Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tech Tools for Joint Parenting Part 2: The Software

The programming available, of which this blog explores a limited number, runs the gamut from basic calendaring geared toward parents to joint parent planning, scheduling and accounting tools for professionals to highly sophisticated interactive collaborative platforms. If the goal is to reduce parental miscues and conflicts then read on:

Basic Calendaring Systems

Parents can select a variety of systems attached to popular email programs such as those provided by Outlook, Google, Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail. These have the benefit of being accessible and synced to your email. However they do not address the need for clear scheduling even amongst the routine changes life brings and how to communicate in a way that reduces stress and minimizes potential disputes.

Shared Ground is a good straightforward calendar tracking system. It has an intuitive interface and comes with several standard parenting plan templates that can then be modified to suit your needs. The schedules are color coded and when planning time such as vacations, it will alert users to any conflicts so that you know to contact the other parent in advance to coordinate the schedule. There is a secure on line forum to allow communication between authorized users and a feature allowing instant notes to be attached to the calendar with an email notification system so users can receive regular updates to the calendar. The software also has a basic time with each parent percentage calculator. The cost is $14.95 per month for full access, $4.95 per month for view only licenses. This software is available for licensing to attorneys and mediators who can use it to establish plans and to share with clients. The company charges various fees ranging from $59.95 to $399.95 (depending on the size of the organization) for an Enterprise License which is geared toward family law professionals. There are also monthly access charges that apply under the Enterprise licensing and note that when professionals share the plans with their clients, their clients will need to pay the above mentioned standard access fees.

Pros: Standard Joint Parenting Templates, Color Coded by Parent, Highlights Conflict Alerts
Perfect for those who need a basic calendaring and notification system.

Cons: Relatively higher cost, lack of additional features such as financial tracking, percentage calculators and database for contacts and vital information

Joint Parenting Planning, Scheduling and Accounting Tools for Professionals
The Parent Time calendar is a different type of software and it’s more geared toward family law professionals. This is a program that calculates parenting plans in great detail and tracks overnight visits and day visits with hourly precision. It can be customized to provide an impressive array of reports to help parents see how the plan operates over time and helps parents calculate percentages of time the children are with each parent. In some states, child support is based on the amount of time or the number of overnights a child spends with each parent. The level of detail also allows parents to calculate the amount of quality time each parent is spending with their child. Some states require this information. This program takes the guess work out of figuring these percentages out and allows parents to input their parenting schedule in a clear calendar format many years out. This is not an online product but is meant to be loaded onto your computer. The cost of Parent Time is $50.00 for a one year version of the program and $60.00 for a two year version of the program. This feature easily enables parents to see how alternate year vacation, holiday and birthday day scheduling would work in reality. You can also order the program without the quality time calculator for $40.00.

Pros: Sophisticated time calculations, clear scheduling, relatively low cost, allows professionals to serve multiple clients, two year scheduling

Cons: Limited to a calendaring, time tracking system only, can only print out schedules no on line access lacking many of the more sophisticated features of other programs, not designed to provide parents real time communication platforms as they implement parenting plans.
Kidmate is a program to assist lawyers, mediators and parents as they negotiate parenting plans. Like Parent Time, Kidmate comes with sophisticated calculations software that allows parents to see the percentage split based on overnights, total time, quality time or day counters. These percentage views give greater detail and in states that use such methodologies to base child support on it is a very useful tool. The program also comes with a financial calculator that allows parents to negotiate child expenses. A unique feature of this software is that it comes with a Record Keeper which helps parents document the past history of the timesharing schedule and it allows lawyers to log details about the case and print them out. The cost is $95.00 and unlike many online programs it is designed to be installed on your hard drive. Plans and reports can be printed and shared.

Pros: Highly detailed time calculations, ability to input past schedule, comments section, a time saving tool for professionals in high conflict cases in states where percentage time calculations are needed, adds financial calculation feature

Cons: Not available on line for real time communication between parents and professionals, limited to calendaring, past parenting plan calculations and finances.

Sophisticated Interactive Collaborative Platforms

Joint Parents is a site that has a lot of utility. The service costs $99.00 per user per year. The site features a custody calendar that allows parents to input the schedule many months, if not years in advance. Parents can schedule email alerts, reoccurring events and allows parents to auto-schedule and accept events on the calendar. The site also has a message board that allows parents to discuss ongoing issues with one another, a section to input the child’s daily schedule to allow parents to integrate and share household rules with one another, a contact messenger so that parents can share contact information for babysitters, friends, extracurricular activities, relatives, etc. and a photo library allowing parents to post photos and keep up to date on what their children are up to. There is a medical manager that helps parents keep track of medical providers and insurance information. A nice feature for parents who need to track expenses is an expense sharing program. Any parent who has tried to track and reconcile child-related expenses will appreciate this feature. Joint Parents also recognizes that it is possible in today’s blended family environment for there to be children who share multiple families and allows parents to use one account to manage their multi-family parenting and ensures that no information is shared between the other families. The site is working on a phone application of the program.

