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New program to study mediation in custody disputes

July 19, 2011

A joint project between the University of Notre Dame Law School’s legal aid clinic and the College of Arts and Letters’ Center for Children and Families will examine the effectiveness of mediation in child custody disputes – specifically the success of educational programs required by the courts and whether the type of mediation used makes a difference.

Margaret Brinig, the law school’s associate dean for faculty research, is one of the project’s principal investigators. She said little follow-up research has been conducted about whether mediation works in custody disputes.
 
“We know how many cases go to court, but we don’t have any good measures on people’s satisfaction with how much they learned, or whether or not mediated agreements work better than litigated outcomes over the long run,” Brinig said.

The project will test the success of education about healthy ways of resolving conflict and whether success is impacted by who serves as mediators – student lawyers or a combination of lawyers and other professional students like psychologists or social workers.

“We’re dealing with custody disputes that are referred to us by the courts here in St. Joseph County,” Brinig said. “They’re either couples who are divorcing and can’t resolve custody themselves, or they’re paternity actions where the couple has never been married, perhaps never lived together.”

Parents will be randomly assigned to a control group or to a treatment group. The control group will complete the normal requirement: watching a film about the negative effects of parents fighting in front of their children and other issues in the post-separation parenting process. The treatment group will participate in a psycho-educational program about conflict management. Both groups will undergo mediation through the legal aid clinic’s mediation program.

Michael Jenuwine, clinical professor of law and co-principal investigator, leads the mediators – law students sometimes teamed with social work or psychology graduate students. Participants will respond to surveys at various points in the study and their responses will inform future studies.

The study is slated to begin August 1. The project is funded by a research grant from Notre Dame’s Strategic Academic Planning Committee. Co-sponsors include the College of Arts and Letters and the law school. The law students will receive credit through the applied mediation course.
 

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