Virginia's Judicial System

Child Dependency Mediation: Executive Summary

Child dependency mediation provides a non-adversarial setting in which one or more trained mediators assists the parties in reaching a fully informed and mutually acceptable resolution of cases involving such issues as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, or alcohol and drug abuse by a parent. Mediation focuses on the child's safety and the best interest and safety of all family members.

Child dependency mediation has been used as a successful alternative to litigation in many states across the country since its inception in the 1980s. Many studies have shown that up to 89 percent of mediated child dependency cases reach at least a partial settlement of issues and take less time than litigated cases. Removal of an abused or neglected child from the home environment can be a stressful and frightening experience for a child. This generally occurs at a time when the child is going through several vital developmental stages and needs a stable, consistent environment. Mediation, when compared to adjudication, can be less injurious to the family by decreasing the trauma to the child and utilizing the parents' motivation to seek help during a family crisis.

In the interest of exploring the benefits of child dependency mediation, the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia funded three pilot dependency mediation projects for the 2001-2002 fiscal year. These projects were implemented in the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County and the City of Lynchburg Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts. Each program experienced difficulties in obtaining cases. The main program challenge was obtaining the endorsement, or "buy-in," from all the parties, such as lawyers for the parents, and representatives from the department of social services. As one would expect with any new program, each party questioned if dependency mediation was in his best interest. Each site indicated that additional time in the planning stage would have been helpful. Each site experienced a significant increase in referred cases in the second half of the grant, but at that point the sites were too far into the grant to reach their caseload goals.

Despite these limitations, preliminary analyses revealed that approximately 77 percent of the mediated cases reached either full or partial agreement. This success rate is on the high end of what other studies have reported. Also, even including cases that did not reach a settlement, 96 percent of mediation participants indicated that they would use mediation again and would recommend mediation to others. Regarding the length of mediation, approximately 71 percent of mediated cases took only one session, and 65 percent took three hours or less to resolve.

In addition, the project generated valuable observations and recommendations for future child dependency mediation efforts in Virginia. These include the vital importance of judicial leadership and support as a catalyst for success. Another recommendation is that child dependency mediation be a permanent part of the court's infrastructure with a court coordinator assigned to assist judges with identifying appropriate cases for mediation. A planning phase of adequate length is seen as necessary to provide education about the benefits of mediation for judges, lawyers, department of social service representatives and others involved in the mediation process. Education is important to get the endorsement of all parties involved before any actual mediation occurs. Education should continue after the planning stage to accommodate new professionals in the courts, bar and social services who become involved with the mediation process. Finally, mediators should be required to receive specific training and certification regarding issues and policy considerations important to child protection cases.