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Reflecting on RSI Focus Groups in Washington, DC

Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates, Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.

Last week I had the honor of accompanying Jennifer Shack, RSI’s remarkable Director of Research, to Washington, DC. Jen is the principal investigator on an RSI evaluation of the child protection mediation program[1] in the DC Courts. I came along to facilitate the focus groups that are part of the evaluation. Each of the focus groups brought together a distinct group of lawyers who participate in mediation regularly: Guardians ad litem, lawyers for parents and prosecutors. The focus groups provided insight into how differing interests shape how mediation is perceived.

I found that my mediation skills, honed over many years, made it easy to shift into the role of focus group facilitator. Asking open-ended questions, encouraging everyone to participate and keeping the conversation moving were all familiar. Unlike mediation, the group didn’t have a goal of reaching agreement and I found that to be kind of liberating! What was more surprising to me was that it was difficult to remove my trainer/teacher “hat.” When a participant made a comment based on a misunderstanding of mediation, I had to resist the urge to engage in a conversation to educate the participant about mediation.

The groups of lawyers came from very different perspectives and often had different goals for mediation. It was fascinating to see how those different goals colored their expectations and perceptions of the mediation. I can’t go into detail about these differences because Jen is still in the early stages of the evaluation. Suffice to say, the groups differed greatly in their opinion of how mediation affects parents and what the mediator brings to the table. Despite those differences, the mediator in me saw similarities among the interests of the participants, particularly in how they want their time to be used.

The most striking similarity among all the focus group participants was their absolute dedication to making lives better for children who have endured some horrible experiences. These gatherings are one small part of RSI’s multi-prong evaluation that will collect data through surveys, interviews, reviews of court records, and observations of mediations and court hearings. We will also conduct focus groups for mediators and social workers.

I’m looking forward to seeing Jen’s evaluation results and her recommendations for improving the mediation program so that it works even better at obtaining good results for abused and neglected children.

[1] Child protection mediation is used when children are removed from their homes due to abuse and/or neglect. Mediation brings together a wide group of participants to discuss the case and what needs to happen to move it forward and move the children closer to having a permanent home – whether that is by returning to their parents or going somewhere else. Participants may include biological parents, foster parents, lawyers for the government, lawyers for the parents, lawyers for the children and social workers.

                        author

Susan Yates

Susan M. Yates is the Executive Director of Resolution Systems Institute (RSI), a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to improve access to justice through court alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Since becoming Executive Director in 1997, Susan has developed RSI from an idea – collect and disseminate reliable information about court ADR… MORE >

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