Parenting Time: Derek and Megan Pursue Child Focused Mediation

nj divorce mediation child and parenting issuesLast month we discussed the predicament of Alan and Cherie, a couple who took their parenting dispute to court. Each of them hired a separate child custody evaluator, and while neither parent was dissatisfied with the ultimate result, both were highly dissatisfied with the level of conflict involved and with both the complexity and the high cost of the procedures. Today, we will look at another couple with a parenting dispute who have decided to take a different approach. While this couple is fictional, their story tracks the composite experiences of many people going through a divorce with children.

Megan and Derek wish to reduce both the conflict in their family and the cost of their divorce. They are already in mediation to resolve a dispute regarding division of their dental practice, but they have had few discussions about child custody and visitation. Megan recently moved out of the townhouse they purchased together during their marriage. She is temporarily staying at her parents’ house a couple of miles away. The children are there with her a little more than half the time. Both parents told their mediator, Evan Murphy, that they would like to be the primary parent. Both also stated emphatically that they wanted to be sure to do what would be best for the kids. They asked the mediator for advice on how to proceed.

Using a Child Specialist in Mediation

Mr. Murphy suggested that Derek and Megan consider hiring a joint child specialist. The specialist would provide them with information and guidance and help ensure that the needs and interests of the children stayed at the forefront during parenting negotiations. Mr. Murphy also shared some information about “child focused mediation” (CF) and “child inclusive mediation” (CI). As we discussed in an earlier post, these are approaches that facilitate cooperative parenting agreements. In both CF and CI, a child consultant provides parents with age-specific information about the effects of divorce on children.  A CI consultant goes a step further, by also interviewing the children before meeting with the parents and the mediator.

Research has shown that both CF and CI appear to reduce post-resolution conflict between parents. CI may produce superior results, but it cannot be effectively utilized with very young children. While Derek and Megan’s 5-year-old daughter Ally is close to the age where CI might be appropriate, 3-year-old Jessie is definitely too young. The parents therefore decided to pursue a CF approach and to include a child specialist in one mediation session. They eventually agreed upon Dr. Marielle Chevalier, a licensed family therapist and child development specialist with extensive experience assisting reorganizing families with parenting plans.

The Child Specialist’s Educational Role

Dr. Chevalier purposefully engaged Megan and Derek in their parental roles, by addressing them as “Mom” and “Dad.” She began the session by providing them with some educational materials geared to the social and emotional developmental needs of preschool and young school age children, as well as some more general information about the impact of parental conflict on children’s emotional health and social development.

“Younger children generally bond better with both parents if the gaps between visits are shorter,” she told them. “This tends to be true regardless of the total amount of time spent with each parent. Once children are about Jessie’s age, most already have a close bond with each parent, and the majority can adapt to schedules with three day or four day gaps. Schedules requiring longer gaps, however, such as alternating weekends or alternating weeks, should, if possible, wait until a child is closer to five or six years old.”

“Parents with young children,” Dr. Chevalier continued, “often build planned adjustments into the parenting schedule to accommodate anticipated developments. In general, however, children respond well to predictable and clear schedules, and to home environments that allow them some leeway in creating their own “space.” With that in mind, it’s important to consider things like ease of travel between homes, and whether or not any particular time-sharing arrangement might affect the need for duplication of items. The overall goal is to create a schedule that is easy to follow and works well for all members of the family. Always view yourselves as a team with a mutual commitment to the success of your children.”

Focusing on the Unique Characteristics of the Children and the Family

Dr. Chevalier then wrote Ally’s and Jessie’s names on a whiteboard and asked both parents to list important facts and circumstances about each child, such as personality, age, stage of development, and preferred activities. She asked Derek and Megan how they were currently addressing these circumstances, and how they had parented each child historically. Then she invited each of them to comment on what they thought was working and what might be improved.

Both parents agreed that Megan had been a slightly more hands-on parent than Derek, but they also agreed that Derek had been fully involved. They told the mediator that they had a full-time nanny who had been with the family since Ally was a year old. They were unsure whether or not they would still be able to afford her after the divorce. Megan stated that if Derek bought her out of the dental practice as he was hoping to do, she was thinking about working part-time until the kids were both in school full-time. If Derek agreed to this, she said, it would only make sense for her to have more parenting time. Derek pointed out that she didn’t know what kind of part-time schedule she might be able to get. He also added that he was not willing to settle for the role of a “weekend dad.”

