"Mediation and Child Custody: How the Process Works"

What is Mediation?

     Mediation is the meeting of three parties involved in a child/children custody where a neutral party, called the mediator will conduct the meetings. Typically it is between the mother and father. In some states mediation of child custody disputes is voluntary, however in some states it is mandatory before a court will step in to settle any disputes. The steps involved in the mediation process are the same regardless of whether it is done on a voluntary basis or is mandatory.  There are four general steps in the mediation protocol.
  1. · Step 1: There is the initial meeting with the mediator.
  2. · Step 2: The mediator identifies and categorizes the issues to be resolved.
  3. · Step 3: The parties and mediator discuss solutions with a give and take attitude.
  4. · Step 4: All parties will be involved in preparing the custody agreement, however the mediator will take the lead in finalizing the specifics to be presented to the court. Both parties approve the final document.
The length of the mediation process depends on several factors, including the number of custody issues, the complexity of issues, and the willingness of both parents to reach an agreement.

The Initial Meeting with the Mediator

     Arrive at your appointment time with an open mind. Be willing to listen. Remember, everyone’s focus is on what is in the best interest of your child or children. After you arrive for your meeting, the mediator will sit down with both of you and explain all the steps in the mediation process. Again, be willing to listen, as this is key during the mediation process. Keep in mind the mediator is neutral and doesn’t represent either of you. A mediator will not provide you counseling or legal advice. The primary role of the mediator is to help you come to a custody agreement that is fair and reasonable to both parents.

Identify and Categorize Issues

     The mediator will play a key role in helping you determine the child custody issues that need to be resolved. Once the issues are identified they can be ranked in terms of importance and time. It is better to tackle the easier issues first before proceeding to the more difficult ones. This helps to build a foundation of successes and leads to cooperation for the more difficult issues.

Organization of the Issues

     Most mediators find it useful to have custody issues divided into five layers. The division of layers will help the parents look at most expected scenarios in child custody and add any unusual circumstances that should be addressed early on in the process. The mediator will assist you to make a list of exceptions that override the regular schedule, such as holidays and vacations.

The regular custody and visitation schedule

     List how the parents will communicate with each other about the children.  Include and examine any special issues, such as religious training, medical care, activities and private school.  Decide and put in place a method for changing the custody agreement in the future if it is necessary.

     These steps are pretty standard across the board in the mediation process for child custody. This also provides a roadmap to assist the parents in remaining on topic and focusing on the important issues of child custody without bringing in other issues that can be addressed elsewhere in the divorce process.

Be Open to Solutions

      The family’s situation will guide the time spent on each of the custody issues. The mediation process works best when each parent openly discusses what they think is fair. It is important to remain focused during this time and let decisions be guided by what is in the best interest of the child.

The Custody Agreement

     The mediator will help to prepare the child custody agreement. This is done after all issues have been discussed at length. Take the time to carefully examine the agreement. Be sure it accurately reflects your understanding of the custody agreement. If you have an attorney, you should also have your attorney examine the agreement before it is submitted for court approval.

     Any unsettled issues in the mediation process will have to be settled by the court. All of these steps may feel a bit overwhelming at times. That is natural.  Keep in mind, if you can both agree that the child or children come first, the mediator can help settle differences in a fair way for both parties. This will eliminate a great deal of stress and possibly do away with arguments that often ensue during child custody disputes.