Custody and parenting time mediation in Massachusetts is providing parents with multiple benefits while facilitating agreements. The most recent evaluation of the Parent Mediation Program in four counties, published by the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration in 2019, found that 74% of mediations ended in an agreement. Additionally, parents reported multiple benefits beyond agreement, including a reduction in conflict, better conflict resolution skills, greater civility and better communication.
Services for the program are provided by community mediation centers, who conduct intake with the parents and are contracted to provide one session at no charge to the parents. If additional sessions are needed, the parents agree to pay the center on a sliding fee schedule. For the evaluation, mediators were asked to complete a report after each mediation session. Additionally, mediators asked parents to complete a survey after the last mediation session (150 parents across 80 cases did so) and center staff conducted phone interviews with 94 parents in 70 cases four to ten weeks after mediation ended.
During fiscal year 2019 (July 2018 – June 2019), 141 cases were referred to the centers. Almost 2/3 of these referrals were from the courts and the rest were from the community. During this same time period, 129 mediations were completed. In 74% of these, some form of agreement was reached: 30% full agreement, 34% partial agreement, 16% temporary agreement). In surveys, 93% of parents said they needed to devise a parenting plan, and 77% said that mediation either fully (43%) or partially (34%) helped them with that. In their reports, mediators indicated that mediation led to progress on the parenting plan in a similar percentage of cases, at 80%.
Parents and mediators were asked about other benefits experienced through mediation. In surveys, parents said that conflict between them and the other parent was diminished in about 2/3 of the mediations, an assessment with which mediators agreed – stating conflict was diminished in 69% of mediations. This benefit appeared to last for weeks after mediation for many parents, as 53% of those who were interviewed said that conflict continued to be reduced.
Similarly, more than 2/3 of surveyed parents reported greater civility between them and the other parent. Again, this benefit remained over time, with 50% saying that they and the other parent treated each other with greater civility. Most parents also said that their communication had improved, with 72% of those surveyed saying so and 54% of those interviewed weeks later agreeing. It’s not surprising, then, that 70% of surveyed parents, and 54% of those who were interviewed, believed their skills for resolving conflict had improved.
While research has shown these benefits to be important for the emotional well-being of the children, this study points to another effect. Nearly half of surveyed parents said that less conflict with the other parent and 33% said better communication with the other parent would help them to financially support their children.
Reduced conflict and better communication did not necessarily lead to greater involvement with their children, however. Roughly half of those who were surveyed said that the other parent’s time with the children decreased and 20% said there was no difference. In interviews, parents continued to see little to no difference in the other parent’s involvement in their children’s lives. Nonetheless, 36% of custodial parents reported that the other parent’s involvement was greater than before.
The many benefits identified by parents were likely one reason they had a positive experience in mediation. Fully 97% said they would use mediation again and 99% would recommend it to others. Large majorities also thought the mediator was fair and unbiased (84%), listened well to their concerns (82%), identified relevant issues (80%) and helped generate ideas (78%).
The full study includes more background information on the level of conflict between the parents (29% had a high level), complications between the parents, demographics and the parents’ custodial status.