help today.

So, that's one of the things where we talk about the more sort of day-to-day operational things that happened to parents. I cannot, as a parenting coordinator in Cook County, make recommendations that would permanently alter their parenting plan as it pertains to decision making or parenting time. That is a judicial authority. That is the judicial province we're talking about. That would have to mean either by agreement, or by the court's order, your parenting plan gets modified, not because of what the parenting coordinator says. So, that part is out of bounds.

Karen Covy:

Okay. Gail, anything to contribute?


Gail Petrich

I always remind my clients that this is a non-confidential process, even though they're coming to a lawyer and a psychologist where there usually is some confidentiality, not here. So, it's almost as if I read them the Miranda warning when they walk in the door. Anything you say can and may be used against you in a court of law. It doesn't necessarily stop the conflict, but it's a warning to them, that this information could make its way back to the judge and I need you to know that right up front. Okay? We also have quasi-judicial immunity, which is a really important feature in doing this work. That means that the clients can't sue us. That doesn't mean that they can't bring licensing board complaints against us. But they cannot sue us in a court of law, which is a major protection for us. And the fact that we have a court order that protects us, I do believe works well.

Now, when we talk to other people about these matters. So, for example, well, if I'm going to go talk to the judge about it, then I need a court order to talk to the judge. Because many times, there's information that we're receiving that could be construed as private health information, mental health information, we need a release to talk to anybody about this stuff. So, that's really, really important to keep in mind.

But our Cook County rule allows us to talk to virtually anybody like the school social worker, kids’ therapists, grandparents, nannies. Nannies are a wonderful source of information. Teachers, especially if there's academic issues, or if a child has autism, or sometimes we're making a school choice. Doctors, if the child has either health conditions or mental health conditions, it leaves it wide open. In fact, I have in times past brought the expert on to our Zoom screen. Okay. So, for example, I one time brought a pediatric neuro psychiatrist on. So, both parents were there, I was there, and she was there. And we asked specific questions about how to proceed with this child and got very specific answers. And then we excused her, and we did our own agreement based on what happened. But that way, there's no misconstruing any data. And we feel like we've got the basis.

I've done that with a reading specialist. I've done it with autism specialist. There's just a lot. Neuropsychologist, they're great to bring on. Because parents have a hard time understanding what exactly those tests mean. If they hear it straight from the professional, who did the evaluation, they accept it better. And frankly, it's coming from a neutral person, which is what can very often break the tie. And that's what's important to remember in all of what we do.

Karen Covy  12:30

So, it sounds like, let's say, hypothetically speaking, that one of you is appointed as a parenting coordinator in a particular case, the reason you would be appointed is because there are parents who can't agree on anything regarding their children, or at least a lot of things, right? And so, let's say they have a dispute about Gail, you mentioned school, like maybe what school a child was supposed to go to, or what course a child is going to take or something education related. It sounds like you have the authority, then if parent A says, “I want this school.” Parent B says, “No, I want a different school or a different class,” or whatever it is that they're arguing about, that you can come in, and you're almost mediating between them and bringing in, like you said, outside experts, am I getting it?


Gail Petrich

Yes, absolutely. That school choice might be one that I would be reluctant to make a recommendation on because I think it would be too important. But what I might do instead is bring in a consultant who specializes in school choice. Okay. And I have several people. And providing parents resources is a huge part of what we do. We bring in anybody who can be a tiebreaker.

So, for example, I have a woman who she does a little bit of testing with the kids, looks at their schedule, and actually observes both schools that they're deciding between and determines which might be more appropriate for the child. And that's a wonderful resource. So, anytime we can bring in an outside expert. And the fact that we're using someone informally in that way is very different from having to bring that person into court with a forensic evaluation, and all the depositions and the testimony and all the things that would have otherwise happen. But we're still getting the same good solid information so that parents can make the decision themselves.

Karen Covy  14:35

So, it sounds like you're bringing things outside of the court system to maybe calm down the conflict, if I'm getting this right, and have people, have parents work out their disputes on a more human level. Is that a fair assessment?

Gail Petrich

And a more creative level.

Karen Covy

There we go.


