A teenage boy who lives in Sarasota County is graduating from high school in a few months, and all he wants is a graduation party where he can spend time with his parents, extended family and friends.
Not too much to ask for, one would think,
But as a licensed clinical psychologist, Florida Supreme Court-certified family mediator and qualified parenting coordinator Debra K. Carter tells it, this young man's parents are going through a fractious legal fight and their son's interests are far from the top of their minds.
"His parents were in conflict over his graduation arrangements," said Carter, from Bradenton's Carter Psychology Center, 4835 27th St. W., Bradenton, which she owns and where she regularly sees parents who are separated or going through divorce and are court-ordered to go through her parenting coordination program.
"They both had family flying in," Carter continued. "They wanted to have separate graduation parties on the same day. The families were only in for a short period of time.
"So, I asked the parents, 'Would it be OK if I speak to your son?' They said, 'Fine.' I had the young man come in to my office. I asked him, 'What would you like? It's your graduation. We are celebrating your achievements.'"
After the teen told Carter that he simply wanted everyone to be together for one party, she went back to the couple and was able to make them see the importance of putting aside their disputes so their son could have what he wanted on his treasured day.
"The parents were caught up in, 'But it's my time, it's my family,'" Carter said. "When we could focus on the child, the parents said, 'You are right. Let's focus on that.' We were able to come up with a reasonable solution that met everyone's needs. It was a win-win. That's what we always look for in parenting coordination."
Manatee a model for parenting coordination
In 2001, when the concept of getting fighting, irascible parents to put their children's needs first was in its infancy in Florida, Carter was at the center of the evolution, working with Manatee County parents.
Her work became so respected that parenting coordination passed as a law in Florida in 2009 and fighting partners now are court-ordered to see Carter or the other roughly 15 parent coordinators in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
Carter became the founder and clinical director of the National Cooperative Parenting Center, from which she trains people over the globe in how to help parents help their children get through divorce and separation through a detailed plan of action.
Carter published "Parenting Coordination: A Family Guide for Family Law Professionals" in February 2011. After the book came out, Carter began to be in demand, providing training in parenting coordination for judicial colleges, bar associations and other groups.
Carter recently returned
from Singapore, where she taught her parenting coordination program to family law judges and supreme court justices there. Singapore is the first Asian country to receive training in the program, Carter said.
Circuit Judge Janette Dunnigan, who is assigned to Family Division, Manatee County, on Thursday said the courts in the Family Division wholeheartedly support the parenting coordination program.
"When people divorce or dissolve their once-loving relationship, even those with the best intentions sometimes find it difficult to place the interests of the children first," Dunnigan said.
"Emotions run high and, unfortunately, conflict between the parents takes center-stage with their needs taking precedent over the child's needs."
When the Legislature enacted the implementing statute, it provided an opportunity for the courts to refer parents in high-conflict cases to professionals to help them do what is necessary to protect the children from the harmful effects of parental conflict, Dunnigan said.
"Qualified parenting coordinators have the professional tools to recognize what needs to be done to allow the children to have a healthy relationship with each parent," Dunnigan said.
Carter has taught the program in Rome, Italy in 2012 and Barcelona, Spain in 2014 and 2015.
"As countries learn more about this process, they become very interested and word gets out," Carter said. "There is a tremendous need around the world."
Carter has counseled well over 100 families in Manatee County in the last 16 years.
What clients pay the parenting coordinator is based on their incomes, but generally starts at $75 per hour, Carter said.
There is assistance for those who are indigent, Carter added.
Children can be psychologically wounded
"Children suffer when parents are in conflict," Carter said. "We know this from decades of social science."
Some children withdraw and they begin to develop some physical symptoms. They may have more headaches and tummy aches. They might not want to do some of the things they used to do that were fun for them before, Carter said.
"Other kids will become angry," Carter said. "They act out. They may become more of a bully on the playground. They may be more defiant. They may lash out at peers and adults."
The behaviors are all the result of the child trying to cope with an untenable situation -- the children's home with their parents is supposed to be their respite and it suddenly is not, Carter said.
"That's their haven, that's their safe place," Carter added.
When parents decide to form two homes, it has a very unsettling impact on children, Carter said.
If when exchanging the children the parents are in a verbal conflict, the children experience extreme distress because they want love, attention and affection from both parents, Carter said.
"When one parent is saying negative things about the other parent, the child incorporates that because the child is a part of both parents," Carter said. "The child is left with a wound. It's a psychological wound. How is the child supposed to cope with the wound? They don't have a way to articulate it, much less to heal that wound."
So, the process of parenting coordination is designed specifically for parents, growing out of a recognition by clinicians like Carter, judges, lawyers and others in the legal community that the legal system had to do better, Carter said.
"We realized we must do something to prevent or mitigate this damage if we possibly can," Carter added.
Most parents are not bad people or bad parents, Carter added.
"They are simply caught up in this adversarial legal process," Carter added.
Carter introduces 'Jane' and 'Doug"
Jane and Doug are a fictional couple that Carter uses to illustrate how she gets started with a couple in crisis.
"One of the first things we do after they come to see me is that I explain the ground rules," Carter said.
"I say, 'Jane and Doug, you must wait until the other person stops speaking to speak. Blaming is not going to be effective or helpful in here. I will ask you both to make requests, make proposals.
"If you both start screaming or yelling, I will stop you and say, 'We can't scream or yell or we will waste a lot of time and a lot of your money and your kids are going to suffer.'"
The ground rules work and progress is made, Carter said.
"Parents who come into this process may not like each other, may be really mad at each other," Carter said. "But I have never had parents sit on my sofa or sit in my office who don't love their kids."
Information about the program is on the 12th Circuit's website, www.jud12.flcourts.org, or contact Carter at 941-753-0064.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.