Why is Domestic Violence an Issue for Mediators?
Domestic violence is prevalent and common in American families. Mediation as a pre-litigation alternative for divorcing couples is growing in popularity and usage. A growing number of states now mandate that couples mediate for family issues such as custody and visitation prior to court intervention. Today, there is a growing potential that domestic violence will be a factor in many cases referred for family mediation. Recent studies have estimated that spousal abuse is present in at least half of custody and visitation disputes referred to family court mediation programs (Newmark, Harrell & Salem, 1994; Pearson, 1997). The abusive relationship may not be disclosed to the mediator in many cases, for many reasons. However, disclosed or not, mediators must understand the potential for one of every two cases referred to them as being domestic violence cases. Family mediators need to know how to identify and process these couples in the most appropriate manner. Recognizing and Identifying Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is not always obvious or easily recognized. There is a strong tendency to keep it a secret, to deny and minimize what has happened or simply to accept the behavior as a "normal" way of functioning in the relationship. If the couple is unable to identify and label the abuse in their relationship and understand it as abuse, the mediator intervening needs to be alert to interactions they describe that may fit a pattern and history of domestic violence.
The phrase "culture of battering" describes the phenomenon of domestic violence in a way that shifts the focus from isolated episodes of abuse and captures dynamics of a relationship where there is a pattern of domination and control (Fischer, Vidmar & Ellis, 1993). When isolated interactions are described, such as the silent treatment, a glaring look, a stern voice or a critical tone, it is easy to overlook the context of these behaviors and minimize them until they disappear into insignificance. Those outside the intimate relationship cannot understand the meaning of the communication that extends far beyond the words or non-verbal cues. Dutton (1994) cautions that domestic violence should not be understood as simply a list of episodes or a list of aggressive behaviors that can be added up. Rather it is a pattern of interaction that influences the dynamics of the intimate relationship.
Domestic violence and abuse can be grouped into three general categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse and psychological abuse, which include intentional harm to property and pets. Some form of psychological abuse often accompanies physical abuse and sexual abuse. The function of the abuse is to maintain control over another. Physical and sexual violence is easier to identify than psychological abuse. Examples of psychological abuse include (Dutton, 1994):
Threats and intimidation - threats to take the children away or to destroy her financially; attempts to coerce her into illegal activity; displaying or threatening with weapons; destroying objects; menacing gestures; isolation or limited use of telephone or contact with others.
Minimization, denial and blaming - blaming the woman when violence occurs or acting like the abuse is non-existent or not a problem
Using children - to relay messages of intimidation or threat; using custody or visitation proceedings to gain access to the woman or to control her whereabouts.
Using economic resources - unilaterally maintaining exclusive access to cash, credit cards, bank accounts; accruing debt in the woman's name; withholding child support payments.
Use of "male privilege" - making unilateral decisions about such issues as where to live, major purchases, whether she is employed outside the home; sleep or food deprivation; controlling her perceptions by limiting access to information
Emotional abuse and degradation - name calling, insults, inducing altered states through hypnosis or forced drug/alcohol use.
Stalking - repeatedly sending letters, appearing at her work or home, and incessant phone calls that carry the message of intimidation.
Strategies Women Use to Resist Domestic Violence
Many find it very difficult to understand why a woman would allow or put up with an abusive relationship. Those who have not experienced domestic violence may assume that termination of the relationship would equal termination of the violence. That is not always the case, however. The separation process can sometimes signal an abrupt increase in violence; the most dangerous time for women in abusive relationships is when they are in the process of attempting to separate physically or legally. Research has indicated that the frequency and severity of abusive attacks increases just prior to or during the time that they have made the decision to leave or to separate (Geffner & Pagelow, 1990; Dutton, 1994; Pearson, 1997).
The strategy of separating or terminating the relationship is not always sensible or preferred due to economic, health and social factors as well as children's needs. It is simply not a viable option for many battered women. These women do, however, resist the violence and abuse in a number of ways. Dutton (1994) categorizes battered women's help-seeking strategies into three classifications: personal, informal and formal. Personal strategies for resisting domestic violence include hiding, disguising her appearance, compliance with his demands, or fighting back. Informal ways that women seek help in their resistance include telling family or friends, seeking shelter, and seeking support groups. The third category consists of formal strategies such as calling the police, filing for divorce or separation, seeking mental health or medical intervention.
Behaviors that are associated with feelings of powerlessness take many forms depending on the nature of the relationship and the characteristics of the partners. The partner who is feeling powerless may use competitive strategies such as aggression, violence, opposition, manipulation, fighting back, or using power over others. She may exhibit attitudes of distrust, suspicion and defensiveness. She could be clannish, isolated and withdrawn or hypersensitive and paranoid.
