Judges Opinions, — August 15, 2018 10:00 — 0 Comments

Melissa Cruz vs. Fernando Melendez No. 2016-20597

Civil Action-Family Law-Child Custody-Best Interests of the Child-Extreme High Conflict Situation-Parallel Parenting Plan-Limited Parental Contact

The parties have an extremely contentious relationship, are the parents of a two (2) year old child and have been in court on multiple occasions relating to custody, child support and protection from abuse act and criminal proceedings. The Court most recently issued an extensive decision affording the parties fifty/fifty joint custody of the child, appointing an attorney to act as guardian ad litem of the child and scheduling a review hearing. The review hearing revealed continued extreme contentiousness and animosity between the parties.

1. The key to any custody trial is what is in the best interests of the child.
2. The ultimate goal of the custody court is to encourage ongoing, nurturing, healthy and stable parent-child relationships.
3. Parallel parenting is a concept created for extreme high conflict situations where parents simply cannot communicate or work together and explicitly is designed to limit contact between parents.
4. A parallel parenting plan involves a two (2) step process that is designed to reduce the level of conflict between the parents. The first step of disengagement requires parents to establish a demilitarized zone involving their children. In the second step of separate parenting, each parent is responsible for certain decisions and is free to make those decisions without collaboration with the other parent.
5. In a parallel parenting paradigm, it is the responsibility of the Court to establish detailed parameters for the custody relationship.
6. While collaborative parenting remains the paradigm that works best for children, parallel parenting may be the least harmful option for the child in this case due to the extreme conflict between the parties with the parallel parenting plan intentionally minimizing interaction between the parties to lessen the conflict and to avoid trapping the child in the middle of the conflict with the hope that reduction of conflict in the short term may enable collaboration over the long term.
L.C.C.C.P. No. 2016-20597, Opinion by Bradford H. Charles, Judge, June 25, 2018.


