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MAHONING COUNTY Custody dispute efforts pay off



Published: Mon, August 6, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



A mediation program has a 60 percent success rate since being implemented in October.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Judge Beth A. Smith wanted to find a way to soften the bitter custody battles that often take place before her in Mahoning County Domestic Relations Court.

In October she implemented a mediation program, hoping that parents could resolve their custody issues without a courtroom showdown.

It has been so successful that she's hoping to add a full-time mediator to her staff next year.

In the 10 months the program has been in place, about 60 percent of both predivorce and postdivorce parenting disputes have been successfully resolved, Judge Smith said.

Mediation is a process by which parties are empowered to resolve their own disputes in a nonadversarial manner. A trained mediator coordinates the negotiations.

Across nation: Judge Smith said the approach has become increasingly popular in Ohio and across the country.

"The trauma of divorce is so severe. What mediation does is help the parties come to the table and try to resolve their parenting issues without a battle," Judge Smith said.

Some courts mediate entire divorces, but Mahoning County uses mediation only for parenting issues. She would like to broaden the program but does not have the staffing to do it.

She would like to have a full-time mediator on her staff and hopes to include that in next year's budget. For now, she has some staff members who do it part time, and she also refers work to mediators outside the courthouse.

The judge has focused her mediation efforts on the parenting issues in hopes that it will avoid the nasty custodial tug of war that often accompanies domestic disputes. It's best if parents can resolve their own differences instead of leaving it to the court.

"People can be creative," Judge Smith said. "It's all about what's best for the children."

Family services: Under the plan, cases deemed appropriate for mediation are referred to the court's family services department, which coordinates appointment of a mediator chosen by the family from a list of court-approved list.

Mediators must have completed a 40-hour training program required by the Ohio Supreme Court to be included on the list. They do not have to be lawyers.

Once a case is referred to mediation, it is placed on hold for 60 days while the parties try to reconcile their differences. If a settlement is reached, a written agreement is prepared and presented to the judge for approval.

If no agreement is reached, a settlement conference is scheduled in which a court magistrate tries again to help the parties reach an understanding.

If that doesn't work, the case is set for trial.

Judge Smith said some cases, such as those involving domestic violence or serious mental health or drug abuse issues, are not appropriate for mediation.

Sliding fee scale: To ensure that the program is affordable, all mediators are required to abide by a sliding fee scale based on the parties' income and ability to pay, Judge Smith said.

The court has set aside money to pay up to $500 per case for people who can't afford the sliding scale.

"Divorce is very frightening," Judge Smith said. "If this program can help alleviate some of that tension, that would be great."

bjackson@vindy.com




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