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Surviving the Most Difficult of Separated Parents

May 12, 2017

I learned yesterday of yet another well regarded colleague who practiced Parenting Coordination who was sued by a disgruntled parent. He no longer provides this important service as a result.

For those who don’t know, the Parenting Coordinator helps separated parents resolve conflict regarding the care and decision making of their children.  The role has several functions including: educator; coach; problem solver; and mediator. Where those functions are unsuccessful in resolving the dispute, then the Parenting Coordinator may function as arbitrator – the final decision maker.  Parenting Coordination is a service provided to those separated parents whose issues over the care of their children is regarded as “high conflict”.

Features of a high conflict separation include: hardball litigators; court involvement; police involvement; child protection involvement; children frequently in crisis or presenting with mental health or behavioral issues as a result; cross allegations of parental alienation or mistreatment; spurious claims of untoward behavior; drug or alcohol abuse; and at least one person with a mental health disorder – usually a personality disorder either of the narcissistic type or borderline type.

At least one person drives the conflict, is unable to see or take responsibility for their own contribution to distress and projects all manner of blame upon the other parent or anyone else for that matter who they view as acting contrary to their wants. These persons are also referred to as possessing a “high conflict personality“.

Not all of the above features are seen in every case, but there is usually a constellation of those features.

Service providers are at risk when working with these parents as the service provider becomes the next target of blame when the one parent doesn’t get their way.

The service provider can be vilified, sued or complained against to licensing bodies. In fact, complaints in this context constitute the greatest number of complaints to licensing bodies.

Virtually all of my colleagues who have practiced extensively in this area have gone through some form of hell with such clients. I too have had to suffer the vicious attacks to my credibility and even livelihood by very disgruntled separated parents unsatisfied with not getting their way.

A report was written in 2009 by prominent practitioners in Ontario, Canada. It is entitled, Discussion Paper For Legal Reform Protecting The Integrity Of Family Law Litigation: Preventing Vexatious Complaints Against Assessors.  The report addresses the challenge of working with high conflict separated parents as it applies to custody and access assessments. The same is applicable to those who provide Parenting Coordination:

As a result, those who are willing and able to conduct these assessments are dwindling. This exodus of available and qualified assessors is a significant problem facing family law lawyers and the courts in Ontario and, most importantly, children and their families who are left at risk. Legal costs increase, families endure stressfully long wait-times and children suffer while their parents remain in tense custodial limbo due to excessive delays caused by a dearth in available assessors.

Even many of the authors of the report, all well respected lawyers, professors, academics and psychologists and social workers have been vilified, even for statements made in their report.

Sadly, there are limited protections for us who would provide these services. We cannot even so much as put clauses in our service contracts to limit a parent’s ability to sue or take us to our licensing body as odd as that may sound. As such, they can say whatever they want to whoever they want and indeed even band together to attack a common service provider by making common and contrived complaints to licensing bodies.

I can tell you that as a result of practicing in this area, when parents are engaged with us, even if there are these nasty things going on, the children do better during the period of our involvement. Court appearances are down, police involvement is down, child protection issues are down. However, at some point one parent gets frustrated when they no longer perceive themselves as “winning” or get angry when they are unable to truly trash the other parent during our period of involvement. Thus the service eventually breaks down. Not always, but on occasion.

This happens on occasion enough to make this service dangerous for the service provider. Hence we stop and when we stop, believe it or not, the agitating parent celebrates. But stop we must for our own sanity and safety.

Happily, my colleague won the case, but will not assume the risks of practicing in this area anymore. Similarly, I have withdrawn from this area of practice too.

If you are in a high conflict separation, my heart goes out to you and your children.

Even though I and many of my colleagues will not act in the capacity of parenting coordinator or like myself, will not provide services that may include our involvement at court, many of us still provide other services that are of value.

Perhaps the most notable service we can provide in this situation is the separation or divorce coach. In this capacity we can offer support and strategies to better manage and handle life tethered to a difficult person. We cannot make the person go away or magically turn a disturbing person into a gentle soul, but we may be able to help you cope better, assert a stronger boundary and disengage to some degree further from the often daily battles that ensue. Helping you cope and manage better not only helps you, but by extension your children too. It helps you bring a calmer and more balanced version of yourself to the care of your children.

Surround yourself with good and positive people and keep doing positive things in your life. Your personal survival is key for your children’s well being, just as mine is key and enabled by my concentration now on peacemaking activities and supporting parents be the best version of themselves.

We all must survive and living with or working with such challenging people can kill you or make you stronger. I have seen both happen. Choose to be stronger.

I know the people I serve appreciate it of me and your children will appreciate it of you.

Be strong in the face of adversity.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue. I am available in person and by Skype.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

  1. I understand your reasoning Gary. Thanks for doing this important work for as long as you have. May you continue to provide valuable services to the families in Ontario. I look forward to seeing you again in Boston at the AFCC Conference.

  2. joanie permalink

    Great blog – see you in Boston!

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