MELISSA S. CRUZ, Plaintiff

AND NOW this 25th day of June, 2018, after Custody Trial and upon consideration of the evidence adduced in October of 2017 and in June of 2018, the Court will implement a parallel parenting program. The Order of this Court therefore will be as follows:
1. Legal custody of the parties’ son N.M. is to be shared by Fernando L. Melendez (hereafter FATHER) and Melissa S. Cruz (hereafter MOTHER) in the following manner:
(a) During periods of time when FATHER has physical custody of N.M., he shall also be considered to have decision making rights with respect to all day-to-day decisions that must be made by a parent for a child;
(b) During the periods of time when MOTHER has physical custody of N.M., she shall also be considered to have decision making rights with respect to all day-to-day decisions that must be made by a parent for a child;
(c) Both parties shall have the ability to make emergency decisions regarding medical issues pertaining to N.M. while N.M. is in his/her physical care. However, if any party makes a decision regarding an emergency medical issue, that party is to immediately send a text message to the other parent outlining the nature of the decision, the name of the medical provider who was involved, the details of any expected future treatment, and the name and dosage of any medication N.M. is expected to take. If one parent creates a course of medical treatment for N.M. and the other party disagrees with that course of treatment, the parties are to contact Guardian Ad Litem Corey Lamoureux immediately.
(d) Decisions regarding day care providers are to be made by the parent who has physical custody at the time the day care is required.
(e) Each parent can involve N.M. in his/her church that he/she attends during periods of physical custody with N.M.
(f) Decisions pertaining to routine non-emergency dental care for N.M. are to be made by FATHER. FATHER shall provide written information to MOTHER regarding N.M.’s dental condition at least once every six (6) months.
(g) Issues pertaining to routine non-emergency medical care are to be made by MOTHER. MOTHER is to provide FATHER with written notice of N.M.’s medical condition at least every once every six (6) months.
(h) N.M. may have contact with each parents’ extended family during the time that N.M. is in the custody of that parent. Neither parent’s extended family shall have any custody rights with respect to N.M. other than through the parent to whom the extended family is related.
2. Neither MOTHER nor FATHER shall complain directly to one another about any decision rendered by the other parent pursuant to Paragraph 1 above. In the event that a parent has strong opposition to a decision rendered by the other, that parent is to notify Guardian Ad Litem Corey Lamoureux. Attorney Lamoureux is to attempt to broker a resolution of the issue. If the issue cannot be resolved, the matter may be presented to this Court for resolution.
3. Physical custody of N.M. is to be shared between MOTHER and FATHER on a week-on, week-off equal basis. Custody exchanges are to take place at 6pm on Sunday evenings at the McDonald’s restaurant located on Maple Street in the city of Lebanon. Except when either parties’ work schedule prohibits them from being present, MOTHER and FATHER shall be personally present to exchange custody inside the McDonald’s restaurant. As few words as possible should be exchanged between the parties when custody is transferred. It shall not be a violation of FATHER’s parole or any “cease and desist” letters for MOTHER and FATHER to participate personally in custody exchanges. The following additional provisions will govern custody exchanges:
(a) If MOTHER or FATHER is unable to be present to personally exchange custody, he/she is to send a text message to the other party explaining the circumstances that prevent him/her from participating in the custody exchange. If and only if MOTHER and FATHER cannot personally be present, he/she can designate any other adult to effectuate custody transfers, including husbands, wives, fiancées, boyfriends or girlfriends. As few words as possible should be exchanged between the substitute and the other parent during custody exchanges that involve a substitute.
(b) The Court recognizes that sometimes events occur that will cause a parent to be late for a custody exchange. Both MOTHER and FATHER are directed to wait at the McDonald’s restaurant until 6:30pm on the date of the exchanges. In the event that either parent knows in advance that he/she will be more than thirty (30) minutes late, that parent is to send a text message to the other parent indicating the reason for the delay and the expected length of the delay. Absent a text message, the party waiting at McDonald’s may assume after waiting thirty (30) minutes that the other parent is not going to appear.
(c) All necessary clothing, medications, and other personal belongings necessary for the care of N.M. are to be transferred by the parties when N.M. is transferred.
4. Except as authorized herein or pertaining to matters of importance involving N.M., neither MOTHER nor FATHER shall have contact with one another verbally, by email, by text message or by any other means.
5. Neither MOTHER nor FATHER shall post anything on Facebook or any other social media that references the other parent either directly or indirectly.
6. Neither MOTHER nor FATHER shall speak about the other parent in negative terms while N.M. is present.
7. With the exception of Christmas, each parent will enjoy holidays with N.M. that occur during the week that N.M. is in his/her care. With respect to Christmas, Christmas will be alternated each year as follows:
(a) From 9:00am on Christmas Eve Day until noon on Christmas Day, MOTHER shall enjoy physical custody with N.M. on even numbered years and FATHER shall enjoy physical custody with N.M. on odd numbered years. From noon on Christmas Day until 6pm on the day following Christmas, FATHER shall enjoy physical custody on even numbered years and MOTHER shall enjoy physical custody on odd numbered years.
(b) In the event of a conflict between the standard schedule and the Christmas schedule, the Christmas schedule shall control.
8. Attorney Corey Lamoureux is reappointed as Guardian Ad Litem in the above-referenced matter for another one year. It shall be the responsibility of Attorney Lamoureux to periodically monitor the parallel parenting plan created by this Court Order. In the event of a conflict between MOTHER and FATHER, the parties are to notify Attorney Lamoureux and Attorney Lamoureux shall attempt to broker a resolution of the conflict. In the event that a resolution cannot be reached, leave is granted for Attorney Lamoureux to request a hearing with the Court in order to resolve the issue. Both MOTHER and FATHER shall continue to cooperate with Attorney Lamoureux and provide whatever information is requested by Attorney Lamoureux.
9. This Court will not tolerate another failure by FATHER to exercise custody rights as set forth in this Order. On or about October 1, 2018, Guardian Ad Litem is to author a brief report to the Court outlining the extent to which FATHER complies with the 50-50 custody arrangement outlined in this Court Order. Both parties are advised that if FATHER continues to choose to forego his allotted custody time between the date of this Order and October 1, 2018, this Court will amend its Order in October to afford MOTHER with primary legal and physical custody of N.M.
10. Both MOTHER and FATHER shall keep each other apprised of their current email addresses and text message numbers so that contact authorized by this Court and emergency contact can occur when needed.
11. Except in an emergency or as agreed upon in writing by both parties, neither MOTHER nor FATHER shall attempt to contact N.M. while N.M. is in the physical custody of the other parent, nor shall MOTHER or FATHER communicate with any day care provider who provides care for N.M. while in the custody of the other parent.
12. In the event that N.M. suffers an injury or illness that a parent believes could impact the custody schedule outlined in this Order, the parent seeking to alter the custody schedule based upon N.M.’s injury or illness shall complete the following:
(a) The parent shall immediately notify the other parent by email or text message about the situation;
(b) Within one (1) week thereafter, the parent seeking to alter the custody schedule shall provide written proof signed by a doctor or medical provider that corroborates the nature and extent of N.M.’s illness and injury.
13. It is hoped and expected that MOTHER and FATHER will be able to agree that enrolling N.M. in positive extracurricular developmental activities will help N.M. to grow productively. If either parent enrolls N.M. in such an activity, that parent must notify the other parent of the activity and all scheduling requirements of that activity. Once N.M. is enrolled, both parents shall be authorized to take N.M. to the activity during the period when N.M. is in his/her custody. It shall be the exclusive choice of the parent with physical custody to determine whether or not to take N.M. to the activity in which he is enrolled.
14. In the event of an unusual special event (i.e. weddings, graduations, etc.) of critical importance to either MOTHER or FATHER, that parent may request to have custody of N.M. for the special event provided that the following occur:
(a) The parent seeking custody of N.M. for the special event must notify the opposing parent at least sixty (60) days in advance of the event. The notification must specify to nature of the event and why it is important for N.M. to be present;
(b) The parent seeking special time with N.M. is to offer alternative “make-up” time to the other parent that is equal to the amount of time the parent is seeking for the special event;
(c) If the parents cannot agree with respect to N.M.’s attendance at the special event or the “make-up” time to be allotted in response, then the parties are to notify Guardian Ad Litem Lamoureux. Attorney Lamoureux shall attempt to broker a resolution of the issue. If he is not able to broker a resolution, then the issue should be submitted to this Court.
15. While in the presence of N.M. neither parent shall make any derogatory or uncomplimentary remark regarding the other parent. Each parental figure shall refer to the other by the appropriate role name and shall not permit N.M. to refer to any third party as “mother” or “father”.
16. Neither party shall engage in conduct designed to alienate N.M. from the other party.
17. Both parties are advised that in the event that either wishes to relocate, a motion must be filed with this Court seeking permission to relocate. The requirements of a request to relocate are identified in 23 Pa.C.S. 5337(h)(1)-(9), a copy of which is attached.