Since domestic violence in a frequent problem in family mediation (Pearson, 1997), family mediators need to look for the potential for domestic violence even though both parties may deny it. When there are descriptions of fighting and confrontation, calling the police, hiding from him, or seeking shelter with friends or family members, these are signals of abuse in the relationship that should not be ignored by the mediator. Signs and Signals That Violence / Abuse Might be Present in the Family
When a contested custody case reaches mediation, particularly in states where mediation is mandatory for these cases, it is important for the mediator to understand that there is a very strong likelihood that domestic violence does or has characterized the relationship (Pearson, 1997). Batterers use violence to maintain the upper hand and control their spouses. Thus a woman in mediation usually cannot advocate for herself without fearing the response of her abusive partner (Geffner & Pagelow, 1990).
Mediators need to be alert to the common occurrence of minimizing domestic violence and reframing the intentions of the abuser. Victims regularly erase the violence against them by glossing over the reality of violence in their descriptions, or leaving out significant aspects of the violent episodes. Battered women may also assign innocent intentions to the abusive partner, convincing themselves and others that it was only an accident or he did not intend to cause pain (Cobb, 1997). Women often tend to deny their suffering while the abusers deny their culpability.
Werner (1994) researched communication behaviors in mediators and parties involved in child custody mediation. While the study was not focused on issues of domestic violence, it noted the behavior of unsuccessful couples as being more competitive. They used behavior that was confrontative such as blaming, faultfinding, accusing; dominating the conversation; interrupting; being critical; making threats. The implications of these findings for couples in mediation might be that highly conflicted couples exhibiting confrontative communication patterns such as those noted may be enmeshed in patterns of domestic violence.
Reactions to feelings of powerlessness are very strong in battered women. Her feelings may include insecurity, guilt, anger, resentment, exhaustion, hopelessness, inferiority, shame, incompetence, and helplessness. Grim feelings that may remain with her are fear, pain, depression, and self-hatred. Geffner and Pagelow (1990) argue that fear is always present when battered women confront their abusive partners. Batterers use their anger and violence to maintain the upper hand and control their partners. Thus a woman in mediation cannot advocate for herself without fearing her batterer's reaction.
Understanding How Partners Get Stuck in Abusive Relationships
While the prevalence of abuse between spouses is well documented, the tendency to keep it a secret is still quite common. Pearson (1997) notes that relatively few people acknowledge domestic violence unless asked in a very direct and specific manner. It is very difficult for a woman to admit what is going on and there is often a cover up by both the woman and her abusive partner. She may be in a state of denial. She may minimize the abuse to fit with her own self-concept that she does not deserve such treatment, therefore it is not happening. Mary Ann Dutton describes cases where the secrecy of domestic violence has been so complete that no one other than the battered woman has clear knowledge of it. Family and friends either deny it or were shielded from knowledge of the abuse; bruises were hidden by clothing; and absentee employment was masked by sick leave or changing jobs (Dutton, 1994).
Mediators who have never experienced such abuse on an interpersonal level, or who have not been trained to identify and cope with domestic violence may have difficulty understanding or believing what they hear from either or both partners.. One question that is perplexing for those who have never been exposed to such abuse is "why didn't she leave if it was really that bad?" Another common myth is that the woman brought the violence on herself and therefore she can change her behavior to stop or resolve it (Cobb, 1997; Dutton, 1994). Both of these reactions are flawed.
Leaving the relationship is an option that may be open for a minority of women. But as noted earlier, there are inherent risks of safety, since violence tends to escalate following the decision to terminate or separate from the relationship (Geffner & Pagelow, 1990; Dutton, 1994; Pearson, 1997). In addition to safety factors there are other difficult barriers to leaving that include the children's well being, economic and social issues. Battered women stay with their partners due to fear, lack of money, and lack of a place to go. Isolation is common for many battered women; they do not have a network of family and friends to support them (Warters, 1986).
The second false assumption centers on the woman's responsibility for the abuse; her behavior toward her partner caused him to abuse her. This misconception leads to the erroneous conclusion that she can stop or reduce the violence by changing her behavior toward him. Dutton (1995) notes that both professionals and laypersons often believe the battered woman can stop the violence if only she does the right thing. She notes that "sometimes batterers stop their violent and abusive behavior, but whether they do depends on the batterer, not on the battered woman's response to violence." (Dutton, 1995, p. 26). Cobb analyzed the mediation discourse for several cases involving family violence and found that mediators deflected the woman's requests to address issues of abusive language toward her by her ex-husband. In response to her repeated requests to ask him to agree to stop calling her names, the mediators suggested that she consider what she could do to limit it or not answer when he makes a remark. "Women are constructed as more able to change and therefore as bearing more responsibility for ending violence. By implication, victims are responsible for their own victimization." (Cobb, 1997, p. 20).
