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RSI Hosts Expert Summit on Screening for Intimate Partner Violence Prior to Mediation

Eric Slepak-Cherney, July 18th, 2019

On June 11, RSI convened a summit of experts in mediation, family law and intimate partner violence (IPV) to help us explore whether and how a tool, such as a website or app, could improve the frequency and quality of mediator screening for IPV prior to mediation. Generally, IPV screening is intended to ensure parties will be safe while coming to, participating in and leaving mediation and also ensure there has not been coercive control that would impede a party’s ability to exercise self-determination in mediation.

Unfortunately, screening is not practiced universally by mediators and approaches to screening vary widely. While some mediators employ sophisticated screening techniques, many mediators do not screen, or rely on factors such as whether an order of protection has been filed to determine whether to mediate. This means some mediators may not uncover critical information and may risk re-victimizing survivors and empowering abusers.

The group of Chicagoland-based and national experts spent the day digging into questions such as whether potential downsides outweigh likely benefits, who would be the audience for this kind of tool and how it might function. One critical question in this project is whether a tool like this is a good idea, or will its potential misuse outweigh its benefits? Overall, the group of experts was positive about the tool while also raising a number of important issues that would need to be considered in developing it.

One major theme was the role the tool could play in increasing mediator knowledge, especially about IPV, how to screen and what to do with the results. The experts valued the idea of giving mediators a thoughtful dialogue guide that would empower them to explore issues around safety and coercive control. They stressed that a tool could be very beneficial if it guided the mediator through the screening process and also provided information, such as how to refer a party for IPV services. Conversely, the group raised concerns about whether a tool could provide sufficient training for mediators to use the tool responsibly.

Relatedly, the group also discussed the usability of the tool. Ultimately, they wanted to create something that a large number of mediators would use, particularly those who are new to mediating family cases or do so on an infrequent basis. A chief concern centered on how long and robust of a guided experience the tool should provide. Finding a balance between making sure a mediator has comprehensive conversations with all parties, on the one hand, and making the guide concise enough that mediators actually use it, on the other, will be a key challenge.

Having identified some of the challenges and barriers, the group brainstormed some features that the tool could employ to address these challenges. Access to resources for the participants would be greatly beneficial, as would educational videos for the mediators. The experts were keen on using visualizations, such as radar charts, as a way to summarize and map participant responses, and identify particular areas of concern.

These are but a few of the takeaways from this informative and collaborative event. RSI is in the process of developing a full report that will summarize the consensus for developing such a tool, and lay out the steps that would be needed to make this tool a reality. RSI sincerely thanks all of the experts who volunteered their time to provide their thoughtful insights, and the FIRST Fund for their support of this project.

                           Images from RSI’s IPV Screening Summit.                                   Photos taken by Gahyun Kim and collaged by Nicole Wilmet.

Facilitating Earlier Intervention in Child Protection Mediation

Eric Slepak-Cherney, June 27th, 2019

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.

Introducing RSI’s Special Topic on Online Dispute Resolution!

Eric Slepak-Cherney, April 26th, 2019

We are excited to introduce our new Special Topic on Online Dispute Resolution (ODR)! With courts across the country exploring ODR at a rapid pace, we sought to develop a resource that would help provide thoughtful context and guidance on how court administrators and stakeholders should approach the intersection of technology and dispute resolution. Containing a history of ODR, considerations for courts and links to other helpful resources, we hope you will find this new content enlightening and will excite you for the future of delivering justice through online dispute resolution.

Saving Homes, Building Understanding

Eric Slepak-Cherney, November 29th, 2018

Resolution Systems Institute is proud to share its latest publication, Saving Homes, Building Understanding: An Evaluation of the Eight Foreclosure Mediation Programs Funded by the Illinois Attorney General. This new evaluation looks at four-plus years of data across eight different programs to provide a comprehensive analysis of foreclosure mediation in Illinois, and to highlight how differences in program models impacted outcomes. (more…)

RSI Hosts Child Protection Mediator Training for Kane County Program

Eric Slepak-Cherney, October 31st, 2018

About eighteen months ago, we trained our first cohort of volunteer neutrals to co-mediate child protection cases in our newest court program. That training was the culmination of nearly two years of program development, in which we developed court rules and program procedures, and brought together stakeholders all in service of a shared vision to offer stability to vulnerable children. Since then, the program has assisted in over two dozen cases, providing a forum for over 150 family members, social workers, GALs and others to work out the roadblocks facing them.

On September 29-30, we trained our second cohort. Though a smaller group than the original, we are astounded at the depth of experiences they bring to the Kane County, Illinois Child Protection Mediation Program. Their backgrounds include running law, mediation and coaching practices, as well as serving in the State’s Attorney’s office. Given these cases often come loaded with emotional firepower and complex interpersonal dynamics, it is a real boon to have such accomplished neutrals with a real diversity of experience.

When we did our last training, I wrote up my takeaways, and thankfully, those lessons held up well! One other lesson we learned from surveys administered following the last training was that people left feeling apprehensive about how prepared they were to mediate these cases. Some part of that apprehension in unavoidable – we were asking our volunteers to step into a brand new program to mediate emotionally fraught, multi-party cases that few neutrals ever have the opportunity to mediate! To the extent we were able to, this time around, we as the trainers addressed that fear more directly: naming it, validating it, sharing stories about times we failed and how we rebounded.

I think we in the ADR field have an archetype of the ideal neutral as someone who confidently controls the room and the process. There’s good reason to hold that standard up, but we also have to remember it takes time, experience and at least some failure to reach that level. If our most recent training reassured our mediators of that so they can more confidently go forward and serve these families, I’m content to call it a success.

A huge thank you to our trainers Stephanie Senuta, Kevin Malone and Susan Yates. We are grateful to the Court Improvement Program and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts for providing the funding to put on this training*,  and to the 16th Judicial Circuit Court of Kane County, Illinois and Flavors of North America International for furnishing the space for this training.

*In September 2015, the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation awarded Resolution Systems Institute $40,000 to develop the pilot Child Protection Mediation Program in conjunction with the 16th Judicial Circuit Court of Illinois in Kane County. That funding was supplemented in July 2016, when the Illinois Bar Foundation awarded RSI $5,000 to support the program’s mediators. Most recently, for the 2018 fiscal year, RSI has been awarded $40,000 from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts’ State Court Improvement Program. Overall, $40,000 of the Kane County Child Protection Mediation Program’s.

Trainer Stephanie Senuta and Kane County Mediation Programs Manager Kevin Malone leading a session during the September training.