Melissa S. Cruz pro se
Fernando L. Melendez pro se
Corey Lamoureux, Esquire Guardian Ad Litem

Opinion, Charles, J., June 25, 2018
If there is a hierarchy of custody cases where parental hatred reigns, Fernando Melendez (hereafter FATHER) would be king and Melissa Cruz (hereafter MOTHER) would be queen. Things are so bad that the court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem observed that the parties are “blinded by hatred they have for one another”. Things are so bad that both self-represented litigants spent all of their precious court room time attacking one another instead of describing the relationship they have with two-year old N.M. 1 Things are so bad that during the Custody Trial, the sheriff assigned to provide courtroom security was forced to call not one, but two additional Deputies to ensure that a physical altercation did not break out in Court. Things are so bad that this Court questions whether viable hope exists for productive co-parenting. Things are so bad that, for the first time ever, this court will invoke the custody paradigm known as “parallel parenting”.
MOTHER and FATHER are the parents of two-year old N.M. The parties have been in court on multiple prior occasions for custody, child support, protections for abuse and criminal charges involving each other. On October 19, 2017, we issued an extensive decision to adjudicate the issue of custody between MOTHER and FATHER. In that decision, this jurist appointed Attorney Corey Lamoureux to act as CHILD’s Guardian Ad Litem. We encouraged the parties to utilize Attorney Lamoureux as a “sounding board and/or referee.” We told both parties: “You have both given me reasons to not to trust your own words. But I will implicitly trust Attorney Lamoureux.” When we rendered our decision last October, we also stated:
“In case all of this [counseling, appointment of a GAL, words of encouragement, etc.] doesn’t work, I am going to give myself another escape hatch. I am going to schedule another Review Hearing for the summer of next year. Once again, you may want to consider the next nine months to be another test. As you have seen today, I will not hesitate to change my Custody Order if what we tried does not work. I want to see what happens with both of your lives over the next nine months and I want to see whether either of you can become more accommodating with the other.” (Custody decision in open court on October 19, 2017)
On June 12, 2018, this Court received additional testimony via the Review Hearing we scheduled in October. MOTHER, FATHER and Guardian Ad Litem Lamoureux all provided testimony. MOTHER and FATHER were both self-represented. Their cross-examination of each other was as ugly as it was illuminating.
Following the conclusion of testimony, this Court received copies of copious text messages between the parties. We have reviewed and considered all of those text messages. In addition, we have considered what we observed in Court on June 12, 2018 and we have placed great weight on the comments and recommendations of GAL Lamoureux.
One of the things we observed about MOTHER and FATHER is that each hears only what he/she wants to hear. This jurist remembers how carefully he crafted his comments to the parties on October 19, 2017. Those comments lasted nearly ninety minutes. Both parties referenced segments of the Court’s comments while providing testimony and asking questions at the June 12, 2018 hearing, but neither party seemed to have internalized the clear message that this jurist intended and did convey back on October 19. Rather than repeat our mistake of trying to communicate verbally with the parties, we have chosen the unusual step of authoring this written Opinion to apprise the parties of what we have decided and why.
The key to any custody trial has been, is, and always will be: What is in the best interest of the child? For most of the history of Pennsylvania jurisprudence, the so-called “best interest” test was relatively amorphous and left to the discretion of the Trial Judge. In 2010, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed a comprehensive custody act that specified factors that a Court must consider in determining what is best for children. In pertinent part, that custody act states:
§ 5328. Factors to consider when awarding custody
(a) Factors. – In ordering any form of custody, the court shall determine the best interest of the child by considering all relevant factors, giving weighted consideration to those facts which affect the safety of the child, including the following:
(1) Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party.
(2) The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child.
(3) The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child.
(4) The need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life.
(5) The availability of extended family.
(6) The child’s sibling relationships.
(7) The well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment.
(8) The attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent, except in cases of domestic violence where reasonable safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm.
(9) Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child’s emotional needs.
(10) Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child.
(11) The proximity of the residences of the parties.
(12) Each party’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
(13) The level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another. A party’s effort to protect a child from abuse by another party is not evidence of unwillingness or inability to cooperate with that party.
(14) The history of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or member of a party’s household.
(15) The mental and physical condition of a party or member of a party’s household.
(16) Any other relevant factor.
(b) Gender neutral. – In making a determination under subsection (a), no party shall receive preference based upon gender in any award granted under this chapter.
23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5328(a)-(b).
