Local mediation service targets parenting plans

Pilot program aimed at low-income residents

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

When parents divorce, children suffer. But when parents and their lawyers battle over the children in court, it's incalculably worse for the kids.

Community Mediation Services, a nonprofit agency in downtown Vancouver, has begun testing an affordable parenting-plan mediation service for divorcing adults that's aimed at making things easier on the children as well as the wallet. It's a partnership with Innovative Services Northwest, a sister nonprofit that works with children and families in many contexts.

Innovative Services has a state grant that pays for supervised visitations between parents and the children who have been removed from their custody; part of that grant also allows for divorcing parents to come up with a formal parenting plan through professional mediation.

"Innovative Services approached us to ask about contracting to provide those services," said CMS executive director Nancy Pionk.

"It's a way to agree where kids will live, when they'll move back and forth, those types of things. Those specifics are a big deal for kids at a very difficult time," said Pionk said.

Washington State requires the creation of formal parenting plans for parents who are going through divorce or dissolution. Those plans, which are supposed to support the best interest of the children, can lay the groundwork for future family dynamics that are cooperative and relatively stress-free — or they can provoke long-lasting bitterness and anger, Pionk said.

That court process can take months or years and cost thousands of dollars. But the Innovative grant will allow qualified low-income parents to pay as little as $20 per mediation session; the income guidelines are still being finalized, Pionk said, but many who don't qualify for that bargain-basement co-pay will be able to pay on a sliding scale that significantly reduces the standard fee of $500 per session.

"Usually these cases have at least two sessions," said Pionk. This pilot program runs through Sept. 30.

Cases will be accepted on an individual basis, Pionk said. "There may be some cases where we decline — ones that are really high-conflict or where there's some indication of violence," she said.

The process

What is mediation? It's a voluntary, confidential dispute resolution process involving a neutral third party who helps the people in conflict arrive at a mutually agreed solution. The third party never imposes any settlement; the expectation is that people in mediation want to collaborate on their own positive outcome.

Surprisingly few statistics are yet available to back up claims that mediating parenting plans is better for children than litigation — but Pionk pointed to a 2001 study by Robert Emery, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia. The long-term study, which tracked divorced families 12 years after splitting up, found that parents who mediated rather than litigated their parenting plans saw and spoke with their children far more regularly; in the shorter term, it found that residential parents gave nonresidential parents higher marks for basic involvement in their children's lives — things like grooming, running errands, participating in important events and holidays, discipline and discussing problems, moral training, school and church activities.

According to Resolution Washington, a statewide umbrella organization, dispute resolution offices such as CMS save the state $13.65 million annually.

Spun off

Community Mediation Services began as an office of the city of Vancouver; due to budget cuts, it was spun off as an independent nonprofit in 2010. Since it grew up as a government agency, Pionk said, CMS focused largely on neighbor-to-neighbor and landlord-tenant problems.

Now that it's independent, Pionk said, CMS is looking to branch out and see how mediation can help in many other areas of life. Workplace, foreclosure, consumer, business and small claims are all parts of what it does now, in addition to this new pilot family mediation program.

"We haven't had any kind of family mediation here," Pionk said, "but we believe there's a great need for this in the community."

She said divorce courts in many other Washington counties refer divorcing parties to mandatory mediation; Clark County doesn't do that yet, but she's hoping it will start.

Leadership Clark County, a leadership development organization that assigns each cohort a community service project, will conduct a survey to better understand the need for parenting-plan mediation in Clark County, Pionk said.

Community Mediation Services has bounced between offices in recent years; its current address is 300 East 17th Street, Suite 100. Call 360-334-5862 or visit mediationclarkcounty.org. Phone consultations are free of charge.


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://facebook.com/reporterhewitt; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.