Gail Petrich

I don't mean to be offensive in saying this, but a person in a black robe should not be deciding what what's happening for their children. The parents know them the best. If I can get some reasonableness out of both parents who really love their children, then I believe they will do the right thing. And we'll try to cooperate for a good decision. And that's as important to what we do as making the recommendations and breaking the tie.

Karen Covy  15:32

That makes sense. Jennifer, I know that a lot of the decisions that you're faced with, and Gail too, as parenting coordinators are not so huge. I think you mentioned like, who picks up a child after school or there's a schedule change or something like that. Can you speak to what you do in those situations? What kinds of conflicts come to you? And then how do you resolve them for parents?


Jennifer Lavin

Well, I sort of half-jokingly say that parenting coordination, I feel like I'm a referee. I just need a striped shirt and a whistle. Because half the time it's really that simple. I am calling balls and strikes. I'm usually figuring out which parent is wrong about their interpretation of what the rule is, and calling that parent out to say, “No, you may not do this, because this is what your document says, and this is what you're proposing to do. And those two things don't go together in terms of. Unless there's an agreement to the holiday schedule change, you may not decide unilaterally to bring the child home two hours late.” This is something that happens prospectively, because maybe there's been a threat to do something, or it happens after the fact where because already something has happened. People are coming to me to say, “Jennifer, this parent did this, this parent did that. And it's out of bounds. What do you think?” And so, I usually have to make a recommendation going forward in those circumstances, because somebody's already done something. And then they come to me with that issue.

Sometimes it is perspective, because parent says, “This is what I want to do for holiday x down the line.” And they're already in conflict about it because somebody says, “But the document doesn't say that, or yes, it does.” And so, this is where I can sometimes catch it before we get there and say, “This is what you have to do. Because this is what your document says and what you're proposing parent A or B is not in line with that.” So that's usually about the parenting time.

But then we get into the minutia of who's going to take the child for a haircut? Who's going to do the XYZ and managerial stuff that happens? And sometimes these things do become they're not necessarily major decisions like the healthcare, education, religion, extracurriculars that parents are charged with, but it's the day-to-day managerial stuff, the operationalization, if you will, of how parents execute their lives as co-parents.

And so, we talk about who can sometimes do those things. Because if it's in your judgment or not, that has a lot to bear on what authority I have to make recommendations. Sometimes there are issues that are silent in an allocation judgment where I cannot then make a recommendation because you didn't contemplate it.

I just had this issue about a week or so ago, where parents were talking about exposure of a child to potentially even under controlled circumstances to go into the gun range, being exposed to guns, what are we going to do about that? And I had to decline making a recommendation because there's nothing in your allocation judgment that says anything about this, and I cannot manufacture something that's not there.

Again, this is a judicial province, because either the judge has to modify your document to address this issue by a motion or a petition that's been brought before the court, or you all have to agree to it. And then it's an agreed order that your attorneys will draft to modify that document. I don't have the capacity to do that. So, those parents, I told recently, “You have to go back to your attorneys and litigate if you want. I can help you informally mediate if you want. But unless and until you agree, I can't make a recommendation.” So, we have runways and boundaries of our own that we have to navigate between.

Karen Covy  18:52

So, it sounds like your authority, if you will, is confined to what is already in the document that parents can't come to you with a whole new issue that no one has ever discussed before that they now don't agree on and say, “Here, you make a decision as to whether our child can go to the gun range or not.” Am I getting it?


Jennifer Lavin

Not exactly. Gail, I think you want to chime in on this one. And I'll follow up on what you're going to say because I know you want to say something.


Gail Petrich

I wanted to come back to the referee comment because we truly are referees but we are referees in a very stabilizing way. We have an ongoing relationship with them. And so, they know if they are having a terrible conflict out there that they could come to parenting coordination and solve it, even if it's not addressed in the parenting agreement. And that's really, really important. I get a lot of stuff that really doesn't have an answer. Frankly, many of the decisions that we make in family court have no legal significance and they have no on psychological significance, Thursday versus Friday. I don't think that has any. In fact, I forbid the use with some of my clients of the term best interests of the child. That means, “I'm doing what I want to do. And I call that the best interest because I'm the mom and I know what the best interests of my child are, right?”