The General Assembly did not prioritize between the above factors. Therefore, Trial Judges retain considerable discretion in weighing all of the above factors in order to determine what is in the best interest of the child. The ultimate goal of a custody court is to encourage on-going, nurturing, healthy, and stable parent-child relationships. Etter v. Rose, 684 A.2d 1092 (Pa.Super. 1996).
In our October 19, 2017 decision, we analyzed each of the Custody Factors outlined above. Because the June 12, 2018 hearing was merely a review, and because the October 19, 2017 decision provides necessary context for what we will be doing today, we incorporate by reference the record as it relates to the October 19, 2017 custody dispute. In addition, we will not outline each individual Custody Factor separately. 2 Although we have considered all Factors, we will highlight the Factors where the parties’ situations have changed.
A. Custody Schedule since Prior Order
In this Court’s October 19, 2017 decision, a 50-50 joint custody schedule was created. In our Custody decision, we stated:
“As is obvious from the blunt nature of what I have said, I have profound concerns about the Cruz-Melendez family unit – and make no mistake about it, you are a family unit and will continue to be one until N.M. turns 18.
I do not believer that either of you has demonstrated the ability to be an accommodating parent. Both of you have dictatorial instincts. Both of you are stubborn. Both of you mistrust one another. The anger I have seen evident in this court room on March 29, August 28 and October 10 has been almost palpable. Sadly, I do not see either of you changing, at least as it relates to your relationship with one another.
I am also profoundly concerned about your stability. Even though FATHER is more stable today than he was in March, he still has anger issues that have the potential to cause problems. These anger issues could very easily land FATHER in prison. No one can parent from prison. In terms of MOTHER, she is much less stable than she was in March. She has no job. She has no long-term housing. She has no transportation. To say that MOTHER is struggling would be an understatement.
At any time and for any number of reasons, either of your lives could implode. There are a multitude of plausible scenarios under which both of you could be prevented from providing hands-on day-to-day care for N.M. If one of you implodes, the other will have to pick up the entire responsibility to care for N.M. Both of you must be prepared for this possibility, and I am not completely confident that either of you are….
The bottom line is that I have profound concerns about both of you. I will not repeat those concerns. The one thing I do not doubt is that both of you love N.M. Because I believe you both love N.M., because what we tried the last six months has not worked, and because I believe that both of you should have experience caring for N.M. on a daily basis so that either of you can pick up primary responsibility to do so if the other implodes, I am going to change the custody schedule to one that is 50-50. You will share custody on a week-on, week-off basis.” (Custody decision of October 19, 2017)
For several weeks, FATHER undertook his responsibility to provide care for N.M. on an alternating week basis. Then he stopped. Since mid-November, FATHER has had N.M. in his care for only three (3) one-week periods of time. Without question, MOTHER has served as N.M.’s primary custodian since the date of the last hearing.
Predictably, the parties have proffered different reasons for their non-compliance with our Court Order. MOTHER has alleged that FATHER simply did not want the responsibility of caring for N.M. FATHER responds by stating that MOTHER consistently erected barriers that prevented him from enjoying the custody that was granted to him by this Court. In some ways, we believe that both parties are correct.
As an illustration of our point, one needs look no further than the parties’ dysfunctional custody exchanges. FATHER does not want to participate in these exchanges because he does not want to come face-to-face with MOTHER. 3 Therefore, FATHER has sent his girlfriend/fiancée Katherine to pick up N.M. MOTHER despises Katherine and wants nothing to do with her. Therefore, MOTHER refused to release N.M. to Katherine or other third-parties. FATHER stubbornly refused to personally approach MOTHER’s home. The net result of the above dynamic is that custody was not exchanged.
Without question, MOTHER is correct that FATHER should not have placed Katherine in the position of facilitating custody exchanges. As MOTHER herself stated: “She shouldn’t be involved in this mess.” However, MOTHER could have easily defused the situation by allowing N.M. to walk to the car where FATHER was located. MOTHER should have remembered that she had threatened to report FATHER for a probation violation if he had direct contact with her, and she should have proposed other custody exchange arrangements. Sadly, neither party would swallow their pride in order to compromise. The fact that neither MOTHER nor FATHER was willing to bend in any way from their own obstinate positions speaks volumes about the dysfunction of their personalities and their relationship. Sadly, N.M. has been and will continue to be caught up in the crossfire of his parents’ hate-fueled childishness.
Although we conclude that both MOTHER and FATHER have had a role in the non-compliance with our October 2017 Court Order, we need to echo a point made poignantly by GAL Lamoureux: “I cannot understand why any parent would throw up their hands and give up on having time with their child.” We agree completely. As much as we rue MOTHER’s manipulative stubbornness, we cannot and will not excuse FATHER’s unwillingness to swallow his own pride in order to spend time with his son. FATHER could have easily modified his approach to custody exchanges. He could have easily filed a Motion for Contempt of Court in order to enforce the 50-50 Custody Order. He did not. He wanted custody transfers to be on his terms and his terms only, and he gave up precious time with his son when he did not get his own way with respect to custody exchanges. This is a choice by FATHER for which he alone is responsible, and it is a choice that we cannot and will not endorse. This is a Factor we will weigh against him.
