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Chute & Ladders: Timesharing Plans When a Parent May Be Impaired

Categories: Parenting, Parenting Through Divorce,

By Wendy Coughlin, Ph.D.
Family Mediator and Parenting Coordinator

We've all been there: Mom accuses Dad of being an alcoholic. Dad accuses Mom of being mentally ill. What to do? How can you best protect the children?

Parenting Plans (PP) must consider this issue, whether or not the accusation has been validated. You can best protect the child(ren) by building in safeguards that provide contingencies for if, and when, a parent appears impaired and unable to care for the child(ren). A well-constructed PP can eliminate the need for emergency hearings, temporary cessation of parenting time, and long waits for a judge or magistrate to rule on the obvious (impaired or not). Developing timesharing phases that are based on a parent's abstinence, or proven capacity accomplishes what would otherwise be left to lengthy (and expensive) court proceedings.

If you ever played the children's game, Chutes and Ladders, you already have the concept: when you achieve a higher number (or more days of abstinence/capacity), you go up the ladder (more parenting time); when you land on a problem, you go down a chute (less parenting time).
Here is a basic outline:

Phase I: Supervised timesharing only.

Phase II: Unsupervised timesharing during the day in a public place.

Phase III: Unsupervised timesharing in the parent's home during the day.

Phase IV: Unsupervised timesharing including overnights.

Phase V: Optimal timesharing as stipulated in a settlement agreement.

The time it takes for a parent to progress from Phase I to Phase V is negotiable dependent on many factors; for example: degree of past impairment, legal status, age of the children, living environment of the impaired parent, etc. Progress from one phase to the next can be determined simply by calendar time when there is no evidence of impairment or it may be contingent on identified factors supporting capacity (e.g. clean urine drug tests, mental health evaluations, polygraph reports, etc.). Standard in all Chutes and Ladders Parenting Plans is the contingency that any confirmed evidence of relapse results in the parent returning to Phase I and having only supervised timesharing. The advantage to this type of PP is that it immediately protects the child while maintaining the parent/child relationship. There is no need to suspend timesharing until a judge determines that timesharing must be supervised (which could take weeks and sometimes months); supervised timesharing begins immediately.

Determining if an individual is impaired due to alcohol or other drugs is a relatively simple matter for an addiction specialist. Multiple test options are available to check breath, saliva, urine, blood, hair or nails. Medical providers can order the tests to be completed through outside labs, courts often have testing facilities available, or certified addiction professionals may have testing materials in their office. The responsibility for getting the testing done falls on the accused who wishes to maintain parenting time. A best-practice payment strategy requires the accused to pay for the testing up front and absorb the costs if the tests confirm substance use and for the accuser (parent requesting the test) to absorb the costs if the tests are negative. Some of these tests can cost hundreds of dollars; without this stipulation, an innocent parent could go bankrupt simply proving his/her innocence.

Other types of impairments are more difficult to assess and monitor. If the impairment is due to a health-related issue, consultation with the treating healthcare provider is recommended to establish signs and symptoms of parenting capacity or incapacity. With younger children, this is most important as young children do not have the ability to report concerns. Older children may be better able to report; however, they should not be placed in the position of determining whether a parent's mental health is impaired or another factor is putting them at risk. It is best to provide monitoring details for all children. A healthcare provider can provide updates to both parents, a Guardian ad Litem (GAL), or Parenting Coordinator (PC) to confirm a parent's stabilization from seizures, postpartum depression, mobility factors, etc. A mental health expert can assess recovery from a major depression episode, compulsive gaming, abusive parenting philosophies, etc. Mental health concerns are exceedingly complex and may require longer phases, more specific treatment requirements, and elaborate details to define capacity to parent safely.

The goal in providing a Chutes and Ladders timesharing schedule is to provide everyone involved with a mechanism to insure the safety of the child(ren) while enabling them to enjoy ongoing timesharing with both parents. A Chutes and Ladders Parenting Plan provides a parent legitimately concerned about the co-parent's parenting, defined tools to monitor the other parent's capacity. It also provides a parent whose capacity has been challenged defined criteria to continue timesharing and increase parenting time. Everyone benefits from addressing substance abuse and other impairment issues directly in the Parenting Plan.

By Wendy Coughlin, Ph.D.
Family Mediator and Parenting Coordinator

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