But my point is, when we can reduce the conflict, give them a forum to come and have that conversation. It does become a stabilizing influence in everyone's life. I consistently have their child therapists coming back to me and saying, “Wow, this kid's anxiety has gone down. I'm glad to report to you because they're seeing less conflict in the house.” That's what Jennifer and I do for a living. And that's the main reason we do this. These kids end up with poor self-esteem, if they've seen a lot of conflict. They end up with a great deal of difficulty in relationships, if they've witnessed a lot of conflict. So, what we've got to do is take that conflict down to its bare minimum.

I ran into a judge recently. She said to me, “Oh, it's nice to meet you. I write your name in orders. It's nice to see you in person.” And I said, “Well, if I'm doing my job, you don't see these people anymore.” And I said, “I'm sort of afraid that you'll forget about us out here because I'm doing my job.” And she said, “Oh, do not worry. We do not forget.” That was very affirming. I was really glad to hear her say that, that they are acknowledging that when we can get the conflict down, the children do better and there's less court involvement. And that is success for us. Right, Jennifer?


Jennifer Lavin

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. Because usually these are the fringe issues, and the really minutia issues of the fine, fine, fine tuning of co-parenting that in many judges’ courtrooms are just annoying, because they don't have the time. They don't have the judicial resources to be spending on as I keep coming back to the haircuts. Let me just expand on that a little bit because I think it's a good example to talk about your question, Karen, in terms of, ‘Okay. If it's not in a judgment, you can't comment.’ Not exactly. Because ultimately, they don't talk about who's going to take the kid for haircuts in the allocation judgment every time, unless they've already had a problem with haircuts and they specifically know we're going to have an issue with haircuts. So, it's not always there. So, these things come up. But how do we resolve an issue like haircuts as a parenting coordinator? There are probably other parts of that document in terms of their parenting plan that cover this even peripherally, such that I can pull from that language and extrapolate it to a haircut. For example, when we talk about the parent in primary possession of the child is going to make the day-to-day decisions for what they do during their parenting time. Well, maybe that's if the kid needs a haircut, and they're with you on their parenting time right now, and they need it, then you're going to take the kid to get a haircut. And if it's next time, they need a haircut, and it's on mom's parenting time, then mom takes the kid for the haircut. These are the kinds of ways that you can resolve using the language that they already have to infer and extrapolate to other issues that may not explicitly be in the document. But you have the language to do it. And you have the language to make a recommendation with because it still covers the base. It may not be specific, literal verbiage that says, and so and so will take the child for haircuts. But you can use what's already there, because it's meant to be the authority and the blanket prescriptions for those kinds of things that we didn't forecast, but that come up anyway.

Karen Covy  23:50

That makes sense. I'm going to play devil's advocate with the two of you for a moment and say, this all sounds so good. Why doesn't everybody have a parenting coordinator?


Jennifer Lavin

Well, a lot of us don't do it, and I’ll tell you why. Because this is where people are going to be sometimes what I call the frequent fliers in your caseload. And they will be really, really using you a lot. Sometimes that's a deterrent to people. I have cases though, where I've never met anybody because they've never needed me. For whatever reason, I'm in their allocation judgment, and I find out about it. But at the same time, I haven't talked to them. I don't know them. They're a piece of paper to me right now, because I've never had an occasion for them to retain me and to meet me. But at the same time for the ones that are the high, high, high conflict. And Gail and I have those cases together even sometimes where I've referred people to Gail for co-parenting coaching, those are the ones who are going to be in your email, on your phone, on your Zooms all the time. They're just going to need you. And those are the ones for some attorneys, they would rather run for the hills than do this work. And so that's where we don't always have enough people to do this work to appoint them in every case. Typically, I think there's usually when there is a high, high, high conflict case, there will probably have been a child representative or a guardian ad litem already appointed. And this person already knows and maybe has already recommended, you're going to need a parenting coordinator, because we're not going to go a week without you both needing some help here. And so, we have to have a person appointed knowing already you're going need it. Who's that going to be?

