Since 2017, RSI has been mediating cases involving families in the child welfare system in Kane County, Illinois. In these mediation sessions we focus on the dynamics within the family, such as communication between family members and how their relationships with one another impact the children. Our roster of volunteer mediators also address issues involving family members and the professional stakeholders, such as the Department of Child and Family Services caseworkers, guardians ad litem, and attorneys; for instance, we assist parties in clarifying what services family members should be receiving and the logistics therein.
Many of these cases, unfortunately, linger in the child welfare system for a long time. There is robust evidence suggesting that children experience more adverse effects the longer they are in foster care, or without permanency (finding these children a stable, long-term home and support). Another unfortunate outcome of cases lingering in the system is that as cases languish without resolution, the parties often become disillusioned. When these sorts of cases are referred into mediation the neutrals often find themselves with a nearly insurmountable challenge: finding common ground between parties who have years of negative interactions between them.
One way our program is trying to combat this problem is by intervening at an earlier stage in the court case, in what will be called “facilitation” sessions. Modeled off similar sessions we observed in Cook County, Illinois, our goal for these facilitations is to help better orient the family to what they can expect from the court process as well as to build rapport between family members and professionals. The role of the mediators in these sessions is still to facilitate a conversation, but one that is centered less on exploring a potential agreement and more on the exchange of information and answering questions. This seemingly simple objective has the potential to prevent major conflict down the line by providing clarity about the Child Protection process and establishing positive relationships early on.
We are still finalizing details about what exactly these sessions will look like, but we expect them to take place very soon after the children have been removed from the home. One challenge this presents is helping family members navigate the shock and raw emotions of this experience, and presenting information in a way that can be absorbed in spite of the overwhelming circumstances they face. We’re also mindful after having evaluated the DC Child Protection Mediation program that conducting a mediation session too early can run the risk of duplicating the family team meeting, which is why we want to have a clear purpose for facilitation and distinguish it from the mediation sessions we conduct later in the process.
In spite of these potential pitfalls, we are hopeful that the facilitation session will be another powerful tool in navigating these fraught cases. We are operating in a context where, among all states, Illinois ranks last in time to permanency. Everything we can do to help bring the focus on the kids and their needs stands to help ameliorate this unacceptable status quo. We welcome the input of any and all of our colleagues for suggestions on how we can get the most out of these sessions.