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Ensuring Safety in Family Cases: Screening for Intimate Partner Violence

Jennifer Shack, August 28th, 2015

While the debate continues as to whether cases in which a party has alleged intimate partner violence (IPV) should be mediated, new research adds to the evidence that current screening may not be identifying all family cases in which violence has occurred in the relationship. As discussed in, “Detection of Intimate Partner Violence and Recommendation for Joint Family Mediation: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Two Screening Measures” (21 Psychol. Pub. Pol’y & L. 239) [subscription required], the researchers found that when ADR program staff used a common type of screening procedure, reports of IPV were lower than when using a screen that asked more specific questions about what occurred in the relationship.

The researchers worked with the Multi-Door Courthouse (MDC) in Washington, DC, which has its own set of questions to ask parties to determine if IPV exists and whether it does to an extent that would make joint sessions unwise. In a randomized control trial, the staff used either their own instrument or the Mediator’s Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns (MASIC) to screen 741 individuals (330 pairs and 81 individuals). The main difference in the screening tools is how specific the questions are about behaviors. For example, the MDC screen asks, “Has there been violence in your relationship?” Instead of this broad question, MASIC asks parties ten specific questions about that violence, such as whether the other person has hit or punched them, burned them with something, slapped them, etc. The MASIC screen is further differentiated from the MDC screen by asking parties how often the behaviors occurred in the last year rather than asking only whether they happened at any point during the relationship.

The study found that parties were more likely to report physical violence using the MASIC screen. It was reported in 55.4% of MASIC-screened cases and only 38.8% of those in which the MDC screen was used. Further, the staff was much more likely to identify a case as high risk when using MASIC to screen for IPV than when using the MDC screening procedure. For either screen, staff recommended against the use of joint mediation (in which the parties are in the same room together) in high risk cases at the same rate. This meant that though staff was just as likely to recommend against joint mediation when the case was determined to be high risk, more MASIC-screened cases were seen as high risk (21.37% v 11.45% for MDC-screened cases) and thus more of these cases were considered to be unsuitable for joint mediation.

The implication of the study is that parties who may be at risk are likely being sent to joint mediation, even in a program with a well-established protocol that is meant to screen them out. What about programs in which there is less control over the mediators, as in court-related programs that use roster mediators paid by the parties? In many of those programs, no standardized process exists, making the identification of cases involving IPV up to the individual judge and mediator.

It’s not enough for courts simply to require that family cases are screened for the presence of IPV. Instead, courts should adopt a protocol for screening cases that is used by all mediators. The protocol should include a uniform screening instrument. Given the findings from the above research, courts should consider using a screening tool that asks questions about specific behaviors, such as MASIC, which has the added benefit of having been tested in the field. The protocol should also include what to do when cases involving IPV are identified. For example, should all such cases be barred from mediation? If some are allowed to proceed to mediation, how should the mediation process be adapted?  Should the parties have a voice in this decision? RSI has long recommended the protocol put in place by Michigan. This is a good place to start for courts to create their own.

The questions surrounding whether to mediate cases involving IPV and, if so, how to structure those mediations, are complex. The more those questions are addressed in a uniform way, the more control a court has over family cases that are mediated.  For more information about how to create a family mediation program that guards the safety of those attending mediation, read Rene Rimelspach’s excellent article, “Mediating Family Disputes in a World with Domestic Violence: How to Devise a Safe and Effective Court-Connected Mediation Program” If you’re interested in gaining a better understanding of the types of IPV and the implications for mediation programs, look for Joan Kelly’s and Michael Johnson’s article, “Differentiation among Types of Intimate Partner Violence: Research Update and Implications for Interventions.”

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One Response to “Ensuring Safety in Family Cases: Screening for Intimate Partner Violence”

  1. Nichola says:

    The elephant in the room with mediation involving IPV is of course intimidation, like trying to nail down a shadow.

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