Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates, Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.
On January 20-21, RSI put on an advanced two-day training for the mediators in our new Child Protection Mediation Program operating out of Geneva, IL. This training was the culmination of our efforts to put in place a dynamic and collaborative new forum to address child abuse and neglect cases in Illinois’ 16th Judicial Circuit Court. Based on the outcome of the training, I feel confident that our new program will be a huge boon to Kane County, the jurisdiction which the program serves. I also am glad to have taken away some ideas about how to create a better mediator training event, which I get to share with all of you.
Child protection cases involve a child who has been removed from their home following a substantiated claim of abuse or neglect, the state (through the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Department of Child & Family Services), the child’s family and guardians, and a guardian ad litem. The ultimate goal, typically, is to reach permanency, or the conditions under which a child can live in a safe, stable and permanent home. When possible, courts will show a preference for biological parents to raise their children. However, sometimes parents are not necessarily in a position to do that, and the state will require parents to get certain services, such as educational classes and various forms of counseling, and maintain certain conditions, e.g. stable employment and housing, before their children can be returned to them. Under more severe circumstances, parents will lose guardianship, or perhaps their parental rights altogether. Mediation in child protection cases allows family members to address underlying issues in their relationships, caseworkers to work with families on services and next steps, and all participants to explore what is the best outcome for the child.
Our program is lucky to have found ten very qualified, dedicated mediators who will be volunteering their services. While these mediators all had some familiarity with the abuse and neglect court process, and are experienced mediators, none have had an opportunity to mediate these types of cases before–which is very understandable, given that this program is only the third of its kind in the entire state (and unlike say, divorce mediation, there is no real corollary outside of the court system that would furnish these mediators an opportunity to practice). We were thus tasked with designing a training curriculum that could take their mediators’ skillsets, and apply them to the child protection context, while providing them the necessary background on what these cases look like in Kane County.
Luckily, we had some aces up our sleeves. RSI Executive Director Susan Yates has over 20 years of experience training mediators. Kevin Malone, who will manage this program and co-mediate with the volunteers, showed the trainees how to apply one’s mediation skills in this new setting. We also had a great deal of help from Assistant State’s Attorney Lark Cowart, and a group of attorneys, caseworkers and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (who serve as the guardian ad litem in Kane County) to help us role play a mediation session. And most instrumental was Stephanie Senuta, a seasoned mediator who for many years worked for the Cook County Child Protection Mediation Program, and was able to bring to this training a wealth of insights, anecdotes and inspiration. Together, everyone really brought the training to life by adding to the trainee’s substantive knowledge and providing real-world examples that better prepare them for what they face ahead.
Walking away from that training, I have a few insights I think are worth sharing with other programs who are looking to train a group of neutrals, be they child protection mediators or any other kind:
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