The Blade (Toledo)

Article published September 25, 2002

Court program aims to assist hostile parents

The Blade (Toledo)

True love turned bad for JoAnn and Tony. But they still adore their son, Sam.

JoAnn drove Sam to his soccer game recently in Sylvania. Tony, her ex, stayed on the other side of the field, cheering for the boy.

The game ended at 6:30 p.m. Tony’s court-ordered parental custody does not begin until 7 p.m. For 30 minutes, mother and son stood on their side of the empty field, waiting.

By the time they started their weekend together, Sam was in tears. His father was livid, swearing under his breath.

Lucas County Domestic Relations Judge Norman Zemmelman uses this family’s situation to illustrate the meaning of the term "high-conflict parents."

Since Sept. 1, he’s instituted a rule change in the courts, designed to deal with parents who prove especially hard-headed. He calls it Parents and Courts Together, or PACT.

If Tony and JoAnn were part of the plan, they’d have phoned an agreed-upon "parental coordinator" who would, for a fee, get Sam across the soccer field to his dad without tears, tantrums, or legal entanglements.

"Only 2 or 3 percent of our cases - maybe six or 12 cases per year - would fall into this program," the judge said. "This is for the family that’s been through [other court-ordered programs] and failed. The hard cases. Now we have a process in place to deal with it."

The judge learned last year of similar programs in Colorado and California. "High-conflict" parents, he learned, project their pain and needs onto their children and find it impossible to compromise or behave in a civil way near their child’s other parent. They use the courts to exchange accusations.

Judge Zemmelman worked with local legal and psychological experts to craft a program to suit Ohio’s unique judicial demands. As of Sept. 1, when a couple files for divorce in Lucas County, the court counselor will look for signs that a PACT referral is in order - things like non-compliance with past court orders, protection-from-abuse orders, or stacks of "motions" filed by each parent, alleging abuse or neglect.

"You’d be amazed at what these kids live with. These people are living together in the same house, for a year or more, either screaming at one another or not speaking," the judge said. "Neither will leave, for fear it will affect their child custody rights later on. And their children are living there too, with all this going on."

Once enrolled, parents must report to the judge every 60 days, whether or not a divorce has been granted. He’ll review the custody agreements with them, and ensure compliance.

A unique feature of this program is appointment of the "parenting coordinator," Judge Zemmelman said.

These are qualified counselors, attorneys, or psychologists with experience in family law.

The coordinator can’t change custody agreements but can rule on day-to-day matters like vacation and holiday custody schedules, pickup and delivery times and methods, bedtime, diet, and discipline. He’d oversee communications, assuring that the child isn’t used as a go-between in the parents’ battles.

So far, no PACT referrals have been made, he said. But it’s only been two weeks.