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For Family Cases Involving Reports of Intimate Partner Violence, Shuttle and Videoconference Mediation Are Safe, Effective and Preferred by Parents

Jennifer Shack, March 1st, 2021

In a randomized controlled trial of family cases involving parents reporting high levels of intimate partner violence (IPV), parents felt safer in and were more satisfied with shuttle and videoconference mediation than litigation. Importantly, they also indicated a preference of shuttle mediation over videoconference mediation. The study, conducted in Washington, DC, by Amy Holtzworth-Munroe, et al., is discussed in their article “Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and Family Dispute Resolution: A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Shuttle Mediation, Videoconferencing Mediation, and Litigation” (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, February 2021).

For the study, the researchers compared traditional litigation (n = 67 cases), the process used for all cases prior to the study, to shuttle mediation (n = 64 cases) and videoconference mediation (n= 65 cases), two approaches designed to protect parent safety. All parents referred to mediation by the court were first screened for IPV by specially trained Dispute Resolution Specialists (DRSs). Based on the screening, the DRSs identified cases as being potentially eligible for the study if the IPV reported by either or both parents was at a level that the case was considered inappropriate for joint mediation. Cases were considered ineligible if: the case involved an open child abuse case or required other emergency interventions due to immediate danger; a parent lived too far away to participate in mediation in person, was deemed incompetent for mediation (e.g., acutely psychotic), was incarcerated or had a pending criminal case that would interfere; or the parents were in a same-sex relationship (pilot work revealed that there were too few same-sex cases for study purposes). Eligible parents were then randomly assigned to one of the three groups.

Mediators were trained in both shuttle mediation and video mediation and were assigned to both types of mediation. In both shuttle and videoconferencing mediation, parents were in different rooms in the same building but not near one another. In shuttle mediation, the mediator met in person with each parent separately and shuttled back and forth between rooms. The parents never saw or spoke directly to each other; all communications were through the mediator. Mediators assigned to shuttle mediation had no discretion to change the process format.

In videoconferencing mediation, the mediator was in a third room. Both parents and the mediator had access to a web camera and a computer screen and could see and hear each other on the screen. The mediators took regular breaks to check to see if each parent was comfortable with continuing with the three-way videoconference or if they wanted to move to either only audio (with other parent and mediator) or to communicate individually by video with the mediator. Mediators could make such changes if concerned about parent safety or emotional wellbeing, and parents could turn off the video equipment in their rooms at any point.

Mediator Assessment of the Approaches

In 41.3% of videoconferencing cases, mediators said they had private, in-person meetings with one or both parents. Mediators were most likely to hold such meetings to get forms (e.g., agreement to mediate) signed by the parents. In 71.7% of videoconferencing cases, mediators reported holding private, individual video meetings with one or both. Mediators reported that these meetings took place to help the mediation process (e.g., when a parent was behaving inappropriately) or to help parents process what was happening.

Immediately after mediation, the mediators were asked to complete a survey. They were asked their perceptions of the mediation in terms of their own and each party’s safety, their own and each party’s comfort, about their feelings of safety and comfort as well as their perception of each parent’s safety and comfort and their perception of the appropriateness of the process used for that case.  Mediators felt equally safe in both mediation approaches and perceived both as being similarly safe for mothers and fathers. They had similar perceptions about comfort in mediation, although they indicated feeling more comfortable and satisfied in shuttle mediation as compared to videoconferencing.

In 90% of cases, mediators believed shuttle mediation was appropriate for the case. This was significantly lower for videoconference mediation, which they said was appropriate in 78% of cases. Mediators also were significantly more likely to say that cases in videoconference mediations should have been handled with a different approach than that cases in shuttle mediation should have been handled differently (58% vs. 35%). Unsurprisingly, the mediators believed mediation had a greater effect on the parents’ ability to reach agreement when they conducted shuttle mediation than when they conducted videoconference mediation.

Parent Assessment of the Approaches

Parents were asked to assess the process in which they participated immediately after conclusion, including traditional litigation. Parents felt safer and less fearful in mediation than in traditional litigation, with no difference between the two mediation approaches. Parents in mediation were also more satisfied with the process than parents in traditional litigation, again with no difference between the two mediation approaches. Asked whether they believed the process used for their case was appropriate for their case, parents in mediation were significantly more likely to agree than were parents who participated in traditional litigation (87% vs. 76%). As with safety and satisfaction, parent perception of appropriateness of videoconferencing and shuttle mediation did not differ significantly. A similar pattern was found in their response to nine questions that assessd the positive effects of the process, such as feeling heard, able to express feelings efficiency, fairness, parents being held accountable.

Interestingly, there were no differences in parents’ satisfaction with the outcome or whether the process was helpful in resolving the issues among the three approaches. However, among those who reached a final resolution, parents who mediated using either approach were more likely to believe that the parents would follow the resolution terms than those who went through the traditional court process. There was no difference in parents’ responses between the two mediated approaches.

Outcomes and Time

Videoconferenced cases were half as likely to reach agreement as cases in shuttle mediation (43% vs. 22%). Through coding the content of the document that resolved case issues (i.e., the mediated agreement or the court order), the researchers found no statistically significant group differences in legal custody, physical custody, or parenting time arrangements and few differences in the likelihood of the document specifying a variety of arrangements (e.g., how to handle missed parenting time) or including safety provisions (e.g., supervised child exchanges).

However, there were statistically significant differences across groups for some specifications in the resolution document that might help decrease risk of violence. These differences indicate that mediation might result in more details regarding issues related to possible safety. Specifically, final documents for cases that had mediation were more likely than final documents for cases in traditional litigation to: address interparental communication at all (56 vs. 31%); agree to limit interparental disputes in the children’s presence (44% for mediation vs. 14%); include aspirational language about interparental communication (e.g., parents will try to have civil discussions; 38% vs. 8%); and agree to limit parents’ passing of messages to one another through the child (35% vs. 10%).

The researchers found that mediated cases also fared well in terms of the time needed to resolve a case. Cases that went through the traditional process took 3 times as long to reach final resolution as mediation cases.


The researchers conclude that “in cases with parents reporting concerning levels of IPV, when both parents are independently willing to mediate, mediation designed with strong safety protocols and carried out in a protected environment by well-trained staff may be an appropriate alternative to court.” (Taken from the article abstract.) They state that their findings do not definitively favor either shuttle or videoconference mediation. However, they note there are suggestions in the data that shuttle mediation might be preferable, as it was more likely to lead to agreement and mediators seemed to prefer it. They suggest that as COVID has put restrictions on in-person processes, future researchers could examine shuttle mediation via video technology.  In the meantime, “longer term outcomes and additional research are needed to more clearly understand if videoconferencing mediation, as structured in this study, is as safe and appropriate as shuttle mediation for cases reporting high levels of IPV.”

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.


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. 


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.  


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.

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