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Archive for the ‘Program Evaluation’ Category

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.

Evaluation of ADR in Michigan

Jennifer Shack, July 2nd, 2018

In 2011, an evaluation of Michigan’s court-connected case evaluation and mediation programs found that both case evaluation and mediation increased the probability of settlement, but that case evaluation significantly increased time to disposition. A newly published follow-up study, The Use of Case Evaluation and Mediation to Resolve Civil Cases in Michigan Circuit Courts: Follow-up Study Final Report (Courtland Consulting, May 2018), came to the same conclusion.

Case evaluation, in which a panel of expert neutrals makes a recommendation as to what the case should settle for, is mandatory for tort and medical malpractice cases. Mediation in most jurisdictions is voluntary, and can be used in conjunction with case evaluation. The study looked at a random sample of 358 cases (221 torts cases, 137 other civil cases) from three jurisdictions to determine what ADR process was used, the means by which the cases were resolved, and the time to disposition for each case.

The study found that for tort cases, there was no statistically significant difference in the form of disposition among the different options: no ADR, case evaluation only, mediation only, or both case evaluation and mediation, with a range of 71% (no ADR) to 92% (mediation) ending in a settlement or consent judgment. For other civil cases, both case evaluation and mediation (and both together) had higher rates of settlement than those cases that did not use ADR (47% for no ADR, 79% for case evaluation and 80% for mediation). The difference appears to be in the higher rate of dismissal/default judgment for cases in which no ADR process was used (49% v 21% for case evaluation and 13% for mediation). For both torts cases and other civil cases, time to disposition was considerably longer when case evaluation was used than when either mediation or no ADR was used.

When compared to mediation, case evaluation started later in the case and averaged longer to disposition from the point at which the ADR process ended. The delay could be attributed to case evaluation being rescheduled more often, although it wasn’t clear whether it was rescheduled without having been held or whether more than one session was needed.

While the findings regarding case resolution and time to disposition were similar to the 2011 findings, the lawyers and judges who responded to a survey about their perspectives on case evaluation indicated they were less satisfied with this process. Judges in particular were less confident in the effectiveness of case evaluation, with the percentage of judges who believed it was effective dropping from 69% to 53%. Attorneys had a much smaller dip, from 49% to 43%. Similar drops were seen in the percentages who would use case evaluation if it wasn’t mandatory. The percentage of judges who said they would use it dropped significantly, from 83% to 66%, while the already small percentage of attorneys who would in 2011 (36%) dropped to 29%.  The attorneys’ opinion of case evaluation was reflected in their comments about the panels. They complained that the panels lacked experience, were unprepared, were biased and did not address the merits of the case.

On the other hand, the judges’ and attorneys’ already high opinion of mediation remained steady. In 2011, 89% of the judges said mediation was an effective way to resolve disputes, compared to 93% in 2018. Attorneys were also much more likely to say mediation was effective than to say that case evaluation was, with 77% and 78% saying so in 2011 and 2018, respectively. While they had a high opinion of mediation, only 53% of attorneys said the mediators were highly skilled.

The comparison results were limited by a couple of factors. The cases that did not go through ADR processes were not similar to those that did. They were commercial cases, which are less complex, involve lower value claims, and require less discovery than other civil cases. Further, mediation was voluntary in most cases. This means the sample of mediation could be skewed by self-selection, in that the parties who decide to mediate could have been more motivated to settle and/or to settle early.

 

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…)

Getting the Story Right with Data to Make the Right Decisions

Jennifer Shack, October 20th, 2016

I’m a data geek. I love poring over data and running analyses to see what story unfolds. On the national level, data can tell us the story of our rise as an industrial power and how that changed how people lived and worked. On a local level, it can tell the story of how the closing of a factory affects the fabric of a community and the institutions that bind it. For foreclosure mediation programs, the data can tell the story of how homeowners are affected by changes to the program. Thus, I was eager to find out how changes to the court rules in the 19th Judicial Circuit of Illinois at the beginning of this year would play out. What story would the data tell? (more…)

Maryland Research Offers Insight into What Works (And What Doesn’t) in the Mediation Room

Jennifer Shack, June 29th, 2016

I had the honor of presenting at the Maryland Judiciary’s ADR Research Symposium a couple of weeks ago. The purpose of the symposium was to inform judges and court personnel of the results of a six-year research project examining ADR programs and processes. It reminded me of just how well Maryland has planned and implemented its ADR system. Because it serves as a model, I’d like to provide a little background about this before discussing the research. (more…)