Mediation in Family Law Cases
The Office of Family Mediation
Wendy Sawyer, Director
County Courts Building
401 Bosley Avenue
Towson, Maryland 21204
The professional staff of The Office of Family Mediation consists of a team of trained professionals dedicated to assisting participants in resolving their disputes regarding custody and visitation. Each mediator has extensive experience in matters related to child custody and visitation issues, as well as Circuit Court custody investigations.
Separation and divorce create changes for families. Plans for the children, division of property and financial arrangements all need to be worked out. It is also a time of great emotional upheaval. These changes and emotions can result in conflicts between family members. How these conflicts are handled can influence the entire family's adjustment, especially children's, for years to come.
For most people, conflict is frightening and stressful. Conflict can, however, result in the productive airing of differences and can lead to creative solutions that address the changing needs of all family members. Too often in the divorce process, family members feel like bystanders while lawyers, judges, and others work out these crucial issues. Even in the face of anger, fear, and hurt, it is possible for people to negotiate an agreement which balances the interests of each family member and benefits everyone in the long run. Mediation is one way for family members to resolve their own conflicts during and after separation or divorce, or when parents have never lived together.
In all cases involving custody and visitation issues, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County automatically orders participants to attend mediation, except in cases where there are allegations of abuse or the parties are not represented by counsel.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a cooperative problem-solving process during which a neutral professional assists participants in clearly defining the issues in dispute and reaching agreements that are in the best interests of the family. The mediator does not make decisions for others, but helps participants resolve misunderstandings and communicate more clearly with each other. Parties are helped to understand the needs of children, reach agreements in their best interests, and develop a cooperative parenting relationship. Hostile and competitive feelings are reduced so individuals can better adjust to changing situations and plan for the future.
Who Participates in Mediation?
Because mediation is a joint, cooperative problem-solving process, it is necessary for all parties in the case to participate. Participants need not feel friendly toward each other, but should be willing to work together to find solutions that will be fair and meet the needs of all family members.
Typically, mediation only involves the parties to the case. However, on occasion the presence of others is warranted. This will only happen, however, if all parties agree to include such other persons and the mediator feels inclusion would be beneficial. Children are almost never involved in mediation and will only be included if the mediator feels it is appropriate in a particular case.
It can be very comforting for children to see their parents working together to resolve issues, rather than fighting and competing over them.
What is the Mediator's Role?
A mediator is a neutral person who helps the parties become informed about each other's needs and interests while gathering information that will be useful in developing agreements that are voluntary and designed to meet the goals and serve the interests of everyone involved.
While the goal of mediation is to reach a fair agreement, participants are always in control of the mediation process, in that they can end the mediation any time and there is no pressure from the mediator to reach an agreement. The mediator is a person who has been trained to help participants identify issues, create an orderly program for exploring interests, facilitate problem-solving, and to keep negotiation on track.
The mediator does not make any judgments regarding the substance of the dispute or any possible resolution. The mediator does not give legal advice. The participants should consult their own counsel to assess the merits of legal or other issues. The mediator does insist, however, that the integrity of the mediation process is never violated, and will deter any abuse of the process that comes to the mediator's attention. The mediator seeks to give the participants the means to solve problems on their own without the need for judges and other authorities to make the decisions. The mediation process empowers parties to solve problems themselves.
Are Agreements Reached in Mediation Legally Binding?
The mediator is not authorized to bind parties to an agreement. Mediation is, however, a good faith negotiation, and in the event the parties are able to resolve their differences, a Parenting Agreement will be drafted by the mediator and forwarded to all parties and their attorneys. It is the attorneys' responsibility to convert the Parenting Agreement into a document approved by the Court. Once a Judge signs an Order, the agreement is legally binding.
Mediated agreements may be more flexible than court-ordered solutions because they can be changed by mutual agreement as the needs of the families and children change over time. Any change to an agreement previously approved by a Judge must be filed with the Court in order to be legally binding.
What if Parties Do Not Reach Agreement?
The mediation process may not resolve all issues, but even partial agreements can help parties narrow the issues and limit the time and expense of going to court. Any issues that cannot be resolved completely in mediation can be returned to the court for resolution.
Are There Benefits to Mediation?
Mediation helps resolve differences in a constructive manner. It also:
- allows you to control the decisions in resolving disputes or addressing problems that may have vital importance to you;
- takes less time than litigation, allowing you to address the situation and get on with your life;
- is provided at no cost;
- prevents conflict from escalating and causing harm to those not directly involved, such as children extended family, friends, and others forced to take sides in an intra- family dispute;
- is strictly confidential, allowing you to avoid public disclosure of the problem;
- promotes communication and cooperation;
- gives you experience in a constructive approach to problem-solving that can be applied in future disagreements;
- allows you to create solutions that are flexible and tailor-made, solutions that no court or other authority would create; and
- helps fully identify issues, resulting in a lasting agreement, and so issues that might not be central to the immediate dispute, but that nonetheless need addressing, can be dealt with in the context of a full examination of the parties' relationship and how it may change after mediation.