These pervasive attitudes - the fear and shame of the battered woman, the notion that the woman causes the abuse and therefore can stop it, and the insinuation that the woman is responsible for changing her behavior to minimize the violence directed toward her - keep women stuck in abusive relationships. Our society has historically maintained the "sanctity of the family." Public involvement in family matters is only a recent phenomena; and many members of our criminal justice system still believe that men are entitled to rule the family without much intervention from the law or the court. As long as society lacks the supports to enable women to be heard and understood, as well as to provide her with viable options, countless women will have no real choice but to stay in abusive relationships.
What Interventions Help Mediation Programs Deal with Cases of Domestic Violence?
It is clear that domestic violence is common in disputes involving divorce, child custody and visitation issues. Given the prevalence and challenges of these cases, mediation programs should be prepared to deal effectively with them. There are three general approaches to this preparation: 1) education and training of family mediators 2) screening of all divorce and post-divorce cases to determine which cases are appropriate for mediation 3) employing specialized techniques and procedures before, during and after the mediation sessions. In this section, the specialized techniques and procedures are outlined. Discussion of the first two interventions - screening of cases and training of mediators - follows in subsequent sections.
Just as the foremost rule of any professional intervention should always be first do no harm, mediation programs should consider the safety of the parties to be of primary concern. There are features that should be introduced in family mediation programs to address the parties' safety, the mediator's safety and measure that are related to facilities and atmosphere. Chance and Gerencser (1996) list several measures to modify the facilities, such as:
- Spacious conference rooms that allow for easy and unencumbered escape
- Conference tables the provide a barrier to immediate contact
- Clearly marked exits
- Separate and safe waiting areas
- Metal detection devices
Measures to safeguard the parties should recognize the inherent risks in allowing a violent person to know the time and place where his partner will be present for mediation (Pearson, 1997). Such personal measures could include the visible presence of a peace officer and escorts to accompany clients to the parking lot after mediation. It is also important that the woman have a safety plan if violence has escalated or if she anticipates that it will. The mediator may be able to help her think through strategies to safeguard herself and the children. She should also be informed about how to secure restraining or protection orders, if necessary.
Apart from policies and procedures to protect the clients from risks from the violent partner, mediation programs can incorporate a variety of techniques to employ during the mediation process. The most important technique is pre-mediation screening, which will be more fully discussed later. The purpose of pre-mediation screening for domestic violence is to determine whether the case is appropriate for mediation. Once it has been determined by a trained and qualified interviewer/mediator that the couple is suitable for mediation, the mediator should use techniques to balance power. The mediator is encouraged to make use of the private caucus, so the woman does not have to agree to anything in her partner's presence. Private meetings give the woman an opportunity to disclose any fears or concerns. (Perry, 1994).
Additional techniques recommended by Salem and Milne (1995) include mediation methods where the parties are not in face to face contact. Shuttle mediation is when the mediator moves back and forth while the parties are in separate rooms, or attending sessions at different times. Telephone mediation is suggested when travel and safety issues are a concern. Chance and Gerencser (1996) recommend limited contact during the mediation process when domestic violence has been an issue.
Ground rules can be used to restrict discussion topics and to preclude topics the batterers may want to negotiate such as dropping the abuse charges or modification of protection orders (Salem & Milne, 1995).
Screening Domestic Violence Cases that are not Appropriate for Mediation
Preliminary screening of couples referred for family mediation is conducted to determine whether the dispute and the parties are good candidates for mediation. Pre-mediation screening is highly recommended by many practitioners in the field to determine which cases can be mediated and which cases are not suitable for mediation (Girdner, 1990; Perry, 1994; Chance & Gerencser, 1996; Pearson, 1997; Salem & Milne, 1995; Thoennes, Salem & Pearson, 1994). Writing for the Florida Bar Journal, Judge Chester Chance and mediator Alison Gerencser argue that "Screening all family mediations is imperative and should be mandated for all cases involving family issues." (Chance & Gerencser, 1996, p.54). They further recommend that all participants in family law mediation work together to develop appropriate screening tools.
Salem and Milne (1995) outline several features of a screening process. Battered women are unlikely to disclose abuse without an effective and sensitively administered process. Preliminary screening may include a written questionnaire that is sent to the parties before an appointment or administered at an intake session. Screening may also be conducted over the telephone before the first session. However, the privacy of the screening process should never be compromised (Salem & Milne, p. 37).
