Update on Family Law Practicum/Mediation Project: Law and Psychology Students Conducting Actual Mediations in Court Under Supervision
We are happy to report on the highly successful results this past semester of the Family Law Practicum/Mediation Project, another of the Center for Children, Families and the Law’s innovative experiential-learning offerings. The Family Law Practicum started in August 2018, prior to the beginning of the Fall 2018 semester, when Paul Meller, Ph.D., from Hofstra University’s Department of Psychology conducted a 24-hour, child-focused mediation training program for students from the Maurice A. Deane School of Law and doctoral students from the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) Program in School-Community Psychology at Hofstra University. These students complete the additional hours required by national standards to be certified as a divorce mediator (40 hours in total) through the Family Law Practicum (the Practicum) during the regular semester.
Thirteen law students and four psychology students participated in the Practicum during the Fall 2018 semester. This course was taught and supervision was provided by Professor Meller, Professor Andrew Schepard and Special Professor of Law Teresa Ombres. Professor Meller is the Director of the Institute for Family Forensic Psychology, Assistant Director of the Psy.D. Program in School-Community Psychology and Associate Professor of Psychology at Hofstra University. Professor Schepard is Hofstra Law’s Sidney and Walter Siben Distinguished Professor of Family Law and Director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law (the Center). Professor Ombres is an experienced family law mediator and mediation attorney with offices in Nassau County, New York. Lisa Petrocelli, the Managing Attorney and Project Director of the Center, also participated in the class.
In addition to the two-hour weekly seminar instruction in the classroom provided by Professors Schepard, Meller and Ombres, a law student-psychology graduate student team, supervised by either Professor Meller or Professor Ombres, conducted actual mediations in court focusing on parenting issues. The weekly mediations conducted by the students at the Nassau County Family Court were supervised by Professor Meller, and those taking place at the Nassau County Supreme Court Matrimonial Center were supervised by Professor Ombres.
As reported by Professor Meller, mediations were integrated into the already existing Family Court Mediation Program at the family court. Each Monday, Professor Meller and the students were provided with up to three referrals for mediation, with the referrals coming from the Family Court Judges, Court Attorney Referees and Support Magistrates. A full range of issues were addressed in these mediation sessions, which included child support arrears, upward/downward modifications of child support, non-compliance of parenting plans, modifications of parenting plans, and petitions to change custody. In addition to the diversity of petitions filed with the Family Court, there was great economic, ethnic and racial diversity among those served. In fact, with the assistance of either court interpreters or bilingual students, some mediations in the Family Court were conducted in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Tibetan.
As to the four court-referred mediation cases conducted by the students in the Supreme Court Matrimonial Center, Professor Ombres reported that they yielded highly successful results and that it was her true pleasure and honor to co-teach and be involved with the Practicum. I asked her if she could provide me with a brief description of the four different cases handled by the students, and she was kind enough to send me the following summary:
“In one of the cases, the lawyers for the parties appeared but did not participate in the actual mediation. Both were hopeful that mediation would help resolve some of the clients’ issues, which in this case were limited to financial matters. After an hour of mediation, the lawyers asked to be excused so as not to incur further fees for their clients, a request readily agreed to by the clients. This enabled the students to see lawyers who embraced the opportunity to try something different in order to help get their clients’ cases settled, lawyers who cared more about getting the best results for their clients and saving money for them rather than hanging around with the clock running.
“That same night there was another case going on at the same time. In this one, the clients were already divorced. The children were refusing to have parenting time with their father. In the beginning, the parents were hostile and guarded, each blaming the other for the children’s decision. By the end, the parents had agreed to go to therapy together and were helping each other with ideas for improving the father’s parenting time with the children. One of the most important accomplishments we can make in mediation is to gain the trust of the clients. This happens when they believe that we are genuinely trying to help and see that we are not taking sides.
“In one of the other cases, the young couple let us know early on that they were not necessarily interested in divorcing. This was a great challenge for the students, underscoring the reality that we can never know what to expect. It took a couple of minutes for the mediators to change gears from talking about parenting plans and child support to exploring what would be necessary for each spouse to stay in the marriage. Once again, a safe space was provided for difficult and sincere conversations.
“Each case offered a different and valuable lesson. The remaining case exposed a drafting flaw. This was a post-divorce case seeking to enforce child support and contributions to college. The father had lost his job. The agreement said that each parent would pay their pro rata share of the cost of a SUNY college education based on their respective incomes at the time that the children were in college. Strictly speaking, because the father had lost his job, he was technically off the hook for paying for college. The mediation offered the parents a place to talk about some alternatives and to create options.”
In describing the participating students, Professor Ombres stated that they were “awesome” and that “they were patient, they listened, they were nonjudgmental, asked good, curious questions, and clearly cared. They saw opportunities for change that were not obvious and required insight, creativity and thinking outside the box.”
The students praised the Practicum and the great practical learning experience it afforded them. As stated by third-year law student Shayla Ramos, “I would highly recommend this course to anyone who would like to obtain practical, real-life experience as a mediator and who is highly interested in family law. The professors are experienced and truly care about the practicality of learning collaborative law, and allowing the students to learn through real-life cases. I am truly grateful for this experience and I would take the course again if I could.” In summing up her experience in the Practicum, Melissa Bohl, also a third-year law student, stated, “Throughout this experience, I’ve learned that many divorcing couples need their voices to be heard, and this mediation process allows it. Instead of going to court and having a judge decide issues regarding a family’s life, mediation provides a divorcing couple the ability to make these decisions with the help of a neutral mediator facilitating the process. After taking this class I’ve realized that litigation should be the alternative to mediation!”
Professor Ombres was highly complementary about Judge Jeffrey Goodstein, the Supervising Judge at the Matrimonial Center, and his staff, stating that they were “extremely helpful and accommodating.” She wanted to express her gratitude to the judge and his staff for making these mediations a reality and enhancing the students’ experience a hundredfold. Professor Meller was also quite impressed with the level of accommodation that he and the students received in the Family Court from all of the judges there and their respective staffs. He also wanted to express his gratitude to everyone involved in helping to facilitate the mediations.
In summary, the Family Court Practicum/Mediation Project this past semester was a win-win experience. It increased the capacity of both the Supreme Court and the Family Court to provide appropriate dispute resolution services to litigants, thereby decreasing the load of cases going to litigation. It afforded the participating law and psychology students the unique and rewarding opportunity to conduct actual mediations with real, live clients in the courthouse. In doing so, they were able to learn the practical skills required to be mediators and at the same time help a diverse segment of the local community with a wide range of family-related issues by offering a low-cost, low-conflict means of resolving their family disputes.