It's not every case, because some cases, the usual process is they can go to mediation if they don't have an agreement on something. And for a lot of people, mediation is enough. But for the really, really high conflict, people who are going to need those short run issues all the time, that's I think a case that's right for a parenting coordinator. Gail, what do you think?


Gail Petrich

I think they think that we are expensive, but then when they get to us and realize there's only one of us, not one parent’s attorney, the other parent’s attorney and the GAL, one versus three, we can economize a little bit. Because by then they realized what a financial and emotional toll this whole divorce has caused on them. And that's how they often end up in our office at the end of a very long battle.

However, they also see us as maybe costing a little more money in the sense that we can recommend therapists and we can do other kinds of things. But I always talk to them about the better outcomes. So, for example, if I have a family who has several people in the family with mental health issues, I will recommend them all to therapists, but I will then put all those therapists on one Zoom, and say, “Guys, what are we going to do here? Let's row this boat the same direction.” So, that is a wonderful, wonderful resource, and therapists appreciate it so much. Because when you're in a high conflict situation, you're not sure who to talk to, the attorneys might bother you. And I have found that many therapy practices will be willing to work with these high conflict people when there's a parenting coordinator involved, because I can run interference between the attorneys and the therapists. They don't want to be questioned all the time. They don't want to be subpoenaed all the time. They don't want all of that stuff happening for them. And they just say, some practices say, “We won't work with divorce people for that reason.” And those kids need it worse than anybody. So, it's pretty sad.

I do believe that parents see that as an extra expense, but the outcome is so much better than what would be available with the same money in court. With the same amount of fees in court, you're not getting a whole comprehensive plan that moves the family into the next stage of their life.

Karen Covy  27:59

That makes sense. Both of you have mentioned things. Just because some people aren't clear on what the different roles are of the professionals on the team, what is the difference if you could speak to between guardian ad litem, an attorney for the child, a child representative in Illinois, and a parenting coordinator? I mean, we all know that each one of those is a separate and distinct job. If you could just speak to a little bit briefly, what are the differences? And why would somebody need one or more of those people on their team?


Jennifer Lavin

Gail, do you want to start?

Gail Petrich

Nope, go ahead.

Jennifer Lavin

Okay. So, I’ll all take it. The attorney for the child is more like a traditional attorney-client relationship. Right? There's attorney confidentiality, your client is the child. You are taking essentially, the position of advocating for your child client’s preferences in a way that I think this almost never happens. I haven't seen it. Gail, how much have you seen an attorney for the child appointed? Really probably never.

Gail Petrich

Well, I have seen some of them. In fact, I'm getting more with GAL and attorneys for the children, when the children are saying something other than what the GAL wants. And the judge doesn't know what to do with it. So, I'm seeing more of it. But you're right. It's rare.


Jennifer Lavin

It's rare. So, that is more of a traditional attorney-client relationship. Contrast that with a child representative guardian ad litem, there are differences in that particular role. But in combination, we are appointed in either capacity to advocate for the children's best interests. So, it's not what either parent wants, and we are not beholden to that at all. It's what is in the children's best interest is the standard.

Now, within that there are some nuances that are different and it's important to know. At least here in Illinois, the authority for the child representative is essentially you have confidentiality with your child client. You're supposed to protect that as much as you can. That doesn't mean that you never need to talk to adults about things on the case, though, because you still have to be able to communicate, you're trying to protect as much as you can, but it can't be a complete bar to telling the court because that's why you there. We try to protect confidentiality as much as we can about what the kids are saying. But we still have that possibility as a child representative.

In Illinois, we don't have any confidentiality as a guardian ad litem. So, anything you say, communicate with GAL about is fair game. It is completely transferable and ultimately, there's no confidentiality with anyone. But the both of those goals are the same is to advocate for the children's best interests.

A couple of other things that happen in terms of court, child representatives are supposed to write pretrial memoranda, guardians ad litem can write a full-blown report that then becomes evidentiary in a trial, for example. So, there are things that are different in terms of what we actually do and what the work product is that we do. But the goal is basically the same, child representatives are supposed to take positions and advocate in court for certain things for the kids. GALs make recommendations. Both of those things, though, are supposed to further the children's best interests.

