Cohen in the News
Reprinted with permission
Bucks County Courier Times
October 14, 2007 Page: A1
Diffusing explosive family court battles
In cases where parents just can't agree, Bucks
judges can now call in a parenting coordinator to settle disputes.
BY LAURIE MASON
In the emotionally charged aftermath of divorce
or separation, parents sometimes find themselves locked in battle over
the stupidest things.
"My son wanted to go to skateboarding camp,"
said Jill, a divorced mom of two from Bristol. "It was on the same week
he was supposed to go with his father to my former in-laws' place
upstate for a family reunion. By the time we got done fighting over it,
he missed the camp and the picnic."
Jill, who asked her last name not be published,
got divorced five years ago and said things between her ex have
smoothed out with time.
Had she and her ex-husband been litigating their
custody dispute in Bucks County's family courts today, they might have
saved hours of stressful bickering with the help of a parent
These professionals - usually a psychologist or
attorney - have been available for some time, but a recent
recommendation by a statewide task force means they soon could be used
more frequently in Bucks.
Judges can appoint a parent coordinator in cases
where the parties have reached an impasse over major concerns, such as
what school a child should attend or whether they should have religious
Coordinators may be called in to intervene when
parents have returned to court repeatedly to thrash each other over
trivial issues, like whether a kid can eat fast food or how they should
dress for Halloween.
The coordinator meets with each parent
separately then makes a recommendation, which is binding in court. The
parents are billed for the coordinator's services, and may face
penalties for violating the ordered recommendation.
Dr. Steven Cohen, an Upper Southampton
psychologist and member of the statewide task force that set the
standards for Pennsylvania parent coordinators in 2006, said having a
neutral party step in can sometimes diffuse an explosive situation.
"You have situations in which the parents
become so invested in their anger toward each other that they can't see
past it,'' he said.
Which hurts everyone involved, Cohen said,
especially the children.
"Every researcher agrees that the less
conflict there is post-divorce, the better it is for a child. Anything
that reduces anger and conflict is going to help these kids."
County Judge Alan Rubenstein agreed. He has
appointed psychologists to consult in child custody cases that have
spiraled out of control.
"You have two people fighting over issues that
just get white hot with emotion, and they tend to forget that the issue
is not what's best for them, but what's in the best interest of the
child," Rubenstein said.
"Even the youngest child becomes aware that
mommy and daddy are going to court to fight, and it sends a terrible
message that, no matter what, mommy and daddy just can't figure out how
to get along."
A longtime prosecutor before taking the bench in
2000, Rubenstein said the nastiest court battles he's seen don't
involve criminals, but people who once loved each other.
"People are actually restrained in criminal
court. In family court, the issues are personal, so it can get very
emotional. They sometimes refuse to budge over the simplest issues. I
tell them that the court's job is not to micro-manage their life."
Although the concept of a parent coordinator is
fairly new in Pennsylvania, other states have been using variations of
the program for years.
About a dozen states, including North Carolina,
Texas and Vermont, have laws on the books mandating the use of
coordinators, and many states, including New Jersey, have rules that
give judges the power to bring in a neutral expert consultant in
divorce and child custody disputes.
Experts say the practice works best when the
angry exes don't have to deal with each other face to face. Cohen,
appointed as a coordinator in Bucks, Philadelphia and other local
areas, sometimes uses e-mail to communicate with parents. In some
states, online calendar programs allow parents to coordinate their
kids' schedules without ever having to talk.
Cohen, past president of the Philadelphia
Society of Clinical Psychologists and an expert on high-conflict
families, predicted the idea will catch on in Bucks.
"I have no doubt that this is a powerful tool
for judges who want to help families resolve conflicts," he said.
Jill, now remarried, still feels a twinge of
guilt when she recalls the acrimonious spats she and her ex-husband
had, sometimes with her son or daughter within earshot.
"I can't really explain it, but you get so angry
that, even when you know you're wrong, you just can't stop fighting.
There were times I wished someone would've stepped in and said
"enough.' I think we both needed that."
Laurie Mason can be reached at 215-949-4185 or