An overhaul of Milwaukee County’s family court mediation program resulted in a 205 percent spike in cases handled outside the court room.
Before Judge Mike Dwyer decided to fix problems with the system, however, many considered the program a waste of time.
“Mediation was always there as a mandate and an annoyance,” Dwyer said. “Now, it’s a part of the process that’s constructive. It’s not just a hurdle to get to court and get their case decided.”
Dwyer in 2006 realized change needed to be made. He assembled a working group of lawyers, mediators, educators and anyone who seemed to have expertise with the system and an interest in improving it.
They identified three areas for improvement: public understanding, process and mediator quality.
“The absolute hardest of those three is public understanding. People do not know what to expect,” Dwyer said. “I think most of them think that if they are given 10 minutes, early on, to explain to some decision maker about what a jerk their counterpart is, they will get what they want.”
To improve the public’s understanding, the group drafted informational materials, including a one-page handout about mediation to be given to all parties when they first file a case or are served, as well as a more detailed brochure for parents who are further along in the process.
The group also revised the standard mediation referral order to make it more easily understood by parents.
When it came to improving the process, Milwaukee County Family Court Commissioner Sandra Grady said, the most significant change made was going from large-group orientation sessions to meetings with just the mediator and the couple.
Under the old format, she said, “A lot of people either just wouldn’t attend or they’d shut down. It wasn’t particularly personal.”
Now, the mediator meets with each individual separately, to ensure there’s no domestic violence or other concerns that might make mediation inappropriate. Then the neutral meets with both parties to discuss how mediation works and how the case might play out in court if there’s no agreement.
And to improve the quality of mediators, the group decided to tighten the requirements. Mediators are now required: to have at least 25 hours of family-court mediation experience to apply; to attend an annual CLE; and participate at least once a year in a peer-consultation session.
The stricter requirements weeded out, Dwyer said, four mediators who were not committed, were ineffective and who had tainted the reputation of the program.
Previously, anyone who asked to be was placed on the county’s list of family-court mediators. Now, Dwyer said, it’s somewhat of an honor to be named to the list.
Combined, the changes have resulted in many more people agreeing to try mediation, Grady said. In 2007, of 635 cases referred to mediation, only 135 couples actually mediated. Of those, 59 reached an agreement. By 2011, those numbers had spiked to 927 cases referred to mediation, 412 mediated and 272 agreements reached.
In 2012, the most recent data available, 947 cases were referred to mediation, with 429 couples opting for the process. Two hundred and nine reached agreements, although at the time these statistics were gathered, some 34 cases still were pending.
Despite the dip in the numbers, they still show, Grady said, that the program “is improved from top to bottom.”
But one problem remains, Dwyer said: getting people to pay. Unless they’re indigent, parties must pay $100 each for two two-hour sessions.
“I tell people that this is the best deal in the courthouse,” Dwyer said. “People get family lawyers or mental-health professionals who otherwise bill out at $250 an hour for their work, for $200 a case, who are highly skilled and dedicated and can really do some good.”
The mediators often do the work due to a passion to help, Grady said.
“No one’s getting rich doing this,” she said. “But it’s a good way to get training and practice your skills, in addition to giving back to the community,”
And though Dwyer said there are no specific figures, he “would argue that it has saved hundreds of GAL appointments, which has saved both the county and private-pay parties a lot of money. And it has saved court resources, because all of the cases that don’t get resolved in mediation still have one, or more likely three or four, more hearings.”
Grady said many more practitioners now request court-ordered referrals in advance of their court dates. And she said her colleagues, assistant family court commissioners and judges alike, have shown increased willingness to order mediation rather than going straight to a guardian ad litem, as often was done in the past.
From talking to judges outside Milwaukee County, Judge Carl Ashley said, the general impression is that Milwaukee now has one of the state’s better mediation programs.
“As a system, we want people to try to resolve these issues themselves,” he said. “And I think the opportunity to do that now is a lot better than it used to be.”