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Takeaways from a Child Protection Mediator Training

Just Court ADR, February 6th, 2017

On January 20-21, RSI put on an advanced two-day training for the mediators in our new Child Protection Mediation Program operating out of Geneva, IL. This training was the culmination of our efforts to put in place a dynamic and collaborative new forum to address child abuse and neglect cases in Illinois’ 16th Judicial Circuit Court. Based on the outcome of the training, I feel confident that our new program will be a huge boon to Kane County, the jurisdiction which the program serves. I also am glad to have taken away some ideas about how to create a better mediator training event, which I get to share with all of you.

Child protection cases involve a child who has been removed from their home following a substantiated claim of abuse or neglect, the state (through the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Department of Child & Family Services), the child’s family and guardians, and a guardian ad litem. The ultimate goal, typically, is to reach permanency, or the conditions under which a child can live in a safe, stable and permanent home. When possible, courts will show a preference for biological parents to raise their children. However, sometimes parents are not necessarily in a position to do that, and the state will require parents to get certain services, such as educational classes and various forms of counseling, and maintain certain conditions, e.g. stable employment and housing, before their children can be returned to them. Under more severe circumstances, parents will lose guardianship, or perhaps their parental rights altogether. Mediation in child protection cases allows family members to address underlying issues in their relationships, caseworkers to work with families on services and next steps, and all participants to explore what is the best outcome for the child.

Our program is lucky to have found ten very qualified, dedicated mediators who will be volunteering their services. While these mediators all had some familiarity with the abuse and neglect court process, and are experienced mediators, none have had an opportunity to mediate these types of cases before–which is very understandable, given that this program is only the third of its kind in the entire state (and unlike say, divorce mediation, there is no real corollary outside of the court system that would furnish these mediators an opportunity to practice). We were thus tasked with designing a training curriculum that could take their mediators’ skillsets, and apply them to the child protection context, while providing them the necessary background on what these cases look like in Kane County.

Trainer Stephanie Senuta provides trainees insight into the various topics that typically come up in child protection mediation.

Trainer Stephanie Senuta provides trainees insight into the various topics that typically come up in child protection mediation.

Luckily, we had some aces up our sleeves. RSI Executive Director Susan Yates has over 20 years of experience training mediators. Kevin Malone, who will manage this program and co-mediate with the volunteers, showed the trainees how to apply one’s mediation skills in this new setting. We also had a great deal of help from Assistant State’s Attorney Lark Cowart, and a group of attorneys, caseworkers and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (who serve as the guardian ad litem in Kane County) to help us role play a mediation session.  And most instrumental was Stephanie Senuta, a seasoned mediator who for many years worked for the Cook County Child Protection Mediation Program, and was able to bring to this training a wealth of insights, anecdotes and inspiration. Together, everyone really brought the training to life by adding to the trainee’s substantive knowledge and providing real-world examples that better prepare them for what they face ahead.

Walking away from that training, I have a few insights I think are worth sharing with other programs who are looking to train a group of neutrals, be they child protection mediators or any other kind:

  1. There’s no substitute for authenticity. For as much hard work as our staff put into this training, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful had we not had real stakeholders there to flesh out our simulations and lectures with real examples and insights into the thought processes of the people at the table. An added benefit as a training designer is that you probably won’t have to write a script for these folks – they’ve got more than enough material to improvise! That being said, it does take work to get these people into the room. Hopefully, you’ve been seeking buy-in from them since day one: it’s particularly important in programs like this one where there are a lot of repeat players whose participation is essential to productive mediation sessions. Offering your stakeholders regular meetings and inviting open communication are tremendously helpful in overcoming potential hurdles that your program will face, and building a sense of rapport that generally serves programs well. If you’ve been doing that, you’ll hopefully have at least a handful of people so excited about your program that they’re more than willing to lend their knowledge and acting skills. Throwing in a free lunch doesn’t hurt.

  2. Adapt. During the training, Susan told the trainees, “This is the only time where you will mediate these cases without real stakes on the line. So it’s a great time to try something new you wouldn’t normally do.”  As trainers, a similar flexibility and willingness to divert from the script is also a huge asset. No training curriculum in the world can cover every single topic that a mediator might encounter when they sit down at the table (which underscores the need for continuing education, a topic I’m sure I’ll touch on in future posts). The goal of training mediators for a program, particularly a new one, should be to give them the tools they need to feel comfortable handling these cases in a safe and appropriate way. To the extent you see a gap between your planned curriculum and the mediators’ progress on that goal, you should not be afraid to do a little tweaking on the fly, and steer your mediators toward success.
  3. Do, See, Hold. It’s easy when you have a room full of veteran mediators, some of whom may be retired judges, or attorneys or other professionals with decades of experience, to assume they are immune to pedagogical razzle dazzle. The truth is, we all benefit from dynamic instruction, particularly when we are trying to absorb a lot of material in a condensed period of time, a scenario no doubt familiar to mediator trainers and trainees alike. A slide presentation, while a good way of capturing and organizing information, can get monotonous, and offers the pupil a mostly passive experience. Giving them a physical manual they can manipulate, even if it is just the same content as the presentation, allows for a higher degree of interaction. Better still if the manual gives them different content, or includes blanks for them to fill in. For our trainings, role play simulations and small group exercises serve a critical function in teaching — and also give the trainees a break from hearing our voices! These methods are far from an exhaustive list, but no matter how you approach training, it’s good to take a step back, look at your agenda, and think about whether the mix of instruction methods you utilize is conducive to absorbing the information.

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One Response to “Takeaways from a Child Protection Mediator Training”

  1. Jim Alfini says:

    As a former resident of Kane County and RSI Board member, I am very pleased with this program and very much appreciate Eric’s insights.

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