A pilot program started in 2004 in the Los Angeles County Superior Court (LASC) called the “Civil Harassment Mediation Program” (CHMP). The premise of the program is to mediate civil harassment restraining order (RO) cases, typically those that involve neighbors, former friends, co-workers, etc., after a temporary restraining order (TRO) has been issued but before the final RO request is heard before a judge. The goal of the pro bono mediator is to help the parties sort through their issues and come to an understanding, i.e. a settlement that will either vacate the TRO or come up with terms that satisfy both the parties and the court. The goal is that there will be no more threats or harassment and, hopefully, a solution allowing them to move on with their lives.
As a mediator, I was somewhat reluctant to take on this task because my experience with restraining orders was in Massachusetts as a volunteer court advocate. There, I helped victims of domestic violence file for RO’s against abusive/violent partners, some of whom would appear in court on the day of the hearing, in shackles, glaring at the victim and cursing me under their breath. In my six years with that program I had heard many stories of “love” gone wrong and too often had seen children used as pawns and as witnesses to their parent’s rage and sometimes, destruction. However, since the LASC court program was not intended for Domestic Violence RO’s, I agreed to give it a try.
My schedule with the CHMP was to arrive at my assigned court on a Tuesday morning at 8:30 AM and wait as the judge/magistrate read through the list of cases until he/she came to one that I might mediate. Since the program is voluntary, the parties would have to agree to mediate and sometimes finding a case that was eligible would take the better part of the morning. Waiting in the courtroom, I heard Family Court cases involving spousal support, custody disputes and the usual “no, it’s my house/car/stereo” issues about which separating couples often fight. I was most impressed with the judges who had to sort out these issues on a daily basis while keeping their decorum as well as their sense of humor. These family disputes, however, were not my cases; mine usually involved, for example, a contractor who allegedly made threats against a homeowner, co-workers squabbling over hurtful words spoken in the heat of an argument, or neighbor versus neighbor disputes that seemed to take on a life of their own. These cases were more like it, the reason why I became a mediator; helping people solve their thorny problems and having them come away from the process relieved to put the dispute in the past.
Restraining order cases can be difficult because the mediations involve not only parties whose emotions run high, but also because one of the parties is fearful of the other party, otherwise they would not have filed for an RO. In every case I have mediated, both parties are tense, somewhat combative and money is not the solution, unlike some other civil cases I mediate. The process is mostly facilitative with a little evaluative and transformative woven in. I became well versed in the criteria judges use in granting an RO and was able to give the parties a “reality check” as to what I thought their success might be in either getting an RO for an extended period or vacating a TRO. Additionally, I tried to help them get past their differences and forge a new future, especially if they needed to continue their relationship down the road. All this needed to be done in about two hours. This meant mediating with the parties, often in caucus (due to the fear factor), then, hopefully, helping them write a settlement agreement and getting an approval from the sitting judge before noon, when the court personnel go to lunch.
My most meaningful case involved one that was assigned through the Los Angeles Superior Court – ADR office. Two LASC judges requested a mediator who specialized in real estate to mediate two different restraining orders involving some of the same parties. This case was a mix of family and non-family members, and just sorting out the who’s who took well over an hour.
One TRO involved 2 brothers, both over 50, who shared a life estate in a house left to them by their parents. Brother #1 resided in the house and was diagnosed, by his siblings, as developmentally challenged, barely able to read or write, but capable of living on his own. Brother #2 lived 10 miles away but came to the house on a regular basis to check on the welfare of his brother, feed the dog he left behind and practice his music (he played in a band on weekends) in a soundproof room he had built for this purpose many years before. Brother #1 claimed Brother #2 had verbally abused and threatened him.
The other TRO was between Brother #2 and the boyfriend of Brother #1’s daughter who had 3 children with the boyfriend. Brother #2 claimed the boyfriend threatened him and his sisters when the boyfriend came over with the daughter and the grandchildren to visit Brother #1. Others involved in the dispute were 3 older sisters and a niece of the 2 brothers, as well as an attorney representing Brother #2. While this case was purported to be about real estate, it was more about sibling rivalries, bad tempers, ulterior motives, alcohol abuse and money concerns.
For the better part of five hours there were tales and finger pointing from each of the parties, mostly in caucus, as to the issues as they each saw them. There were no simple solutions, as these problems had been brewing for years and, given the nature of the family dynamics, would continue long after the mediation. At the end of the day, the parties crafted a settlement agreement which was little more than a formal truce and visitation schedules between the parties which both judges accepted, thus vacating both TRO’s. I felt that an actual resolution of the issues between these parties would be a long time coming and require much more than this one mediation. However, the parties thanked me for helping them work out these particular issues and left relieved to have a plan.
As a final note, one of the judges sought me out later that day and thanked me for my diligence in helping the parties reach a settlement that he thought was not possible. In over three years of mediating for LASC and helping hundreds of parties reach settlements, that was the first time a judge ever personally thanked me for my efforts and it was most appreciated. Next to the two brothers talking heart to heart and finally airing some of their issues, that was the best part of the day.
Greg Bourne talks about the challenges many organizations have with lack of time, staff, and money in order to enter into the mediation process.By Greg Bourne
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