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Archive for the ‘Child Protection Mediation’ Category

Participants Are Highly Satisfied with Nevada’s Child Protection Mediation Program

Jennifer Shack, July 1st, 2019

Last month, I talked about a new evaluation of child protection mediation in Michigan. I’m following this up with a 2017 evaluation of child protection mediation in Nevada. Both evaluations were of several programs taking place throughout the respective states, but their focuses are quite different. Where the Michigan study primarily examined time to permanency, the Nevada study focused much more on participant experience in the mediation and process issues.

The Nevada study, “Process Evaluation of Nevada’s Statewide Dependency Mediation Program,” by Shamini Ganasarajah, et al, of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, found high levels of satisfaction with mediation and agreement, as well as a possible impact on whether scheduled hearings after mediation were cancelled. The study also found that there was no difference in satisfaction rate based on the stage at which mediation occurred, but that satisfaction was higher when mediation resulted in agreement as compared to when it did not.

The study looked at mediation in seven counties. In these counties, mediation can be used at any point of the case. However, most cases used the mediation program at the termination of parental rights (TPR) stage, which is at the end of the case. (This finding regarding the timing of mediation is skewed somewhat by one county using mediation almost exclusively at the TPR stage.) Time in mediation averaged two hours.

Those who participated in mediation were asked to complete post-mediation surveys. For the purposes of this study, these people were divided into program participants (these are natural parents and foster parents) and system stakeholders (the attorneys and case workers involved in the case). During the study period (July 2016 through April 2017), participants completed 113 post-mediation surveys and stakeholders completed 267. In their responses, 84% of the participants and 98% of the stakeholders expressed satisfaction with the mediation program. Their satisfaction was statistically related to whether they reached agreement in the mediation.

The participants (family members) were highly positive about all aspects of the mediation. All of them thought the process was fair. Almost all said they were able to voice their opinions, were treated with respect and were able to be a part of finding answers to the problems discussed. Almost 90% said the others really listened to them. For all practical purposes, these responses did not vary based on whether they were foster parents, natural mothers or natural fathers.

The evaluators analyzed whether there was a relationship among the participants’ responses. One that stood out was that when participants believed others in the mediation had “really listened” to what they had to say, they were more likely to express satisfaction with the mediation regardless of whether an agreement was reached.

The stakeholders (attorneys and caseworkers) were also highly positive about the mediation, with all or almost all believing the process was fair, that they had an opportunity to express their opinion, were treated with respect, were listened to and were able to be a part of finding answers to the problems discussed.

Interestingly, both participants and stakeholders were most likely to mention communication as what was most helpful about the mediation. Both groups were also most likely to say that parties being unable or unwilling to compromise was the reason no agreement was reached.

Also interesting was that the mediators reported agreements in 84% of cases, while the stakeholders reported that agreement resulted from only 71% of their mediations. There is no explanation as to why. The study also found that hearings were cancelled after 51% of the mediations were held. The evaluators recommended further examination of the relationship between mediation and vacated hearings.

Other recommendations included expanding the use of mediation to all stages of the case, as most mediations occurred at the TPR stage; assessing implementation of domestic violence screening protocols; and enhancing mediator training to include additional strategies for effectively listening to participants and stakeholders and making them feel heard.

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.

Study of Child Protection Mediation in Michigan Finds High Rates of Satisfaction, Permanency Effects

Jennifer Shack, May 29th, 2019

The Michigan State Court Administrative Office recently released its report on child protection mediation (CPM) in the state. In Michigan, CPM is conducted by community mediation centers associated with the courts. The study looked at CPM at five of these centers, which collectively provide services for 24 counties. It focused on descriptive statistics, participant and stakeholder perspectives, and time to permanency. The report found that CPM participants have positive perspectives on the process, that stakeholders are largely supportive of it and that it reduces time to permanency.

Mediation in the five sites (Gaylord, Jackson, Marquette, Petoskey and Traverse City) is voluntary and primarily takes place early in the case, on average within 60 days of the filing of the petition. In the five sites, the number of mediated cases during the study period (January 2016 – October 15, 2018) ranged from six to 105.

Petoskey and Gaylor had participant experience data. In both, participants responded positively to each survey question asked. In Petoskey, participants said that they had the opportunity to express themselves, gained a better understanding of the issues, felt respected and felt the process was fair to them. In Gaylord, they had similarly high ratings for those topics, and also said they felt safe and believed the mediator was neutral.

The study included data from surveys statewide that asked those going through the traditional process and those going through CPM how satisfied they were with their experience. On three metrics, parties who went through CPM gave slightly higher ratings: case resolution, staff courtesy and courtesy of the judge.

The researchers interviewed ten stakeholders for the report. The stakeholders were asked about their perspectives on the effectiveness of CPM. The majority believed that CPM resulted in significant time and cost savings. They also felt that mediation was effective at improving family permanency and the parents’ relationships with child protection workers. On the other hand, they had some reservations about how often parents comply with mediation agreements.

The interviewees were also asked their perceptions of other parties’ willingness to participate in CPM. Their responses indicated that stakeholders were consistently likely, or very likely, to be willing to participate in CPM, with child protection workers relatively willing and guardians ad litem extremely willing to do so.

The researchers compared the average time to permanency in the CPM study sites to those in comparable sites that did not have CPM. They found variation in the time to permanency among the five sites, as well as the comparison sites, with Petoskey having a much longer time to permanency than any of the other sites. Overall, however, they found that time to permanency was 50 days shorter on average in CPM sites than in the comparison sites. The researchers also found that cases in the CPM sites were more likely to close within 2 years than those in the comparison sites. Again, there was significant variation among the sites.

It isn’t clear from the data provided that CPM was the cause of the shorter time to permanency or the higher closure rate. In Traverse City and Jackson, which had the shortest times to permanency, a very small percentage of cases was mediated (6 mediated cases, 145 cases closed for Traverse City and 9 cases mediated, 133 cases closed for Jackson), which calls into question how much of an effect CPM was on permanency at those sites.

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.

Reflecting on RSI Focus Groups in Washington, DC

Susan M. Yates, March 1st, 2017

Last week I had the honor of accompanying Jennifer Shack, RSI’s remarkable Director of Research, to Washington, DC. Jen is the principal investigator on an RSI evaluation of the child protection mediation program[1] in the DC Courts. I came along to facilitate the focus groups that are part of the evaluation. Each of the focus groups brought together a distinct group of lawyers who participate in mediation regularly: Guardians ad litem, lawyers for parents and prosecutors. The focus groups provided insight into how differing interests shape how mediation is perceived.

I found that my mediation skills, honed over many years, made it easy to shift into the role of focus group facilitator. Asking open-ended questions, encouraging everyone to participate and keeping the conversation moving were all familiar. Unlike mediation, the group didn’t have a goal of reaching agreement and I found that to be kind of liberating! What was more surprising to me was that it was difficult to remove my trainer/teacher “hat.” When a participant made a comment based on a misunderstanding of mediation, I had to resist the urge to engage in a conversation to educate the participant about mediation.

The groups of lawyers came from very different perspectives and often had different goals for mediation. (more…)