There are tools in existence that have been designed to assess issues of domestic violence. The interviewer asks questions specifically about domestic violence. Some of these screening tools include the Tolman Screening Model developed by Richard Tolman at the University of Illinois; Screening Questionnaire used in the study conducted by Newmark, Harrell and Salem (1994); the Ellis Screening Model used in the Maine Domestic Abuse and Mediation Project (1992); and the Conflict Assessment Protocol (CAP) developed by Linda Girdner (1990).
Linda Girdner believes it is the responsibility of mediators to attempt to identify which parties from abusive relationships can benefit from mediation and those that need to be excluded from mediation and referred to other resources. The CAP identifies the parties' patterns of decision-making, fighting and expressing anger, as well as their history of abusive behaviors. The mediator can use this information to assess the dimensions of power and control in the relationship. (Girdner, 1990).
The CAP has four parts: 1) introduction, 2) questions about patterns of decision-making, conflict management and anger expression, and 3) questions about specific abusive behaviors, and 4) closure to the separate screening session. The interviewer doing the screening may or may not be a mediator, but should be trained in recognizing signs of domestic violence. Fischer, et. al recommend that screening should not be done by those with interests in mediation, but by independent persons with skills and sensitivity to identify and assist cases of domestic violence. (Fischer, Vidmar & Ellis, 1993). After the screening interview, cases are sorted in three categories which represent a continuum from non-abusive and non-controlling relationships with equal power on one end to severely abusive, controlling, potentially lethal relationships on the other end (Girdner, 1990).
Three different approaches to mediation are recommended depending on how the couple is assessed with the CAP. Couples who have not had control as a central feature of their relationship and have never had any patterns of abusive behavior (emotional, physical, sexual or economic) by either party are those likely to benefit from mediation conducted in the customary manner.
The second group of couples are likely to benefit if mediation proceeds with specific ground rules, resources and skills available. Couples in this category may have experienced abusive relationship, but none of the factors described in category three (below) are present to exclude the case. The mediator working with these couples must be highly skilled in power balancing, be very knowledgeable about domestic violence and its impact on children and families, and they must have an excellent network of community resources. Ground rules to which both parties must agree for mediation to be effective with these couples are the following: (Girdner, 1990).
- Acknowledgment of past abuse
- Encouragement of the abused partner to pursue an order for protection
- Requiring and monitoring attendance at anger management classes or therapy for the abuser
- Requiring and monitoring the participation of the abused partner in services for battered women or therapy for the abused partner.
The couples in the third category are those most likely to experience harm and should be excluded from mediation. If one or both parties are unable to negotiate, or if indicators exist that the abuser is capable of seriously injuring his partner, these cases cannot be safely mediated. Interviewers conducting the pre-mediation screening should exclude from mediation couples with the following situational factors: (Girdner, 1990)
- Abusers who seem to have a need to control the abused partner
- An abuser who is easily frustrated by the idea of not getting all that he wants
- An abuser who accepts no responsibility for the abuse
- An abused partner who discloses that she has been abused, but does not want it revealed to the abuser
- Patterns of psychological abuse (with or without physical abuse) that has led to a situation where the abused partner identifies with the abuser's needs as primary and necessary for her survival.
In addition to Girdner's criteria, Salem and Milne (1995) warn that mediation is inappropriate when there is ongoing abuse or the batterer uses or threatens to use a weapon. In the report for the Maine Domestic Abuse and Mediation Project (1992), a sample protocol is included for dangerous assessment, aimed at batterers who are life endangering.
Jessica Pearson reviewed court-based divorce mediation program to determine how domestic violence cases are being handled. She found that 80% of the programs surveyed reported screening for domestic violence, but only half of the programs use private interviews to question clients specifically about violence (Pearson, 1997).
Some examples of pre-screening practices include mediation programs in Honolulu, Tucson, Chicago, Portland, Maine, Santa Ana, California, and Litchfield, Connecticut. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe each site's practices, but two will be described. The others can be found in Jessica Pearson's article in Mediation Quarterly (1997).
In Litchfield, Connecticut, family relations counselors of the court screen all custody and visitation disputes at the point of referral. If family violence issues are noted, the couple and their attorneys are interviewed to determine if mediation is appropriate. If not, the cases are referred for evaluation rather than mediation. All mediation is conducted by male-female co-mediation teams, and parties may opt out of mediation without fear of sanctions. (Pearson, 1997).
In Honolulu, the Neighborhood Justice Center uses telephone screening interviews. If abuse is identified, the abused partner is referred to a pre-mediation counseling program for further assessment. The assessment center may determine she is able to mediate without additional support; or that she can mediate with the support of an advocate; or she is unable to mediation at that time, in which case she may be provided with counseling or referred to other services (Perry, 1994).