B. Stability
Sadly, the stability of both parents remains in a perilous state. The opinion we expressed last October that either parents’ life could implode remains as strong today as it was when we first expressed it last October.
Last October, we expressed our concern that FATHER could return to prison. We pointed out that if FATHER returned to prison, he could lose his job and he could not parent. Sadly, we were prescient. FATHER did in fact return to prison as a result of numerous violations of his Criminal Sentence, including possession and use of cocaine on two occasions. As a result of his imprisonment, FATHER lost his job, and he temporarily lost the ability to parent.
Fortunately, FATHER is self-motivated. He has located another job and he is now working. However, his job is not as lucrative. Moreover, his violation has of necessity extended the term of his supervision. If FATHER suffers another lapse of judgment during the remainder of his supervision, he is looking at a term of imprisonment that is far longer than the two months he served in the spring of 2018. This is a possibility that we cannot and will not discount.
For her part, MOTHER has not enjoyed stable employment since the date of the last hearing. She is almost totally dependent upon governmental benefits for her own survival. More concerning, MOTHER outlined a laundry list of medical issues from which she now suffers. She described chronic pain in her hands and feet, chronic fatigue and PTSD that she attributed to FATHER’s psychological abuse of her. While MOTHER is no longer in a homeless shelter, she still lacks stable transportation, she does not have a stable source of income and she suffers from health issues that could prevent her from active parenting.
As we expressed last October, we continue to be concerned about the stability of both parents. For different reasons, both MOTHER and FATHER could lose the ability to parent N.M. Therefore, we remain of the opinion that both parents should have experience dealing with N.M. on a day-to-day basis so that each can bond with him and so that either could care for him full-time if needed.
C. Dysfunctional Relationship
We spent a considerable amount of time in October of 2017 outlining the dysfunctional relationship between MOTHER and FATHER. We cited examples of how other cases involving parental dysfunction resulted in disaster for the child who was caught in the middle. We attempted to use logic to convince the parties that working together was in the long-term interest of both N.M. and themselves. We implored them to find it in their hearts to draw upon the love they feel for N.M. to at least co-exist peacefully.
Sadly, the situation between MOTHER and FATHER has plunged even further from what we had previously perceived to be a nadir. Now, we would not discount the possibility that MOTHER or FATHER could hurt or kill one another in a fit of rage. 4
During testimony, both parents cited the text message record that was created by them since October. FATHER seems to believe simply because he reduced his allegations against MOTHER into writing, that somehow imbued them with the aura of believability. MOTHER seems to believe that her constant texts that disparage FATHER for his parenting decisions somehow proves that she is the better parent. In reality, our impression from the totality of the text message record is that any effort by either parent to use the text message chain as a weapon or as justification represents little more than “the pot calling the kettle black”. The only meaningful thing that we learned from the text message chain is that MOTHER and FATHER cannot meaningfully or peacefully communicate.
It is also illuminating that both parents have attempted to prevent the other from initiating contact. In her testimony, MOTHER complained that FATHER should not even attempt to contact her. She stated: “It is a violation of probation for him to have any contact with me.” For his part, FATHER sent “cease and desist” letters to MOTHER demanding that she have no further contact with him. In his letter, he stated: “Your actions are vindictive and unwarranted, and they have become unbearable to me.” (See Exhibit 7)
We will not endeavor to list additional problems between MOTHER and FATHER ad nauseum. However, we will not soon forget the testimony of MOTHER and FATHER in court on June 12, 2018. Both MOTHER and FATHER expended almost all of their time and energy attacking each other. Neither MOTHER nor FATHER took the time to describe their relationship with N.M., the living arrangements each can provide for N.M., the daycare plans each has for N.M., the type of food each provides for N.M., the manner by which each disciplines N.M. or the positive developmental activities each enjoys with N.M. 5 Instead, the parents focused all of their energy on attacking one another. The exchanges that resulted were emotional and ugly. The anger was palpable. In fact, the situation deteriorated to the point where additional Sheriffs had to be summoned to the court room to provide security.
In his testimony, GAL Lamoureux stated: “If MOTHER and FATHER put as much effort into raising N.M. as they do in hating one another, the sky is the limit for N.M.” We concur completely with this sentiment. While reconciliation and redemption are always possible, we have little realistic hope that MOTHER and FATHER will change their attitudes toward one another. In fact, we have reached the point where we are compelled to conclude that any contact between MOTHER and FATHER will be problematic.
In their testimony, both MOTHER and FATHER self-declared themselves to be “good parents”. While we do not doubt that MOTHER and FATHER can each provide a safe and healthy home for N.M., being a “good parent” requires more. If requires respect for the other parent. It requires cooperation and self-sacrifice when needed. It requires that parents must sometimes sublimate their own pride in order to do what is best for their child. Until MOTHER and FATHER can internalize the truisms, we are not prepared to declare either of them to be a “good parent”. Certainly, we will not weigh the Factors pertaining to accommodation in favor of either MOTHER or FATHER.
