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Johnson County ADR program sees uptick in caseload

May 6, 2015

Every day, a program in Franklin works with families struggling with divorce, custody battles and child support disputes. The goal is to help resolve arguments, get cases through the court system faster, and help families move on.

In nearly a decade, the county’s court mediation program, also called the alternative dispute resolution program, has doubled its number of cases. Last year, the program took on nearly 700 cases, director Dustin Matern said.

That mainly includes divorces, paternity cases and parenting coordination, such as with visitation issues. And even though the number of divorce cases filed has fallen during the past couple of years, other cases are on the rise, local officials said.

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Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said there’s been an increase in the number of resolved cases coming back, such as if a parent is looking to increase child support payments or wanting to move elsewhere and has to settle issues with visitation. He has an active case involving a couple that has been divorced for more than a decade but has been back to court six times.

Often, instead of trying to resolve all of a family’s issues in a court hearing, the cases can instead go to the mediation program. The program uses multiple mediators to work with the people involved in a case and try to reach agreements on issues they can’t agree on, Matern said.

When the local program began in 2006, Matern and two other attorneys were the only ones doing mediations. Now, they use 13 to 14 attorneys to help with the caseload.

With more mediators to handle cases, and more using their own office space for meetings, the program can resolve cases quicker, Matern said. The goal is to reach a resolution within 90 days of receiving a case.

The Johnson County program is one of 41 in counties around Indiana approved by the Division of State Court Administration. The Alternative Dispute Resolution Program in Domestic Relations adopted by the General Assembly in 2003 allows counties to collect a $20 filing fee in domestic relations cases that is placed in a fund for mediation to benefit litigants least able to pay. Programs also may collect a co-payment from participants. (Editor's note: The number of counties with ADR programs approved by the Division of State Court Administration has been updated.)

Each county creates its own program to submit for state court approval but requires the consent of all judges with jurisdiction over domestic relations cases. The ADR program was created under I.C. 33-23-6 and allows services including mediation, reconciliation, nonbinding arbitration and parental counseling.

In Johnson County, the program is contracted by the county and charges fees to the people involved in mediations. Fees are charged on a sliding scale based on income, so anyone making less than $30,000 per year gets a significant break on the cost, Matern said.

One of the changes the program had to make this year, as its caseload increased, was hiring a part-time assistant who can help with collecting unpaid fees. The program’s collection rate is high, likely around 80 or 85 percent, Matern said.

He said more middle- to moderate-income families, who don’t need a break on the fees, are using mediation. The program is building a reputation in the county, and more attorneys feel comfortable using it, Loyd and Matern said.

Franklin attorney Dustin Huddleston has seen it help people reach a resolution without needing a court hearing, which helps finish cases quicker and allows people to move on with their lives, he said.

Indiana Supreme Court outreach coordinator Sarah Kidwell said mediation saves time for the court. It reduces the adversarial hostility of litigants and gives them a model to resolve disputes on their own.•

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