Fitting the Fuss to the Community Mediation Center Forum

Vol. 19 No. 2


Conflict resolution is a growth industry. While trials may be “vanishing,”[1] community access to justice needs abound. Unfortunately, adequate funding does not. This is the story of the Good Shepherd Mediation Program (GSMP), a neighborhood justice center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that has been providing community mediation and related services since 1984. Because of support from the Sisters of Good Shepherd, a dynamic staff, dedicated volunteers, and its willingness to develop programs in response to changing court and community needs, GSMP has flourished. Yet despite our best efforts to encourage peace, reconciliation and social justice, financial stability and widespread public understanding of the benefits of mediating remain elusive. And while we no longer have to convince the Yellow Pages that we should not be listed under “Meditation,” it is a challenge to convince people that community mediation, rather than an ongoing conflict or even a trial, is a fitting forum.

Rooted in Reconciliation

Unlike most community mediation centers, the Good Shepherd Mediation Program was started by a Roman Catholic nun. The Sisters of Good Shepherd arrived in Philadelphia in 1892 and opened a residential facility for troubled girls. After nearly 100 years of providing services to delinquent and dependent youth, Good Shepherd Corporation phased out its youth residential programs when the Philadelphia Family Court began to rely on private foster homes rather than institutional placements for dependent youth.

Determined not to abandon the Germantown neighborhood, in 1982 Sister Brigid Lawlor conducted a survey to identify community concerns that would fit within the Sisters’ mission of reconciliation. The study revealed that crime and violence resulting from escalating, unresolved disputes – particularly involving youths – were the social problems community residents were most concerned about. At about the same time, after the success of the community mediation centers funded by the Department of Justice following the Pound Conference in 1976,[2] community mediation centers were being established throughout the country. Building on their long history with the Philadelphia Family Court, the Sisters of Good Shepherd established the Good Shepherd Mediation Program as a new way to fulfill its their mission in the neighborhood where they had established deep roots and built vital connections. 

In 1986, I participated in Lawlor’s second basic mediation training and became a volunteer mediator. A few years later, I joined GSMP’s board of directors. In 1991, when Lawlor was elected to lead what was then the Washington Province of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, I was hired to succeed Lawlor as executive director, and I have been in the job ever since.

The Roots Sprout New Branches

Building on Lawlor’s charisma and the Sisters’ 100-year history with the Philadelphia Family Court, GSMP has grown from serving two police districts in the northwest corner of Philadelphia to serving the entire city of Philadelphia. Today it is Philadelphia’s only neighborhood justice center.

Over the last 28 years, GSMP has expanded beyond handling parent-youth, small claims and landlord-tenant mediations to a multitude of programs designed in response to the changing needs of the Philadelphia community. Being connected to a worldwide order of Sisters has also helped the program establish connections with Sisters and community mediation centers around the globe.

Community Mediation Services

Disputes are referred to the Good Shepherd Mediation Program by court personnel, police, attorneys, school administrators, government agencies, neighborhood leaders, members of nonprofit organizations and others. About one-third of the referrals received result in actual mediations, and of those, about 85 percent settle. The disputes are mediated by staff and volunteer mediators. Albie Davis, an early proponent of mediation, said that community mediation is the “soul” of the ADR movement.[3] If that is true, then dedicated, volunteer mediators could be its heart.

Volunteer mediators and student interns are the backbone of the program. The volunteer mediators are a diverse cadre of trained men and women who consistently give their time and effort to help others resolve their problems. Many of them not only serve as mediators but use their skills to help train others, participate in professional development activities designed to enhance their mediation skills and offer their peacemaking talents to the community in other capacities.


Training community volunteers is a win-win arrangement. The program gets the volunteer mediators it needs to be able to provide free and low-cost mediation services to the community. And attorneys, social workers and others get the training and experience they need to start a private practice.

Since GSMP began training mediators in 1985, nearly 2,000 adults have participated in mediation training. What started out as a free workshop is now offered for a fee, although scholarships are available to individuals from the community who agree to volunteer after they complete their apprenticeship. Continuing legal education credits for attorneys and continuing education units for social workers are available. Individuals who complete the mediator training may also choose to apprentice with experienced staff and volunteer mediators.

