Mending the Fabric of Community

Vol. 19 No. 2

By

Community mediation, a child of the 1960s, has demonstrated its practical value to communities across this country and around the world. I have been involved in the field for 32 years, as founder and director of Community Mediation Services, Inc., (CMS) the mediation center for Queens County in New York City. With some 100 employees and 200 volunteers, we apply the values of mediation in a holistic way to foster collaboration throughout the community. What follows is a discussion of some of the lessons I have learned during the center’s creation and evolution and through its programs, relationships and struggles.

Context

I believe that community mediation centers can be an agent for changing the polarization that today impedes civil discourse. The community mediation field is built on values – empathy, communication, empowerment and respect among them – that can move our competitive, winner-take-all society toward greater collaboration and relationship-building. At CMS, we attempt to instill these values into individuals, relationships, communities, governmental agencies and institutions. For us, constructive dispute resolution and collaborative problem solving are not simply ways to resolve conflict but preferred ways to interact and build community. Whether it is helping parents and their teens communicate about school issues or creating a community coalition to explore effective responses to crime or homelessness, a community mediation center can be a forum and catalyst for thoughtful consideration of difficult issues.

Origins of Community Mediation Services

Although the values and goals that exemplify mediation have driven the development of CMS over the past 32 years, its evolution is different from most other centers’. CMS began as a court diversion program for youth that only later discovered mediation was at its core.          

My personal evolution shaped the development of CMS. A degree in chemistry and physics gave me a scientist’s view of the world and an appreciation for problem solving and evidence-based approaches. I taught adolescents in middle school and attained a law degree. After law school I worked with the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Division, where I represented juveniles in Family Court. There I discovered the court system’s limitations and rigidity when faced with the complexity of family issues as it tried to make time-sensitive decisions based upon judgment and law. Worse, it applied adversarial approaches that alienated, polarized and divided families in situations that required understanding and healing. I was motivated to look for more humane alternatives.

In my work with youth I saw that listening and understanding respectfully, as well as offering candid and clear discussions about options and opportunities, could transform a childish, reactive rebel into a thoughtful, mature decision-maker. Rather than react to the images these young people were projecting, I learned to speak to and cultivate the adult within. For many, this was a welcome contrast to the response of the court, which often seemed dismissive and biased.

In 1980 I learned about an evidence-based youth mentoring program and was inspired to found the Queens Adolescent Diversion Program (QADP), the precursor of CMS. In this program college interns were trained as mentors in three intervention strategies premised upon a respectful and empowering relationship with the youth. The mentors facilitated goal-setting along with strategies for reaching the goals; helped the young person and parents negotiate the details of their relationship; and promoted self-advocacy within the community. Those strategies and values, developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by Edward Seidman and William S. Davidson, were fundamental to the development of future programs at CMS.

Two years later, after reading an article in the New York Times about divorce mediation, in particular the work of John Haynes and his role in its development and the creation of the Academy of Family Mediators, I signed up for a training with Haynes and other leaders in the field. This training began my conscious awareness of mediation; during the training I realized that what we were using in the adolescent diversion program was mediation.

After receiving funding for a parent-teen mediation program in 1983, I incorporated CMS. Its mission was then and is now designed around the empowerment approaches mentioned above. CMS sought to work with adolescents referred by the Family Court. Few other agencies were interested in this work. Therefore, we had little competition when we received a contract to divert PINS (“persons in need of supervision,” truants, etc.) from the Family Court into a short-term assessment and referral model in which we were able to use mediation and goal-setting. This contract led to the addition of 12 staff and the growth of the agency.

In the 1980s, the predominant narrative in the area of juvenile justice centered on juvenile rights; in the 1990s, the focus was on juveniles as predators and welfare mothers as incompetent. These narrowly defined readings of families at risk were politically and ideologically driven and have circumscribed our work. I am pleased to say that over the past 10 years a dramatic change in the perspective of government and the courts has affirmed our approach. CMS, and community mediation more generally, are now accepted as important components of several service systems, including child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice, and court diversion.                    

Mediation

We have considered ourselves a community mediation center from the beginning, even though our initial efforts to expand beyond funded family mediation and youth programs to community disputes proved difficult. The New York state court system created a community mediation system in 1983, and in 1990, CMS was granted sub-contracts to establish five mediation centers in a newly established network of community after-school centers. This award increased the profile of CMS and enabled us to develop relationships with the city Board of Education to design peer mediation programs and parent-child mediation to assist schools with truancy issues. Most important, this network impressed the court system: when it issued the first contracts for the centers in 1995, we were named the Queens contractor.