Now, contrast that with a parenting coordinator, where we don't represent anybody. I don't have child clients, I don't have anybody in this case, I'm advocating for parent A, parent B, never. I'm a neutral. And there's no confidentiality with parenting coordinators, either. We are appointed by the court, though still to be able to hopefully help the family reduce the conflict, which also is in furtherance of the children's best interests, really, but we're not advocating specifically for the children. That still means though, we can meet the kids. I don't do it every time. I hardly ever do it really. But at the same time, I have met with the children, as a parenting coordinator once in a while where there are things that I really need to understand that maybe the only thing I can do about that is to get that information from the children. But in that sense, we are a neutral. We are not of course advocating for anybody, can't give legal advice. But we're there to again, as Gail said, reduce the conflict, which is a benefit for the kids even still, even though they're not technically our clients.


Gail Petrich

I'll add one thing to that. I love when there's a GAL on the case, particularly in some of the collar counties that do not have court rules for parenting coordination, because they'll appoint me in an order. But then when I make a recommendation, the judge is not sure what to do with that recommendation. Is this admitted into the record? Yes or no. What do I do with this recommendation? So, in some of though, if we're detecting that sort of resistance from a judge, I will just hand my recommendations to the GAL and let the GAL read them into the record. Very efficient way to get it done. Because then we again, are rowing the boat in the same direction, which is what we need to be doing for these kids.

I do believe that that is very important in some of these very, very, very difficult cases, where, for example, we have one parent who is a substance abuser, and we've got some drug screens showing up positive or breathalyzer with positive blows. We've got kids in resist refuse dynamic. I'm doing a lot of those cases, what we used to call alienation. Resist refuse cases where one of the children is, it's hard to define, I'll just give it a very simple definition where one or more of the children are refusing to see one of the parents for a reason that's not really very valid reason, by everybody standard. And so, the point is, we have to then have some very, very different mechanisms in place. But those are examples of cases where I ended up making recommendations for Step-Up parenting plans. What's happened is the child is either removed from one parent, or there's been some rocky relationships. And then if we write a Step-Up Parenting plan, like, today, we're doing this. Next week, we're increasing it to this, and then we're increasing it to this. If I can submit that as a recommendation to the judge, and the judge likes that kind of a plan, then it's self-effectuating really, because we have triggers right in the plan. And if there's a failure, you drop back to the earlier step. So, those are the kinds of things. And again, we're kind of on the cutting edge using some of that because judges aren't used to even six or four people putting Step Up plans in their evaluations. Let alone parenting coordinators doing it, right?

However, we have to be out there on the cutting edge to prove that we really do have value in this field in family law.

Karen Covy  34:51

That makes sense. Let me ask you this. Let's say I'm a litigant and a high conflict divorce. My spouse and I were getting divorce. We don't agree on anything with the kids. We're always fighting. We're the frequent fliers, as you put it, Jennifer. We're in court all the time, all the time. Should we decide or should I as a litigant push for a parenting coordinator to be appointed so that once our divorce is done and all the professionals go away, we still have some way to resolve issues regarding our children, or does this only apply when we're in court?


Jennifer Lavin

Well, it does have to be a court appointed person. So, somewhere along the way, and this is where judges can do this on their own motion. Sometimes there have been, I've seen motions for parenting coordinators brought by one side. But sometimes this is almost in my experience more commonly going to be after you've had that child representative, guardian ad litem come into the case. This is a person who's then charged to make recommendations, not just about your parenting plan, but also about resources to. As a guardian ad litem child representative, I recommend parenting coordinators a lot where I know, ‘Look, these parents can’t agree that it's Tuesday. They're going to need somebody and it's not going to be me. And who are we going to put in place?’ I actually, in some respects, I have actually, as a guardian ad litem then converted from a guardian ad litem to a parenting coordinator in cases where I stay on in that role. That's something that can happen, I think without the confidentiality piece, because there would be a conflict if you're a child representative and wanted to do that, because there is no confidentiality as a parenting coordinator. But that has happened for me in cases where I'm already familiar with the family and I already know everybody, because they've gotten to know me. We have a good rapport. They trust me. They know I've met their kids. They know I'm not just looking at people like they're pieces of paper. I know this family. And so sometimes they've elected to have me stay on, or the court asked me to stay on because they know they're going to need that conflict resolution. They don't want to have to come back to court, but they know I'm in place.

