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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Survey of States Points to Widespread Unmet Need for Family ADR and ODR

Jennifer Shack, November 2nd, 2020

Resolution Systems Institute recently surveyed state court and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) administrators to gather information about the status of family mediation and family online dispute resolution in their states. The survey was part of a larger project, funded by the JAMS Foundation, we are doing that explores the potential for online dispute resolution (ODR) to help thinly-resourced parents to resolve their disputes, particularly in courts and communities that also have limited resources. The purpose of the survey was to understand the landscape of family ADR and ODR in the states, to learn about their efforts to provide ODR and, for those who had implemented ODR, to gain insights from their experience. 

The survey responses tell the story of the haves and have-nots. Some states have everything in hand when it comes to ADR, but about half of those who responded see an unmet need for both in-person and online services. They lack the funding and resources to make this happen. Their responses, too, indicate that they are interested in providing greater access to services.

Background

To prepare to distribute the survey, we conducted an exhaustive search for a contact person within the state court administrative office in each state. For those states for which we couldn’t find a contact person, we attempted to locate someone else within the state who would have knowledge of the statewide status of ADR and ODR. In the end, we sent surveys to 36 states and Washington, DC, of which 33 were to statewide court or ADR administrators. People from 24 states and Washington, DC, completed the survey. The responses are skewed toward those with statewide ADR offices, as 14 of the 23 states represented in the survey, as well as DC, have statewide ADR offices. This is 62% of the respondents. In contrast, of the total possible sample of states (and DC), only 39% (20 of 51) have ADR offices. 

For the survey, we defined ODR broadly as both video-conference mediation like Zoom and formal ODR platforms like Modria or Matterhorn. We also asked the respondents to concentrate on family dispute resolution for parents and courts with limited resources. That is, for parents who are not able to pay for dispute resolution services and courts that lack the resources to provide these services at no cost. 

Findings

All but two of the responding states have at least one staff person dedicated to ADR part-time. However, having an ADR office makes it more likely that the state court administrative office has full-time staff dedicated to ADR. Ten of the 15 states with an ADR office have at least one full-time person dedicated to ADR; only three of the ten states without an ADR office have full-time staff dedicated to ADR.

In the majority of represented states, the state provides some form of funding. However, these states range from minimally supporting to fully supporting ADR for court users. As with staffing, those states with ADR offices are more likely to provide some support for ADR programs. All but one of these fund ADR in some way, with ten providing ongoing funding. In contrast, only six of the ten states without ADR offices provide any funding for ADR in the courts. Of these, two provide ongoing support.

Face-to-face (or in-person) mediation is available in all states represented in the survey, although it is available statewide in only 63% of them. With the need to adjust to COVID-19, states have made the switch to video-conference mediation, with almost half providing this statewide. Text-based platforms are much less widely used. Only seven states have such a service, and none has made it available statewide. 

While face-to-face mediation is available in all states, more than half of the respondents said there was an unmet need for mediation in their state for parents with limited resources. Most of these said they lacked the funding and mediators necessary to meet that need. More than half said they required stakeholder buy-in and about half said leadership was needed. 

Almost all states have either implemented ODR statewide (in the form of video-conference mediation like Zoom) or are in the process of implementing it. The two most common reasons for pursuing ODR are to increase access to justice and to respond to the restrictions placed on in-person services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding appears to be the tricky spot for them, with eight respondents saying either they have yet to figure out funding for long-term maintenance or that individual courts were going to have to figure it out. 

Despite the increased availability of online services, almost half of the respondents said there was an unmet need for family ODR, with another third saying that they weren’t sure about the need for ODR in their state. Those who said there was an unmet need said that to meet that need their state needed funding, staff time and technical support, followed closely by leadership, stakeholder buy-in and mediators.  

Conclusion

While both in-person and video mediation are widely available in the responding states, more than half of the respondents see a need for greater resources to provide access to dispute resolution services to parents with limited resources. In all, most of the respondents held a positive view of ODR and its role in providing dispute resolution to parents and areas that are not well served by mediation. This is evident in the relatively widespread adoption of video-conference mediation.  

