A recent study of family law cases involving high levels of intimate partner violence (IPV) between parents found that shuttle mediation and videoconference mediation, when carried out by well-trained staff in a protected environment and designed with strong safety protocols, showed several advantages over litigation. The term “intimate partner violence” refers to violence between romantic partners, who may or may not be living together. It is similar to “domestic violence,” but there is a distinction between the terms, as the latter refers to violence between household members. Household members could be spouses or romantic partners, but they could also be children, siblings, or even roommates.
This study looked at partners who were also parents, regardless of whether or not they were married or cohabiting. Chosen participants reported a level of IPV by one or both partners that disqualified the couple from standard joint mediation. The study excluded parties whose cases involved an open child abuse matter; a level of danger calling for emergency intervention; a prohibitive distance between parties; an acutely psychotic or incarcerated party; or a potentially interfering criminal case. All pairs were heterosexual, and each pair was randomly assigned to one of three groups: traditional litigation, videoconference mediation, or shuttle mediation. To reduce any potential effects of mediator skill, mediators were trained in and assigned to both types of mediation.
Mediation Design: Shuttle and Videoconference
In the shuttle mediation group, both parents were in the same building, but they stayed in separate rooms located at some distance from each other. The mediator shuttled between rooms. All communication between the parties was through the mediator.
In the videoconference group, the parents were also in different rooms in the same building, and the mediator was in a third room. The sessions were held by web camera, and all three parties could see and hear each other at once. The mediators periodically took breaks to check on the participants’ comfort levels. Any mediator who became concerned with a participant’s safety or emotional wellbeing had the leeway to turn off the video and proceed by audio only, or to continue with audio and video but meet with participants separately. Participants could also turn off their own video equipment at any time. Mediators also occasionally met with parties in person for procedural reasons, such as form-signing.
Assessment of the Mediation Processes
Parents participating in both mediation groups reported feeling safer and less fearful than those participating in litigation. Mediation participants also reported feeling more satisfied with the process. There were no significant differences in perceptions of safety or satisfaction between the two mediation groups. Shuttle mediation, however, was more likely to lead to an agreement, and some of the mediators preferred this method. Satisfaction with outcomes was similar across all groups, but the mediation participants were more likely to believe that there would be follow-through on the terms reached. Parenting arrangements agreed on in mediation were similar to terms reached in court, but agreements reached in mediation were more likely to incorporate details related to safety. These included protocols for interparental communication and dispute resolution as well as aspirational language. Cases also reached final resolution in mediation in about one-third the time as those in litigation.
Relevance of the Study
Attorneys and mediators sometimes immediately dismiss mediation as an option in cases of domestic violence or IPV. This is not only for safety reasons, but also because traditional mediation processes rely, in part, on the ability of the parties to recognize not only what is best for them, but also what is best for their former partner. This attitude of empathy and open-mindedness can result in possibilities that maximize results for both sides. An abusive partner, however, will rarely be able to adopt this approach. Nor do most people think it fair to ask an abused partner to consider the best interests of the abuser.
As we have previously discussed, however, eliminating mediation as an option leaves these vulnerable parties with little recourse. Litigation, which is well-known to foster feelings of anger and aggression, can be a disaster. There is value, therefore, in considering ways to modify the mediation process to improve safety and reduce adverse emotional repercussions.
Importance of Safeguards in Cases Involving Violence or Abuse
It is not only the presence of violence in a relationship that can make mediation difficult. Any degree of controlling behavior, verbal abuse, or even just a strong power imbalance, can pose a significant challenge. The key to being able to proceed with mediation under any such circumstances is implementing appropriate safeguards. Mediators can tailor safeguards to individual circumstances. For example, even where there is no domestic violence and parties feel able to meet face-to-face, a high level of conflict and the presence of escalating emotions may warrant additional caucuses, as well as an increased use of shuttle diplomacy by the mediator. Depending on the situation, other precautions might include increased security and weapons screenings and additional conditions on participation, such as attending anger management classes or family therapy.
The two methods in the study discussed above included several safety protocols. Although participants were in the same building, they were always in separate rooms that were physically distant from each other. The mediators were also highly trained, another aspect we have emphasized in other postings. Mediators working in situations involving any kind of domestic abuse or IPV require both training and experience.
For anyone who believed that the presence of IPV in their relationship meant that litigation was the only option, this study shows that there may be another way. Someone who prefers to meet with a mediator in-person can consider shuttle mediation. If safety concerns preclude this, or if videoconferencing just feels like a better choice, this method can also be successful.
Many divorcing couples who wanted to keep their matters moving forward over the past year and a half had no choice but to conduct their mediation sessions by videoconference. This study can provide some reassurance regarding the effectiveness of that method. It also highlights a clear utility for videoconferencing in mediation that is independent from the recent increase in use during the Covid-19 pandemic.
If you are wondering whether or not divorce mediation is right for your case, one of our caring and experienced mediators can help you decide. Contact us today for a free consultation.