D. Counseling
This is a case that screams out for professional counseling. The very souls of MOTHER and FATHER have been poisoned by their hatred for one another. Each blames every life setback on the other. Neither is willing to look in the mirror and take ownership for their own faults. To say that professional counseling could benefit MOTHER and FATHER and help lay a proper pathway forward for N.M. would be an understatement.
In our last Court Order, we directed that co-parenting counseling take place. Sadly, it has not. We place primary responsibility for this failure upon FATHER.
Apparently, the parties did embark upon counseling shortly after the October 19, 2017 Court Order. Almost immediately, FATHER approached the counselor and stated that he was unwilling to continue due to his lack of trust toward MOTHER. At the hearing on June 12, FATHER proclaimed with arrogance that: “I know how to be a parent. I do not need someone else to tell me.” 6
It is beyond self-evident that MOTHER and FATHER need professional counseling. Yet we doubt that it will occur regardless of whether a Court Order exists or not. The primary casualty of the fact that MOTHER and FATHER cannot complete counseling will sadly be their son N.M.
E. Parental Caregiving
Although neither MOTHER nor FATHER spent considerable time at trial describing their own caregiving patterns, Attorney Lamoureux educated us based on his observations inside the parties’ homes. Attorney Lamoureux indicated that N.M. seems to have a good relationship with both of his parents. Attorney Lamoureux described each parents’ home as appropriate and safe. Attorney Lamoureux perceived no evidence of abuse or neglect by either parent. In short, Attorney Lamoureux concluded that N.M. has a good relationship with both of his parents, and each can separately provide appropriate care on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the few positive aspects of this case, and we cannot and will not discount the value of both parents’ caregiving.
Parallel parenting is a concept that has been created for “extreme high conflict” situations where parents simply cannot communicate or work together. (See, www.familylawattorneycal.com/parallel-parenting.) Unlike most custody paradigms, parallel parenting is explicitly designed to limit contact between parents. Id. Advocates of parallel parenting reason that “extremely high conflict cases require extreme solutions.” Id. Psychiatrists and psychologists have reasoned that “conflicted parenting traps children in the middle of conflict” (See, Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D., Parenting After Divorce at www.circuit7.net/documents/familycourt.) As one commentator noted, “The greatest predictor of a child’s well-being is the level of conflict between the parents. Children exposed to high conflict have a poorer prognosis.” (Parallel Parenting Plans published by the 8th Judicial Circuit of Florida at www.circuit8.org/parallel-parenting.)
Typically, a parallel parenting plan involves a two-step process that is designed to reduce the level of conflict between the parents:
Step 1: Disengagement
This step requires the parents to establish what has been described as a “demilitarized zone” involving their children. By limiting contact between parents, the opportunity for conflict is diminished.
Step 2: Separate Parenting
In a parallel parenting program, each parent is responsible for certain decisions and they are free to make those decisions without collaboration with the other parent. Neither parent should try to infringe upon the parenting “zone” assigned to the other. (See, Philip. M. Stahl, Ph.D, Parenting After Divorce, Impact Pub. (2000); Edward Kruk, Ph.D.; Parallel Parenting After Divorce found at www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce.)
In a parallel parenting paradigm, it is the responsibility of the Court to establish detailed parameters for the custody relationship. As articulated by the 8th Judicial Circuit of Florida, “Nothing is assumed. Everything is spelled out in a parenting plan. A parenting plan must be extremely specific about who will do what and by when… Nothing is left open to interpretation because loopholes breed conflict”. As one commentator noted: “The higher the conflict level, the greater the structure and specificity that is required in a parallel parenting plan.” (See, Kruk, Parallel Parenting After Divorce, Supra.)
As with most situations in a high conflict environment, the problem with parallel parenting is in its details. Dr. Edward Kruk has stated:
“Although parallel parenting is essentially disengaged parenting, some degree of communication between parents in regard to the health and welfare of their children will be necessary. In these cases, parallel parenting will likely involve non-direct communication methods such as email.
Dr. Allison J. Bell has added:
“Minor issues are not communicated about. However, each parent does provide the other parent with “important information…Important information means anything that refers to the health, welfare and interest of the children. Thus, if a child is sick, the other parent must be notified of this fact, including details on what medications have already been administered and what treatment needs to be continued. If a child has a school field trip, the other parent must be notified… The same is true of Little League or any other extracurricular activities.” (Allison J. Bell, Ph.D., Defining the Merits of Parallel Parenting found at www.drallisonbell.com/collaborateive-articles/the-definition-and-merits-of-parallel-parenting.)
Parallel parenting is not without its detractors. Almost all psychologists who have studied the concept agree that collaborative parenting is better than disengaged parenting. Moreover, as noted by Dr. Kruk in his essay, there is a dearth of research to assess the long-term impact of parallel parenting. Given these realities, almost every expert agrees that parallel parenting should be reserved only for cases of “extreme conflict”.