Because some court rules and professional associations require mediators to participate in continuing mediation education, the program sponsors free volunteer gatherings and fee-based advanced mediator trainings throughout the year. These opportunities expand and refresh the mediators’ skills while keeping them up to date with changing professional standards, court rules and statutes that impact the practice of mediation.

Court and Community Services

As a neighborhood justice center, GSMP goes beyond providing community mediation services. The staff and volunteer mediators have implemented services designed in response to specific needs brought to the program by the Philadelphia Family Court and the Office of the District Attorney’s Juvenile Unit.

Pre-hearing Conference Facilitation in Dependency Court

Pre-hearing conferences were implemented in 1997 as part of a Court Improvement Project designed to modernize a dependency court system where children languished in foster homes for years because families failed to avail themselves of the court-ordered services they needed to resolve the problems – such as drug or alcohol abuse, mental health difficulties or housing needs – that had resulted in the removal of the children in the first place.

The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that termination of parental rights procedures be initiated within 15 to 22 months after children have been placed in foster care. In response to ASFA, a local task force was formed that included representatives from the court, the defenders association, the City Solicitor’s Office, GSMP and social service providers. The resulting Model Court project included pre-hearing conferences that use mediation strategies and communication processes to encourage dialogue and cooperation.

Before the Model Court project, families typically had less than 10 minutes in court and often left bewildered by the outcome. Court-ordered services often were not put in place, but no one discovered this until the next court date, which might be six months later. As a result, children could not be returned to their homes because the problems that had led to their placement had not been addressed.

Pre-hearing conferences give families an opportunity to discuss what they need and give service providers a chance to explain what can be offered to meet those needs. The facilitator helps open lines of communication, builds trust and gives the parties an opportunity to ask questions in an environment free from the formalities that can make the courtroom feel intimidating. The facilitator writes out any decisions the parties agree on. This report and recommendation form is then forwarded to the court so the judge may take the parties’ wishes into consideration in rendering a decision.

As a result of its success, the Model Court project was fully institutionalized throughout the Philadelphia Dependency Court system. Over the past 14 years 20,290 conferences have been held, serving 158,944 participants and resulting in parties’ recommendations to the judge in 89 percent of those conferences.

Custody Mediation at Domestic Relations Court

Thanks to seed money from several private foundations, GSMP has institutionalized free mediation at Domestic Relations Court. Unfortunately, the program costs were not picked up by the Family Court when the foundation seed money ran out, and private foundations have indicated that if the court wants the program, it should pay for it. The bar foundation will not fund it because mediation is not the practice of law. The program’s board of directors and I want to continue the program despite the lack of funding because it provides a vital service to indigent and low-income families; so far, GSMP has supported Domestic Relations Court mediation through revenue earned from fundraising and fee-based training and consulting.

GSMP mediates an average of 150 custody matters at court each year. In fiscal year 2011-2012, the program conducted 182 mediation orientations. Of those, 39 (21 percent) were screened out due to domestic violence and/or a criminal record that posed a safety threat to the child.[4] Parenting arrangements were successfully negotiated in 128 (90 percent) of the 143 that were appropriate for mediation. Post-mediation surveys indicate that 92 percent are very satisfied with the mediation process and that 84 percent believe that their children will be much better off because they chose to mediate their parenting arrangements.

Victim Offender Conferencing

Another program that was designed to meet local court needs is Victim Offender Conferencing, a restorative justice project that offers juvenile offenders and those they have harmed an opportunity to meet face to face in a structured, secure environment to facilitate restoration, healing, reconciliation and/or negotiate restitution. If the victim declines the invitation to conference with the offender, the offender’s family participates in parent-youth mediation where the discussion centers on the consequences of the youth’s actions to the youth, the victim, the family and the community.

Victim Offender Conferencing (VOC) was initiated through the efforts of GSMP and the Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ) Task Force of the Family Court of Philadelphia, which was formed to implement programs in compliance with revisions to the Juvenile Act in Pennsylvania. VOC offers first-time offenders between the ages of 10 and 18 an opportunity to take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions within a framework that balances the needs and responsibilities of victims, offenders and communities. The VOC protocol was developed by GSMP and a task force comprised of representatives from the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney, the Defenders Association, victims’ advocates, and Family Court administrators.

