In 25 years as a family law attorney, Deetta Steinmetz has seen mediation be very successful between opposing parties. Agreements reached through two parties working together often endure better than orders handed down by a judge.
However, Steinmetz, a trained mediator, was frustrated that follow-up services were often not provided. No matter how much she, like any other mediator, helped the parties understand the interests and views of the other side, once the agreement had been reached and the mediation ended, no aftercare was offered.
Especially in the arena of family law, a change in the dynamics of the relationship can upend the mediated agreement and become a major point of contention. Steinmetz believes follow-up support could help families make adjustments and find peaceful resolutions rather than starting a new round of disputes.
Pulling from that experience, when Steinmetz set about designing a new family law mediation program at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, she included post-mediation support services. And she focused the entire program on peaceful conflict that creates an atmosphere of cooperation.
Steinmetz left private practice for the chance to build the mediation program at the clinic. She started with a clean slate then incorporated the elements she learned and saw in her practice that foster a good mediation.
She has never started a program from scratch and is apprehensive. But as the director of the Project PEACE (Peaceful Engagement And Conflict Education), she is also excited about the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
“The primary thing, if they get nothing else, is to have the understanding and the idea there is a different way to live – a different way to look at conflict and life that is beneficial to the individual, the family and the children” Steinmetz said.
Coffee and brainstorming
The journey that led Steinmetz to the clinic began two years ago at a collaborative law seminar. She was immediately taken with the dispute resolution method, a sister concept to mediation, and was determined to add it to her practice.
However, finding other trained collaborative attorneys proved more difficult than expected. Steinmetz went to the clinic to volunteer, thinking she could get the collaborative experience she wanted at the nonprofit.
When she invited Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic Executive Director Josh Abel for a cup of coffee to make her proposal, she unknowingly interrupted a conversation the staff had long been having. The family law area in the clinic has never had the adequate resources needed to effectively serve the clients, according to Abel, and the staff has often mused that if they had the resources, they would offer services aimed at helping low-income families settle their disagreements outside of court.
The meeting for coffee spun into Steinmetz and Abel brainstorming possibilities. This, in turn, led to Steinmetz joining the clinic and launching Project PEACE.
Both Abel and Steinmetz advocate mediation because of the possible consequences of resolving family issues in a courtroom. They called it a hurt-filled process that just creates more animosity between the parties who, once the case is settled, are expected to work together on certain issues.
Steinmetz has found that family law cases are becoming more adversarial. She concedes her perception may be a result of being worn down from years in practice, but she feels parties are becoming angrier. There is now an expectation, even an acceptance, that the family law litigation will be ugly and painful.
“I feel our family law system, our traditional system, makes things worse rather than better,” Steinmetz said.
The family law cases coming into the clinic would benefit from mediation, Abel said. For example, when a change in work schedule disrupts a parent’s visitation with the children, the two parties really just need to sit down together and figure out a new schedule.
With Project PEACE, the goal is to provide the mediation as well as give the parties the skills they can use to circumvent future fights over family issues like custody arrangements, parenting time and child support payments.
Reducing the wait
Mediation is mediation, explained Allen Circuit Judge Thomas Felts. It works with individuals and families regardless of income, education and upbringing.
Allen County courts have seen the success mediation can bring among a diverse group, which bodes well for Project PEACE.
The county was the first in Indiana to introduce a mediation program in 1997 as part of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program in Domestic Relations created by the Indiana General Assembly. This program allows counties to collect a $20 fee from filings for legal separation, paternity or dissolution. The fee then goes into a separate fund to be used for mediation, arbitration and parental counseling in the county.
In addition to mediation services, the county has expanded the program to include mediation days and arbitration afternoons which open the courthouse to individuals needing a one- or two-hour session to workout a situation.
Within a few months of the mediation program being implemented, the court’s calendar became lighter. The wait time to get into court was reduced from a year to five or six months. Moreover, Felts said the agreements reached in the sessions have withstood the test of time, keeping people out of the courts.
“I think people were just ready for it,” the judge said, explaining the program’s success. “People recognize the benefit of mediation.”
As Steinmetz designed Project PEACE, the program will have three phases that center around the concepts of forgiveness and communication.
Phase One will be a workshop for the parties getting ready to enter mediation. The participants will be tasked with finding a way to extend an olive branch by examining their own feelings and motivations, and by trying to understand the interests and emotions of the opposing party.
Attorney and current seminary student Amy McCabe is volunteering to draft the curriculum and will facilitate the sessions.
Phase Two will be the actual mediation that follows ADR rules, with a focus on the relationship. The parties will draw upon the forgiveness and communication skills they learned in Phase One as they work toward an agreement.
In the mediation process, the clinic will remain the neutral entity. It will neither advocate nor provide legal assistance to either party.
Phase Three will be the follow-up support. The aftercare is envisioned as taking the form of discussion groups and peace mentors that, again, reinforce the skills taught in Phase One. Monthly discussion groups or support meetings would be available to the parties whenever they want to attend. The peace mentors will be trained volunteers who provide a shoulder to lean on and someone to talk to, just like a comforting friend.
Steinmetz plans to start offering the Phase One workshops by June. Eventually she would like to see the program grow to include collaborative law and become available to anyone needing help, regardless of income.
While she conceded not everyone will want to participate, she is confident the program at the clinic will benefit many.
“I think there’s going to be a decent amount of people who will go through the process and be grateful,” Steinmetz said. •