In high conflict custody cases in Massachusetts, there are many experts that can become involved in your case to help with the conflict and pending issues. The most common experts are Guardians ad Litem, Parenting Coordinators, and ARC Attorneys. However, many parents often confuse these roles. This article will explain what each role is and the difference between these types of experts.
Guardian ad Litem
A Guardian ad Litem (also known as a GAL) is one of the most common experts in a high conflict custody case. A GAL is typically appointed by the court to investigate the pending issues in the case. A Guardian ad Litem is either a mental health professional that works with divorced or separated families, or a Family Law attorney.
Oftentimes, the GAL is asked to investigate the facts of the case and then make recommendations for legal custody, physical custody, and parenting time. A GAL is oftentimes also charged with investigating other issues that arise such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. Ultimately, the GAL will speak with the parents, children, and other important people (such as doctors, teachers, extended family and family friends) and then make a recommendation to the court through a written report.
The GAL is required to make recommendations based upon the best interests of the children. Sometimes this is in line with what children ask for in a parenting plan, but it is not always in line with what the children want. A GAL is not bound to recommend what the children are requesting for a parenting plan. A GAL can be called to testify at trial, and a GAL report can often be a compelling factor in settling a high conflict custody case.
For most cases, the parents will be expected to share the cost of a Guardian ad Litem, which can be costly (anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 on average). For parents who cannot afford a GAL, the court will either appoint a GAL and have the Commonwealth pay for the GAL’s services, or appoint a Probation Officer from the court to conduct a similar investigation as a GAL would conduct.
An ARC attorney is very different from a Guardian ad Litem. ARC stands for “Attorneys Representing Children.” An ARC attorney is appointed by the court to represent the children. This is an attorney who specializes in Family Law, and particularly high conflict custody cases. ARC attorneys are free and volunteer their time in this capacity.
Unlike a GAL, an ARC attorney does not file a report with the court, nor does he/she conduct an investigation. Rather, ARC attorneys are attorneys for the children and are required to participate in the case just like lawyers for either parent. This means that the ARC attorney cannot testify at trial.
Like attorneys for parents, an ARC attorney is ethically bound to represent and advocate the children’s interests and wishes. That means the ARC attorney is duty bound to advocate what the children want for a parenting plan, even if the ARC attorney believes that the parenting plan the children are proposing is not in their best interests. If children have differing opinions as to the parenting plan, more than one ARC attorney can be appointed in a case, so each child has their own attorney.
ARC Attorneys are not appointed in every case, and are appointed at the discretion of the judge.
A Parenting Coordinator is a person who is appointed to help parents reduce conflict in high conflict custody cases. A Parenting Coordinator, like a GAL, is either a mental health professional that works with divorced or separated families, or a Family Law attorney. In MA, Parenting Coordinators must go through extensive training to become qualified to serve as a PC. A PC works with parents to resolve ongoing disputes.
Ideally, the Parenting Coordinator works with parents so that parents reach their own agreements to resolve any dispute, but the Parenting Coordinator also has the authority to rule on a dispute if parents can’t agree. Ideally, a Parenting Coordinator is engaged to reduce the overall conflict between parents.
The disputes that parenting coordinators can address are wide and varied. It can range from adjusting pick up and drop off times for parenting time, to what camp a child will attend in the summer, to whether a parent is packing appropriate clothing for parenting time with the other parent. Standing Order 1-17, which governs Parenting Coordinators defines the scope of a Parenting Coordinator’s duties as:
Assist the parties in amicably resolving disputes and in reaching agreements about the implementation of and compliance with the order regarding the child or children in their care including, but not limited to, the following types of issues:
(i) minor changes or clarifications of the existing parenting plan;
(ii) exchanges of the child or children including date, time, place, means of and responsibilities for transportation;
(iii) education or daycare including school choice, tutoring, summer school, before and after school care, participation in special education testing and programs, or other educational decisions;
(iv) enrichment and extracurricular activities including camps and jobs;
(v) the child or children’s travel and passport arrangements;
(vi) clothing, equipment, and personal possessions of the child or children;
(vii) means of communication by a party with the child or children when they are not in that party’s care;
(viii) role of and contact with significant others and extended families;
(ix) psychotherapy or other mental health care including substance abuse or mental health assessment or counseling for the child or children;
(x) psychological testing or other assessments of the children; and
(xi) religious observances and education.
Parenting Coordinators essentially have the authority of a quasi-judge. A decision by a Parenting Coordinator can be binding upon parents unless and until a parent challenges the Parenting Coordinator’s decision in court.
Parenting Coordinators are often appointed towards the end of a case so that parents can continue to address conflict and issues despite the fact that the litigation is over.
There are many different experts that can become involved in a high conflict custody case. Guardians ad Litem, ARC attorneys, and Parenting Coordinators are the most popular.