VOC was formally evaluated in 2001-2002 by Andrea Bodtker, a doctoral candidate from the Temple University Department of Communications.[5] Her results demonstrate that 86 percent of the victims who participated in VOC reported that they believe that the agreement reached was fair. In follow-up questionnaires and interviews, 57 percent of the victims reported feeling “completely better” and 43 percent feeling “somewhat better” following the conference. Of the offenders who completed the questionnaire, 86 percent believed the agreement reached was fair and 86 percent indicated that they felt extremely sorry for hurting the victim. Seventy-one percent of the offenders reported feeling that the victim has forgiven them for what they did.

In 2003, Family Court tracked the 144 offenders who participated in the GSMP VOC project from 2000 through 2002. The report indicates that 88.2 percent of the youth who participated in victim offender and/or a family conference have not been re-arrested for other offenses.[6] VOC continues today, although funding for external evaluation has evaporated. GSMP continues to track recidivism in-house: Our tracking still demonstrates that juvenile offenders who participate in VOC are less likely to be re-arrested for delinquent acts or crimes.


Even though the Good Shepherd Mediation Program is a respected agency that delivers important community services, the organization faces strong challenges similar to those faced by community mediation centers all across the United States, particularly financial stability and difficulty getting people to the mediation table.

We Built It and They Aren’t Coming

Like the farmer in “Field of Dreams,” we have built it – but not many have come. Mediation centers across the country struggle with ongoing outreach and marketing. Educating the public about the benefits of mediating is challenging. Because the cases do not come to us, we go to them by offering mediation services in the courts (such as the Custody Mediation service at Domestic Relations Court described above).

Because we know that only about one-third of the cases referred to mediation actually make it to the table, we have looked for ways to serve the people for whom mediation is not possible or appropriate. We developed a community mediation model of conflict coaching, based on the book Conflict Coaching,[7] in which our mediation coordinator offers conflict coaching every time the responding party declines the invitation to mediate, and our mediators suggest conflict coaching to any disputants who may benefit from it. But despite all efforts to explain and promote it, conflict coaching is accepted less than 10 percent of the time we offer it.

Another tough sell is elder mediation and related services. GSMP expanded its Family Passages Initiative to include Elder Dispute Resolution Services, designed to help aging adults, their families and caregivers as they wrestle with decisions about living arrangements, sale of the family home, caregiving responsibilities, mental and physical capacity, finances and other matters. Providing communication and conflict resolution support reduces stress, encourages informed decision-making and ensures that the elderly person is involved in decisions as much as possible. The interventions offered include mediation, family group conferencing, conflict coaching and conflict resolution training for the staff of senior centers and other organizations that serve the elderly. Despite the increased aging population and a documented need for services designed to help seniors stay in their own homes, we have had difficulty convincing service providers who work with the elderly to refer matters for mediation. We are trying to ascertain whether the problem is insufficient outreach, turf issues or the fact that the court is not involved in referring these disputes to us. Because we strongly believe that mediation is ideally suited for these matters, we cannot fathom why we are not flooded with referrals.

Guerrilla marketing goes only so far. The rising cost of printing and postage, and our desire to be green, have stopped us from disseminating as much printed material as we once did. And the cost of annual reports, training catalogs, brochures, business cards and newsletters is significant.

The advent of social marketing has helped somewhat. Using mass emails to market training workshops, with links to our website and PayPal, has greatly increased our training registrations. After a few years of debating whether to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media options, we finally jumped aboard. But while these tools may have increased the program’s visibility, we can find no direct correlation to an increase in a demand for our services and a corresponding increase in revenue.

The Never-ending Quest for Financial Stability

Although it has been on our strategic plan for as long as the Good Shepherd Mediation Program has been in existence, we have never achieved financial stability.

In the 1990s, grant money was abundant. Interest rates were high, so foundations had a lot of money to distribute. After September 11, when the stock market declined, interest rates plummeted and nonprofit organizations multiplied, foundations had much less money to distribute to nonprofit agencies. More recently, the economy has decimated the interest rates and grant funds have declined drastically. When grant funds are in short supply, mediation centers compete with nonprofit organizations that provide basic human services such as food and shelter. And when people are homeless and starving, organizations and foundations are much less likely to channel funds to organizations that help resolve conflict.

