Updated: 01/10/2013 6:59 PM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer
Used to be that when a divorcing couple couldn't come to terms about parenting issues, the courts would step in. But today in Minnesota, more and more squabbling moms and dads are being assigned to what's known as "parenting consultants." They're supposed to be objective and impartial, and make rulings that are in the best interest of the child. Their decisions are usually legally-binding.
Problem is, many parents say they're simply making matters worse.
"Our whole marriage, every year he was threatening me with divorce," said Angela, a now-single Twin Cities mom who shares joint custody of her 8-year-old son with her ex-husband. She's asked 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS not to use her last name. "It was craziness," she said.
Angela's divorce was so bitter, it went to trial. She says she and her ex were at odds over virtually every parenting decision. A lot of the problems stemmed from scheduling. "The holiday schedule, the birthday schedule, you name it," Angela said. "We had the issue of 'You came to my house five minutes early, I don't want you coming to my house five minutes early'."
The courts recommended a parenting consultant, or "PC" for short. A PC is an independent contractor who helps develop a parenting plan to mediate disputes--everything from discipline and nutrition, to when, where and how parents will transfer their children to one another. (Finances and custody issues, however, are usually off limits.)
When every attempt at resolution fails, the PC takes control. At first glance, Angela said, "It looked like a good idea." In fact, Angela says her PC has successfully settled several feuds with her ex. "She ruled my son can go to a certain day care, that he should participate in field trips at day care."
Because family courts are increasingly understaffed and overburdened, between five and ten percent of all divorced couples in Minnesota now use parenting consultants.
Dr. Karen Irvin helped create the PC program in Minnesota in the mid-1990s. "I have made decisions about orthodontia," she said, citing off a long list of other issues that come up between parents who remain at loggerheads. "They are too wedded to the conflict to be able to use their brains in a way that can say 'Well, what if we just consult with three other orthodontists and see what they thought'."
Irvin says parenting consultants are "just trying to decide something that is going to benefit children."
But two years after her divorce, Angela says her PC has only worsened her relationship with her ex, and that their son is suffering as a result. She explained, "Did I envision my parental rights being taken away? No. If I want to sign him up for something and the ex doesn't agree, like a sport, I have someone deciding if my child can play a sport."
The contract Angela and her ex signed says the PC's decisions are final. "When you challenge them, there's penalties," Angela said, starting to cry. "And I've learned that along the way. There are penalties."
Angela believes her PC awards additional parenting time to her son's father, simply to try to reduce his anger towards Angela. But that, she says, just punishes her. "You get time taken away from your child," she said, as tears ran down her face.
And Angela says her ex bombards the PC with what she calls frivolous or vindictive email complaints about Angela's parenting. The PC responds to some of them; to others, she doesn't. "She'll say 'This is out of my scope'," Angela said.
But the PC still charges her $275 dollar hourly fee just for reading them. "And then she bills both parties," Angela said.
Since 2010, Angela estimates her portion of the PC fees comes to, "probably close to $10,000."
As a result, she says she can no longer afford to pay for certain activities for her son, and she might even have to pull him out of the private Catholic school he attends. "I'm drowning in these bills," she said.
And she's not alone.
"I mean, it's ridiculous," said Nicole Middendorf.
After 13 years of marriage, Middendorf and her ex agreed to a PC, for the sake of their four- and two-year-old. One recent bill shows she was charged $766 dollars for just one week of PC services. "The whole system really needs to be overhauled," Nicole said.
"There needs to be some oversight," Angela added.
The state has a list of hundreds of court-approved parenting consultants. Some have backgrounds in mental health or education. Others are attorneys. Standards are set through the Association of Family Conciliation Court.
"We've developed a two-day training that we think should be four days," Irvin said. "But I don't know that we could get people to a four-day training."
Bottom line, there are no specific PC licensing guidelines or requirements, no state statutes or laws that govern PCs.
"Our conflict is their livelihood," Angela said of the consultants. "Why would they want the conflict to stop?"
Angela also asked 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS not to name or involve her PC in this story, for fear it might make matters even worse for her.
Dr. Irvin simply says PCs are often in a thankless, no-win situation. "When you make a decision, one of the parties is now saying, 'Wait a minute, I thought you were impartial and objective and clearly you're on the other parent's side'," she explained. "We now find that many of our parenting consultant clients are not necessarily looking for help, and they're not looking for change--except to change the other person."
Parents usually sign two-year contracts with their PCs. Once they do, often the only way to break them is if both agree to it.
Over the last 15 years, Dr. Irvin has served as a PC to several hundred divorced couples. Even she admits it's hard to say whether her efforts have made much of a difference. "I wish I could easily say yes to that question," she said, pausing. "I can think of a few cases where i think I had a positive impact where I helped the kids but I think of many more where I'm still scratching my head going, 'I wish i knew for sure that the direction I took this in was really the right direction for these kids'."
Of course, parents don't have to have a PC. They could skip one all together and just let family law judges decide all of their issues. But lawyers' fees and court costs are even more expensive than those of a PC--often twice as much. And decisions from the court take longer---often twice as long.
In Minnesota, it's been rare for parents to appeal the decisions of their PCs, back in court, because--again--it involves lawyers and court fees, and weeks if not months waiting for a decision. And in general, according to Dr. Irvin, "The judges have been supportive of the parenting consultants' decisions."
Dr. Irvin explains that she often puts a photo of the parents' child or children on the table when trying to help them resolve an issue. She asks them what they would have done about it when they were still married, and in love. She says to them, "Because then, nobody was stepping in and saying 'oh, you have a disagreement, let me decide for you. You somehow got something done. What's happened now that you need somebody else to come in and do this?'"
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org