Incorporating Aspirational and Collaborative Language into Parenting Agreements

After discussing the general and specific needs of the children, Dr. Chevalier shared some model parenting agreements with Derek and Megan. These all, in some way, incorporated aspirational language about co-parenting. They also included provisions addressing communication between parents and other aspects of the parent-child relationships. Examples included:

  • Agreements to avoid negative comments and criticism of each other in the presence or hearing of the children;
  • Guidelines for respectful communication, including specifying preferred methods (e.g., email, phone calls, or texts) and agreeing not to send messages via the children;
  • Agreements to facilitate communication between both parents and the children, while also respecting each other’s private time (e.g., an agreement that the child will have up to a 30 minute scheduled Skype call each evening with the parent who is not physically present);
  • Agreements to minimize changes to the time-sharing schedule while also remaining flexible whenever possible;
  • Establishment of a method for resolving future disputes (e.g., an agreement to mediate intractable disagreements);
  • Agreements to facilitate transitions between homes by addressing children’s needs and remaining positive about the two home arrangement;

Creating Clear and Flexible Parenting Plans

At the end of the session, Dr. Chevalier urged Megan and Derek to each come up with a parenting proposal. They could then use these to negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement. She recommended a highly structured plan for a test period. After 6-12 months, they could make any necessary adjustments. “As parents grow more comfortable with a plan,” she added, “flexibility and collaboration often tend to increase naturally.”

“Unexpected things always come up,” she cautioned, “and children’s needs change naturally over time. While thinking about possibilities like relocation or remarriage ahead of time might not be pleasant, these things are more likely when parents separate while their children are very young. Including a process for confronting such circumstances should they arise can help fend off emotional upheaval down the road.”

Megan and Derek submitted surprisingly similar proposals. They eventually agreed to follow a plan that closely duplicated their current and historical levels of parental involvement. Megan would have the children for four days a week and Derek for three. They also agreed that Megan working part-time until Jessie was in kindergarten would be positive for the kids and would eliminate the need for a full-time nanny. If Megan did establish a part-time work schedule, they would revisit the parenting schedule to be sure that her time off and her parenting time matched up as closely as possible. They also agreed to return to mediation if they ran into intractable issues with the schedule.

Megan and Derek were both highly satisfied with their ultimate result. They were also thrilled with the time and cost effectiveness of the procedural path that had led them there.

The mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help you design an appropriate and effective parenting mediation process. Contact us today for a free consultation. 

 

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Parenting Time: Derek and Megan Pursue Child Focused Mediation

Parenting Time: Alan and Cherie Go to Court

Today we are going to look more closely at Alan and Cherie, a couple we introduced in our last post.[i] Alan, a 45-year-old executive for a fast food restaurant chain, and Cherie, a 43-year-old small business owner, have decided to end their 15-year-marriage. They separated about 6 months ago when Alan moved out of the family home and into a separate apartment. Alan and Cherie are currently involved in a parenting time dispute regarding 11-year-old Alexis and 9-year-old Mike.

For the first few months after the separation, Alan saw the children on alternate Friday and Saturday nights. Now that the divorce is becoming a reality, however, he has decided to fight for equal parenting time. Cherie, who has always maintained a flexible work schedule and acted as the primary parent, does not believe that Alan can realistically accommodate the children for any additional time. She points out that he is living in a one-bedroom apartment, and that he has always worked long hours, often twelve hours a day. Alan’s response is that he is looking into getting a larger home, as well as either cutting back his hours or working from home once or twice a week.

Cherie reacts to Alan’s ideas with high anxiety. She believes he has no idea how much attention children actually require, and she honestly doubts his ability to put their children first. If Alan persists with his plans, she foresees a nightmare scenario. The children would be largely unattended during Alan’s parenting time. Meanwhile, Alan would simultaneously lose income and spend more money on his own living expenses. “Things are working smoothly now,” she tells him. “Why rock the boat?”

Alan decides to consult with a child custody attorney, Rhoda Blankenship. Ms. Blankenship tells him that in light of his historical parenting role, equal time will be a stretch, but he can almost certainly get more time than he currently has. “Your wife is being unreasonable,” she states.

