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Increasingly probate courts are paying particular attention to parenting plans. Judges, as all professionals involved with divorcing couples, recognize the difficulties of co-parenting after divorce. The objective underlying the mandatory Parent Education Program is for parents to understand the effects of divorce on children. Five hours of session time is devoted to educating divorcing parents on how to parent more effectively after divorce. Hopefully these sessions help parents to understand that they need to be forward thinking, to provide good parenting before problems arise, and to develop skills that help them to work cooperatively in the best interests of their children.
Yet all parenting situations are not the same. In particular, in families of children with special needs, the parenting plan needs to be crafted with great care. Here, parents need to think and re-think child-related situations that over the years have most challenged their coping mechanisms and include provisions for their interaction and oversight that deal specifically with these very targeted issues. For example, if their child requires overnight care, the parenting plan might include overnight time shifts. If their child needs special equipment, support provisions should address the cost and responsibility for payment. The intricacy of the parenting plan is very much dependent on the nature of that child’s needs. In some families, both parents do not wish to be involved in the child’s care or the parents are simply not able to work together in a collaborative fashion. If this situation exists, solution approaches may involve securing assistance from family members or hired third parties. Here, too, parents need to determine what kind of help is needed and how to finance the cost. As such, the parenting plan may be closely integrated with financial provisions. Dealing with children’s needs and how to fund them—whether special needs or not—provides a comprehensive approach to the care of children.
Mediation offers a unique opportunity and process for problem-solving related to children. The mediation process offers parents the opportunity to learn communication skills needed to work cooperatively now and in the future. Parenting discussions offer parents the opportunity to address the challenging parental responsibilities involved in caring for a child with special needs. The integration of finances and children’s care does not taint the parents’ love for their child; rather it recognizes the overlap of custodial and financial concerns in structuring an agreement that provides for their child’s present and future needs, which needs may even extend to will and/or trust provisions.
The crafting of a parenting plan and financial provisions for support may involve an in-depth approach, especially for children whose needs require a more microscopic view of the problems involved and whose future requires parental involvement beyond age 23. Mediation seeks to build on the parents’ experiences and concerns in the creation of an agreement that does not require repeated trips back to court or leaves one parent unduly burdened with responsibilities that he/she does not have enough time and/or finances to handle. The parenting plan ensures clarity and commitment to the welfare of children, a plan developed by the parents together in the best interests of their children.
Dr. Lynne C. Halem is the director at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution in Wellesley, MA. Dr. Halem has worked in the mediation field since 1982. She is on the Family Dispute Service Panel of the American Arbitration Association and a past board member of the Divorce Center, Inc. Dr. Halem served two terms as President of the Massachusetts Council of Family Mediation. She has been featured in Boston Globe and Boston Herald articles on divorce mediation and has appeared on television and radio programs as an expert in the field of mediation and alternative dispute resolution.
Dr. Halem is a recognized specialist in family policy and family law with a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from Harvard University. She is the author of two scholarly books on divorce: Divorce Reform: Changing Legal and Social Perspectives (Free Press of Macmillan, 1980), a featured selection of the Lawyers' Literary Club, and Separated and Divorced Women (Greenwood Press, 1982), a Choice book of the year selection for academic excellence. She has served as a consultant to corporations in the public and private sectors and taught at various colleges and universities.
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