Studies of child protection mediation (CPM) programs have found that most of the benefits touted by proponents of mediation for these cases are real. Further, common concerns that mediation could result in agreements that harm the children or impinge on the parents’ rights have proven to be unfounded. Study results show that programs have high rates of settlement, thus reducing the number of contested hearings; have lowered costs to the courts; have reduced time to permanency; have increased parental participation and voice; and have increased collaboration and problem-solving among professionals and parents. At the same time, the studies have found that participants believe the process safeguards the children and the rights of parents.
Almost all studies of CPM programs have found settlement rates to be high, no matter at what stage the case is mediated. A 2001 Michigan study of programs in which mediation occurred at every stage in the case found that mediation resulted in agreement in more than 75% of cases over a three-year period. A study of an early mediation program in Washington, DC, had similarly high agreement rates: 93% were resolved to some extent. In a study of five programs in the California courts in which mediation occurred at every stage of the case, each site attained agreements on at least some issues in more than 90% of cases, with full agreements in 60-80% of cases. This led to lower numbers of hearings for mediated cases: 88% of mediated cases did not require a contested 6-month review hearing, compared to 53% of control. A 2019 study in Michigan found that 70% of mediations reached agreement (63% full agreement). A cross-site comparison of 2,070 cases in ten jurisdictions across three states found that settlements rates averaged between 70% and 90%.
Those studies that compared settlement rates among different issues point to services and visitation being the most likely to settle. In New Mexico, services for the child were fully or partly settled in 93% of mediations in which they were discussed. This was followed by services for the parents (78%) and visitation (68%). At the other end were termination of parental rights (30%) and permanency (21%). Similarly, RSI’s evaluation of the CPM program in Cook County, Illinois, found that services were the most likely to reach agreement (83%), followed by communication (79%) and visitation (77%). Permanency was least likely to be settled in mediation (46%). However, as mentioned above, in the two Ohio programs that mediate termination of parental rights, resolution rates were higher than New Mexico, at 40% and 60%. In the one study that looked at resolution of the legal issues involved, RSI found a resolution rate of 44% in 2013-2014. However, the resolution rate had dropped to 25% in 2017.
A few studies looked at the effect of particular case characteristics on resolution. A study of a program in San Francisco, in which mediation can take place throughout the life of a case, found that no case characteristics were linked to whether the case settled or not. The same was found in a study of mediation in Colorado. However, a study of termination of parental rights mediation in Hamilton County, Ohio, found that cases involving physical abuse were more likely to settle.
Time to Permanency
There is no clear evidence that mediation reduces time to permanency. Some studies have found mediation reduces time to permanency, while others have found it has no effect or even increases it. Two studies found mediation reduced time to permanency. In a study of a program mediating termination of parental rights in Ohio, permanency was found to be achieved earlier when the case was mediated, even if mediation did not lead to agreement. Mediated cases that settled took 2.2 months to move from permanent custody filing to entry of agreement. Mediated cases that did not settle or in which the parent failed to appear took 3.7 months. Cases that were not mediated took 4.6 months. In the 2019 Michigan study, which examined programs in which mediation generally occurred early in the case, counties that had mediation programs were found to have shorter times to permanency than those that didn’t, at 559 days and 619 days, respectively. However, it is not clear that mediation was the causal factor for that difference.
Two studies found no significant difference between mediated and non-mediated cases. These were RSI’s 2018 evaluation of the Washington, DC, early mediation program and a study of CPM in Texas. In New Mexico, mediation was found to have a negative effect on time to permanency: mediated child protection cases took 23 months to reach permanency compared to 18 months for cases that weren’t mediated.
The theory that CPM will lead to greater rates of compliance with treatment plans has been less often studied than other factors. Nevertheless, all but one of the studies that have looked at it have shown a positive impact, indicating that CPM may well encourage parents to comply with treatment plans. In the study of three mediation programs (in Hartford, Connecticut; Los Angeles; and Orange County, California), it was found that participation in mediation led to greater commitment to the agreement. In the study of five programs in California, mediated cases showed better compliance with treatment plans than those that did not mediate: at six months post-disposition 42% of mediated cases had complete compliance, as compared to 25% of non-mediated cases. A 2001 study of seven programs in Michigan, found there was full compliance 60-90 days after agreement in 73% of mediated cases. In a program in San Francisco, cases settled in mediation were less likely to return to court with a contested review hearing 12-24 months following the disposition hearing (11% v 28%). RSI’s evaluation of Washington, DC’s, early mediation program found that CPM likely led to parents’ greater compliance with the case plan. In New Mexico, however, a study found that mediation did not have had impact on parental compliance.
