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Commentary: Mediation for Child-Related Cases

Courtesy photo
Emily Sutton

I’ve been an attorney for over 16 years. During my career, I have spent lot of time inside courtrooms, advocating for my clients as their cases wind their way through the court system. I have observed the limitations of that system for divorcing or never-married parents who have child-related disputes.

Child-related cases can take place over the course of many months. While the parents are waiting for their day in court, they are usually doing two things: worrying about the outcome and paying their attorneys a lot of money. The more time an attorney needs to spend getting a case ready for trial, the bigger the expense to the parent.

At a trial, the attorneys present evidence on behalf of their clients. Trial strategy and rules about what is admissible may prevent the attorneys from introducing certain evidence, resulting in a less than complete picture for the judge.

The judge, who has probably only met the parents briefly once or twice in court, then makes a decision that deeply impacts the family. The parents, having gone through a knock-down, drag-out court process, usually don’t feel any better toward each other afterwards.   

These drawbacks are diminished or eliminated when parents successfully complete mediation instead. Mediation is a way of resolving disputes outside a courtroom. During mediation, the parties discuss their issues with an independent, trained mediator who facilitates communication between the parties and helps them reach an agreement.

My interest in mediation dates back to my freshman year of college, when I chose to write a research paper on the subject. At the time, neither law school nor becoming a mediator had crossed my mind. But I come from a family of lawyers, and I had heard enough around the dinner table to conclude that alternatives to going to court are worth exploring.

In February 2019 I finally attended a 40-hour mediation course at Northwestern University. I now focus on family mediation, while continuing to provide certain legal services as an attorney.

Mediation offers faster access and lower expense than a contested court case. I can usually schedule mediation within a couple weeks. Sessions last about three hours, and the parents usually split the fee. If an agreement is reached in mediation, parents don’t have to pay each of their attorneys for dozens of hours of additional legal work.

Parents find mediation less stressful than sitting in a courtroom. When I speak with parents, we use first names and wear comfortable clothes. We take breaks to stretch or get a cup of coffee. We have tough conversations, but we sometimes laugh, too.

Mediation can help preserve or improve the relationship between the parents. My number one rule is that communication in mediation must be respectful. That deescalates the conflict and helps a parent really hear what the other is saying. Each parent has an opportunity to discuss his or her perspective.

Parents have more control over the outcomes in mediation. They know their families much better than a judge ever could, and they can use that knowledge to come up with solutions for their unique circumstances. The parents can set their own priorities, and their values can guide outcomes.

To have a productive mediation, parents must come in good faith with a willingness to listen. I ask the parents I work with consider their child’s best interests. In most cases, both parents truly do want what is best for their child – they just disagree about what that is. I help parents have those hard, important conversations.

Mediation is not right or possible in every situation. But when it is right and possible, it builds stronger co-parenting families.

Emily Sutton is an attorney and mediator at Sutton Law & Mediation in Macomb.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.