The CMS Mediation Division now has ongoing relationships with the Family, Criminal, and Civil Courts, from which we receive more than 1,500 cases per year. Community walk-ins as well as New York City information line (“311”) referrals make up an additional 500 cases. The court and community referrals range from noise complaints to housing and merchant-vendor issues as well as harassment and property crimes. Our volunteers also mediate cases referred from our family, youth development and school-based programs as part of a comprehensive intervention strategy. All volunteer mediators are trained in basic skills and some receive further training in specialty areas such as parent-child, divorce and restorative justice, to name a few. In addition, we receive fee-generating referrals from New York state agencies for special education mediation, early intervention mediation, and Lemon Law arbitration.

Focus on Families

CMS’s most significant contribution has been in family mediation, where we seek to substitute mediation for a more judicial response to family issues by offering services that foster healthy communication and create supportive relationships within families. Complemented by casework and mentoring, these interventions resolve present conflicts as well as help the family plan for the future.

CMS was the first in New York state to mediate parent-teen cases and still remains one of the few certified by the Unified Court System (UCS) to do training in this arena. But child custody is where we have had the most influence. In 1996, the UCS asked us to design the first custody mediation training curriculum for the courts. Though now in the process of revision, that curriculum was the first standard articulation of a child-centered approach to custody resolution. In 2005, we successfully developed the first custody mediation program in all the New York City Family Courts. In 2009, unfortunately, the economy caused its demise.                  

Youth Development

Our programs for adolescents exemplify our comprehensive developmental approach. This includes personal goal-setting, education/employment/career strategies and exposure, leadership skills, and service learning, along with family and community mediation. We teach each adolescent to use the skills and strategies embedded in mediation. The object is to empower a young person to become an independent, thoughtful, and empathetic adult.

Over the years we have helped steer thousands of young people from the Family and Criminal Court into court diversion and violence intervention and prevention programs. In addition, we receive more than 400 referrals annually from the district attorney’s office for workshops in relational and anger management. These programs help young people and adults of all ages develop their mindfulness and negotiation skills and avoid the possible negative consequences of the court process.

The results of our youth programs speak to the power of the models we use. For example, in one of three programs with the Department of Probation, we are currently working with a special group of youth who are on juvenile or criminal probation and have never cooperated with any other program. Unlike the many probation officers they have encountered, we don’t threaten them with a violation. Rather, in twice weekly group meetings and over dinner, mentors ask these young people about their goals and the obstacles they confront. They then support thoughtful decision-making and action steps. Over the first six months, we have had 75 percent attendance, a tremendous achievement in this population.                    

In more general work, CMS has been applying collaborative models in the community by being the developer, contractor or partner in coalitions of community members, stakeholders and organizations that reduce violence in schools, prevent homelessness, reduce youth crime and integrate community involvement in child welfare.

Practical Realities

These 30 years have seen many disappointments as well as successes. Nonprofit organizations are among the most efficient ways of implementing needed services to the public, but funding is vulnerable to political, ideological, and financial circumstances. Some of the programs listed in the chart below lost funding as the result of decisions that involve agency structure or discretionary funding that evaporated. As a result, some have suffered or been eliminated, ending effective – and, I believe, invaluable – services. 

Program & Tenure

Status

Impact

Queens Adolescent Diversion Program

30 years

Lost funding when state agency reorganized in 2009

60 cases per year are no longer diverted from Family Court

 

 

 

Youth Mediation Corps

20 years

Lost funding during budget cuts of 2006

40 youth per year and hundreds who were affected by their projects

 

 

 

Custody Mediation across New York City Family Courts

5 years

Contract not reissued; program reduced to one city-wide coordinator in 2009

70 percent of 1,700 cases annually once reached agreement; now far fewer with no effective supervision

 

 

 

Parent Education Program for Custody Cases

Lost funding for entire state in court system cuts in 2009

Thousands of parents annually, 90 percent of whom expressed satisfaction with the program

 

 

 

Statewide Community Mediation Programs

30 years

Unified Court System cut funding by 42 percent, unprecedented in the 28 years of the program

In 2010-2011, 36,802 cases were handled and 19,522 mediations were held, involving more than 96,000 people. The cuts will make such extensive work impossible.

