In September 1998, a new mediation program debuted in Courtroom 2003. Its goals, while similar to the mediation program currently in place throughout the Domestic Relations Division, arise from different concerns and are intended to serve a unique population, that of never married parents. It is hoped this brief article will explain those goals more thoroughly and de-mystify the program’s origins, how it works and why it is needed.
Why another mediation program?
Anyone who has spent time in our circuit’s domestic relations courtrooms soon learns that divorce mediation is an important tool for resolving custody and visitation disputes. Court-ordered mediation has played a role in the resolution of these disputes for many years. In March 1998, court-ordered mediation was completely revamped, separating divorce mediation from evaluation in response to concerns raised by both the bar and clinical psychologists. In general, this revised program has been well received and continues to serve as the primary dispute resolution mechanism for families in our domestic relations division.
Why, then, create a separate program for Courtroom 2003? The answer lies in the unique population serviced by that courtroom. Unlike other courtrooms in the domestic relations division, Courtroom 2003 serves never married families. These families often lack the professional and financial resources available to divorcing couples. Never married couples, unlike divorcing couples, have no marital estate to underwrite the costs of mediation. Moreover, most parentage cases are filed under the Article IV-D program of the Illinois Public Aid Code. That program permits the Office of the dupe County State’s Attorney to establish and enforce child support on behalf of custodial parents, many of whom are receiving public assistance.
These parents typically cannot afford the cost of the circuit’s mainstream mediation program. Litigants, with the exception of custodial parents represented by the Office of the State’s Attorney, are usually pro se and are not very sophisticated in advancing their visitation rights. Moreover, even those parents who are represented by the State’s Attorney for child support matters are often unrepresented on issues of custody and visitation. Article IV-D strictly limits the State’s Attorney’s representation to issues of child support and does not extend that representation to issues of visitation or custody. 750 ILCS 5/710. As a result, issues of visitation and custody often go unaddressed in parentage cases.
Yet, children from these families are entitled to the same love and involvement from both parents, as are children of the divorcing population. To allow the issues of visitation and custody to go unaddressed in the never married population because of ignorance of the law or a lack of finances is not acceptable.
Acceptance of this state of affairs ignores the statutory presumption that "the maximum involvement and cooperation of both parents regarding the physical, mental, moral and emotional well-being of their child is in the best interest of the child." 750 ILCS 5/602(c) A new no-cost mediation program was, therefore, needed for never married families to address these important concerns.
How did the program come about?
In December 1997, DuPage County Psychological Services applied for a grant through the Illinois Department of Public Aid to address these concerns. Similar grants, called "access and visitation" grants, have been awarded to all fifty states by the United States Department of Public Health under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. A provision of that act requires states to "establish and administer programs to support and facilitate non-custodial parents access to and visitation of their children…"
In the spring of 1998, DuPage County was awarded a $200,000 access and visitation grant through the Illinois Department of Public Aid to establish a pilot program to facilitate visitation within the never married population. The program developed from these funds has, at its heart, 3 components: an educational seminar, an immediate, no-cost, in court mediation program, and a free supervised visitation service when the parties agree to that option or it is ordered by the court.
Who administers the program?
The program is administered by DuPage County Psychological Services upon referral and consultation with the Presiding Judge of the Domestic Relations Division and the judge currently assigned to Courtroom 2003. The program is staffed by professionals holding Bachelor’s or Master’s Degrees in the Behavioral Sciences or in Education.
The program’s coordinator, Danuta McDaniel, is a certified mediator who has prior experience as a program developer and supervisor. Two Masters level therapists, Sheila Murphy-Russell and Nancy Kiley, also serve as mediators. Each received mediation training through Aurora University specifically for this program. Two Bachelors level staff provide supervised child visitation: Rawnee Trudeau (full time) and Penney Hinze (part time). Both of these individuals have professional experience working with families, which includes a working knowledge of supervised visitation.
Phoebe Van Ham, director of the Center for Therapeutic Interaction, Wheaton, Illinois, also serves as a subcontractor for supervised child visitation referrals at the request of the Illinois Department of Public Aid. Ms. Van Ham worked in this capacity in the private sector for a number of years before her association with this program.
Rita Malach provides support services for the program, and can be seen daily in Courtroom 2003 enrolling parents in various services.
Finally, the program is recruiting an additional person to serve as an evaluator of those parents unable to reach agreement through the court-ordered mediation process.
All staff members are supervised by Dawn Bluhm, the Acting Administrator of Psychological Services, and Angela Zoloto, Assistant Administrator, DuPage Prevention Partnership. Initial and ongoing program development and supervision is provided by Dr. Sara Bonkowski of Aurora University; where she trains mediators. Doctor Bonkowski also serves in the private sector as a professional mediator.
Why is an Educational Seminar Needed?