Sometimes just knowing keeps them out of my office, because ultimately, they don't necessarily need me all the time when they just have the reassurance, ‘Oh, we could talk to Jennifer again. It really will be okay.’ So that can happen too. Sometimes they don't need you as much because they know you're there.

Karen Covy  37:10

That's perfect. Gail, anything to add?


Gail Petrich

I do believe the fact that this is a non-confidential process can add a deterrent to negative behaviors. I think that they come into our meetings knowing that they really don't want anything going before the judge. And I think not all of them, but some of them, I'm getting many, many more orders that are by agreement of the parties, because they want some other alternative to going back to court. They see how destructive it's been for them emotionally and financially. And they're worried about their children. And they say, “We've got to try something different. But a mediator won't work.” Okay. So, by agreement of the parties, they're coming, and I think that's a really wonderful change. Because they are also looking for something more comprehensive than what the court can offer. I keep reminding people that we do do that. So, I have to talk to new significant others because there was a fight between grandpa and the new girlfriend. Seriously, people? Okay. Here we go. And I have to talk to both of them, because I can't have that in the presence of children, right?

I have people who have an order of protection between them. I put one in the breakout room and one in the Zoom, and then the other one in the breakout room and the other one on the Zoom. But when we're doing contemporaneous decision making, it is so much more effective than email or any other way that we could be making decisions. Because Mom says this, I've got to go get dad's reaction to it. And then dad's reaction comes back to Mom. It's just so much more efficient. But we just again have to be very, very creative and how we're approaching all of this.

I had one recently, where dad decided to marry his new significant other, and mom was very, very anxious, of course, about the kids. We sat on a PC Zoom meeting and scripted the conversation with the children. Because otherwise, it would have gone very badly from either parent's perspective and we just warn them, “These are the things if when they say this, you say this. And if the kids ask you this, then you answer this.” And so, just a lot of basic communication and basic parenting, but it has value to them because they aren't getting that anywhere else.

Karen Covy  39:55

It sounds like you're both there to help reduce the conflict between the parents. But at the end of the day, what you're really doing is helping the kids.

Jennifer Lavin

Absolutely true. That's the wonderful part about this. I may never have met your kids, but I know I'm helping your kids because of what we're doing. I think Gail probably feels the same way. Right?


Gail Petrich

Absolutely. I have one this this week where both neither parent would forego going to the college visit with their son, right? Okay. “You guys, you can't be in the same room. How are you going to do a college visit together?” Okay. Well, they determined they were going to do it. And we had some preliminary coaching about it. And you never know what's going to do this. And here's how you're going to stay out of each other's way. And you'll be on duty this time. We have to script a lot of perfectly ordinary behaviors. But their point was, ‘I need to help our son make this college decision. And if I don't go and hear the recruiter myself, how am I going to have that information?’ And it's right, it's correct. But we're enabling them to do something that they could not do on their own, for the sake of the child. And that kid's anxiety went down when the parents reported to him. Yeah, we've got a plan for how we're going to manage this.

Karen Covy  41:20

Yeah, that makes total sense. I mean, the kids have got to be so nervous, have huge anxiety, be really a mess, worried about what their parents are going to do. That's not I don't think what any parent wants to do to their child. So, the fact that the resource is there for parents to use is a beautiful thing.

Ladies, I can't thank you enough for this conversation. We could go on for hours, literally. But I want to be respectful of your time. So, let's just wrap it up with this. This last question, if you had one piece of advice that you could give to high conflict parents that would help them make decisions better on their own, what would it be?


 Jennifer Lavin

Gail, you can start, please.