Reduced time to permanency, reduced number of hearings, and greater compliance all point to savings of court costs. Those few studies that have looked empirically at the impact of mediation on court costs have indeed found the costs to be reduced. In a child protection mediation program in Colorado, the court’s costs were reduced by $637 per case, whether mediation resulted in settlement or not. In the San Francisco program, savings from mediation were estimated to be about $2,505 per case settled in mediation. In Hamilton County, Ohio, cost savings for settling cases through mediation were estimated to be as much as 39%.
Parents and professionals have consistently rated their experience in mediation highly. This includes feelings of voice, understanding, fairness and overall satisfaction.
One of the main benefits of mediation is that it provides parents with voice. This is seen in every study in which voice was evaluated. All six studies (in California, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico and both the 2005 and 2018 Washington, DC studies) that asked about voice found that about 9 in 10 parents felt they had a chance to talk about what was important to them. A similar percentage of professionals felt the same.
Two studies looked at whether parents gained understanding through mediation. In the 2019 Michigan study, the average of parents’ responses about whether they gained understanding of the issues was 4.44 on 1-5 scale. In the 2018 Washington, DC study, 9 in 10 parents said they better understood others’ points of view and what to do next.
Five studies asked parents whether they thought the mediation process was fair. These included studies in Michigan (2001), Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Washington, DC, (2018). Percentages of parents who said the process was fair ranged from 76% to 100%. Only New Mexico asked the professionals this question. It found that 92% of them thought the process was fair.
The 2019 Michigan study asked about the fairness of the outcome. It found that mothers were more likely to say the result was fair than fathers were, at 77% v 64%. Professionals were also asked whether the outcome was fair. Their responses ranged from 71% for fathers’ attorneys, 79% for mothers’ attorneys and 86% for prosecuting attorneys.
Seven studies (Illinois; Michigan (2019); Nevada; New Mexico; Hamilton County and Lucas County, Ohio; and Washington, DC, (2018)) asked parents whether they were satisfied with the mediation process or how their case was handled. These all found high rates of satisfaction, from 78% to 90%. According to four of these studies, which surveyed professionals as well as parents, professionals also were satisfied, with their rates of satisfaction ranging from 80% to 98%.
Two of the studies, which looked at mediation of issues surrounding termination of parental rights in Ohio, found that parents’ satisfaction was correlated with whether they reached agreement in mediation. In Hamilton County, 89% of parents who settled and 57% of parents who did not (69.6% overall) said that mediation was better than court. In a similar program in Lucas County, 87% of parents who settled and 40% of those who did not (68% overall) said mediation was better than going to court.
Safety of Children
The concern that mediation would not properly safeguard the children was examined in three studies. The 2005 Washington, DC, study randomly assigned cases to mediation or to be handled through the traditional hearing process. It found that mediation, in fact, decreased the probability of future allegations of abuse or neglect over the two-year period following case closure. Seven percent of mediated cases returned to court with an additional petition, while 21% of cases that were not mediated returned to court after case closure.
The 2019 Michigan study found that the court fully accepted 73% of the agreements reached in mediation. In the study of the Cook County, Illinois, program, all interviewed judges said they had never rejected an agreement because they believed it was not in the best interests of the child.
Three studies compared permanency outcomes of mediated and non-mediated cases. Some have been concerned that what was said in mediation could be used later in the case to permanently remove children for their parents’ home. The studies indicate that this has not happened. The 2005 Washington, DC, study found that 46% of mediated and 42% of non-mediated cases resulted in reunification. This demonstrates that mediation does not reduce, and may increase, the probability of reunification. Another study of a program in San Francisco found that placement outcomes were no different whether they were mediated or litigated. The study in New Mexico, on the other hand, found that when mediation occurred, children were more likely to be reunified with their biological parents.