Training and Education of Mediators and Family Law Participants
It has been stated earlier in this work that those who mediate domestic violence cases must have very special skills, sensitivity and a network of resources. Perry's (1995) review of the literature indicates a high degree of consensus on this point. The need for training and education of all participants in the family law process - lawyers, judges, clerks of court, and mediators - has been argued by Judge Chance and Alison Gerencser (1996). The training requirements for family law participants do not necessarily reflect expertise or skill in recognizing or responding to signs of domestic violence. "Emerging research shows that because of mediators' orientation and training, they do not know how to respond to the signs of violence or threats of violence; thus, they transform them into procedural issues with the consequences that victims' rights are delegitimized." (Fischer, Vidmar & Ellis, 1993). Sara Cobb's analysis of the domestication of violence in mediation clearly illustrates this concept (Cobb, 1997).
Mediation professionals are drawn from a wide array of disciplines - law, psychology, social work, education and mental health - and bring with them vastly different perspectives. Family mediators who will work with highly conflicted couples need sufficient training to make them aware of the dynamics of family violence and how to respond to it (Salem & Milne, 1995). Even those who work with couples who "passed" pre-mediation screening and were found to be suitable for mediation may pose issues of power and control that were hidden during preliminary screening. Training and education for domestic violence, therefore, needs to be extended to all family mediators, particularly given our historical societal preference for keeping family matters private.
In their review of current policies and practices in mediation and domestic violence, Thoennes, Salem and Pearson (1994) indicate that in programs where mediators receive training in domestic violence issues, they are more likely to ask follow-up screening questions to ensure both safety of parties and integrity of the process. They also noted that programs with heavy caseloads are more likely to have mediators who are trained in domestic violence issues; these trained mediators use special mediation techniques, such as private caucusing, when abuse is identified. (Thoennes, Salem & Pearson, 1994.)
Suggested Protocol for Family Mediation Cases
A simplified summary of the steps and procedures that should be taken to determine the viability of mediation in all cases of conflicted couples would include the following:
1. Family Mediators need to be trained in various aspects of domestic violence
a) How to recognize and identify domestic violence
b) Understanding the woman's options or lack of them in choosing to stay or leave
c) Types of abuse including physical, emotional and sexual
d) Special techniques such as private caucusing and power balancing
e) The safety issues for all involved
f) Common characteristics of abusive partners and abused partners
2. Screening needs to precede mediation. Cases should be categorized based on the results of screening into three categories:
a) Those likely to benefit from mediation conducted in the customary manner.
b) Those likely to benefit if mediation proceeds with specific ground rules, resources and skills available.
c) Those most likely to experience harm and should be excluded from mediation.
3. Process skills and special techniques designed to balance power and create an expectation of cooperation and the mediator should skillfully employ fairness. These techniques could include power-balancing moves, appropriate use of structured and directive questioning and private caucusing.
Mediators Can Cultivate an Understanding of Violence in a Societal Context
Mediators need to be sensitive to unconscious attitudes of their own about the strength and dominance of the man and the submissiveness and flexibility of the woman. It is common for mediators to discount violence by reframing it away; it is also common for mediators to expect the woman to change her behavior during abusive episodes. Cobb (1997) analyzed 30 community mediations sessions and found that in 80% of the sessions, mediators "domesticated" the violence stories told by the parties until the violence disappeared. Through the process of transforming complaints into requests, the violence becomes irrelevant and "dehistoricized." Women are constructed by mediators as more able to change their behavior and attitudes; therefore when women ask for agreements from men to stop their abusive behavior, the mediators turn this request back to the woman, asking her "what can you do to change your behavior?" (Cobb, 1997)
Family violence is a manifestation of generations of culturally learned behavior and attitudes that place aggression and dominance on par with leadership and success. Galtung (1996) sees violence as either direct, such as killing or inflicting injury, or structural, such as exploitation, repression, and marginalization of individuals or groups. Structural violence is "built into" society and condoned and legitimized through generations of traditions. Examples of ways we have legitimized violence and the male's dominance over the woman are in attitudes such as "the man rules the roost" and "a man's home is his castle". Our society glamorizes the military, which is traditionally male and traditionally violent.
Mediators who are dealing with conflicted couples need to be aware of their own feelings about gender roles, power and violence in order to perceive the issues objectively. At a time when feminists are suggesting that mediation keeps the "secret" of domestic violence locked out of public view, each one of us needs to ask how we can, as mediators, be part of the solution to the societal dilemma of domestic violence.
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