Dr. 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.


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Jill, who asked her last name not be published, got divorced five years ago and said things between her ex have smoothed out with time.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 coordinator.

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 training.

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 lmason_court@yahoo.com.



© 2006 All rights reserved. |  Last revised by R. Cohen on January 21, 2006.