Community mediation in the U.S. began in the early 1970s. Citizens understood that they could empower themselves by resolving conflicts in their communities with community members, and community alternative dispute centers proliferated nationwide. Today, hundreds of centers in every state offer mediation and a host of other alternative dispute resolution services.
In the late 1970s, there was a new national movement. Courts across the nation generated the idea that many disputes could be resolved through the use of mediation, thus alleviating the courts of a backlog of cases and relieving residents of court costs. Community mediation centers and the courts began a mutually-beneficial affiliation to bring mediation to a great number of litigants, and over the years, the data supported this idea. Using multiple years of data collection for analysis, Judge Magdalena Bowen reported that mediation saves the cost equivalent of 0.7 FTE judges per year based on 90-95 cases a year.
As alternative dispute resolution gained traction nationwide, counties began partnering with courts. Conflict Resolution Programs (CRP) at the Center for Human Development (CHD) has provided services to Contra Costa Superior Court since 2003. Three CRP programs are described here.
Working with the Probate Department, our volunteer mediators mediate for three hours (additional mediation can be arranged), discussing with the parties the issues that arise in a guardianship case. Our parties are pro per and take this supportive and helpful opportunity to discuss what is in the best interest of the minor(s). Parties include parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends and in one case, a concerned neighbor—who, in fact, became the guardian, keeping the minor from entering foster case.
Our mediators are highly skilled and experienced, with advanced training provided by CRP. Volunteer mediators bring with them a wide range of experiences; their backgrounds include law, probation, education and psychology. Their enthusiasm and long service is obvious, despite the challenges of mediating in high-emotion and high-conflict situations. The program has had a profound effect not only on our mediators, but on the participants as well. Below are quotes from some of our clients:
- We got to express our feelings and try to make up and resolve problems even though the birth mother wasn’t willing to. This gave us a chance to tell her in person we were sorry and wanted to start fresh. –Guardian/Aunt
- It was helpful to get points made clearly in this environment. It was stressful knowing the importance of reaching an agreement, but not pressuring. –Parent
- I like mediation sort of because it got rid of all our problems, but the bad part of it was it was really long and boring. –Minor
- It gave us an opportunity to have unbiased opinions and make suggestions. We spoke our minds. We needed to reflect on past issues, which we did. – Guardian
- I liked mediation because it gave me an opportunity to speak and have some more visitation. It gave us a chance to discuss our differences without fighting. –Parent
- Mediation made it possible to talk about things that were impossible to tell the other party about. –Guardian/grandfather
CRP responded to the increasing numbers of Americans reaching their 60s and beyond, by developing a specialty in elder and elder family mediation. Although the basic model of mediation is the same, there are a number of additional factors present when mediating with elders—mental and physical limitations, the presence of long-standing family conflicts and potentially life-changing decisions that must be made, to name a few. Because of these additional considerations, we undertake a more extensive case development before the mediation than in the community mediation process, and the mediators on our elder mediation panel must undergo additional, specialized training. In this required, advanced training, experienced mediators learn about special needs and accommodations, sensitivity training in working with elders, cross-generational differences, signs of potential elder abuse and what to do, and working with difficult family issues. Professionals in the field of geriatrics add their expertise to our training.
We were fortunate at the development stage of our elder mediation program to form a partnership with Judge Joyce Cram and many others at the Superior Court as they established an Elder Court, one of the few in the state. Our ability to work closely with the court and county service agencies offered the seniors yet another resource as they sought an effective and compassionate resolution to their problems.
The issues being discussed in our elder mediation program are as varied as the number of people using our services, but there are some common areas of disagreement. For instance, it is not unusual to find that adult children have very different expectations than their parents. Adult children sometimes assume that they will inherit from the elder without ever discussing the issue with them. Another common issue is where the elder wants to live. Not all elders want to continue living in their homes. If the elder is moving to an assisted care facility with limited funds, the fact might be that their home must be sold. Not everyone might agree, especially the adult child still living at home. We see more and more issues that concern assisted care facilities and what to do about the family home. Our focus is on identifying what the elder desires.
It is often asked how old the eldest party was in a mediation. Without a doubt, our oldest party was a 106-year old woman who was living in her home. Because of difficulty traveling to our offices, the mediators went to her home. This is one way our program makes accommodations working with individuals needing a little extra assistance.
Community and Family Reunification
The passage of AB109, or Realignment, has galvanized Contra Costa to look closely at reducing recidivism rates. The Justice System, county departments, faith-based organization and nonprofit services agencies are working together toward the twin goals of ensuring public safety and reducing recidivism rates. In an effort to assist, CRP has partnered with other service agencies in the county offering family reunification meetings for returning ex-offenders.
Under our program, we meet with AB 109-eligible individuals pre-release and describe our program to them. If the individual agrees, we contact pro-social community and family members and invite them to a family meeting, either pre-release or post-release. The family meeting follows much of same process as a mediation. Research repeatedly shows that lowering recidivism rates is possible with programs that help to remove obstacles from an ex-offender’s path and that community and family ties can, and often do, help—providing housing, employment, emotional and spiritual support and child care. However, this can’t happen without healing of relationships and continuing communication in families. At these meetings, families focus on the strengths of all members present, how family relationships have been affected by the client’s life choices and incarceration, everyone’s hopes and goals for reunification and for the participant’s positive next steps in life. The family then works together to develop a specific, written plan to support the success of the returning individual. We follow the participants for up to eight months.
Although this is a newer program, the data supports our efforts. In an April 2013 publication, researchers using the Community Mediation Maryland (CMM) Reentry Mediation model as their research focus, stated that those who mediated were significantly less likely to be arrested than those who did not—on average 24 percent versus 34 percent. 
Community mediation and the justice system have proven that over time, partnerships do work.
Barbara Proctor, J.D., is the Program Director for the Center for Human Development. She can be reached at email@example.com. Sign up for our mailing list to be notified of our annual training held in the spring at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Judicial Perspectives on ADR, October 2013.
 Engaging Offenders’ Families in Reentry, Department of Justice, 2010
 Reentry Meditation Recidivism Analysis, Choice Research Associates, Baltimore, April 2013
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