FAMILY LIFE: Planning for the worst

Using a parent facilitator to develop a parenting plan can save couples time, money and heartache

TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

When two people pledge themselves to a committed relationship, whether the “I do’s” are legally recognized or not, they intend the relationship to last ’til death do them part. That’s the romantic side of things.

But the fact is, cold, hard reality can and does win out over romance in many relationships, and couples split up.

For same-sex couples, especially those with children, those break-ups, when they happen, can be especially difficult. Whereas legally married straight couples have the law to settle at least some of their most contentious break-up boggles, same-sex couples are on their own — from debates over who gets the house to potentially more damaging arguments over child custody.

The best time to settle those matters, says licensed professional counselor Brenda Lee Roberts, is before they happen — way before, like back in the “honeymoon” period when everyone is still in love and happy with each other.

Roberts, who also has a master’s degree in education, is a therapist in private practice who specializes in helping same-sex couples with children develop the best possible co-parenting plans following a break-up.

“The main thing that gets in the way [when it comes to settling custody disputes] is emotion. And the easiest time to do that without emotions getting in the way is when everybody is still happy,” Roberts said.

“When two people break up and they have children, everyone needs to understand that just because the parents are splitting up, that doesn’t mean the children are breaking up with either parent,” she added. “The parents have to look at things going forward as a business relationship. Even though their personal relationship with each other is over, they are still in the business of raising their child and they need to be in it together.”

Roberts offers two services for couples in this situation. One is parent facilitation, the other is parent coordination. The two are basically the same, she explained, except that parent coordination is “100 percent confidential,” and she, as the therapist, can never be called to testify in court about what happened during the coordination process.

In parent facilitation, however, the process is not confidential and the therapist can be called to testify in court should the need arise. Parent facilitation also requires a higher level of education — 40 extra hours of mediation training.

The object of both processes, though, is the same: to help couples who are broken up develop a comprehensive parenting plan that addresses every aspect of how they will raise their child or children in the future.

The process starts, Roberts says, with her “looking for flaws in their communications,” or in other words, finding out what communication problems may exist between the parents and how those problems are detrimental to their common cause of parenting.

“We talk about communication at all levels — how they communicate with each other in person or on the phone, in emails, in texts — everything,” she said.

Then the conversation moves on to other issues, like how the couple will raise their child between two homes, who has access to the child and when, where and how the child will be educated, where they agree and where they disagree on child-rearing issues like discipline.

And, Roberts said, they talk about “the damage that is done to the child if access to one of the parents is just terminated.” And that damage, she said, can be drastic and long-lasting.

“Many children don’t ever fully recover from the trauma of having access to one of their parents cut off,” Roberts said. “It impacts their ability to ever form deep, lasting relationships in the future, whether it’s peer relationships, significant other relationships or family relationships.

“For one parent to just cut off a child’s access to another parent — it is a totally selfish act. It breaks that child’s heart, and it does irreversible damage.”

Roberts said her job is to help keep that from happening by helping parents develop and implement a parenting plan — one that regulates every aspect of the child’s life through age 18, from how much time they spend with each parent, to where they spend holidays and vacations, to where they go to school, to when they can date.

The plans also spell out things like who teaches the child to drive when the time comes, who buys the child’s first car and who pays for insurance and gasoline for the car, not to mention who gets what privileges when it comes to those “milestone moments” in a child’s life, such as the first date and prom night.

The finished product, Roberts said, “is a contract. We sit down and create it together, and then the parents can give it to their attorneys, who can then submit it to the court” so that it becomes part of the legal settlement.

Creating such a plan and having it become part of the legal settlement in dissolving a relationship, Roberts said, can save the parents thousands of dollars in the long run, especially in contentious splits.

“Instead of going back to court again and again to argue over all these things, and paying thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and court costs,” Roberts said, “you can go to a parent facilitator or parent coordinator and get it all settled. I charge $175 an hour, and in the easy cases, we can get a parenting plan in place in three hours; more contentious cases, maybe 10 hours. But that’s a lot cheaper than paying an attorney for all those trips to court.”

—  John Wright