Nonprofits stand or fall not only due to outside influences, of course, but also as a function of the skills and decision-making of their leaders. My ability to design innovative programs and develop relationships across the courts and other service systems was not matched by an expertise in fundraising from other sources or building a high-powered, moneyed board, and administrative overhead did not allow us to make up the difference by hiring a skilled development team. Our entrepreneurial approaches to funding have had mixed success, and training contracts and fee for services components require the same degree of resources for marketing as does fundraising. Limited resources equal limited growth.

I have also seen many positive changes that auger well for community mediation and its use across service systems. Many initiatives are now guided by a cost-benefit analysis that measures the cost of change versus the consequences of inaction. For example:

  • Criminal and juvenile justice systems have recognized the importance of restorative approaches for young offenders; evidence-based programs, mediation, mentoring and goal setting are replacing traditional methods of probation and court diversion.
  • Child welfare has similarly changed the way it looks at families. The stress of poverty, illness and education are seen as causes of child neglect and abuse rather than irrevocable deficiencies and criminality. Viewing the parents as partners in a process of support, collaborative planning and education has resulted in dramatic decreases in placements.
  • Youth Development programs see mediation as a legitimate vehicle for bridging the differences between parents and teens and goal-setting and strategic thinking as requirements for survival.

Future Potential

Community mediation centers can play an extremely constructive role in a variety of settings. Our own experience demonstrates that a more holistic approach to service delivery, as well as coalition-building, can foster transparency and communication across service systems and improve the strained relationships that have developed between many government agencies and the diverse communities they serve. Blending mediation and other means of strategic problem solving into work with individuals, families and communities can complement and reinforce the efforts of case workers, parole and probation officers, teachers, youth workers and judges.           

Community mediation centers enable communities to organize around the issues they find most important, whether that involves looking for solutions to a crisis or discussing long-term issues. Community mediation centers create platforms for community dialogue with governmental agencies and service providers as well as landlords and merchants, which can bring increased coordination within the community, greater success in addressing problems and more effective implementation of policies and legislation on the local level.

In another distant and promising collaboration, CMS has for the past three years been involved with a project launched by the international group Mediators Beyond Borders that has allowed CMS to gain even greater experience and expertise by partnering with the Jerusalem community mediation center Mosaica. Like Mosaica, CMS has many local issues of diversity, and we want to enhance the legitimacy of both systems while learning from each other. Mosaica’s success with creative projects responding to the highly charged issues it faces can give us insights into community-building in a county that boasts 167 distinct languages, and our success working with both the courts and in various service systems can help people in Mosaica, who are now supervised by the Ministry of Social Welfare and Services. Today, more than ever, we all want to demonstrate, even on a community level, the kind of respectful communication that is needed to resolve issues on a larger stage.

A Personal Note

The satisfaction I have gained from my experience in this field has been due in large measure to the uniquely committed, passionate, idealistic but pragmatic individuals I have been honored to know and work with. We all believe in the potential of community mediation to empower people and communities to be more supportive, work collaboratively to resolve conflicts and create healthier environments.

Postscript

In light of the tragedy of Newtown, I suddenly realized that community mediation centers are the only institutions whose mission is solely to help people address violence preventatively. Parent-teen, divorce, school-based, and neighbor-neighbor issues can be precursors to violence. Skills-building, mediation, restorative justice and developing and promoting collaboration in the community all reduce violence. It is done with respect and humility, not diagnosis or blame. Society needs to expand institutions that foster the best in people rather than depend on those that only react to the worst.

Mark Kleiman is the founder and executive director of Community Mediation Services, Inc., based in Jamaica, Queens, New York. He is a founding member of the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation, the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York and Mediators Beyond Borders. He can be contacted at mkleiman@mediatenyc.org.

A Success Story from Community Mediation Services

Fostering Personal Change

A mother brought in her adolescent son, Paul, concerned about his cutting school. We learned he was also hanging out with a gang. While the caseworker helped to reestablish his schooling, a mediator assisted mother and son in coming to shared understandings. In addition, Paul was referred to our Youth Mediation Corps, which trains young people in communication and problem-solving skills related to community projects. Paul came in one day distressed that he hadn’t confronted another young man who, in a clear challenge to fight, had “bumped into” him on the street. In what proved to be a critical moment, Paul went from confusion and self-criticism over failing to fight to recognition that he was developing a new, less aggressive value system. Paul graduated from high school, spent three years in the Army, married and moved from the neighborhood.

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