Upon hearing that Alan has hired an attorney, Cherie also seeks legal representation. She hires child custody attorney Jake Ballan. Mr. Ballan tells her essentially the same thing Ms. Blankenship has told Alan, with one key difference: “Your husband is being unreasonable,” he says.

The parents proceed to court-ordered parenting mediation, but neither budges significantly from their original positions. Both Ms. Blankenship and Mr. Ballan have reputations for being aggressive, and neither attorney dissuades their client from pursuing court action as the next step. Upon attorney advice, Alan and Cherie obtain separate custody evaluations from child specialists. Eventually, the court holds a hearing to determine the best arrangement for Mike and Alexis. The custody evaluators present written reports and testimony. Alan and Cherie also testify extensively.

The Child Custody Evaluations

Cherie’s Child Specialist

Cherie’s expert, psychologist Mary Hale, interviewed both parents several times at her office, both individually, and with Alexis and Mike. Dr. Hale also made observational home visits and interviewed Cherie’s parents, who have always spent a lot of  time with the children. In her written report and testimony, Dr. Hale focused on Cherie’s primary parenting role, noting that Alan, by way of contrast, had largely been an absentee parent. Dr. Hale also remarked, however, on Alan’s commitment to making changes. While her  recommendation was that the current alternate weekend schedule stay in place, she also stated that a midweek dinner for Alan and the children would be a positive addition. She also suggested that the parenting schedule incorporate brief evening Skype calls between Alan and the children.

Alan’s Child Specialist

Alan’s expert, psychologist James Wright, also conducted home visits and office interviews of each parent, both separately and with the children. In addition, he evaluated each parent with multiple psychometric testing, including the MMPI-2, which focuses on personality and behavior. He also reviewed school and medical records provided by both parents, and telephonically interviewed several relatives and caregivers.

In his report and court testimony, Dr. Wright readily acknowledged that Cherie had been the primary parent during the marriage. He went on, however, to list various accommodations Alan had already made that would help him become a more involved father going forward. For example, Alan had successfully adjusted his schedule to allow him to work from home on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. He had also made plans to move into a larger apartment. Dr. Wright stressed Alan’s commitment to living no more than a few miles away from Cherie, in spite of the challenge posed by the high rents in that area. This showed, Dr. Wright believed, that Alan understood the importance of making it easy for the kids to travel back and forth between homes.

Dr. Wright recommended extending Alan’s alternate weekends from Fridays after school until Monday morning drop-offs. He also recommended that Alan pick up the kids from school every Wednesday and keep them overnight until Thursday mornings. Finally, he echoed Dr. Hale’s suggestion about incorporating Skype calls into the schedule.

The Court’s Findings and Conclusions

At the conclusion of the court hearing, the judge made findings of fact on each element of the child custody statute, N.J.S.A. § 9:2-4. The findings reflected his acceptance of all testimony and written reports regarding both Cherie’s historical role as primary parent and Alan’s recent substantial efforts to become a more involved father. The judge then noted that the child custody statute encourages frequent and continuing contact between children and both parents, and also supports parenting arrangements that encourage both parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of child rearing. The schedule proposed by Dr. Wright, the judge concluded, appeared to be more in keeping with this philosophy. The judge ordered the parents to immediately implement Dr. Wright’s schedule. They were free to modify the schedule by mutual agreement as it pertained to pick up and drop off times or specific dates, but neither of them was to change the split of parenting time without a written agreement signed by both parties, or a court order to the contrary.

Alan and Cherie Reflect on Their Results

While Alan was reasonably satisfied with the parenting schedule ordered by the court, he was appalled that he had ended up paying over $40,000 in fees to his attorney and his child custody evaluator. Cherie was even more appalled. She too had come away with astronomical fees, and her own custody expert had recommended that Alan have more time than Cherie thought was reasonable. She complained bitterly to her attorney about this result. Eventually however, she realized that Mr. Ballan had told her from the very beginning that Alan was likely to end up with more time. Cherie reflected that perhaps the result was fair after all. Alan had not received equal time, just a chance to become more involved and prove himself as a father. Cherie felt both frustrated and rather foolish. The result was in between the positions each of them had staked out originally. Why had they not been able to negotiate to the same place without spending all that money?

There is usually a better alternative than a contentious court battle to resolve a parenting dispute. Mediation is one of those alternatives, and there are flexible options available within the mediation process. In our next post, we will see how Megan and Derek approach their parenting dispute.

