August 31, 2018, will mark the end of an era at RSI. Our five-year foreclosure mediation grant from the Office of the Illinois Attorney General will come to an end.
This grant, which we received 15 years into our operation, was our opportunity to prove that when given sufficient resources, RSI could deliver the kind of quality court mediation program that we had been recommending to others all those years. I used terms like “practice what we preach,” “proof is in the pudding” and even, “put up or shut up!”
At that time, we promised to:
- Work with courts and other stakeholders to design and operate three foreclosure mediation programs in three judicial circuits in northern Illinois
- Develop and conduct training for mediators in our programs and those operated by our partner organizations farther downstate
- Develop an online system to collect data about the programs enabling us to produce regular statistical reports and two comprehensive evaluations
I am happy to report that we delivered!
In the process, we confirmed some maxims about how to do quality court ADR and added a few corollaries.
- Study first
Before we start working with a court on their ADR program, we update our knowledge of the particular area in which we will be working. In this situation we researched what was happening across the country with foreclosure and how courts were using alternative approaches.
Corollary: Sometimes you have to build the plane while flying it. In the midst of a national foreclosure crisis, courts across the country were scrambling to keep up. While it was helpful to see what others were doing, we needed to figure out how to do foreclosure mediation in a way that worked in Illinois courts with their particular needs and resources.
- Work with stakeholders
We know that it is critical to bring together all the stakeholders while developing a court ADR system so that their various needs can be considered. In foreclosure mediation, the usual stakeholders – judges, court administrators, mediators and lawyers for both lenders and borrowers – were joined by a new addition: housing counselors, who were critical to the success of many of the programs.
Corollary: As important as it is to have all the voices heard, in the end, judges often have to make decisions about exactly how court ADR programs will work, and these decisions may not satisfy everyone. Fortunately, RSI doesn’t “have a dog in the fight,” so we can offer unbiased, expert advice about pros and cons of various approaches.
- Value the people who do the work
Never underestimate the importance of visible, capable staff. These programs are being continued because of dedicated program coordinators, who kept the cases moving and kept the courts informed of program progress, and because of skilled mediators who worked with intelligence and compassion in the midst of foreclosure – which is a crisis for each homeowner, even once the nation’s crisis has abated.
Corollary: These programs are not easy to administer. Juggling spinning plates is an apt metaphor for the challenge of administering programs with sometimes complex court rules that apply to everyone from sophisticated lawyers to overwhelmed homeowners.
- Collect and use reliable data
Turning data into meaningful information means different things to different stakeholders at different times. In the foreclosure mediation programs, we produced everything from monthly statistical reports for judges about numbers of cases in their programs and how they were being resolved to a mega-evaluation of all the programs that compared strengths of the various approaches and made recommendations about how each might improve.
Corollary: In a situation like this one in which every program was different, finding ways to make “apples to apples” comparisons was critical. Doing that successfully allowed RSI to make recommendations for improvement from a place of knowledge, not opinion.
Success and a New Era
September 1st will mark the beginning of a new era, as all three of our foreclosure mediation programs continue to operate thanks to the support of their local courts! We take this as the surest sign of success, that the courts value these programs enough to find a way to continue them when outside funding ends. We are grateful to the Attorney General for supporting these programs, to courts for their partnership and to the skilled mediators for conducting the mediations. We are pleased to continue to provide services to homeowners and their lenders when foreclosure looms.