As the mediation program took shape, it became apparent that if visitation were to succeed, an educational program for never married families was needed to address aspects of their relationship which differ from those of the divorcing population. For many years, divorcing couples facing custody and visitation issues were required to attend the Caring, Coping and Children program to acquaint them with the trauma their children experience when their parents separate. That program depends upon the relationship established by the married couple with their children during their marriage to ease the difficult transition from a single to separate households.
However, never married couples all too frequently have never shared any prior familial relationship with their child. Unlike divorcing couples, there is no past family relationship to build upon. Never married couples often face the daunting task of initiating their role as parents at the time they are attempting to redefine their own relationship. This can be especially difficult in cases where the birth of a child was unintended. In addition, many parentage cases do not involve infants. Years may have elapsed without contact between parent and child. Establishing a parent-child relationship under those circumstances can be especially difficult. For these reasons, the PAK Seminar was developed.
What is the "PAK" Seminar?
The PAK Seminar ("Parents and Kids in Partnership") is intended to address these unique problems. In short, it is analogous to the Caring, Coping and Children program, but intended, instead, for the never married population. The seminar is free to all participants.
All parents in newly filed cases involving parentage are ordered to attend the PAK Seminar as soon as parentage is established. In addition, all never married couples involved in subsequent visitation or custody disputes are also required to attend when those disputes are brought to the court’s attention. The seminar consists of one, three-hour session. It addresses how parents can transform their once intimate relationship to one that is more like a good "business" relationship in order to provide the best possible environment for their child.
The seminar addresses: what is appropriate communication between parents and with their child, the need to establish age-appropriate visitation schedules and how the needs of a child change as that child develops. The parents (who do not attend the seminar together) also engage in group discussions of the challenges they face in this process, and are provided with a video discussing the legal issues of parentage. An additional video used with the permission of ABC’s "20/20" program, features interviews of children discussing the impact of fathers on their lives.
At the conclusion of the seminar, participants are asked to complete a Community Resources Referral Questionnaire to identify any other needs they may have. PAK staff members later contact those parents with identified needs to further assess those needs and to provide referrals to available outside resources.
How does the mediation process work?
Referrals to the no-cost mediation program occur in two fashions. The most obvious is when a motion for custody or visitation is filed by one of the litigants. If one party is an IV-D program participant, or if the parties clearly cannot afford the standard domestic relations for-cost mediation program, the couple is referred to no-cost mediation to resolve the dispute.
However, referrals are not limited to this process. When parentage is established, the court will ask if any custody or visitation issues exist. If they do, and if the financial criteria mentioned above are met, the couple is referred to no-cost mediation without filing a special petition for custody or visitation if the parties agree to waive this requirement.
The goal is to involve both parents in the child’s life as soon as the parent-child relationship is legally established and to treat the non-custodial parent as more than just a financial resource for the child. All studies of child support confirm that two benefits generally follow from the non-custodial parent’s active involvement in the child’s life: child support is regularly paid, and the child develops into a happier adult. Therefore, the court will prompt the parents to confront the subject of visitation at the time parentage is established even if they do not raise it themselves.
Just as in the standard mediation program, mediation in Courtroom 2003 is strictly confidential. The court is not informed of the issues discussed, nor is it told the reasons why mediation did not produce an agreement if mediation fails. Further, the mediators do not also act as evaluators. Their role is strictly limited to facilitating an agreement between the parties.
Parents referred to the no-cost mediation program can begin the mediation process immediately. A mediator is present in Courtroom 2003 each morning, Monday through Thursday, seated at a counsel table to which the parties are directed. Each parent is given a brief questionnaire to screen for factors which may make them inappropriate for mediation, such as a history of domestic violence. If the couple is deemed inappropriate for mediation, the parents are returned to court for referral to evaluation or other action deemed appropriate by the court. The court is not told why mediation did not proceed.
If no obstacles to mediation are present, the couple’s first mediation session is held that morning in the conference room of Courtroom 2003. Attorneys representing the parties are requested to leave their telephone, fax and address information with the mediator who will fax the mediation results to them.
If a full agreement on all issues is reached that morning, the parties are returned to court before the morning call concludes. If neither party is represented by counsel, the mediator reduces the parties’ agreement to writing and the court incorporates the agreement into the form of a court order. If either party is represented by counsel, a layman’s draft of the agreement is prepared by the mediator and faxed to the attorneys for final review and approval. The mediator also sets a status date for the presentation of the visitation order to the court. Counsel have the right to reject the agreement or modify it as the parties’ interests dictate.
At times, the initial mediation session does not result in the parties’ agreement. In that case, a future mediation session and status date are scheduled if the mediator and both parents agree to with continue the mediation process. Future mediation sessions are held at the mediator’s office located at the office of Psychological Services.