Until today, this Court has resisted parallel parenting as a governing paradigm. It has been and remains the general belief of this Court that collaborative parenting is the paradigm that works best for children in the long run. Our historical experience has been that even when the circumstances of the parties’ separation creates extreme animosity, eventually the parents will come to realize that their love for their children. must supersede their hatred of one another. Whenever love triumphs over hate, there can at least be peaceful co-existence that will ultimately benefit the children caught in the middle.
Unfortunately, this case is different. We are not at all confident that MOTHER and FATHER love N.M. more than they hate each other. The clear message we were sent by the parties during the June 18, 2018 hearing is that neither MOTHER nor FATHER can move beyond their extreme animosity toward each other, even in situations where N.M.’s well-being is relatively obvious. In short, it is our belief that this case represents the type of “extreme” situation where parallel parenting could be the option least harmful for N.M.
Simultaneous with this Opinion, we will be entering one of the most specific Custody Orders ever issued by this Court. Our goal will be to afford MOTHER and FATHER with custody rights that are relatively separate but equal. We use the word “relatively” because affording decision making rights to one parent regarding certain issues is by definition unequal and because issues will always arise in any custody context that require communication and input by both parents. Still, the parallel parenting plan we will adopt today will be intentionally crafted to minimize interaction between the parties. Our hope is that this will lessen the conflict that has caught N.M. in its crossfire. Our additional hope – and we recognize this may be a reach – is that if conflict can be reduced in the short term, perhaps collaboration may be possible over the long term.
Based upon everything that we learned about the parties last October and based upon everything that was presented on June 12, it is crystal clear that the biggest problem in this case involves the extreme animosity between MOTHER and FATHER. Attorney Lamoureux described N.M. as a happy child with a sweet disposition. If N.M. continues to be surrounded by mistrust, manipulation and overt hatred, he will inevitably be affected by it. Accordingly, we will for the first time invoke the concept of parallel parenting with the goal of minimizing contact between the parties in order to lessen conflict.
Before we conclude, we would like to articulate some personal comments to both parties.
To FATHER, we say this:
Last October, this Court afforded you with a sacred trust by giving you 50% custody of your son. You did not exercise your rights, and you did nothing to compel MOTHER to comply with the Court Order. Today, I am giving you a second chance to play an active role in your son’s life. There will not be a third chance.
In life and in parenting, things will not always go the way you want them to go. Today, I have crafted a very specific Court Order and I know that you will not agree with every aspect of it. Live with it or not. That is your choice. However, I warn you that if you again forego your custody rights because there is some detail of the arrangement with which you do not agree, this Court will place MOTHER completely in charge of custody notwithstanding our concerns about her.
This Court believes that your son will need the active involvement of his father as he develops in life. I have given you the opportunity to have that involvement. Not only will a strong relationship between father and son benefit N.M., but it will also benefit you. There is nothing more fulfilling that watching a child achieve success. Don’t let your pride stand in the way of having a relationship with N.M. that is separate but equal to the relationship that MOTHER will enjoy.
To MOTHER, we say this:
This court is well aware of FATHER’s controlling and arrogant demeanor. As I read your text message record, it became apparent to us that you are aware of FATHER’s so-called “buttons” and that you push them often. The inevitable result is that FATHER loses self-control and lets his arrogance control his personality. Time and time again as I read the email record, I concluded that you could have acted in a way to promote calm rationality. Instead, you stirred the pot. The result is what I heard in Court Room 3 on June 12, 2018.
Your life and your future are infinitely more troubled than when I first encountered you. You no longer have a steady job with a respected insurance agency. You no longer have a good relationship with Lebanon County’s premier childcare center. You no longer have a steady source of income. On top of that, your self-proclaimed health difficulties are concerning. In three words, you need help! Until you develop a more stable lifestyle, it will be difficult if not impossible for you to provide an appropriate home for N.M.
I have implored FATHER to make changes in his own life. So too must you. Your primary goal must be to create the type of stability in your own life that you enjoyed back when you were first in Court. Giving FATHER custody of N.M. 50% of the time will help provide you with time and energy to work on your own life situation. In the long run, that is what both you and your son will need.
To both of you, we say this:
Neither of you should perceive that you have “won” this custody fight. In the opinion of this Court, you are both responsible for what MOTHER aptly described as the “mess” that currently exists. For matters to improve, you will both have to moderate your behavior.
No one will “win” this custody battle until N.M. is in his twenties and has avoided criminality, drugs, dysfunctional relationships and irresponsible procreation. If N.M. reaches productive adulthood, then you both will be winners. If he falls prey to one of the many problems that confront today’s teenagers, then you both will be losers. You are in this together. For better or for worse, it is time for you to realize that reality. Good luck.
With the above comments having been rendered, we will issue a Court Order simultaneous with this Opinion to implement the concept of parallel parenting.

