For many separated parents, finding a system of communication and organisation that enables them to co-parent well is not always straightforward. The system will usually comprise telephone calls, text messages, emails, WhatsApp messages to name but a few. Sometimes the system works well. Other times, it breaks down and can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. So, what can a programme which describes itself as “making co-parenting easier” offer to those parents who feel a little overwhelmed or perhaps in need of some help? Could it be the answer to their communication woes?
In this blog, Family Law in Partnership associate Carla Ditz looks at the key features of the parenting programme, Our Family Wizard, and the benefits it may have for separated parents.
What is Our Family Wizard?
Our Family Wizard (OFW) was created by Paul and Dara Volker, a married couple who both have children from previous marriages. After separating from their former partners, it soon transpired that scheduling plans for the holidays (with their former spouses in mind) was something that was causing them some difficulty. They searched the internet to see if there was a (technological) solution that would enable them to communicate more effectively. It became apparent that there was no such thing. Having experienced family breakdown themselves and living with the realities of co-parenting with their former spouses, this gave them the vital insight required to create an innovative programme “to manage, schedule and share information cooperatively and efficiently”.
Whether or not interaction with a former spouse is difficult, the creators realised that centralising information and communication was key. The programme is designed to assist parents in a number of ways but primarily:
- setting out schedules for children and their day to day activities, as well as
- enabling parents to keep track of expenses, appointments (and medical information), and
- even a section for children’s clothes sizing so each parent can buy clothing and shoes without difficulty (and without having to ask the other parent for this basic information).
The transparency that comes with such a system would hopefully mean that fewer mistakes are made. It may also reduce, to an extent, the opportunity for conflict. By the same token, the openness of the system allows a parent to keep track of a pattern of non-communication where applicable or indeed the tone of communication that takes place.
The programme is available online where users can sign in or it can be downloaded as an app. Details of the pricing can be found on the OFW website. (There may be a fee waiver available for those who are on benefits).
- The Co-parenting Calendar: this provides access to schedules for each child. This will include any extra-curricular activities, contact schedules with parents, playdates and holidays etc. A useful feature of the calendar is that it enables one parent to submit a request to the other parent if they need to swap a contact weekend, for example, with the children and it can impose a deadline for a response so the necessary plans can be made.
- The Message Board: this acts like the home page for message exchange between parents. Messages can be printed out and each parent is alerted when a message is posted.
- The ‘tone-meter’: this acts as a cross-check for parents who are composing messages to identify any potentially inflammatory language. The idea is to encourage parents to rethink the wording they use when writing to the other parent to avoid a possible backlash.
- The Info Bank: information such as the child’s medical history and key medication information, emergency contacts, insurance information, school schedules and reports, clothes and shoe sizes can all be stored in the info bank to make sure it is to hand for each parent. Photographs and other documents relating to the child can also be shared in this secure space.
- The Expense Log: this enables parents to keep track of expenses incurred for and on behalf of the child and for which one parent may need reimbursing. Expenses may include educational costs, medical costs or child support. Payments can be made through the OFW secure pay system or logged if paid by other means.
- The Journal: entries into the journal can be private to the user or shared with other users. This feature (along with the calendar) can be particularly useful for parents who are trying to keep track of how contact is going with the other parent and to document what was said or what happened at drop off for example in high conflict cases.
As mentioned above, OFW can also be downloaded as an app so users can access it from devices other than their home computer.
Security and confidentiality
Naturally, given the nature of the information that would be stored on OFW, parents may have concerns about the security of such information (and perhaps some unease about storing certain documents on the system) and will want assurances in this respect. OFW states that all information is kept confidential (save if the parties require help from Customer Support in which case an adviser may require access to some personal information) and that there are multiple levels of encryption to avoid any security concerns.
From a legal perspective the confidentiality of any order resulting from court proceedings in relation to children is of utmost importance to avoid any breach of the Family Proceedings Rules 2010. It is advisable therefore that the court order itself is not uploaded onto the system unless the permission of the court is obtained and caution should of course be exercised in relation to any other confidential material relating to the child, specifically, documents produced for court proceedings. Having said that, if it is only the parents themselves who will have access to such documents on OFW then in all likelihood a Judge will grant permission to upload these documents given that exposure of this confidential information can be limited to those entitled to view it.
Who can have an account?
One of the key features of OFW is to open it up to other ‘users’, aside from the parents. Access can be modified so that certain features are excluded from view. For example, each child is able to have access to the shared calendar to see the schedule in place. Other family members such as grandparents might also be given access to the calendar. OFW has a special system to accommodate family law professionals as well, such as each party’s lawyer (if relevant) or a family therapist. This enables the client and lawyer to communicate directly using the programme, with the lawyer, again, having modified access and their own login in account. Communications between client and lawyer are of course kept private from the other users.
Who could benefit from OFW?
OFW has a broad appeal. It has been so successful in the United States that in some cases the court orders OFW to be used to manage the communication between the parents. Evidence has also shown that for those parents who have been ordered to use OFW, it has substantially reduced the need to return to court and can help to provide long term solutions. But it is not just aimed at high-conflict cases; any separated parents who need to make arrangements for their children can take advantage of it. Incorporating other users also avoids the need for replicating information or communication and it can also provide insight for professionals who have access to the account.
The system is adaptable. The programme can be as detailed as the parents would like and can help avoid having direct face to face conversations about more sensitive issues such as reimbursement of expenses. For any separated parents, communication is key. Any tool designed to facilitate conversation in what may be a strained relationship could provide the help many parents need. The system can therefore take centre stage for cases involving mediation and contested cases given the neutrality of its application. Further, the intuitive nature of the programme means that it can suit all users no matter how technologically savvy there are!
Using the programme in the early stages of separation could give parents the platform from which they can build their co-parenting relationship during the separation process and beyond. Crucially, it could provide a non-hostile, non-confrontational and non-intrusive environment in which parents can communicate and, as the website states, ‘empower parents to resolve issues themselves.’
More details about OFW can be found on their website.