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Looking at Process and Outcome to Improve an Effective Program

jenshack, August 28th, 2018
I recently had the great pleasure of evaluating Washington D.C.’s Child Protection Mediation Program. The court was interested in getting a better understanding of the issues involved in the process, such as whether the timing of mediation should be changed and whether the process was working for the participants. Therefore, the evaluation was a comprehensive examination of the outcomes and impact of mediation, as well as the program process from referral to completion of mediation.

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 court and professionals agree that mediation at this early stage of the case brings all those involved in the case together at an opportune time to discuss the issues involved and progress that should be made at a time when they normally would not be focused on the case. This allows them to exchange more information, update services and visitation, and ensure that professionals are being held accountable for their tasks. Additionally, mediation is seen as a unique forum for parents to be important in the process and to speak about their concerns and be heard. When mediation is conducted early in the case, the exchange of information and parents’ input help professionals make better decisions. Mediators assist in this process by facilitating the discussion, clarifying and summarizing the points being made, reframing position statements in a more positive way, and, at times, supporting the professionals’ goals for the parents.

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.

The Year in Research: A Review

jenshack, December 28th, 2017

To cap off 2017, I thought I’d look back at what we learned through research over the past 12 months.

We learned that use of motivational interviewing in family mediation in Australia led to a much greater likelihood of the parents reaching full agreement.  As a follow-up, researchers in Nebraska provided insight into how best to train mediators to use motivational interviewing in their practice.

Researchers from the Pacific Rim gave us a new way of thinking about cultural approaches to conflict resolution. Their intake instrument for mediators can be used to understand each individual disputant’s “unique cultural preferences” in the way in which they respond to a particular dispute.

James Wall and Kenneth Kressl delved into mediators’ conscious and unconscious thinking to see how they influenced the mediators’ view of the conflict and how they approached mediation. They found patterns that led them to put mediators into one of three categories: reflective persuaders, pressers and laissez-faires.

A review of restorative justice studies found that victim-offender conferencing, family group conferencing, arbitration/mediation programs, and circle sentencing programs showed promise for reducing recidivism. The researchers also concluded that pre-mediation or pre-conference meetings increased the effectiveness of the programs.

Another review of studies – this time of those that connected mediator behaviors with mediation outcomes – gave us insight into what behaviors might be more effective.  These included eliciting disputants’ suggestions or solutions; giving more attention to disputants’ emotions, relationship, and sources of conflict; working to build trust and rapport, expressing empathy or praising the disputants, and structuring the agenda; and using pre-mediation caucuses focused on establishing trust.

We also found out about the effectiveness of a specific program design for providing services to divorcing families. This Denver-based program provided an array of services to the families, which led to a significant improvement in parental well-being and co-parenting.

On the other hand, courts’ and attorneys’ communication to litigants about their ADR options has been ineffective, according to research in three courts. Despite rules requiring attorneys talk with their clients about their options, only 24% of those surveyed knew that they had the opportunity to mediate their case, and only 27% knew about arbitration.
That’s what we learned this year. Here’s to more insights in 2018!