Since the government completed the Voice of the Child Report in 2015, the involvement of children in the mediation process has become mainstream.
Direct Consultation with Children (DCC) in the mediation process has been around for a long time. I originally trained to talk to children in the mediation process in 2013. Following a three day training course with the Family Mediation Association, I came away feeling enlightened, but still a little sceptical as to my abilities to meet with children going through a difficult time andoffer them the support they need. For this reason, it took a long time to truly embrace DCC within my practice.
However, the 2015 report commissioned by the Right Honourable Simon Hughes MP and Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties made many recommendations for hearing the voice of a child in out of court dispute resolution processes, such as mediation. These recommendations have subsequently been adopted and put into practice by the Family Mediation Council.
In order to continue practicing as a family mediator it became clear I would need to face my fears and embrace what is now known as ‘Child Inclusive Mediation’. Let me make it absolutely clear – I have no objection to the findings of the report and wholly support the recommendation for children to have a voice in matters concerning them. I’m just not absolutely sure that I am the best qualified person for the job!
It became clear to me, that my anxiety around this issue came out of a very healthy respect for the task I was being asked to undertake. Talking to children going through a difficult time and offering them some support without making any promises, involves a very special skill set and a very special person.
Whilst I have made a successful career out of speaking with parents and helping them to find solutions, the prospect of speaking to their offspring actually filled me with dread. But with that said, I cannot deny there have been numerous occasions when hearing the thoughts of the child in question could have proved invaluable.
With an issue to overcome, but still not willing to compromise my integrity, I needed to use my best negotiator skills to identify a solution to my problem. I begun by asking myself ‘If I’m not the best person for the job, who is?’ Well someone with greater training, experience and understanding than me – a psychologist specialising in children and families.
After extensive research I met with Dr Luisa Williams and was able to persuade her to join our practice as our resident psychologist. Luisa has a long and varied background in dealing with children and families going through separation. She understood my predicament and was incredibly keen to engage in developing and delivering a service that best meets the needs of our clients AND their children.
It is now standard practice for Luisa to be present when any of our family mediators at Crowther Mediation, meets with a child. The prospect of Child Inclusive Mediation can be daunting for both parents and children alike and Crowther Mediation I can assure you we understand this, which is why we have gone the extra mile.
The child inclusive mediation process at Crowther Mediation involves each parent attending an individual initial assessment meeting (MIAM), followed by a first joint mediation session in which the issues are identified. If all parties (including the mediator) believe it would be appropriate for the child/children to be heard in the process, then arrangements will be made for the child/children to be brought along to meet with the mediator and the psychologist, without their parents present. The psychologist will then prepare a report based on child’s wishes and feelings and the mediator will feed this back to the parents at a further mediation session (usually the following day).
The mediation process is a confidential one, even where children are concerned. This means if parents are unable to agree matters in mediation and choose to proceed through the courts, the discussions between the mediator and the child remain confidential. The child may then have to speak to further professionals, such as CAFCASS during the court process. Because Luisa is an independent expert in her own right, her report in mediation can be produced in evidence in any subsequent court proceedings, so children don’t have to repeat the process. Furthermore, parents can ask Luisa to give a recommendation – something a mediator could never do.
In practice this system works really well. I find that parents are reassured knowing two qualified professionals are dealing with this sensitive issue. As a mediation practice, we benefit from being able to offer parents a greater psychological insight than we would ordinarily be able to give. But, most importantly, I am absolutely confident we are offering a worthwhile, wholistic service which really makes a difference for families.
I am aware this service sets our practice apart for other mediation practices, but I wholly believe it should be available to everyone. For this reason, we do NOT charge extra for Luisa’s involvement. When it comes to children, exceptional service should come as standard and not at exceptional cost.
In January 2019 a case was referred to Crowther Mediation from the local County Court. This matter was a presented as a classic case of ‘parental alienation’ and at first glance all the hallmarks were present. A 13 year old girl who had suddenly decided not to spend anymore time with her father, without ant explanation and a mother supporting this decision. By the time I met with the parents there had been no contact between father and daughter for nearly twelve months. The parents had engaged in a bitter court battle which only seemed fan the flames. Father was absolutely confident Mother was failing to encourage and promote contact and believed it was within mother’s power to ‘make contact happen’.
When I met with Mother at the assessment meeting it became clear she would very much like her daughter to spend time with her father and was distressed that she had made the decision to alienate him form her life. Mother had tried to encourage daughter to see father, but was concerned that if sh wasn’t seen to be supporting her daughter, then she might be cut out as well, leaving their daughter with neither of her parents in her life.
In the first mediation session, Father was able to accept the difficult predicament Mother found herself in and had no suggestions for how she might deal with this. Similarly, Mother was able to understand how frustrating and upsetting this must be for Father. Both expressed a willingness to resolve this and desperately wanted their daughter to have a relationship with her Father.
Both parents were keen for their daughter to come in and meet with the mediator and the psychologist in the hopes of finding a solution.
Myself and my colleague, Dr Luisa Williams, had the pleasure of meeting with an incredibly bright, articulate and well mannered 13 year old Katie (well mannered teenagers actually do exist – I’ve met them!). Aftre building a raport with Luisa, Katie opened up and explained that she had fallen out with her Dad approx. 12 months ago when he told her off for swearing in an argument. When her Father dropped her off with her Mother she vowed she would never see him again. The following weekend she stuck to her word and refused to go and the weekend after that and the one after that…….By the end of the month Katie was aware her Father was angry about the situation and he and her Mother had argued about it. Katie thought if she saw her father he would be mad at her and equally her mother would also be mad with her for causing such trouble. It seemed easier to Katie to maintain the decision not to see her Father, but the longer this went on, the harder it became for Katie to reverse her decision.
Katie explained, she really missed her Dad and wanted to fix things but she didn’t know how. I reassured her that both of her parents wanted exactly the same thing – that’s why they had gone to court and that’s why they had asked Katie to come into mediation. Contrary to what Katie thought, both of her parents would be delighted if she started seeing her Dad.
We spent some time discussing how this might happen. Katie thought if her Dad popped in for a cup of tea and they cleared the air, then maybe they could go bowling. Katie was still upset that her Dad had shouted at her and thought he should apologise for his part in this. But when asked “Is there anything you would like to say to your Dad?” Katie replied “I would like to say sorry too.”
At the end of Katie’s session I reminded her of the confidential nature of our discussions and I asked her what she would like me to say to her parents when I next met them. Katie let out a sigh of relief and simply said “Tell them EVERYTHING I’ve just said.” And so I did.
Katie obviously felt a huge sense of relief at finally having been able to resolve this matter. She merely needed a vehicle for change and this presented itself in the form of mediation. Katie’s parents were able to follow Katie’s proposed plan to the letter and after clearing the air over a cup of tea that weekend, Katie’s usual routine with her parents returned to normal.
This was an incredibly rewarding case for a mediator. My only regret is that this family didn’t find their way into my office sooner and Katie’s father missed a year of her life. Childhood is too short and too precious, it should be protected and cherished. As parents and professionals, it’s our job to identify any problems and resolve them quickly.