In its early years, GSMP income came primarily from foundation grants. Over the years, as the program grew, it boosted its revenue from fee-based training and consulting services and decreased its reliance on foundation grants. But the program has also become increasingly dependent on contracts with government agencies, which can be slow to pay invoices, and this has led to cash flow problems, sometimes forcing us to rely on cash reserves and a line of credit. Furthermore, the fees that were negotiated 14 years ago with government agencies have not increased.

While we wish we could keep our costs steady, administrative expenses such as salaries, health insurance (which we provide as an employee benefit), insurance, utilities, printing, office supplies and facility management all continue to grow. Today, fewer foundations accept grant proposals for general operating support, and even when we look for money for existing programs, we find that foundations often want to fund programs that are new and innovative rather than those that are already in place. Foundations that do accept proposals for project seed money limit administrative overhead to between 8 and 11 percent, while our costs have soared to more than 15 percent. At that rate, we have a hard time affording necessary support services such as human resources, grants administration, outreach and marketing, and development.

A Question of Fees

For many years, GSMP provided community mediation at no charge. Today our fee structure is based on a per-session sliding scale, but as a 501(c)(3) public charity, the program never turns anyone away for inability to pay. Because the community cannot bear it, we have chosen not to increase the cost of community mediation. We review our training and consulting fees every year, but each increase prompts some organizations to complain that they cannot afford it, so the program has resorted to offering discounts to very low-budget, nonprofit clients.

It all does not add up: general operating costs have risen while mediation fees, fundraising, grant funds and government contract fees have not. So we have not achieved our goal of financial stability.

What Does the Future Hold?

Despite funding difficulties and persistent challenges in trying to help people understand the benefits of mediation, the Good Shepherd Mediation Program will survive. For now, fee-for-service contracts, training and consulting keep the program going and support our free and low-cost mediation services. But until the national economy improves, GSMP will likely focus on strengthening current programs and looking for ways to motivate volunteers rather than respond to unfunded community needs.

Cheryl Cutrona is the executive director of the Good Shepherd Mediation Program. She teaches Mediation Advocacy and Practice, ADR, and the Domestic Relations Custody Clinic at Temple University Beasley School of Law and mediates and arbitrates for several government and private providers. She can be reached at


[1] Mark Galanter, The Vanishing Trial: An Examination of Trials and Related Matters in Federal and State Courts, 1 J. of Empirical & Legal Stud. 459 (2004).



[2] As a result of the Pound Conference, a task force was formed for the purpose of developing proposals for judicial reform in the United States. The task force recommended funding a pilot project that resulted in the Department of Justice’s establishing neighborhood justice centers in Atlanta, Kansas City, and Los Angeles in 1978, and two more, in Dallas and Honolulu, in 1980. The courts diverted small claims and criminal disputes to these nonprofit, community-based centers staffed by trained, volunteer mediators. Over the next 25 years, community mediation centers cropped up all over the country. Tim Hedeen & Patrick G. Coy, Community Mediation and the Court System: The Ties that Bind, Mediation Q., Summer 2000, at 351-367.



[3] Sally Engle Merry, Albie M. Davis: Community Mediation as Community Organizing, in When Talk Works: Profiles of Mediators 245, 245 (Deborah M. Kolb ed., 1994).



[4] In 2011, Pennsylvania custody law was revised and now requires the court to consider the criminal record of parents and other adults living in the household prior to awarding custody. The statute enumerates crimes that may pose a threat of harm to the child. 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5329(a) (West 2012). The Good Shepherd program is now working with the court to develop a screening instrument – similar to the domestic violence screening tool – to determine whether mediation is appropriate.



[5] Andrea Bodtker et al., Victim-Offender Conferencing Project Final Report (Dec. 17, 2002) (unpublished manuscript) (on file with author).



[6] Memorandum from Judge Field, Admin. Judge of the Phila. Court of Common Pleas Family Div. (June 6, 2003) (on file with author).



[7] Tricia S. Jones & Ross Brinkert, Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual (2008).




DISPUTE RESOLUTION MAGAZINE is published quarterly (4 times a year) by the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution. Dispute Resolution Magazine provides timely, insightful and resourceful information regarding the latest developments, news and trends in the growing field of dispute resolution throughout the world and features internationally-known scholars and practitioners as authors.


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Federal Judicial Center
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Pel Mediation


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