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Custody Mediation Innovations: July 2011

Welcome to the collaborative effort of myself and my colleagues here at Los Angeles Family Mediation Services (LAFMS).

The options that mediation solutions offer to lawyers and their clients, and to separating couples who wish to navigate their family transitions on their own, expand with every passing year. New tools assist us all in reaching higher family ground, efficiently and sincerely, in an integrated fashion. One creative and powerful modality is "child informed mediation." Its function is to bring the voice of your children into the room not only as a reality check, but as a reminder of the importance of managing the grief of relationship transition. Children tend to experience this more deeply, without accumulated filters and judgment, than adults. Go figure?

Family dispute mediation is inherently challenging. Intimate partner issues involve dreams unfulfilled and broken promises, love and connection still a recent memory, fear and financial insecurity, anger and resentment sometimes years in the making, and sorrow and loss repressed. The emotional facets that imbue each case are woven within each party's' presentation. The mediator's challenge is to allow for this emotion to be expressed but to not let it drive the issues. Otherwise the divisive dance feeds on itself. Resolution and a lasting peace can seem unattainable.

Custody mediations up the ante and add energy and force to the already swirling soup of emotional and financial issues. The children and their well being tend to devolve into the battleground surrounding the creation of a parent sharing plan. This adds a range of other issues and decisions to those already needing to be addressed. The result is often what I refer to as the 'disco ball' mediation. Every spinning facet reflects a choice or area of disagreement, and most parties cannot stay focused in any linear way as it is all so interconnected. They hop from concern to concern, making the mix difficult to dissect and solve piece by piece. There is no balanced perspective of the shimmering ball in its beautiful entirety.

The mediator's challenge is to allow for exploration of all aspects of this whirlwind. While the mélange looks messy it is also important to allow each parent to feel the heat of the chaos. The party's challenge is to stay the course. Many attorneys supporting their clients during the mediation also feel the heat and get stuck in the partisan spin as they see it. They may over-identify and add to the noise, unwittingly.

I see these patterns and expressions as fertile ground for a good mediation outcome. It is a sign that we are on the right path because of its awkwardness. The discomfort comes from the mirror of our shared experiences of childhood, family of origin issues, and downright identification with a party or their position. This is just being human. But it is this very crisis that supplies the tension that is needed for transforming one's views and therefore one's experiences, and the futures of ourselves and others.

Within this oft seeming anarchy parents are reminded to consider the best interests of children. Yet, the stress that they are suffering usually only allows them to be focused upon themselves. The flight or fight response may block both parent's ability to see the whole disco ball, and they go from hurt to blame to betrayal seamlessly ignoring that this is also about their children. They and their attorneys frequently become obsessed with the differences in parenting styles of the other, rather than on what their child needs and is experiencing, or money issues. What might serve that child best is given lip service. It lacks the heartfelt quality necessary to be able to find commonality and agreement. Some people start to create plans as if all children are identical, ignoring the unique differences that actually provide an opportunity for moving a child forward in healthy, supportive ways that contribute to those around them.

One technique that stops the trance in its tracks, and includes the children as real people and stakeholders in the family is a "Child Informed Mediation" or "Child Focused Mediation". An indirect child presence in the mediation room causes reflections and gyrations to shift dramatically. The mere mention of one's child as the focus rarely itself does the trick (does this surprise you?). Instead, having the voice of the child presented by a specialist who has spent several hours in a targeted interview with him or her helps participants to stop the self spin and to magically look closely to a common concern - the parents' precious son or daughter. The shift moves from "I" verses "thou" and becomes 'I and you' as co-parents; a teamwork concept starts to emerge. This is extremely evident in cases involving special needs' children.

At LAFMS we offer a targeted approach to family dispute resolution that is hugely benefited collaboration with Mental Health professionals who help shine a light upon child related values. Your special child, who enjoys a temperament and personality and features as no other, emerges as a unifying influence that otherwise has been shut outside the process. Our child focused model has one of our child specialists co-mediate with the lawyer/mediator for portions of the case. This brings into the open with authority a mindful consideration of the unique needs of children affected by their parents' dispute. It allows for developmentally appropriate parenting plans to be openly examined and constructed from that baseline. A child specialist spends time with each child in a caring and senstive interview targeted for that child's age and interests. The child specialist can interview or shadow the child and interact with all of those concerned with that child's journey enhancing outcomes despite the parent's reactivity.

The specialist reports back during a mediation session that child's experience of the separation and conflict, and that child's expressed wishes and unspoken developmental needs. Suddenly the disco ball of the controversy can be seen in its entirety rather than only all of its sub-parts. Parents can drop their battle positions to listen and learn what they need to know to make informed decisions; this unifying result can then infect the entire process in productive and positive ways.

Child centered mediations serve all populations of parents but are essential for families with special needs kids, acting out adolescents, aligned children, and very young toddlers. All children will benefit from having a directed concern to be individually tailored to that child's life and experience. The child will be honored as a vital member of the family by just being interviewed. All children know what is going on in their family. Unfortunately they learn by eavesdropping or the unthinking parent sharing openly the frustration. They don't feel included in the adult subject of their parent plan. Children also cannot openly be honest as the stakes are too high with each parent. When it comes to most details children are not consulted. It is harmful to portray to children who are undergoing family composition transition that they lack a method for input. The children with opportunity to voice their views have better outcomes than those who cannot.

In order to understand each child best we need better information in order to separate our concerns from what may be best for them. The child informed and/ or child focused mediation model should be the norm rather than the exception.

Hon, Gretchen W. Taylor

July 13, 2011

Posted By Hon. Gretchen W. Taylor on July 13, 2011 08:09 am | Permalink 


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