The Collaborative Process is not just for divorcing couples; its positive impact can be experienced by entire families as well. For most, the joy of becoming a grandparent is blissful and perfect - all the cuddles and wonder of a beautiful new baby, without all the full-time work of being a parent. But in some families, a grandparent’s joy may be diminished by underlying family feuds, differences of opinion and perhaps valid concerns over their ability to care for a grandchild on his or her own time.
In New York, if grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren, they may seek a court order for visitation, or in most extreme circumstances, for actual custody. To do so, they must file a Family Court petition and hire a process server to serve it on their children. If they can establish standing, then the court will conduct a “best interests” analysis to determine if access is permissible and at what level. In addition to the parties retaining attorneys, the judge may also assign an attorney to represent the grandchild(ren). A series of costly court appearances will ensue; hours upon hours being billed by the attorneys to sit awkwardly across from one another in a hallway at court, waiting for the case to be called. The attorneys will likely go into the conference with the judge without the parties. After many months of such appearances where perhaps not much real progress is made, if the parties cannot reach a solution on their own, then a trial will begin. Testimony will be given, evidence presented and ultimately a judge will make decisions for how and when a grandparent can spend precious, quality time with a grandchild. The Court’s resulting order may be somewhat “one size fits all” and lack the detail and guidance that the parties in crisis actually need and deserve. In my professional opinion, even when the intentions of all involved are good (including the attorneys and judge), litigation can still be a cold, frustrating, expensive and ineffective way to handle a family dispute.
Now consider the same conflict being managed by a professional team in a collaborative process outside of court:
(1) attorneys for the grandparents and parents be will the voice of their clients (but in soft, reasonable tones that are open to suggestions of the other side and to help articulate the concerns of their clients),
(2) a family specialist with a background in mental health to help manage anger and emotion to keep forward progress toward a settlement, and
(3) if needed, a financial neutral to help find smart solutions if there are financial issues involved.
The professional team sits around a table at an office with the family members and has a detailed discussion to work though the problem in a thoughtful, meaningful way. They share coffee and ideas and they eventually reach a solution. If the parties become emotional or angry along the way, as people naturally do in such difficult situations, the family support specialist is there to help them address what is really going on beneath the surface and manage it. If costs and expenses are what is creating the problem in this family, then a financial neutral can offer suggestions. The parties may need to try out an interim agreement at first to see how it goes and then reconvene to make the appropriate changes and adjustments as time goes on. Ultimately, the family is put back together and they move forward in a peaceful way.
In my practice, I have learned that families in distress (especially the grandchildren stuck in the middle) would all be so much better off if, rather than serve a Family Court petition on their child demanding time with their grandchildren, they had instead gathered a caring and dedicated group of professionals to assist them in sorting out their issues and finding a better plan for the future.
Written by Jacqueline M. Caputo, Esq.