If you are considering using private mediation to resolve your parenting disputes, the talented mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help you negotiate a fair solution and stay out of court. Contact us today for a free consultation. 

 

[i] The couple in this story is fictional. The fact patterns and court findings and conclusions are hypothetical composites drawn from several actual cases.

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on Parenting Time: Alan and Cherie Go to Court

Resolving Parenting Disputes in Mediation: Three Families Consider the Options

In our last post, we discussed the documented benefits of child-focused mediation and child-inclusive mediation in divorce. In our next few posts, we will present the stories of three divorcing couples, each of whom decides to approach their parenting disputes in different ways. These families are fictional, but their stories are derived from various real life scenarios. One family will go through a court process, one will go through mediation with a child-focused approach, and the third will go through child-inclusive mediation. Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on Resolving Parenting Disputes in Mediation: Three Families Consider the Options

Keeping the Focus on Children in Parenting Mediation

If you are a parent embroiled in a disagreement about post-divorce custody or parenting time, you may be wondering how to get out of the conflict loop. Perhaps an attorney has told you that it is important to take a child focused approach. You may also have learned that the law allows children to have some input into which parent they would rather live with, if the child is old enough and mature enough to reach an intelligent decision. But how much input? And how old is old enough? Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on Keeping the Focus on Children in Parenting Mediation

Thinking of Divorce Mediation in 2018? Get Ready…Get Set…Go!

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year to finally move ahead with your divorce? Sometimes couples decide to separate but then find themselves stymied about exactly how to proceed. Even after a New Year’s resolution, daily life has a way of intervening. If you are stuck wondering how to begin the divorce process, consider beginning with mediation. Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Thinking of Divorce Mediation in 2018? Get Ready…Get Set…Go!

Using Post-Judgment Mediation to Modify Parenting Agreements

Many parents successfully launch a plan for sharing time with children after divorce, only to find that the plan blows up a few years later. Children grow older, parents may change jobs or careers, some remarry, some move away. Sometimes rifts that have been slowly expanding for months or years threaten to become full blown chasms around the holidays. This can put further stress on families who are already coping with increased pressure. Post-judgment mediation of parenting issues can help these families get back on track. Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Using Post-Judgment Mediation to Modify Parenting Agreements

Thankfulness and Mediation

If you are going through a divorce, especially now as the holidays are arriving, you may be finding it difficult to cultivate thankfulness. Even under the best of circumstances, divorce is stressful. The holiday season can actually make some people feel worse, because of the high expectations that this should be a happy and festive time of year. Still, if you have agreed with your spouse to use a collaborative method like divorce mediation to restructure your family, you do indeed have at least one thing to be grateful for. Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on Thankfulness and Mediation

Interest-Based Negotiations: Mark and Kathleen Discuss Rehabilitative Alimony

divorce mediation tipsLast month we talked about “win-win” negotiations in divorce mediation. As we discussed, the key to win-win negotiating is accurately identifying the interest, or interests, behind each position or demand. Identifying interests can be tricky though. It requires looking at things from someone else’s perspective. Whenever you reach an impasse in negotiations, it can be helpful to ask yourself if you are making assumptions based on your own ideas. If so, stop and listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on Interest-Based Negotiations: Mark and Kathleen Discuss Rehabilitative Alimony

“Win-Win” Negotiations in Divorce Mediation

One of the first things you may hear as a couple interested in divorce mediation is that the process offers “win-win” solutions. Many people find this description confusing. What is a win-win solution? How can we possibly both win when our interests are so divergent? We both want the house, we both want custody of the kids, one of us wants alimony and the other doesn’t want to pay it… Clearly someone has to lose! Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on “Win-Win” Negotiations in Divorce Mediation

Marriage Counseling and Divorce Mediation

Over the past few months, we have been following the stories of three couples considering divorce mediation. Two of them, Gerry and Beth and Katherine and Julian, decided that they wanted to pursue marriage counseling first. Today we are taking a closer look at marriage counseling. When is it appropriate? How is it different from mediation? Is there such a thing as “divorce counseling?” Many people find themselves confused by a variety of options that all sound somewhat similar. Continue reading

Posted in Mediation | Tagged , | Comments Off on Marriage Counseling and Divorce Mediation