Pros: Easy interface, in line pricing, financial tracking, house rules section, multi-family scheduling

Cons: No third party reduced fee access
Share Kids has some unique features. It costs $10.00 per month/ $100 per year or a lifetime access for $500 and guest access is free. This software contains many of the same features of other similar programs: shared calendars, mail messaging, events and activities scheduling medical information, shared contacts, photo uploads, etc. However, this software also includes financial tacking of spousal support and child support in addition to shared expenses. Perhaps most interesting, it has an upload feature for agreements and court orders. This allows parents to search for a rule by keyword or topic so there is no need to read the entire agreement to find the rule you are looking for. Other documents can be stored as well such as birth certificates, report cards, etc. It also contains a log/diary feature that might be useful. The site has a chat room feature that allows parents and their guests to talk online instead of calling. The guest feature allows parents, teachers, mediators, attorneys, etc. to access the information.

Pros: Searchable document database, free third party access with customized permissions on what information can be accessed, chat room feature

Cons: No percentage of time calculators, the web site is not as user friendly, need to sign up for an account to see it in action
Our Family Wizard has taken the concept of a family calendar and really beefed it up. It has expanded the traditional uses of this type of software to address the needs of military families who are trying to manage separation issues and Elder Care issues. The organization has a very clear understanding of the many ways that their online system can be used by parents, therapists, parenting coordinators, guardians ad litem, mediators, attorneys and courts. The interface is user-friendly and makes it easy to set parenting schedules, alert parents to requests for schedule changes, emails alerts and notifications, tracks finances, has a central repository for your contacts, medical information, school and extracurricular activities and online file storage for documents. The program is designed to find and alert parents to schedule changes; it uses a notification and color coding system, which recognizes the biggest potential for miscues between parents is when parents make schedule shifts and changes and seeks to reduce conflict between them by documenting the changes clearly.

The cost for Our Family Wizard is $99.00 per year per parent, or $179.00 for a two year subscription. There is a discount for military families. The system gives children free accounts that allows children to look at the shared calendar and receive notifications and remainders about the schedule, even a place to create journal entries. Third party accounts are free and also restricted along the same lines as the child accounts. Professional accounts are also free. Professionals can also offer the software to their clients at a slight discount if they are willing to purchase the program in bulk. The more accounts pre-purchased, the larger the discount. The added utility of creating an account and accessing this information on behalf of your clients allows professionals to organize the parenting schedule, upload court orders, agreements or other documents, review compliance and communication issues and stay on top of the co-parenting situation without having to duplicate efforts in gathering critical information.

Pros: Sophisticated programming, thoughtful design, powerful organizational tools, geared toward reducing miscommunication, free third party access

Cons: No percentage time calculator, documents not searchable by topic or key word

A comparison chart of several of the features of these Parenting Tools can be found here:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tech Tools For Joint Parenting

A large part of any family mediation practice involves helping parents sort out communication issues. Often times, the frustrations of shared parenting get in the way of allowing parents to focus on their children. All parents want to be the best that they can be for their children. In rational moments, they also know that if they can support each other’s efforts to co-parent, their children will reap the benefits of a more stable and in-tuned joint parenting environment.

There are many reasons why joint parenting is difficult. In separation, divorce and post-divorce cases, parents have often separated amidst difficult circumstances. An atmosphere of miscommunication, mistrust, misrepresentations and mixed signals pervades difficult parenting situations. Sometimes existing orders or parenting schedules are unclear, language is imprecise or the paperwork doesn’t cover all contingencies. Parents are frustrated by many wasted hours trying to gain clarity and children are caught up in a confusing living environment that each parent knows is not optimal.

In these situations, clear communication about the parenting schedule, finances, upcoming events and appointments for the children would help to minimize difficult family dynamics. Gathering all information together in a central location helps build a record of the existing situation that will better help parents organize their information and track existing issues. These features are present in many specialty parenting software systems available today. Increasingly, this software has emerged as a very useful tool for helping to make joint parenting easier.

The software helps clarify the weekly schedule, not just what the agreement or order says but also allows parents to input current information about the child’s daily schedule, color codes transitions, alerts parents to schedule changes and asks for reconciliation of schedule conflicts. This makes accounting for swapped days much more accurate. Parents can also ask for email reminders and notifications of events. Some programs are more sophisticated and include chat areas, daily logs, document upload areas, databases for contacts, academic and medical information and a few provide financial tracking and reconciliation.

These tools are powerful aids for those of us who help families improve their communication and attain certainty around joint parenting issues. They establish a forum of clear communication and accountability. By eliminating many of the most common areas where dispute can arise, they help minimize stress between parents.

Most of the software being developed for joint parenting requires parents to have on-line access to use the software, much of it is encrypted to ensure data remains secure, but check each site to verify their level of access and security.

The software comes with a cost, but considering the price of a disagreement – both financial as well as emotional, this is software that may be well worth the investment.

Next Post: A snap shot of some of the programs currently on the market