1 For the sake of the child’s privacy, we will refer to him by his initials only.

2 We did so when we rendered our decision in Court on October 19, 2017.

3 There was some legitimacy to FATHER’s desire not to directly approach MOTHER’s residence because she has threatened that she would report any contact to FATHER’s probation officer as a violation of his criminal sentence.

4 We thought carefully about using the language of this sentence because it is admittedly extreme. Nevertheless, we have chosen to retain the language about hurting or killing. Unlike almost all other custody cases, in this case the possibility of extreme behavior by one parent against another is not unthinkable.

5 To be fair, the Court asked some of these questions of the parents. The point is that neither felt that these issues were as important as their attacks on the opposing party.

6 We have intentionally used the word arrogance to describe FATHER’s statement. No parent can or should boldly proclaim that he/she “knows how to parent” until their children are 25 years of age and have avoided teenage pregnancy, drugs, criminality, and the multitude of other land mines that can explode in a teenager’s life. Only when a parent can look at a 25 year old child and see someone who has completed high school, who has developed a career, who is working productively at that career, who has healthy relationships with others and who is content with the purpose they have for their lives, can that parent be justified in looking back and saying to himself/herself: “I must have done something right.” With respect to the parties in this case, we are far from that point. To believe otherwise is self-delusion at its worst.

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Ben has written 982 articles for Lebanon County Legal Journal