Parents See Conflict Reduction and Relationship Benefits from Mediation in Massachusetts

Jennifer Shack, March 2nd, 2020

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. 

Perceptions of Trust-Building in Family Mediation

Jennifer Shack, November 26th, 2019

A small study of family mediation in Spain paints a picture of what parties and mediators believe promotes the parties’ trust in the mediator and points out differences in perspectives between the two groups. Identification of these differences can lead to improved training and professional practice, according to the researchers (Joan Albert Riera Adrover, Maria Elena Cuatrero Castaner, Juan Jose, Montano Moreno). They discuss this in their article, “Mediators’ and Disputing Parties’ Perception of Trust-Building in Family Mediation” (Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 2019).

For the study, the researchers recruited mediators from a single mediation provider organization. The mediators notified the parties of the research project at the outset of the mediation. If the parties consented to participate in the research, a researcher would meet with the parties at the end of the third joint session and had them complete a survey. Mediators also completed a survey at this time. In all, 31 mediators and 54 parties participated in the research over the course of a year. The mediators were primarily lawyers with an average of 1-6 years’ experience .

The researchers found eight factors which the parties were significantly more likely to say built trust with their mediator than compared to the mediator group. These were:

  • The mediator is familiar with legal aspects relating to the dispute
  • The mediator suggests an alternative or a way out of the dispute
  • The mediator provides candid and frank input about the dispute
  • The mediator does not linger too long on the dispute but advances toward its settlement
  • The mediator is appointed by an authority, such as a reputed judge
  • The mediator shows an interest in the parties’ mutual concerns and focuses on their common goals
  • The mediator highlights the rules of mediation
  • The mediator talks to the parties about informal matters as opposed to just talking about the dispute

Most of these should not be surprising. Indeed, for all of the above factors except suggesting an alternative and talking about informal matters, a majority of the mediators agreed with the parties about their importance for building trust. However, it does reinforce the notion that trust is about more than just rapport. Parties in this study trusted mediators who focused on resolution and presented alternative options to the parties.

It should be noted that there were numerous other factors for which a large majority of both mediators and parties said built trust. These included the mediator’s listening skills, fairness, impartiality, demeanor and capacity to understand the dispute. These all should be familiar to anyone involved in mediation, as they are generally considered necessary for trust-building.

This research is unique in that it matched up mediator and party perspectives on trust. It can help mediators to know what they should be emphasizing as they attempt to build trust. However, it was limited by a small sample size and lack of qualitative follow up to help elucidate the mediators’ and parties’ thinking.

Wisconsin Assembly Considers Bill that Would Require Proposed Parenting Plans to Be Submitted Before Mediation

Nicole Wilmet, May 28th, 2019

In Wisconsin, in any family law cases, including cases where legal custody or physical placement is contested, parties are required to attend at least one session of mediation. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement during this initial mediation session (or if mediation has been waived due to hardship or safety concerns), the parties are then required to file a parenting plan with the court. These parenting plans are required to contain a variety of information including the type of legal custody or physical placement sought, the child support and maintenance needed, as well as information on the parent’s current residence, employment, how the child’s medical expenses will be paid, and a proposed holiday placement schedule for the child.

The Wisconsin Assembly recently introduced a bill that would modify the parenting plan requirements and the timeline for mediation. Under the proposed legislation, each party would be required to submit a proposed parenting plan at least ten days prior to the initial mediation session. As a result, under this new schedule, mediators would discuss the content of these proposed parenting plans with the parties during their initial mediation session. The proposed bill also makes changes to the required contents of the parenting plans. Under the proposed bill, parenting plans would no longer be required to include information on the type of child support and maintenance sought or contain information about how the child’s medical expenses will be paid. Instead, the proposed bill would require parenting plans to include specific details about the various costs expected to be incurred by or on behalf of the child. In a recent video, Representative Robert Brooks and Senator Lena Taylor further discuss this bill, as well as four other proposed bills that address child custody and support.

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…)