Recently we have been discussing different procedural options for resolving child custody disputes in New Jersey. We followed one family through litigation and another through mediation with a child-focused approach. Today we will look at a third option, child-inclusive mediation.
Mediation vs. Litigation for Parenting Disputes
As we discussed in our February post, there are several reasons why mediating parenting disputes is generally preferable to litigating them. Mediation tends to defuse conflict, while litigation tends to inflame it. Mediation also protects the privacy of the family, and it is usually much cheaper than going to court. Parties in mediation can share a child development expert. This adds an expense to the mediation process, but it is still generally cost-effective as compared to hiring competing experts to give opinions in court. In April, we saw how some of this played out in the case of Alan and Cherie. While they eventually achieved a reasonable result through litigation, both were unhappy with the cost and the degree of conflict associated with that approach
Child-Focused Mediation vs. Child-Inclusive Mediation
As we have also previously discussed, there are different ways to use a child specialist in mediation. Two approaches that appear to reduce post-resolution conflict between parents are child-focused mediation (CF) and child-inclusive mediation (CI). Both approaches facilitate parenting agreements that incorporate aspirational language and address communication between parents and other aspects of the parent-child relationship. Both approaches employ a child specialist to provide parents with age-specific information about the effects of divorce on children. In CI, however, the specialist also interviews the children in the family before meeting with the parents and the mediator.
While CI may produce somewhat better results than CF, it is only appropriate for children who are at least 5 years old. Last month we followed Derek and Megan, a couple with two young children, through a CF process. Today we will focus on a couple trying to choose an appropriate process for a parenting dispute involving older children.
Jeff and Yvonne Begin Divorce Mediation
Jeff, a high school teacher and basketball coach, and Yvonne, an IT professional, are both 44 years old, and they have been married for 20 years. Their children are 15-year-old Kyle, and 12-year-old twins, Katie and Kayla. Yvonne works a regular 9-5 schedule, while Jeff is generally at school from about 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. During basketball season, he works both longer days and weekends. He has also worked at a science day camp for about 6 weeks during each of the past few summers.
Yvonne and Jeff decided to divorce more than a year ago, but practical concerns prevented them from moving forward. Neither was willing to move out of the family home, mainly because they both wanted to seek primary custody of the children. On the advice of their attorneys, they recently decided to try mediation, where they immediately began to make progress. One of their first decisions was to sell the family home. Renting or purchasing two smaller homes within the same neighborhood, they agreed, would make it easy for the children to travel between homes. They did not agree, however, on how much time the children should spend at each parent’s home.
Mediating Parenting Disputes with Older Children
Yvonne felt strongly that the children should have one home base. She also felt strongly that the twins would want to stay with her rather than splitting their time. “I know it isn’t right to just come out and ask them,” she said. “I wouldn’t put them in the middle like that, but they are 12-year-old girls, and they have both always been very close to me.” She proposed a parenting schedule that gave Jeff alternate weekends and Wednesday night dinners.
Jeff adamantly objected. “I know the three of you are close,” he acknowledged, “but I don’t think that means that they wouldn’t want to spend at least half their time with me. I’m also pretty sure that Kyle would rather live with me, and now that he’s on the basketball team, it would definitely be more convenient.”
Yvonne did not find Jeff’s arguments convincing. “Kyle fights with you constantly,” she pointed out. “If you are going to be his coach, he probably needs more time away from you, not more time with you.”
Jeff and Yvonne Choose a Child-Inclusive Process
After Jeff and Yvonne went around in circles for a while, their mediator, Brian Hill, made a suggestion. “You’re right that asking children about their living preferences can be very tricky,” he agreed. “Most kids will hesitate to state their feelings plainly, because they don’t want to feel disloyal to either parent. One way to handle this is to involve a child development specialist who can interview everyone in the family. Professionals with a lot of experience in reorganizing families know how to assess what would be in a child’s best interests without asking direct questions.”
Mr. Hill gave the parents some additional information about child-inclusive mediation. Both Yvonne and Jeff agreed that this seemed like a positive way to move forward. Their attorneys each recommended two or three experts, and eventually they agreed upon Dr. Jasmine Landers, a licensed psychologist with many years of experience helping divorcing families reorganize their lives. In our next post, we will see how the CI process works out for Yvonne and Jeff’s family.
If you are having trouble choosing a process to resolve your parenting dispute, the child custody mediators at Weinberger Divorce & Family Law Group, LLC’s Mediation Center can help. Contact us today for an initial consultation.