As a general rule, no more than three mediation sessions are held unless the parties agree to additional sessions and the mediator believes an agreement is likely to result. If an agreement occurs, the mediator faxes the results to the parties’ attorneys who have the responsibility to draft the agreement in the form of an appropriate court order.
If mediation fails, the couple returns to the court on the status date assigned by the mediator. If the issue is not readily solvable by the court, the parties are sent to evaluation in much the same manner as is done with the divorcing population.
However, there is a difference. The funding limitations of the grant do not make it possible to refer these divorcing parties to a licensed clinical psychologist. This option is available if the parties select it, but they will be charged the same costs associated with evaluations done for the divorcing population. If the couples’ problem appears particularly severe, this option will be considered by the court and a pro bono appointment made, if necessary. However, this option will be used sparingly.
In most cases, the couple will be referred to an evaluator retained by Psychological Services for this purpose. At present, Psychological Services is interviewing candidates for this position. It is anticipated that the evaluator will have a Master’s Degree in Behavioral Science, at a minimum. The evaluator will prepare a report and include detailed recommendations to the court. The report will be forwarded to both parties or their attorneys and the court, and made a part of the court file. As with mediation, this service will be free.
Why was a Supervised Visitation Program Developed?
As noted, often no relationship exists between the non-custodial parent and the child. This represents a significant difference from the other divorcing population where, in most cases, both parents worked together raising their child before divorcing. As a consequence, the never married non-custodial parent often lacks appropriate parenting skills or is a complete stranger to the child.
Custodial parents rightly feel that unsupervised visitation under these circumstances may be highly traumatic for their child. The court supervised visitation program affords a bridge to normal visitation for these families. The presence of a supervisor able to both monitor and teach proper parenting skills in an agreed, neutral environment meets both the non-custodial parent’s desire to establish a relationship with the child and the custodial parents’ concerns for the child’s safety. This program is offered without cost to those who otherwise cannot afford a private supervised visitation service.
When will supervised visitation be considered?
Normally, supervised visitation will be considered only if the parties mutually agree to its use. It will not be imposed by the court, unless a trial is conducted and the standards of 750 ILCS 5/607(c) are met. Because the arrangement is normally one agreed to by both parties through the use of a non-evaluative mediator, the court need not find that unsupervised visitation would seriously endanger the child’s physical, mental or emotional well being. Under these circumstances, no prejudice attaches to its use. It is hoped that the ready availability of free supervised child visitation will facilitate the resolution of visitation disputes in those difficult cases common to the never married population where one parent has not established a prior relationship with the child and the custodial parent rightly fears the child’s introduction to that parent will be highly traumatic for both parent and child.
Where and for how long will supervised visitation last?
Supervised visitation is seen as a short-term solution, not as long term arrangement. Because this aspect of the program is intended as a bridge to unsupervised visitation, the service is limited to only six weeks. Mediated agreements to be accepted by the court must include a status date at the conclusion of that period to determine if supervised visitation should continue.
This is true for other reasons as well. Grant funds are limited and the program is intended to serve multiple families. Serving multiple families is not possible if the program’s limited resources are devoted to solving a handful of couples’ long-term problems. Also, the number of supervised visits available is limited by both the number of supervisors and the number of visitation sites approved to date.
Visitations are currently held during weekday evenings at the offices of Psychological Services and on Saturday afternoons at Woodridge Neighborhood Resource Center, Woodridge, Illinois. Plans are underway to expand the number of visitation sites to other locations in the county, particularly in its eastern half, where no visitation facility yet exists. In addition, there are long-term plans to acquire or build a house where visitations can occur in a more home-like setting. This home would serve as a classroom and as an adult resource center where parenting skills are taught and parents can meet to discuss mutual concerns.
Is anyone overseeing this program besides the court?
Yes. A community advisory board consisting of members of the business and legal communities meets quarterly to review the progress of the program and to offer suggestions for its improvement. A subcommittee of this group is currently exploring additional supervised visitation sites and the legal issues involved in securing a house owned or operated by the program as a visitation site and classroom. In addition, the DuPage County Bar Association created its own mediation subcommittee to focus on this program and to act as a communication link between the bar, the court and Psychological Services.
Some final thoughts
The program just described is a pilot program. For that reason, it remains a work in progress. Yet, those of us involved in its creation and in its day-to-day operations believe it provides a long-needed service to a population of families whose visitation concerns have often gone unaddressed. Its focus remains on the children of that population. These children often grow up not knowing one of their parents. It is hoped that this program will prompt the parents of those children to accept their mutual responsibility to their child by educating them about that responsibility, providing a forum where their differences can be aired and resolved, and providing a safe place where their children can begin a healthy relationship with a previously absent parent that will last a lifetime.
Honorable Thomas C. Dudgeon is a Presiding Judge in the Domestic Relations Division. He received his Undergraduate Degree in 1974 from Augustana College and his Law Degree in 1977 from Drake University.