When children are removed from their homes due to allegations of child abuse and/or neglect, a complex process is triggered. The goal of that process is straightforward: ensure a safe, permanent home for these children who have been through so much. But attaining that goal involves a large, diverse group of participants including the attorneys who are prosecuting the parents; the biological parents, the lawyers who are defending them and the parents' partners; foster parents who often are related to the biological parents; social workers whose job is to work with the parents to improve their ability to parent while also assessing their progress; and representatives of the children, such as guardians ad litem.
Communication about what is in the best interest of the children is paramount, but with so many perspectives involved, it is extremely difficult. Child protection* mediation is designed to bring together these differing perspectives and provide a forum to work together to chart a path forward for the children and their families. In some jurisdictions, the children may even participate in part of the mediation, depending on factors such as their maturity and the allegations involved.
*Child protection cases are referred to by various names, such as child welfare or child dependency, depending on the jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions call these cases CHIPS cases for “child in need of protection or services.”
RSI's Approach to Child Protection Mediation
RSI has appplied our mediation expertise to help children who have been mistreated. When doing this work, we bring an interconnecting web of services that mesh to improve the quality of all the services. For example, the research we did for our 2004 Cook County evaluation supported our 2016 Kane County program development and ongoing administration. What we learned operating our Kane County program informed our 2017 evaluation of child protection in the DC courts. We brought all those experiences into the development of our advanced mediator training.
RSI first became involved in child protection mediation in 2004 when we were selected by the Cook County (Illinois) Juvenile Court to evaluate their Child Protection Mediation Program. The evaluation, published in 2010, examined the process, outcomes and participant experience of the mediation program over a one-year period. The study included data from 164 cases referred to mediation, as well as interviews of mediation participants, judges, attorneys and program staff. Recommendations, including instituting an early referral process, were adopted by the Court to improve its services.
In 2016, the District of Columbia awarded RSI a contract to evaluate its Child Protection Mediation Program. The evaluation included surveys of all participants; interviews of parents; focus groups with the lawyers, caseworkers and mediators involved in child protection cases; and observations of mediations and court hearings. Check out A Comprehensive Evaluation of a Child Protection Mediation Program to read more about it.
Program Design & Administration
In 2016, RSI worked with Illinois’ 16th Judicial Circuit (Kane County) and an array of local stakeholders to establish the Kane County Child Protection Mediation Program. This program was founded through the generous support of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation and the Illinois Bar Foundation, and later supported by the 16th Judicial Circuit Court and the Court Improvement Program.*
We owe much to the judicial leaders in the 16th Circuit, who spearheaded the development of this program. RSI worked with them and other stakeholders — from the prosecutor's office, local social services agencies, the state's Department of Children and Family Services, defense attorneys, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) who represent children in the mediations — to develop the local court rule governing program administration. Upon receiving approval of the court rules from the Illinois Supreme Court, and securing funding to launch an initial pilot phase, RSI was thrilled to be involved with just the third active child protection mediation program in the state of Illinois. We set out to develop an advanced, two-day mediator training (see below) which we held in January 2017.
“The guardian actually got up while the mediators were reviewing the agreement and hugged the mom! They even said they wanted to hug again in the presence of the child, who was waiting in the hallway, so that the minor could see they were now trying to get along better (and they did so). Both parties said they felt better afterwards and seemed satisfied with the plan that was tentatively put in place. A true success story!”
—CASA Kane County, Guardian Ad Litem
In our program, our dedicated and skilled volunteer mediators mediated each case in pairs. RSI believes co-mediation is the preferred method of managing these sessions, as the multi-party, highly emotional dynamics of child protection cases require greater facilitation and attention than one mediator alone can readily handle.
From the earliest days of the program, RSI was able to bring parties together to work out plans for biological parents to visit their children in foster care; to improve understanding between social workers and parents about the services parents needed to access, such as parenting education and drug treatment; to talk about the children's educational progress; and a host of other issues. Over time, RSI's objective was to reduce the time it takes for children to have permanent, safe homes.
*Overall, $30,000 of the Kane County Child Protection Mediation Program’s $40,000 budget (or 75%) was federally funded.
In January 2017, RSI conducted our first advanced training for child protection mediators in preparation for the launch of our 16th Circuit program. The two-day intensive training, designed for experienced mediators and/or those with considerable exposure to the child abuse and neglect court process, employed a combination of lectures, group exercises and interactive roleplaying, and demonstration of a simulated child protection mediation. To develop the training, we drew on national and local experts in child protection, as well as our own training experience. We are especially grateful to California's Administrative Office of the Courts for sharing their Juvenile Dependency Mediation Curriculum.
One of the highlights of the training was the simulation of a child protection case in which the roles were played by the actual professionals who handle these cases, including attorneys, caseworkers and Court Appointed Special Advocates. These great roleplayers gave the trainees a high level of authenticity and insight into the parties' motivations.
Here is some of the feedback we got from our participants:
- "Actually observing a mediation step-by-step was very helpful."
- "It was great to learn from professionals."
- "Interactive exercises were helpful to get ... 'hands-on' experience"
Additionally, this program held regular continuing education programming to bolster the mediators' skills and help them build rapport with one another. These lunch and learn sessions covered topics such as effective use of separate meetings/caucus sessions in the child protection context and working with victims of intimate partner violence.