Generally speaking, when there is an issue relative to the allocation of parental responsibilities and/or parenting time (formerly known as custody and visitation), the Courts in Illinois will first send the parties to mediation, prior to adjudicating any of the issues in Court. Using mediation in allocation of parental responsibilities disputes can be very effective.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is the process where the two litigants meet with a neutral third party, a trained mediator, to try and resolve their differences prior to having hearings before a Judge. The only time mediation is waived is when there is a significant hindrance or impairment in the parties’ ability to participate in mediation, such as an order of protection, for example. However, in some cases, parties with an order of protection between them can still mediate. Some mediators will put these parties in separate rooms and shuffle back and forth so that they can still participate in this process.
In Cook County, the county offers free mediation services. The services are with trained mediators, and there is no cost to the parties. However, it is very, very popular and the dates book up plenty far in advance. It is not unusual for parties to have a mediation order entered and then for them to not have another court date for 3-4 months, or more, because of how far out Cook County Mediation Services’ available dates can be. Some issues are time-sensitive, so county mediation may not be the best option in those scenarios.
There is also the possibility of the parties attending private mediation. Usually, a family law attorney or another individual who has completed mediation training can serve as a neutral third-party mediator, appointed by the Court. These individuals usually offer more flexibility in terms of scheduling and have appointments sooner than the county. The only issue with a private mediator is that they charge, and the two litigants generally have to share the costs. But, the flexibility in scheduling can help when there are more time-sensitive issues that need to be resolved.
Benefits of Using Mediation in Allocation of Parental Responsibilities
While mediation is often a mandated process in domestic relations cases, it is not at all a bad option for resolving issues between the parties. One of the biggest benefits to using mediation is that the parties are creating their own agreement, together. When parties create an agreement together, they are more likely to follow through with it than they are if the Judge decides a specific issue. Compliance can be a very expensive process after the case is finalized when someone is not cooperating, so the likelihood of cooperation by all parties involved is a huge benefit. The children also can tell when their parents are at each other’s throats, or when their parents are stressed out during litigation, and it can cause a ripple effect in the home. The parents’ engagement in mediation is likely to be less stressful than going to court to litigating the case and the children will certainly pick up on this at home while the process is ongoing. Additionally, the parents are more in control of the outcome than if a judge was making a determination. Judges’ decisions can be “all or nothing” and that is a substantial risk to take when parties have to go to Court and request relief. You could end up with everything you want, or you could end up with nothing you want. Mediation at least is a way to guarantee that the parties will obtain some of the things they are looking for, without the stress and cost of having to litigate.
For example, a parent may really want the allocation of education decision-making for one of their children, due to their involvement in this issue previously and the special needs of a child as it relates to education. The other parent may not care much about having joint allocation of parental responsibilities for education, but they may want to have final decision-making authority for extra-curricular activities because they have always been involved in that. The parties could agree in mediation to each take sole allocation for education and extra-curricular activities, respectively, and do joint allocation on religion and healthcare. If they go to Court, they could risk the Judge giving someone sole allocation in all four areas, or joint allocation in all four areas, which is something neither party wanted. So, mediation provides a forum where parties can use a neutral third party to try to compromise on a joint solution that everyone can be satisfied with.
Overall, mediation is a great solution to try and have parents resolve their differences on their own, without leaving issues like allocation of parental responsibilities up to a Judge to decide.