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Differentiating Between Mediation, Med/Arb and Parenting Coordination

There are only so many options available for separated parents to settle their parenting disputes in a way that minimizes lawyer involvement. Chief among them are: Mediation; Mediation/Arbitration (Med/Arb); and Parenting Coordination.

All three processes involve both parents working collaboratively with a single neutral third party who often will have a mental health background of either a social work or psychology type. People choose these professionals for this service precisely because they appreciate the clinical versus legal perspective the service provider brings to the situation. The focus is on the well-being of the child, not the rights of the parent.

To differentiate, the mediator has no particular power or authority with regard to the outcome. While a mediator may be influential or educational and help parents to better understand the needs of a child, the mediator has no say in the final agreement the parents achieve with regard to their parenting plan or issue of dispute. The mediatorís main role is to facilitate respectful dialogue and help parents determine common objectives for their children and help devise a mutually acceptable plan to achieve those objectives between the parents.

The Mediator/Arbitrator, begins service in the role of Mediator described above. However, in the event the parents reach an impasse and are unable to resolve their differences, the Mediator/Arbitrator may then go on to impose a decision on the parents which is then binding upon them as if ordered by a Court of law.

To differentiate between a Mediator/Arbitrator and Parenting Coordinator, the former may at impasse decide on anything predetermined, prior to the onset of service. In other words, if the parents agree that anything may be settled by the Mediator/Arbitrator, then indeed any parenting issue may be visited.

In Parenting Coordination, the service provider has the same powers as the Mediator/Arbitrator, but, the Parenting Coordinatorís jurisdiction or span of authority is limited to working within the bounds of existing agreements and/or Court orders. These existing agreements and/or Court orders cannot be altered by the Parenting Coordinator. So the Parenting Coordinator may help define an Order, may set rules for particular exceptions that may not have been anticipated and may wade into new territory. The Mediator/Arbitrator however, has in a sense, full reign to address any issue arising and make changes regardless of Orders or agreements in place.

These are important distinctions. When a parent is deciding on a choice of service to settle a dispute or in view of ongoing disputes, these distinctions can make a world of differences. Neither is better than the other. They are just different and which may be preferred depends on your situation and objective in enlisting any of these services.

If you are not sure which service is best suited to you, you should consult a lawyer.

Do not consult the intended service provider as you do not want to create a bias in the referral process for discussions had prior to the delivery of service. Wherever possible consult a lawyer trained in Collaborative Family Law as these are persons whose training can increase the likelihood of their respecting your decision to use any of these strategies rather than divert your case back to a legal fight.

In the end, parents choose these kinds of services because of an interest to best respect the well being of their children over parental rights. These are very different ways to solve parenting disputes and are not to be treated lightly.


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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847  


Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.


Call Gary for your next conference and for expert opinion on family matters. Services include counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.



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27 Sina Street, Georgina, ON, Canada L4P 3E9 Tel: (905) 628-4847 Email: gary@yoursocialworker.com