To conduct the evaluation, I interviewed parents and judges, observed mediations and court hearings, developed post-mediation surveys and analyzed court files and program data. RSI Executive Director Susan Yates and I also conducted focus groups with groups of professionals who participate in mediation (guardians ad litem, parent’s attorneys, Assistant Attorneys General and social workers) as well as with program mediators. The results of the evaluation, Improving an Effective Program: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Child Protection Mediation Program, pointed to the program effectively achieving its goals, but needing to address some issues surrounding the program process.
Mediation in this program is mandatory and is supposed to occur within 30 days of the initial hearing. The goals for mediation, as expressed by the attorneys, social workers and judges, are to:
- Make progress on the legal issues in the case and reach agreement on the stipulation (an agreement as to the facts of the case that takes the place of trial)
- Help parents to understand their situation and their responsibilities going forward
- Increase professionals’ understanding of the case, the parents and the family’s situation
- Enhance communication among the professionals
- Provide parents with an opportunity to talk about their concerns and be heard
The results show that the program is generally achieving its goals. Of significance, parents who mediate are twice as likely to stipulate before trial as those who don’t mediate. Further, it is likely that they are more compliant with services, although limitations to the data make it impossible to state this with certainty. Limitations to the data also made it difficult to draw conclusions about mediation’s effect on time to permanency. The evidence, however, points to mediation not having an effect on the time it takes for a child to have a permanent home.
Other results indicate that the percentage of mediations ending with a signed stipulation declined from 2013-2014 to 2017, from 44% to 25%. This was most likely due to a policy change at Child and Family Services Agency in 2015, which judges and professionals said led to only the most challenging cases being brought to court. Despite this, approximately half of the mediations in 2017 ended with some progress on the stipulation.
Importantly, both parents and professionals are gaining understanding through mediation. Almost all parents who completed surveys after mediation said they better understood the points of view of the others at the mediation, as well as what they had to do next. The vast majority of professional participants who completed surveys believed that they gained understanding of others’ points of view and the parents’ situations. In their survey responses, almost three-quarters of parents said they trusted that those involved in their case wanted to do what was best for their children. Parents who were interviewed shed light on the effect of mediation on their level of trust in the professionals. Half of the parents interviewed trusted the professionals before they participated in mediation. Mediation for them was an opportunity to see once more that they could trust them. Of the other half, three entered mediation lacking trust in at least one of the professionals and nothing in mediation led them to change their minds; while for a two, mediation did change their minds from seeing the professionals as being against them to learning they could be trusted.
More than three quarters of the parents were satisfied with the mediation and 83% believed it was helpful to them. Both parents and professionals believed they had an opportunity to talk about what was most important to them and that they were understood. Most parents believed the mediator and, more importantly, the professionals, treated them fairly and with respect. All professionals believed that the mediator treated them fairly and with respect.
Despite the success the program has in achieving its goals, the program process can be improved. One such opportunity lies in the timing of mediation. There was general agreement among professionals that mediation shouldn’t take place within 10 or 15 days of the initial hearing because enough time needs to elapse in order to make the most effective use of mediation. Mediation too soon means that not enough time has elapsed for new information to be available or for parents and professionals to have started taking the steps required of them in the initial case plan. Without these, discussion in mediation is less productive. On the other hand, there was little interest in extending the deadline much beyond 30 days because some of the benefits of mediation are lost if it takes place too late. Generally, almost all professionals thought mediation around 30 days was an ideal time. Despite this, about 1/3 of mediations were scheduled either within 15 days or after the 30-day deadline. It was recommended that the court increase the deadline to 40 days so that more mediations could be held after 15 days had elapsed, but still not too late to keep the case moving forward.
The biggest complaint among the professionals in the focus groups was that mediations didn’t start on time. A review of the data found that most of the time, the delay is due to either a professional or parent arriving late. The mediation was often further delayed because a parent’s attorney needed to speak with his or her client. The recommendation to address this was to require that parents and their attorneys arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled time for mediation.
After speaking with the professionals and mediators in focus groups, it became clear that everyone could benefit from opportunities to learn from each other as well as others, and that many wanted this to happen. The focus groups became an opportunity for the participants to find out how their peers were approaching issues in mediation, and to find out what was possible. The focus group participants talked about wanting to gain more information or to explain to others what their own role is. Mediators mentioned areas of uncertainty for them. Professionals discussed areas in which they felt mediators could improve. All of this points to a need for an ongoing education program for both professionals and mediators, which was recommended.
The mediation program was first put in place in 1998 as a pilot. It has evolved over time, but hadn’t been comprehensively evaluated in more than a decade, and those evaluations were outcome-oriented, meaning that the process hadn’t been examined in a methodical way. This evaluation demonstrated that looking at both outcomes and process were essential to assessing the program and determining what could make it better.
For a quick take on the evaluation, see the Executive Summary.
For a full discussion and all statistics, see the Full Evaluation.