Gail Petrich

I probably would say to them, please keep your children in the front of your mind before you launch into that horrible conflict that you were just about to embark on. Please keep your children in mind. Now, ultimately, it takes a lot of training to get them to a spot where they can hear that. But that would be my ultimate advice to them. How about you, Jennifer?


Jennifer Lavin

Well, I say it all the time and I wear different hats in families with kids. So, I've told parenting coordinator cases this, I've told child representative cases, I've told guardian ad litem cases, this too, but I think it's universally true. I tell parents all the time, ‘It is not whether you are going to co-parent about your children. It's a question of how you are going to co-parent and communicate regarding your children. It is not a question of whether you have to talk to each other, whether you have to make decisions together. Unless there's a reason for somebody to have sole decision making, you're going to do it together. So, the question is not whether, it's how. And how do you want to do that? Do you want to do it in a way where everything is nuclear war, and you can't even be in the same ZIP code as each other? Because ultimately, it is detrimental to your children because get to that college visit and then what's going to happen? You both can't go together maybe or you have to have a plan to go because it's so bad. And so, I think that this is important stuff and we're here to help with that.

Gail has the added benefit of also being a mental health professional to be able to have both skill sets. I don't have that background. I'm an attorney, but I'm not a mental health professional. So, I refer people to mental health professionals as well, to help with them with the communication piece, because they have to relearn new skills on this to get to the how because I can't necessarily do that part with them. Gail can and she does a great job. But for me the how question sometimes does mean we bring more people in, because I can't do it myself. I don't have the skill set to help them with that. But I do give that lecture a lot.

Karen Covy  44:07

I understand it. It sounds like what's hopeful about what you're both saying is, this is a skill. Parents can learn it. It's not just that you are born this way, and you can't communicate. Communication is a skill. And I think that if anyone wants to learn it with the right tools and the right guidance which you provide, they can.


Jennifer Lavin

Exactly. And I think even it's been born of some of the most difficult cases that I've had, I see it and I welcome it and it's never going to necessarily be that they don't need you at all. But when you start to see the decline, that's how I know we're making progress when it's become I was in your email every day to maybe now it's every week to maybe now it's every two weeks, one month. It's that weaning of you that they think that starts to happen when they need you less, maybe not never because you're still there but at the same time, the frequency of which they decline. I see progress. And for me, that's a victory too.

Karen Covy  45:03

That's awesome. Gail, you're laughing.


Gail Petrich

I am. I have clients I've had out there for 10 years. The child outgrew the age of minority during the course of our work. But again, like you say, I wasn't seeing them on a regular basis. I would see them maybe once a year. It's just nice to have someone there and helping them recreate sort of the legacy of their divorce. I think that's a really important thing to say to parents. What do you want the legacy of your divorce to be for your children to be talking about?

Karen Covy  45:43

Yeah. I think that's something that people don't think about in the heat of the moment but it's so important. Ladies, thank you again, for your time. Can you tell people where they can find you? Is the best place your website? Is it LinkedIn?


Jennifer Lavin

For me, it's my website. It's just


Gail Petrich

I'm about to change my website. But for now, that website will be fine. And it will connect you to the new one when it gets up.

Karen Covy  46:13

Awesome. We will, in the show notes, connect to both of you. So, if anyone's listening to this, they can just go to the show notes. They'll be able to reach you directly if they so desire.

So, ladies, thank you again. This has been very, very enlightening. And for those of you who are listening, if you liked what you heard, I encourage you give a thumbs up to the podcast, to this episode, subscribe, like. Everything matters. Everything helps. And we'll see you again next time. Thanks a lot.


divorce litigation, high conflict divorce, off the fence podcast, parenting after divorce

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  • Clearly you have no idea on co-parenting with a parent when even if the child needs a haircut ,will NOT even take the child for the needed haircut. He will send the child back to mom without the haircut and then mom carries the burden of the cost , arrangements or making a last minute emergency plan because the child needs it and the other parent does not care.

    • Coparenting with a person like you’ve described has got to be unbelievably difficult. Parenting coordination can help when parents can’t (or won’t) make decisions. But if one parent simply refuses to do what s/he agrees to do (or is supposed to do) parenting together becomes even more difficult.

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